Indian production company Never Ending Story’s founder Amitabh Bhattacharya takes a look at the country’s creative scene and what’s driving it forward
Indian production company Never Ending Story is a proud supporter of Little Black Book as its partner for the Indian market. As part of the relationship, its founder Amitabh Bhattacharya and LBB explore what makes India’s advertising industry tick. Here, Amitabh speaks to LBB’s Natasha Patel about his experiences with Indian advertising, its creativity and what can be done to market the country globally.
LBB> In your opinion, what does Indian creativity do that no other country’s creativity can?
Amitabh> It would not be fair to compare the creative standards of different nations and societies. Every country has its own reason behind its creative voice or expression.
India has a rich and long history of art, culture and literature. We have scores of dance forms and a wide variety of music. And we have ‘jugaad’ (a flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources).
With creativity in Indian advertising, it is a whole different story.
To understand how creativity in Indian advertising has progressed, we need to delve a little into its past. The history of the modern advertising industry in India goes back to the pre-independence era. Print, radio and billboards were the few available media. Cinema was popular but had limited reach. Cities and big towns had the potential customers and were the primary target audience. Rural India was illiterate and poor.
Post-Independence, India would have to build everything from scratch.
New industries, products, and services were being advertised and sold. Government started advertising its new schemes.
Selling any idea, service or scheme to an audience that was illiterate and poor was an uphill task. So, the communication had to be simple and catchy.
Television advertising started much later. India’s first television commercial went on air in ‘76. It would take a few more years for television to go national.
The march of television across the country opened up a whole new opportunity for advertising agencies.
Most agency creatives, who were not too familiar with the craft of scripting and filmmaking, leaned on the feature industry for both inspiration and execution.
We based most of our television commercials on powerful music and a key visual. Cinematic aesthetic wasn’t a priority.
But that didn’t matter. They were popular and helped build some of the biggest brands in India.
For many urban art and literature, loving youth advertising became an attractive career option. Over the next couple of decades, India would see the rise of some brilliant English copywriters and art directors.
Now when I look back, I feel as if TV and print advertising came from two different worlds. While they worked well for the brands, they were not Indian by design.
That’s been the biggest challenge for Indian creativity.
Unlike in Japan, the UK or the USA, India did not have a signature on its advertising. I guess it was just not possible to speak to such a diverse population in one voice and tone. Or create a visual language that would work for all. It is a challenge we deal with even today.
By the late ‘80s, things changed. Hindi and other regional languages found their voice in Indian advertising. Advertising became more localised.
Then liberalisation happened. India became a part of the global market. New products, new services and new categories emerged. Marketing and advertising budgets went up. Advertisers opened their purse strings to bigger production and media spends. It was a tremendous opportunity for the Indian advertising industry to catch up with the rest of the world. Invest more in talents, create better infrastructure, hone execution skills, invest in technology… the list goes on.
Yet even after 30 years of liberalisation, we can’t boast of one independent, world-class agency or a design house, at least one international standard post house, some globally recognised animation companies, innovative tabletop studios…. No such luck. Every year, we spend millions in foreign currency on international directors, cinematographers and post-production outside India.
The other issue is this obsession with international awards. We want to win them at any cost and encourage creative teams to create ‘award-winning’ work.
Given the marketing and advertising challenges in such diverse demography, communication would have to be simple, often in your face, and entertaining. Just like in our mainstream cinema, songs (jingles), a slice of life drama, and slapstick humour would almost always work.
Not something that an international jury would either appreciate or award. India would have to find another way of making the cut.
So, we found ‘patli gali’, the cheat code — scam ads. We started creating ads specifically for awards. (The practice continues to this day).
LBB> What is it about the history of creativity in India that means it’s so unique to this day and how much do the likes of Bollywood and Indian music play a role in this?
Amitabh> I would hesitate to use the word ‘unique’ for any culture or society. As I mentioned earlier India has a very long and rich history of art, craft and culture that has been shaped by many societies not only from within the sub-continent but from all over the world. If there is anything unique about creativity in India, it is the diverse cultures that harness it.
As for my answer to your extended question I would say that the Indian advertising industry is quite dependent on Bollywood. Every other brand is endorsed by one film star or the other. Music, dialogues from superhit movies, songs, talents and we often share the same crew.
Coming back to the history of creativity in India. I don’t think a nation’s creative history has much impact on its advertising communication. Especially today. Everything around us is changing so rapidly. Today, so much of our communication is driven by technology. Our personal and public conversations are so dependent on platforms and tools run by tech companies. This transformation began much before the pandemic hit us. Covid has only speeded up the process.
The other point is that you can only borrow so much from the past. If a nation’s creative past determines its present-day creative standards, then the US would have almost nothing to show. Neither would Australia or New Zealand for that matter. But look at the creative standards these countries have set in advertising ideation and execution. Some of the best talents in global advertising come from these countries.
India too has produced some incredibly talented advertising professionals; copywriters, art directors, planners, who have been immensely successful not just in India but around the world.
But the overall standard could have been much better.
LBB> In your mind, what have been the greatest examples of creativity being exported from India finding success globally?
Amitabh> I was reading an article on the subject of export of advertising talents and services in the UK. UK’s advertising services export is £11 billion. The article does not give any detail but given the UK’s advertising standards and talent pool, I am not surprised. I don’t know how much revenue Indian advertising earns from the export of talent and services but if it was significant, there would be some data available to validate it.
I have often wondered why Indian directors don’t find representation in international production houses. Not even in the region. When I ask my friends in the industry the answer is often that we don’t need validation from outsiders. Yet every year we spend millions of rupees entering international awards!
LBB> What is driving India’s creative scene at the moment?
