19 Oct 2015 20:21 IST

‘In the age of social media, brands cannot be too intrusive’

Digital is a big challenge for ad agencies as it’s a many-headed Hydra: Ambi Parameswaran

It’s the inaugural session of the MMA All-India Management Students Convention and FCB Ulka Advertising’s Advisor, MG Parameswaran, or Ambi, as he’s popularly known, is doing what he’s best at: mesmerising the students with slick, well-made commercials, outlining the case and situation which needed those ads, and drawing huge applause from the audience of raucous students for an ad’s punchline.

With over three decades of marketing and advertising under his belt, Ambi, a chemical engineer from IIT Madras and an MBA from IIM Calcutta, is a dyed-in-the-wool ad man. Re-elected President of the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), Ambi has worked on numerous top brands such as Indica, Sundrop cooking oil and ICICI Bank, among others. Here, Ambi answers questions on why the ad industry is not attracting the best talent there is and also talks of the trends shaping the industry.

What are the top trends that newcomers in the ad industry must watch out for?

The advertising industry is in constant change and over the next ten to 20 years the pace of change will accelerate. New sectors will become bigger advertisers. Sectors such as healthcare, travel / tourism and financial services will become bigger; just as telecom and auto became big advertisers over the last decade. The other significant change will be the rise of the smaller towns in the overall scheme of things.

Rural India and Urban India will need to be understood better; we can no longer ignore rural India as an unknown mass. Our ability to understand the rurban consumer and the rural consumer will have to move up a scale. The bottom of the pyramid argument has gone on for long; Indian demography will move from being a pyramid with a large base, to a diamond-shaped market. This would entail exploration of many segments of potentially large sizes across India. The media landscape and ways of reaching consumers need to be understood better. Will digital media totally replace newspapers and magazines? Not likely. But all brands have to figure out how to reach their consumers, without becoming excessively intrusive.

The buzz is around digital and social media — are ad agencies geared to offer clients services in these areas in a comprehensive way?

Agencies had to learn many new tricks over the last two or three decades. They had to learn to make television commercials. They had to learn to engage with consumers in places like malls. So, digital is yet another challenge. It may prove a bigger challenge simply because it is a many-headed Hydra.

On the one hand there is search. It replaces the good old directional advertising like Yellow Pages and classified ads; but at the other end it is a critical last mile piece. Then there is social media, which is a great listening tool. Companies are setting up digital listening hubs to monitor what consumers are saying about their brands, the category and the competition. I think digital advertising is a lot more than putting up the 30-second ad on YouTube. A lot more holistic thinking on digital platforms is called for and agencies are quickly learning what works and what does not.

Why isn't advertising attracting top B-school talent, like earlier?

I think the crisis is not just with advertising but also with marketing. Till ten years ago, only the bottom rankers from top B-schools took marketing jobs; simply because they don’t get investment banking or consulting jobs. But that is changing and we are seeing bright-eyed toppers opting for marketing. With advertising, the challenge is also compounded by the lower salaries offered by ad agencies.

Though, in ten years salaries more than catch up, the youngsters of today don’t want to wait. I can’t blame them since they have paid big sums for their MBA degree. So a systemic solution is needed. Maybe agencies need to create a different cadre to attract fresh MBAs with a ₹15-lakh salary tag. I don’t see that happening in a hurry. But we all live on hope.

What is the ad industry doing to attract top-drawer talent back to the industry?

One way is to see if you can bring talent into advertising after the person has spent five or ten years in marketing. This has happened in the past and I suspect this will happen more and more in the coming years as people discover that the marketing job they lusted for is just a coordination job, and loans are all paid off, house payments are under control. Now what? The advertising agency business offers tremendous challenges and opportunities; so someone with ten years under her belt may very well choose to move to advertising.

What are the qualities you would look for in an MBA hire into the ad industry ?

We keep cautioning youngsters who want to enter the agency business that this is not like marketing. The job is quite different and more complex in some ways. One fundamental issue is the need for appreciation of the creative arts. So, if you don’t like to read, listen to music or watch movies / TV, then you are not suitable for advertising. In addition, an advertising career is never easy because there are too many imponderables; the creative community works as per its own rules; many things are outsourced and not in your control; client management is very difficult; judgement is very subjective. And there are many more such concerns. In spite of all this, if you get excited when you hear a new idea, a new strategic breakthrough, a new script, then you will enjoy advertising.

Do clients realise that if they pressure ad agencies to charge less for their services, they will ultimately end up getting poor talent in the ad industry which works for them?

All clients know that if they pay peanuts they will get monkeys. But they are also under the gun and want to save every penny. It is, therefore, important that agencies need to elevate the issue of agency compensation to a higher plane and not leave it just to the procurement teams and brand managers. Agencies also need to work out what makes a profitable account; and should desist from cross-subsidising accounts. A lot to ask for!

Recommended for you