04 September 2022 15:43:35 IST

Shubho Sengupta is a digital marketer with an analogue ad agency past. He can be found at @shubhos, pontificating on food, fetishes and football

Come, walk into my web

Digital marketing in India, contrary to popular belief, did not descend from the heavens in 2016, along with a Jio dongle. Neither did it show up with social media, around ten years earlier.

Truth be told, digital marketing took off in the last century, much before Facebook or Orkut crashed the party. Or Google, a little earlier.

In the mid to late 90s, things were quite buzzy. There were website builders for small and medium businesses, like Rediff On The NeT, Yahoo! India, Sify; email service providers, inspired by Yahoo mail and Hotmail; auction sites like Baazi.com, based on Ebay; a host of cricket, jokes, and contest websites like Contests2Win; online brokerages; and even fledging e-commerce sites.

I remember ‘content portals’ poaching top notch talent from traditional ad agencies — of course, they went down with a bang during the dotcom crash. Indya.com was probably the heaviest tree that fell.

The cowboys

Sometime in 1999, the creative agency Webchutney was founded by the 19-year-old wunderkind Siddharth Rao– the creative wave had started, and many soon followed suit.

Around 2000, the ‘Father of Indian Digital Marketing’, the media veteran V Ramani, started what was arguably the first professionally-managed digital media buying agency in the country, Mediaturf. This was when the digital boom really happened, and smart people from good (traditional media houses for example) started joining.

Many followed in its wake, over the next few years — Ratish Nair’s Interactive Avenues (where I was National Creative Director for a few years), Mahesh Murthy’s Pinstorm, Manish Vij’s Quasar, Rajiv Dhingra’s WatConsult, and a few more.

These were the cowboys, the rock stars, who — if I may be permitted the analogy — conquered the wild west, built the railroads for the next generation. They were true digital evangelists, sold ‘digital’ to reluctant marketers, and also built institutions.

I must add that sometimes, there wasn’t much to separate Agency A from B or C. Beyond a point, 95 per cent of media buying agencies had the same cookie cutter approach.

They were also very founder-led, and oozed confidence, painting visions of the future where everything would be digital and ‘mobil’and people would stop watching TV. Such enthusiasm.

Some very desperate ones did indulge in a bit of overselling and manipulating media figures, especially with large clients, but that did not last too long. The clients got smarter — end of day, Digital is very measurable, unlike TV.

The pioneers: (from top, left to right) Ratish Nair, Chhaya Bharadwaj, Mahesh Murthy, Manish Vij, Rajiv Dhingra, Siddharth Rao, V Ramani, Pearl Uppal

But overall, they built digital marketing in India, brick by brick. I am not mentioning, for lack of space, the many SMS companies like Gupshup, the affiliate marketers like VCommission, and so on. All played a stellar role in growing the ecosystem.

Creative frankly wasn’t that highly respected, it was a ‘value add’. Some agencies even gave it away free, for bigger media spenders. All had a creative ‘wing’ anyway, where banners and mailers and websites would be churned out, 24X7. Most were adapts from mainline advertising — print ads, TV ads, etc.

Rao’s Webchutney and Chhaya Bharadwaj’s BCWebwise were probably the only two agencies which thought creative first. Otherswere cleverly disguised media buyers — the ‘creative services’ were a carrot to open the doors to where the real money was, in media buying.

Sectors like banking, insurance led the boom — it was lead generation, or ‘performance marketing’ which got the big spenders in. Which bank or credit card company could resist the lure of filled-up forms at a fraction of the (traditional) cost?

Google had taken over everything early in the game, and by 2009 was the de facto, go-to platform for all products/services and audiences. The Indian portals were on the way out, or pushed to the sides (a few specialist portals still survive of course — India is too big).

Big banners

At some point the FMCG brands came in with their giant banners (Yahoo skyscrapers and ‘dynamic’ banners were probably patented by its feisty sales director, Pearl Uppal), and then, some funny little animal called Orkut showed up.

Orkut was dismissed by the demi-gods of digital marketing as insignificant, though an indulgent few did try to set up pages for young brand managers who wanted to be seen as cool.

Facebook came in along with Twitter and soon ‘shoshall media’ was the name of the game. A new bunch of ‘social media marketing agencies’ mushroomed, and with Jio broadband, suddenly the game had changed.

What changed, exactly?

Thanks to better and cheaper broadband, the focus shifted from the big spenders and their big agencies to small spenders and small agencies.

The big guys got bigger, but weaker. With tech and creativity entering the room, even large spenders started onboarding smaller digital agencies. Flying Cursor, Grapes, 22 Feet, FoxyMoron, Windchimes were all part of the second — perhaps third — wave.

Also, traditional networks had started buying up the big agencies by this time, for example, WPP bought up Quasar and Mirum, IPG bought Interactive Avenues, Publicis bought Digitas and Indigo, and so on.

The sexy new app developers also came into the scene — everyone made 10s and 100s of useless apps, mostly vanity apps for ageing brand managers. Though mobile-first agencies like Mobilise did very hatke work for serious clients.

The future?

In the last few years, very good content producers have entered the game. The Glitch comes to mind (WPP-owned), along with a few more I can’t remember – I think they understand the consumer with far more finesse than the big guys from yore.

I am also seeing a lot of micro agencies with little more than a laptop and a free Canva subscription. They specialise in specialist categories, like restaurants for Instagram. I love these guys, and hope they survive. With some help from the 5G launch, the market will open up even more, and everyone will be advertising – good thing.

Many brands have started their own digital agencies — Oyo, Zomato, and a host of start-ups come to mind.

I also see a lot of influencer marketing of course; they have the kind of reach even big media agencies cannot dream of. It’s a bit general right now, mostly based on broad awareness, but over time I see some ‘craft specialisation’ happening.

An American advertiser had once quipped, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.”

With digital advertising, it has changed to, “None of the money I spend on advertising is wasted, because I know what’s happening every minute.”

Here's to more fragmentation, more smaller agencies, and more small regional businesses advertising on digital platforms. There’s room for everyone!