Thursday, April 27, 2006

“What’s age gotta do with it? Everything!”

Has experience been sacrificed at the alter of today’s youth-crazed ad-land? 4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri does a check out…

On stage left is the silver-haired poet, sighing “Come grow old with me, for the best is yet to be,” evoking visions of an incandescent journey into the golden sunset. On stage right is the irrepressible, madcap, iconoclastic & self-deprecating genius, Woody Allen. He goes, “When I hit 40, ‘this dishy, cutie-pie babe of 18, doing a tiny cameo in my movie, presented me with a life-altering smile, cardiac-arrest birthday peck and a soul-destroying card. It read: Next time you visit the museum, pops, remember to keep moving!”

So what is age? An asset or a liability? Golden pond or blunder years? Gateway or roadblock? Most importantly, is it today under severe threat from ad-land where young, new and fresh seem to be the favoured buzzwords junking experienced, senior and veteran into the trashcan? Explodes a high-profile Art Director of yesteryears completely mothballed by the recent youth quake, “It’s shocking! I can’t believe this lack of recognition and respect for seniors like us. In our time, we revered and looked up to our superiors. Today’s kids consider us dinosaurs! But then, where is the real, original, creative idea from such juniors?” Retorts a young red-hot, ad practitioner in his mid-thirties in a very senior position, with a bemused smirk, “Sure, I remember those days of folded hands and open-mouthed awe when I first came into the line…mercifully they’ve been forever laid to rest!”

He believes in today’s nano-second times – you are only as hot as your last campaign. Further, being a people-driven, fast-moving, thinking-on-your-feet business, age plays a larger factor than ever before. One has to have one’s eyes constantly glued to the ball and ear to the ground to read and decode market signals, something that the oldies are unlikely to connect or be comfortable with. However, the truth surely is that the sudden boom in terms of consumerism has led to FMCGs and a whole host of new categories pressing the ‘overdrive’ button. This has often resulted into a lot of young and not-so-ready candidates being kicked upstairs, taking on positions of authority and drawing pay checks way beyond their radar. This is unfortunate, but comes with the demands of the times.
Naved Akhtar, the distinguished joint CEO of the Delhi-based ‘The Shop’ puts it to the tectonic shift in both perceptions and reality colouring today’s ad world, “Once, positions of authority like Copy Chief and Art Director meant the world. Today, that whole aura and mystique has disappeared because instead of slaving away for the mandatory 10 years, you can hit that slot-if you are good-in half that time!” Exciting and grim; depending upon which side of 30 you fall upon. New trends and technology have dramatically altered the rules of the game forever, demolishing yesterday’s hierarchy and pecking order in an environment constantly re-inventing itself. Can the oldies with frozen mindsets & diminishing energy levels, cope in this new space? Naved retorts, though with a counter, “Certainly, there are brilliant exceptions, but in today’s crazy & competitive times – where ‘perform or perish’ is the theme song – these guys seem unlikely candidates. It’s a young people’s profession all the way.”

The evergreen Alyque Padamsee (Adlands Dorian Grey?) is not amused. He believes it’s fashionable to do the “ageism” number because half of India’s present population is under the age of 25, “But age is really a state of mind. You are as young-or-old-as you think, feel, behave & react. Today, with youth-power blazing with all cylinders firing & products and services speedily getting onto their bandwagon, recognising, understanding & connecting with gen-Y is of critical importance to any serious communication practitioner.” The indefatigable workaholic implores the oldies to let go the baggage of yesteryears (with their quaint set of convictions, beliefs & moral code) & get a life by buying into today’s exciting mindscape. “Remember, if you are not living on the edge, you are occupying too much space, baby, so live-or get a move on!” he adds.

Padamsee considers himself singularly lucky on two counts: To be involved in pursuits that are hugely youth-driven (advertising, theatre & social activism) and in having children in the age-groups of 30s, 20s & teens, “This keeps me in the zone with feedback, buzz & throb that keeps the adrenalin zooming!” Padamsee believes that even the great masters – Ogilvy, Bernbach, Burnett – kept their creativity alive by constantly interacting with young minds. “At the end of the day it’s about grey cells thinking black – and who epitomises it better than the painter M. F. Hussain! At 90, he remains a tireless, un-stoppable show-stopper! The Rock-Star to blow away all Rock-stars! Do you consider him old? I rest my case, milord...” In conclusion, when one pulls back in an endeavour to see the big picture, one realises that (in some fashion) advertising has always been a young person’s calling. The fear of being rendered redundant, irrelevant or out of sync was there in earlier times too, only it was probably less pronounced, self-conscious, brutal or terrifying.

The single greatest dramatic change that has marked this phenomenon has been the change in the very language of advertising. It has morphed from a pristine, pure, print-driven, thought-led, cognitive process to an image-driven, street-speak situation, something that seems to have thrown the purists totally off their feet!
Television has set in motion near-cataclysmic changes that has made it extremely difficult for one kind of people (formal, rigid, one-dimensional, unbending, old fashioned) to relate to the business they once claimed to know & love... Why? Because they can’t seem to understand or make their peace with this brand of communication. That’s not how their mind works or why they entered the profession in the first place. It’s a total anti-thesis of everything (they believe) advertising should be.

From the days of cigarette smoking easy going creativity, here comes an age where innovation has to finally culminate into business returns, where a great idea generation exercise has to stick to time deadlines, where – as was said – you are as good as your last ad. The philosophy marks the end of an era, a passing of an order and a mode of advertising; the tragic, but inevitable, demise of innocence in a world increasingly bludgeoned by the tyranny of TRPs, eyeball-grabbing & bottomline watching... “Amen” to that, and “ahem” to much else!


