Thursday, April 26, 2007

Is Great Copywriting DEAD?

4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri ponders over this critical issue, with a little help from some creative stars

Once upon a time advertising was a class act. Elegant and stylish, it brilliantly showcased classy writing. This means that the constituency who made waves were individuals who were engaged in a passionate love-affair with the English language; had a complete command as well as enjoyed the ability to manipulate, narrate, coax and woo words in a fashion that enticed and entertained as well as moved (both) emotions and merchandise in the desired manner. The WORD was God and devotees pulled out all stops to elevate it to sublime levels. Frank Simoes, Shiben Dutta, Sayeeda Imam, Mohammed Khan (whose iconic ad celebrating the 10th anniversary of his agency, Enterprise, remains a classic), Ivan Arthur, Chris Rozario, Alok Nanda, Freddy Birdy… they comprised a small cluster of artists whose work was held up as glowing examples of outstanding advertising.

So, whatever happened to that kind of soul-uplifting writing where words sang and soared in magical fashion? Has it been brutally replaced by crass, terse, staccato, smart-arse slogans in the throwaway populist, bindas hinglish? Is the rampaging TVC culture responsible for seducing people with its quick-fix, addictive, audio-visual masala, which does not demand any cultural foundation… or is it all really a sign of the times; a natural reaction in an environment where communication is the key, speed the mantra and brevity the mandate?

Young and talented Tania Chakrabarty (O&M, Kolkata) believes it is an appropriate reflection of the here and now. “Patience is in alarmingly short supply and this is largely responsible for the demise of the long copy ads,” she says. While at a personal level Chakarbarty laments the state of ad copywriting today, she recognises that if the consumer is not in the mood to read them, the advertiser is not in the mood to buy them. Period. For Chakrabarty, this genre of writing is akin to possessing a ‘Benz’… “Something that exists in splendid isolation in the garage, brought out only on rare and appropriate occasions. For everyday, the chalu stuff is there, na?”
“It is the age of SMS, visual communication and e-mail, baby!” That’s the iconoclast, media hot shot Pritish Nandy, who believes that the very fact that we are able to effectively communicate with each other in a language without grammar, punctuation or spellings as taught to us in school and college means that the conventional, Queen’s English has been given a warm send off… “and no one’s complaining!” he avers, adding that, “Find me one kid who reads Dickens, Thakeray, Hardy, Wilde or even Shakespeare and I’ll find you a pig that flies!” Nandy is of the opinion that the defining role of things familiar, has changed radically. Technology has unleashed a generation that demands instant gratification through instant solutions. “All this has played a crucial part in this new communication mode, with advertising leading from the front. Ad-guys are quick to seize the mood and moment and milk it to the full,” he reasons.

The great Mohammed Khan however lays the blame on other areas. “I think Cannes is the biggest reason for the recent fade-out of quality writing because the stuff they exhibit, showcase, applaud, celebrate and award are (mostly) visual-led. This leads kids to believe that words are irrelevant and should be kept to a bare minimum.” The thinking is further re-enforced by a genuine shift in the art-copy configuration with art coming centre- stage, “Unlike earlier times, today’s art directors are articulate, savvy and interactive. They are stars in their own right, no longer shy, withdrawn creatures who need to be protected, instead ready to claim their (long overdue?!) pound of flesh in public.” But, Khan is convinced that even in today’s crazy kiya re times, if a writer is truly gifted, he is capable of finding an audience, clientele and market. The problem is the deadly dearth of quality writers.

Creative Director Titus Upputuru brings his own spin to the table. A passionate lover of the language, this young, pro-active communicator has gone well beyond hollow drawing-room posturing into championing a movement – on the net- called ‘Save the World’. Here’s his take. “TV is not called an Idiot Box for nothing! However, today TVCs certainly seem to enjoy a winning presence in the mediascape. Interestingly, one small fact is overlooked. Before the TVC hits the screen, they are ideated and put down on paper in the shape of a script, remember?” Upputuru concedes that their manifestation in a primarily visual format (solely designed to sell through entertainment) within a very tight timeframe (30 secs/60 secs) demanding zero intelligence quotient and catering to broadbased populist taste make it the flavour of the day. He admits that creative guys today prefer doing TVCs rather than writing ads. Why? “Because our hottest creative stars are people who are more TV/film/visual-oriented than copy-driven. Also, the glamour and excitement attached to it is high!”

So has quality writing been flung out of the window or shoved onto the back-burner? Is the well-written, exquisitely crafted English language a thing of the past? Well, there can’t – shouldn’t – be any sweeping value judgments because language is a product of its environment and its evolution, flexibility and usage will depend on which way the wind is blowing.

Once upon a time advertising was not need-based and neither were clients nor products ad-dependant. In that arena, the sophisticated, public-school, well-read and well-spoken individuals called the shots. Language, finesse and nuance of expression were appreciated and rewarded. Today’s marketscape, with its disparate and segmented target group, does not require it. The profile, psychographics, demographics and demands of the new age consumer does not connect with yesterdays urban-centric, English-specific, one-size-fits-all capsule. These people may not be too fluent with the Queen’s English but they are aspirational, loaded and in a hurry to live the good life. More importantly, they want to be wooed in their own language! In this new scheme of things (barring a few high-end categories) where jaldi bol, mota bol, seedha bol is the ruling commandment and Hindi/Hinglish the preferred lingua franca, do the magical Mohammed, fabulous Freddy or awesome Alok have a ghost of a chance? You decide!


