Brand News

State of the art: Where’s innovation in advertising going to come from?


In Nagesh Kukunoor’s hilarious trolling of masala cinema, Bollywood Calling, the cast of the movie within the movie comes up one after another during the mahurat press meet. When asked what’s different about the movie, each of them straightfacedly says, “It’s…different.”

I’m reminded of this when I think about the topic of innovation in the advertising business today.

There’s a new start-up of the not-just-an-advertising-set-up kind sprouting wings every other day these days. (More power to them, by the way.) We’re hearing this in different ways from each of them when asked for what’s different about them. The consumer is changing, technology is evolving faster than we can keep up, the world is changing, the media landscape is changing, and so on ad nauseum. Hence, the need for something different.

I’m reminded of something Bill Bernbach said that I came across recently again:“It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop. It will take millions more for them to even vary. It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with unchanging man, with his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

Last year at the Cannes Lions Festival, Sir John Hegarty said the same thing a little more bitingly: “For f***’s sake, we haven’t changed all that much. We still have James Bond, for crying out loud.”

Or, as I wrote elsewhere sometime back, and I should add far less eloquently, when describing the current generation: they are from the same planet as the rest of us, just from a different time.

Bernbach could have been talking about the here and now, but that’s because his genius (like most genius) is time-proof. But for the rest of us mortals, we have a compelling need to re-invent, to change with the times, rather than to stay consistent with our inherent human-ness.

But for a moment, let’s assume that what all of the upstart start-ups are chasing is not merely something different but real innovation (just as the big agencies are claiming too).

Let me draw a parallel with innovation that’s happening in other categories, other industries, other spheres of life in India and try to suss out the factors that are enabling innovation, or at the least, common to these categories.

First, India is not just Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata and Chennai. It’s something that the I.T. industry has recognized, it’s something that the e-commerce guys have recognized, it’s something that Indian cinema has recognized, it’s something that Indian sport (including, gasp, cricket) has recognized. The ad industry seems to have missed the memo somehow. Clearly, the talent exists beyond the metros, and, as the other industries have shown, it’s not that difficult to develop the infrastructure to support the talent. We, of course, have to show a concerted intent on that front.

There used to be just three epicentres (is it technically possible to have more than one epicentre?) of advertising in the U.S.: New York, California (to a lesser extent) and Detroit (thanks to it being the mecca of the auto industry). How then did places like Minneapolis (home to Fallon), Boulder / Miami (home to CP+B), Portland (home to W+K) become creative hotspots? Because they believed that an ideas- and people-driven business such as ours didn't need mineral-rich locations nor infrastructure-friendly policies.

A second factor is actually an old adage: the best waay to be different is to make a difference. The start-up boom owes its current wave of success to entrepreneurs setting out to make a difference, not merely to be different. The ones falling by the wayside are the ones that are merely the nth ones to go hyperlocal, the ones merely going after the long tail. It’s not like there isn’t a market for them, it’s just that they’re merely now part of the herd. There is a trend now in advertising also to start out by wanting to “be different” rather than wanting to make a difference.

A third factor, in a way closely related to the second one, is to provide real and enhanced value versus the status quo, while creating experiences that the purposive consumer is demanding. Let me explain that term, the purposive consumer, for a minute. This is a consumer not willing to put up with interruptions, not indulging in appointment-viewing, nor seeking destinations to go to. She wants to continuing living life at her pace (usually frenetic), while having the technologies and means at her beck and call to achieve purposive consumption. Entertainment is consumed not by appointment or at random, but purposively. Shopping is done in the same way. E-everything (not just e-commerce) is enabling this. And yet, advertising continues to mainly strive to merely find new ways to intrude and interrupt or, at best, disguise itself in ways that only postpone consumers seeing through this sleight of hand.

So where’s innovation in advertising going to come from?

That’s where Pipe Dream #4 comes in: a return to simplicity. In other words, a return to the wisdom of geniuses like Bernbach. If you go back to the words I quoted above from him, you’ll realize that he was talking about creating interesting, insightful work that would appeal to the purposive consumer back then. It still applies today too. The consumer hasn’t changed all that much. Maybe we don’t need to reinvent new ways to be innovative. We merely have to reinvest in being interesting, insightful. Regardless of geography, purpose, technology.