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Amitabh Bhattacharya: “The Best Agencies Are Also the Bravest”

Trends and Insight 455 Add to collection

Never Ending Story’s founder takes us on a journey through Indian advertising, its talent and the future of the creative landscape

Amitabh Bhattacharya: “The Best Agencies Are Also the Bravest”

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, the company’s founder Amitabh Bhattacharya and LBB explore what makes India’s advertising industry tick. In this piece, Amitabh explores India through a lens of looking at its talent and the potentials of where it is heading.



LBB> Let’s start with Indian advertising, what can the rest of the world learn about the industry?



Amitabh> Since the advertising industry has predominantly been driven by the West, the narratives have mostly been influenced by their values and priorities. When the West decided to champion the cause of diversity in mainstream narrative, they started to believe that they have the moral high ground on the subject. 

The fact is that representation of diversity entered Western advertising only a few decades ago. 

Whereas in India, diversity has always been a part of the narrative. I can’t think of any other country where an advertising campaign has to address such diverse economic and cultural groups. While the West is still selective about how and where it wants to include diversity, in India no advertising campaign is complete without it. 

Inclusivity cannot just be about appeasing a community or being politically correct. It is about accepting diversity as the very core of a community and culture. Indian advertising and entertainment has been doing it quite effortlessly (until now). Maybe that’s something the rest of the world can learn from. 



LBB> Is TV still king in India when it comes to the advertising scene or is there scope for non-traditional advertising?



Amitabh> According to the World Bank data, the rural population in India was reported at 65.07% in 2020. 50% of the entire population of India has access to the internet. 54% of the population uses mobile phones. 68% of the population have direct or indirect access to TV. 

So you can say that TV is still the king. As for non-traditional advertising, I don’t think you need to depend on TV or the internet for that. In 1965 India’s second Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shatri came up with this slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ (Hail the soldier, hail the farmer). Those days there was no TV, no internet, no innovative media and advertising agencies weren’t involved in political campaigns. So powerful was the thought that it became the mantra of new India. 

Today, non-traditional advertising in India essentially means longer commercials at lower cost. There have been innovations in Indian advertising much before it became fashionable to use words like experiment and innovation in every advertising and marketing conversation. 



LBB> A lot of campaigns are created to make noise on an award stage, is there a scope for more purpose-based campaigns in India?



Amitabh> This is an old debate and I don’t think it will be resolved anytime soon. Those for awards at any cost, feel that good ideas need to be appreciated and recognised. They believe awards inspire and motivate creative teams. Those against it argue that only legitimate ideas and campaigns should be allowed to compete in the award shows. 

When media was limited to print, television, outdoor and a few others, it was relatively easy to spot a ‘scam’. Yet people found creative ways to slip their entries through. Today, even a Facebook post can be passed off as a legitimate ad. 

The larger issue is the way marketing departments and agencies view the challenges. 

Let’s take climate change as an example. It is what scientists call a ‘wicked problem’. In his book, Don’t Even Think about It, author George Marshall writes that one of the reasons climate change campaigns are ineffective is that there are too many variables involved. It is not one communication challenge we are trying to deal with. “It is an economic problem, a moral problem, a human rights problem, a governance problem, a social justice problem, a land use problem, an ideological battle between left and right worldviews or a lack of respect for God’s creation and like the three blind men and the elephant in the ancient fable, we are feeling the different parts and drawing our culturally biased conclusions about that they might be.” 

Brands pick the narrative that suits their purpose. Agencies take that narrative forward. What comes out often is an oversimplified idea. More and more brands will have to deal with challenges beyond their categories. Issues like diversity, climate change, religion, racism among others will require in-depth knowledge and a whole new set of insights. 

When brands realise that they can’t get away with virtue signalling, agencies will have to step up and think harder and smarter.



LBB> What changes can India’s industry make to combat gimmicky campaigns?



Amitabh> If by gimmicky you mean scam then it is a global issue. India can’t combat this menace alone. The global advertising fraternity needs to agree that the greed for awards at any cost is tarnishing the industry’s image. In 2016 Amir Kassaei, then DDB worldwide CCO, raised this issue at the Cannes Lions. He even announced that DDB would send fewer entries for award shows. Mr Kassaei is no longer with the agency. Do his successors agree with his anguish? Are they following his footsteps? 



LBB> What’s the talent landscape in India like at the moment – and how can it look in the future?



