Thursday, September 14, 2006

MBAs in adland Is the honeymoon over?

4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri powers the spirit of enquiry – and look at what he gets...!

The Gurus often state that if advertising is pursued with real passion and purpose, it can become a mass language that can explain and illuminate the meaning of daily life through powerful and succinct images and ideas. Science and technology, analysis and research do affect and shape the advertising experience but ultimately, advertising is an art born largely from the seeds of instinct and intuition (inventive, idiosyncratic, irreverent chutzpah), investing real, but intangible benefits to the product it touches. In this scheme of things, where does today’s MBA (with his rationalised, formally structured and analytical take on the communication business) fit in?

George John, the most respected Chairman and Managing Director of TBWA, India, enthusiastically takes the first strike. “Let’s look at the big picture. Earlier, MBAs meant the best and brightest (from the top b-schools). These special creatures were to be found in the most fancy organisations and ad agencies because it was generally believed that the advertising business was predominantly market-driven, and these guys were the chosen ones to part the waters and provide the solutions.” John believes those innocent days are clearly over with agencies now redefining themselves categorically as “people solely engaged in the business of ideas.” As he believes, marketing is the job of the marketing division and not the ad agency. Does it mean that the structured thinking that the MBA brings to the table is not any more the ideal raw material – or even a part of it – designed to get the ‘creative’ (people and work) to fly. Truly, sometimes disruptive ‘creative’ thinking helps more than the MBAish ‘7 ways of why you should buy this’. But having said that, would George John, while hiring, be influenced for or against a person because he or she has an MBA tag? The answer is a categorical no! “I would engage him initially in a game of football to check out his flair for teamwork and limits of energy level and finally spend 5 minutes with him to gauge my gut feel about him as a human being.”

At the same time, going beyond individual characteristics of MBAs, Sumit Roy, the eminent founder-director of UNIVBRAND, believes that new-age MBAs from the top B-schools are creatures that the ad industry cannot even begin to afford. “They get packages that are way beyond what adbiz offers. So adland, for the real rockstars, doesn’t remotely feature on their radars.” What about the other question of compatibility and fit? Are the MBA skill-sets in consonance with what the dynamic and ever-changing communication business demands? Roy believes that any sector that hires MBAs will openly confess that, per se, simply having an MBA schooling, without requisite market experience, does nothing.

Mohammed Khan, Chairman of Bates Enterprise believes that earlier on, the best MBAs came into ad-land because the money was good and they believed that it was an interesting career-path where they had a contribution to make. Not anymore. Like Roy, he reckons, other new sectors with far fatter pay-cheques have lured the stars away from Adbiz. “At the end of the day, it’s not so much B-school hotties, but people with fire in their belly and mind that are required here. What we need are young people with passion, drive and energy to think big in the business, not kids constantly lusting for big bucks.” But Roy tacks up the other front quite fashionably, “What an MBA does do is offer a filtration process that gets the best minds. The finest talents, usually, gravitate to the best MBA schools and an overall environmental development does happen, repeatedly reflected in their flair, proficiency and award-winning sprees in dramas and music fests, quiz contests etc. they are pretty multi-skilled creatures… and this definitely connects brilliantly with Adland.” But strongly disputing this, Avijit Dutta, CEO, Planman Advertising, snaps, “Unfortunately, the very fact that most of the top Indian B-schools check IQ of prospective students – in their inane attempt to limit the spread of management education – rather than their EQ (emotional quotient; a factor now globally accepted as defining world-class MBAs) ensures that forget fine arts, these students have no idea of even managing simple relationships, whether at home, or with friends, or in teams, what to talk about corporations!”

Ashutosh Khanna, the ‘Big Boss’ of Grey Worldwide gives it his very own spin. “Today, there is huge fragmentation and everything is outsourced; So unfortunately, that sense of deep-seated induction involvement of the past is missing.” Since the best kids are way out of reach and the others neither fish nor fowl, Khanna is thinking of hiring fresh-untrained-talent from colleges like St. Stephens and Hindu. “At least, the DNA is assured. We can mould them as we go along.” He also harbours a wild idea, “What happens if I forget the MBA types and just hire a bunch of creative guys and put them in servicing? It could mark an exciting precedent and usher in a new whole era in the client-agency interface dynamics, right?!” Sandeep Mahapatra, Executive Director Brand Strategy, TBWA India, believes that the hype, hysteria and honeymoon with the ad alley is a thing of the past. He lays it on the line, “Let’s face it. The popular perception of an MBA is not lateral. It’s logical, analytical, structured... something that is no longer celebrated in today’s creative-driven times.”

But the headiest honcho of them all, Ashok Kurien, of Ambience and Publicis, is quite strongly convinced that MBAs are important and relevant. “In fact, at entry levels, we don’t hire anyone who is not an MBA.” And why’s that? “Because most of our clients are people who come from that culture and therefore, it allows for a larger degree of compatibility and comfort factor leading to confidence and respect for the agency.” So where is the final line that one takes on MBAs?

Clearly, while the George John camp is focusing narrowly on ‘creative’ being the definition of what an ad agency is, the Ashok Kurien army is pragmatically focused on the client’s money driving the future of the ad agency. That basically means that those are not MBAs that can run ad agencies alone; and for that matter, neither can creative people.

Brilliant creativity, with no customer orientation, or media buying experience, or data analytic capabilities, can only lead an ad agency to be the definition of one word we’ve always associated Indian football with... Disaster! At the same time, cutthroat customer focused MBAs, with magnanimous statistical orientation, and with incredible media comparison models, but without the most critical component of marketing – the ‘creative’ ad – would lead the ad agency to success levels regularly achieved by most Indian sports heroes at the Olympics.

If core competence were the order of the day, then rather than forcing MBAs to be unnaturally creative, and creative geniuses to be unnaturally structured, one could force them to “do their job better” to achieve synergies in outputs never seen before. But that’s easier said than done! There’s still the question of IQ versus EQ in MBAs, eh! But that’s a question for another column, another time, another issue... 


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