Amitabh> Now and then we do create some good work. But it is not about a particular ad or set of ads.
The creative culture in Indian advertising is ebbing away. There was a time, not too long ago, agencies had strong leaders who lead by example. They didn’t care much about international awards and recognitions. They were also great mentors. That tribe is slowly disappearing.
The other challenge is that we did not prepare ourselves for the change driven by the internet and technology. When it hit us, we allowed ourselves to be caught unawares. All of this has created a sense of disillusionment among the new generation of advertising professionals and aspirants.
Since we are on this subject of creativity in Indian advertising, let me say that print advertising in India has been written off too soon. The quality of print advertising in India today is not very promising.
As for films, I feel we could do so much better. Sometime back I read an article in a local online trade magazine where a group of local CCOs were asked for their views on why most Indian ads look and feel the same. Intrigued by the article I called up a few agency friends to get a first-hand opinion on this subject. Most of them blamed the clients for playing safe or not giving enough time or money to execute a script. Some said the simplicity of execution is what makes Indian advertising endearing.
I feel that most often in India ideas and scripts don’t achieve their true potential because we get, what I would describe, ‘lost in visualisation’. We get excited by a good idea but have little patience to see it through. Which is one of the reasons why animation has never become a popular storytelling medium in advertising.
We want to do great work but we don’t put much effort into it.
We don’t spend enough time thinking an idea through.
Look at our local post production industry. There is not one company (not counting Mill Bengaluru which, I am told, does not cater to the Indian market) that can match up to even companies in Singapore or Thailand. Our animation industry doesn’t have much to show or talk about, our innovative media industry is hardly innovative. India is ranked 64th in the world gaming industry.
All these industries today can play a big role in telling brand stories. Since we don’t have good local partners we take the easy way out - we keep our stories linear and our execution basic. There is little scope for doing something visually different. Today a large chunk of brand communication is an interactive experience. We don’t invest enough in technology to create such experiences.
The other problem is the kind of ideation and execution goals we set for our creative products. Most often than not, agencies have lofty expectations from their creative partners - directors, photographers, post production companies. We often receive scripts from agencies with international references for visualisation or execution. Today most local directors do the same.
I agree we need to set our aspirations high. But we also need to be realistic. Unrealistic expectations create conflicts and lead to disappointments. If we are serious about raising the bar then we need to work together towards it. There has to be a serious dialogue among stakeholders which will include advertisers, advertising agencies, production houses and new media companies. I don’t think we ever had such a symposium in India. It would be great if we could have one.
LBB> What value does Indian creativity create on a worldwide scale?
Amitabh> The obvious answer would be Indian music and songs in international movies and commercials. Some Indian creative directors have moved to other countries and made their mark there. And there is the post-production backend-to the best of my knowledge most of ideation and visualization is done by creative teams abroad.
As far as global advertising campaigns are concerned, I am aware that local offices of network agencies do lead some of them, especially for the APAC, MENA and LATAM markets but I don’t how much revenue these projects generate.
But India has a significantly large number of independent agencies. Some of them are doing some great work. Here are two examples that immediately come to mind.
These are genuine brand campaigns. They are fresh ideas and well executed. But they are rare.
If India has to become a creative powerhouse, then good work has to become a part of the advertising culture. There are some good agencies with great creative teams doing some very contemporary work. But there has to be a collective will to evolve and excel.
LBB> In the past 18 months the world has changed dramatically. How did you notice India’s creative industries adapt?
Amitabh> I don’t have facts and numbers to tell you how individual creative industries have performed. But the overall mood seems to be quite upbeat. Has the pandemic changed the way we work? Physically yes. Even emotionally to an extent. But has it changed the tone of the conversation between the various industry stakeholders? I doubt it. It is very difficult to change an entire industry’s work culture in 18 months.
LBB> What have you found to be good strategies for Indian creative companies to market themselves to the world?
Amitabh> I don’t know of any Indian creative company that has been hugely successful abroad. But that’s not the point.
Indian creative companies may have little presence abroad, but they can surely be an inspiration for creative companies in other countries. How often do we see an Indian campaign being celebrated and shared by people in other countries? Are creative companies in India mentioned in the same breath as say Droga5, 72andSunny, Radical Media or, say, Phenomena the legendary Thai production house?
There are some virtues common among all successful and respected companies - a nurturing environment for talents, a well-oiled process, and an appetite to take calculated risks.
India’s advertising industry has some of the brightest minds in the world. Almost every network agency has an office here. Yet there isn’t an evolving creative culture.
I believe that if Indian advertising wants to be a real creative powerhouse, it first needs to do some serious selling to the new generation of local talents.
LBB> How would you like to see Indian creativity do more to market itself globally?
Amitabh> Look at the Indian IT industry. Thirty years ago, no one would have imagined India to be the IT hub of the world. Today, you cannot imagine IT without India. It took some serious effort from the local IT entrepreneurs to prove themselves on the global stage.
I agree that advertising is a localised business and it is much more difficult to break into new markets. But if you want to be a global force in creativity you have to have talent and facilities that are both creative and competitive.
LBB> Do you think there are any other creative markets that India can borrow from to market itself?
Amitabh> New Zealand is a great example. It has less than half of Mumbai’s population, yet it dared to take on the entertainment powerhouses in Hollywood. It has world-class animation and post-production infrastructure that not only benefits long-format content makers but also the advertising and gaming industry.
Argentina is another case in point. Its animation industry is one of the most sought after in the world today. South Africa with all its social and economical challenges has a strong post production and video technology industry. Countries like South Korea and China are investing billions of dollars in talent, infrastructure and technology.
If India wishes to become a true creative force, then it has enough and more examples to learn from.