Amitabh> Going by the kind of work we see in Indian advertising these days, the landscape isn’t as vibrant as it used to be. There are multiple reasons for that. The first reason I feel is that individual talent is no longer celebrated the way it used to be. Youngsters have very few local industry heroes to look up to. Most creative people need and seek idols. You want to be like someone or create work like somebody. That’s a huge motivator for young creatives. 

The second reason I feel is fear. Agencies seem to be constantly living in fear of losing business. That’s unhealthy for both individuals and the industry. Especially for young advertising professionals. 

Look around and you will find that the best agencies are also the bravest. Meek may inherit the earth but they have no place in advertising. That is how it has been and will have to be. 



LBB> How do agencies in India need to change the way they source talent?



Amitabh> Advertising is one industry where education qualification doesn’t count much. At least, that’s how it used to be. Some of the best writers I have known were school dropouts, engineers, management school graduates, ex-bankers. One of my favourite writers dropped out of law school and became a copywriter. The art directors were often the ones with formal training. Then again there wasn’t really a criteria. 

There must be something fatally attractive about our business that drives people to sacrifice their career dreams and gatecrash into this chaotic world of advertising. I say ‘gatecrash’ for a reason. You were seldom invited to join advertising. You had to literally barge in to get the attention of the ‘mad men’(and some mad women too).

In advertising it takes one mad person to spot another, this is how the best advertising talents have been spotted. There isn’t a better way to find them. 



LBB> What spaces within creative businesses does the freelance talent pool need? Where is it important to use freelance creative and where is it important to use people in-house?



Amitabh> This is not an easy question to answer. Traditionally, agencies have grown with brands. The client and agency are joint custodians. Employed creative teams knew brands inside out. Can freelancers commit themselves to a brand beyond a campaign? I am aware that many agencies are using the services of freelance creative teams and some have done some great campaigns. If it works for the advertisers and agencies then it is win-win for everyone. Is it a sustainable idea? Only time will tell.  



LBB> Does India export creative talent?



Amitabh> In the ‘80s and ‘90s a good number of agency creatives moved abroad especially for better creative opportunities. Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the USA and occasionally the UK were the preferred destinations. 

The next decade saw creatives moving to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. But the overall number is quite small. 



LBB> How do you see India exporting its creativity in the future?



Amitabh> It is a fact that the Indian advertising industry is facing a talent shortage. And it can turn into a crisis if agencies don’t get their priorities right. We need bench strength. Our animation industry, gaming industry, and post production industry come nowhere close to the top 20 countries in their respective industries. 

However, I believe that in the coming years India will see more local Indian brands going global. Especially in the tech and manufacturing sectors. Homegrown agencies and production companies in India must capitalise on this opportunity and explore markets in other parts of the world. They have all the skills to compete in emerging markets, they have years of experience in building local brands and they are great entrepreneurs.



LBB> What do you think India’s advertising landscape will look like in the future and why?



Amitabh> The future of the advertising industry is dependent on many variables. The way the world is changing it is very difficult to predict the future of any industry, leave alone advertising. 

That said, I feel that the Indian advertising industry seriously needs to up its game both in ideation and execution. Especially the latter. Be it live action, animation, VR, AR, or a simple website, India’s average output is frustratingly ordinary. 

That brings me to another important point: In the last three to four decades, whenever there was a national or global crisis, agencies in India responded by cutting costs and restructuring their revenue models. From commission to retainership to fee per project. 

What next? To make up for the lost revenue, agencies encroached on other industries within the advertising ecosystem. I hope they know what they are doing. Because the immediate result isn’t very promising.

Take the advertising production industry in India. In the past, aspiring directors apprenticed under established directors and learned the craft. Since most advertising directors in India don’t come from film schools, this was their schooling. They worked their way up within a production house where they were mentored by senior directors and producers. 

No matter how talented someone is, to flourish you need a nurturing environment. You need someone to guide and mentor you. Agencies have neither the inclination nor the experience to spot and groom young directors. Do they even invest in their own creative teams anymore?  

Isn’t that one of the reasons why copywriters and art directors are opting to freelance? If things go this way then clients will see no value in hiring a bunch of smooth talking suits when they can directly contact a freelance creative director and put together a creative team, hire a freelance director and get a good campaign out at a more reasonable price.

It’s already happening. 

Not so long ago agencies were admired and looked up to. They stood for creative integrity. What do they stand for now? The jewel in the network’s crown is losing its sheen. The future depends not on the agencies’ creative strength but on the strength of their character.

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Never Ending Story, Tue, 11 Jan 2022 15:14:00 GMT