Thursday, April 12, 2007


4Ps B&M's Monojit Lahiri takes a microscope and dives in to inspect whether the biggies have an edge over smaller agencies in the hallowed ‘land of ideas’! Read on to discover what he finds...

The US of A has always, in flashy and hi-decibel fashion, flouted, rooted and celebrated the ‘big is beautiful’ philosophy. Be it cars, corporations, lifestyle, pay cheques, movies, hype, babes-it’s all mega and wadda! The Big Daddy of Madison Avenue and the acknowledged Founding Father of America’s Creative revolution Bill Bernbach, however chose to differ. In a startling, landmark and audacious breakthrough, he launched the VW car (in the 50s) with two simple perception-altering words-THINK SMALL. And what a fall was there my countrymen!

However, the debate and discussion here is something else. Does the size of an ad agency determine the quality they will deliver? Does ‘big’ automatically spell excellence; and ‘small’, inadequate and therefore, suspect? Do the Biggies, by that token, have an instant edge over the smaller shops due to their global affiliations and infrastructural heavies? Finally, if advertising is really a business of ideas, shouldn’t this aspect be the real driver of quality and agency selection instead of size?

“It is a very interesting question and needs to be looked at in 360 degree fashion.” That’s Esha Guha, CEO of the Delhi-based Newfields Advertising. “Does size matter? Yes and No. Yes, because with the multinats swamping the Indian marketspaces and global ad conglomerates buying up Indian agencies outta sight - JWT, Ogilvy, Bates, Saatchi & Saatchi, Rediffusion DY&R, Dentsu, TBWA Anthem, Ambience Publicis - the smaller agencies definitely are struggling to come to terms with this reality.” Taking the case further, she believes that (with remote exceptions) the best and brightest creative talent will invariably end up signing up with a big shop. Why? “Simply because of the huge creative and financial scope offered. Suddenly, they have opportunities to work on large, prestigious global accounts, enjoy access to you-name-it resources, can actually have a (realistic) shot at the most celebrated (Cannes, Abbys, One-Show Archives) honours and awards and (to crown it all), also pocket a very lucrative pay-cheque. So yes, size here is a big deal!”

However, Guha is quick to point out that there’s a flip-side too, where there is place for everybody and size is not the cutting-edge monster devouring all in its way, as its often made out to be. “Contrary to one kind of mindset, the world does not belong solely to the big spenders and mega brands. There are dozens of small and medium advertisers, who prefer to work with smaller agencies rooted, down-to-earth, hard-working sans nakhras, committed to deliver the desired quality with speed.” The CEO proudly points out to (among several)- one outstanding LIC ad that they produced in recent times which won out in the face of stiff competition from the more glamorous, Mumbai-based biggies.

Bikram Sen (Ex JWT, Clarion, McCann and present head honcho of Sony Advertising) takes the case further. “To me, size is not about monster ad spends or bullying. Its about temperament, aptitude, and the ability to rise to the big occasion-when it presents itself and deliver value that makes a difference.”

Sen believes size can be both a virtue and virtue and vice. “It can be the former for all the obvious reasons. The vice has to do with personalized interaction taking a hit in this assembly-line and factory-type environment which for its turn, impacts ideation. ” No wonder, more and more creative types are quitting the big agencies to either start their own small outfit or connect with shops that are creatively compatible & provide them with an environment to celebrate their own space”

Sandeep Mahapatra, the brilliant “planning” maverick in McCann blows away all negativity and reservation, ifs and buts against size and bursts in with all cylinders firing. He presents his case with scary facts. “Let’s not act, sweet, cute, corny, and kid ourselves that size is a villain and niche is God, okay? The reality is that in the space that we operate, size is everything. Why? Because businessmen like to engage with businessmen. Good businessmen like to connect with good businessmen. Big businessmen like to eyeball with big businessmen and that forms the starting point of a business association.”

Mahapatra explains that the celebrity creative person who heads his/her own ad-boutique is hugely respected by one and all, but will only attract the smaller fish as clients. Does this mean there’s a conflict? No. It’s just that it’s a historical fact that ‘small’ often translates to ‘great work’. That’s how they hit the spotlight, grab attention, become big (and then bingo)! Proceed to shelve and dump all the creative drives that made them hot! Suddenly they turn establishment, forget the audacious ideas and creative leaps that made them rock, play safe and cautious, rely on the safety of numbers and tread familiar, but predictably boring-comfort zones. Mahapatra is convinced that ‘big is good’. “The reason is simple for the client, agency and sharp creative person. Imagine a situation where you have a super-client-understanding, receptive, communication – savvy – with all his stuff in place and inspirational enough to get out some great work from the agency. Unfortunately, the poor sod doesn’t have the adspend to do justice to the vision or brilliant creatives that can bring change. It’ll be lost in some small, vague obscure publication and channels in the media landscape. If it’s however a Coke, then they have the financial clout to publicize and showcase their stuff to effect.”

In fact, it is also a psychological thing. People generally react differently to size… At award shows, a Coke is likely to be much more of a turn-on than, say Emami or Boroline. The other thing that ‘big’ offers is a great springboard because of an incomparable environment and platform to imbibe, absorb, learn, grow and develop… Come on, there’s a difference in whether you begin your career with an HLL or a Mina Chemicals, for chrissake! Size matters-and don’t believe anyone who says anything else…