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Advertising and Talent

Once upon a time, anyone remotely inclined towards the nebulous area called creativity or any angrez with the right accent, education, lifestyle (“theatah and all that ole’ boy!”) and connections, immediately gravitated (or was sucked in by) the ad world. Academics, journalism and advertising seemed to be the only avenues open to this constituency in terms of career choices, with the last appearing more glamorous than the other two. Hence, the early entrants who sashayed in (with zilch reference points and baggage), were in a fashion, adventurers, who came with a hope and a prayer; wishing for the best but (kinda) prepared for the worst!

Those were the early days for the ad industry as well, and the journey to shape, form and construct a legitimate structure, blue-print, business-model or road map was fraught with a myriad speed breakers and road blocks. This brought with it, its very own set of challenges and opportunities, frequently attracting individuals (freako’s?) who dared to break away from the traditionally preferred “sweetheart jobs” like banking, engineering, law, medicine and (the biggest) government services.

With time however, the ad industry began to evolve and get its act together to become more sophisticated and project itself as a professional, result-oriented marketing ally, leveraging creativity in the crucial & cutting-edge areas of altering habits, shaping beliefs and persuading the hydra-headed consuming community to bite into their BIG IDEA…

Today while advertising is largely recognised as a high profile, glamorous & significant industry of Rs.13,200 crore, has the recent, red-hot new entrants – IT, banking, retail, real estate, finance, healthcare, entertainment – somewhat diluted its sex-appeal?! Is it perceived as frivolous compared to other vocations, demanding a lesser degree of focus, discipline and seriousness of the cerebral kind? Is the compensation package as good? What about the growth prospects and working environment? Is it still a juicy and attractive carrot as a preferred choice of career for today’s new age kids of the creative, talented, ambitious and driven kind… or is ad land just another entertaining, interesting and useful first-stop to begin, before graduating to hotter zones?

4Ps checks out the scene with some hard-nosed practitioners and the conclusion...? Well, read on and decide for yourself!!

“I think the major problem with the industry lies in the image it projects – frivolous, clever-by-halves, superficial!” That was Esha Guha, CEO, NewField’s Advertising, New Delhi. She bemoans the lack of seriousness that seems to underline the profession as a calling and is pained at the fact that no corrective measure seems to be in place.

“The result is that the quality students of B-schools appear more inclined to enter vocations that challenge them. Even mass comm. students indicate a preference for journalism or PR to advertising,” Guha adds. She believes that the process of attracting the right talent in a meaningful way, too, is non-existent as there are no scientific benchmarks or tried-and-tested parameters and the head-hunters are usually way off-line. The bottom line is total confusion about what the ad business is all about, what it does and how it can be an exciting, creative & worthwhile career choice.
“The pity is that advertising can and sometimes has played a major role in championing causes that touch social issues (healthcare, woman empowerment) ...the works. But people usually don’t see it in that role, thanks to the media. They invariably seem to forever pick the same slick, glib, witty, wacko spokespersons, the dial-a-quote guys, which sends out the wrong signal to the serious minded students looking for a career,” points out this feisty ad-woman.

Freddy Birdy, the iconic creative director and the joint partner of The Shop, puts it down to an explosion of exciting, never before creative choices, “10 years ago could you imagine even breathing words like DJ, RJ, chef, fashion designer, salon/pub owner, home decorater, furniture manufacturer and creative director for a TV channel in public, without the fear of being castrated? Today, these are considered glamorous, well paying, creative and perfectly respectable career avenues. So advertising is no longer a big deal for the creative guys.” Birdy adds (tongue firmly in cheek), “Besides, some of the stuff that is bandied off as brilliant, must inspire a lot of the ad guys to switch careers in a hurry!”

“You don’t need to know rocket science to provide the answer, which is ‘no’! And the reason is simple. Unlike yesteryears, the career choices for a student of the humanities stream today are ridiculously vast.” This was Syeda Imam, E.V.P Creative, Contract & Ex Central Asia Creative Chief, JWT. Imam agrees that kids still do roll in but not necessarily in the same dedicated and committed fashion as in an earlier era. It’s more in the nature of ‘will it suit me? How much will I make? How fast will I grow?’ etc. This is largely, Imam believes, in sync with the times and environment which offers a range of career options and choices (films, media, events) that provide relish, ambitious growth prospects and lucrative pay cheques in one heady, gorgeous and seductive package.

The final throw must come from the insightful and analytical, President of McCann, Santosh Desai, who confessed, right at the outset, that attracting and retaining quality talent has never been such a 7-star nightmare! “Let’s begin from the beginning. Earlier on, advertising was seen as a rarefied and refined pursuit that also passed off as business, attracting individuals who enjoyed and flirted with arty, cultural and intellectual activities. The real change happened with the MBA-isation of advertising in the mid/late 70s when the business and marketing aspects stormed centrestage, decimating the arty stuff in one fell swoop. Suddenly, everything – people, language, culture, direction, mandate – changed. Today it is totally a business with value-extraction, a critical component, leaving very little money to attract good talent at the mid and entry level and now with the b-schools making front page news every week relating to insane pay packets, life for us is getting more difficult.”

At the end of the day, Desai believes, it’s becoming tougher for people who love advertising to remain in advertising. Casualty one is the remuneration package. The other, the heart is going out of the hurrahs. Fun and joy are disappearing. The time frames, pressures and bottom line obsessing are getting crazier by the second, impacting team-building and bonding. It appears to be a case of doing too much to get too little. Hence, today, for people to fall in love with what they do when they come into an agency, (their work, their creations, their art & thought), is becoming progressively more difficult, which is making the situation grim. Its sad, but it’s a sign of the times we live in...