Indian Advertising – My historical perspective

20 Jun

Steven Levitt in his book Freakonomics mentions that there are certain rules to follow whenever you are looking at any problem-

1. Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life

2.Conventional wisdom is often wrong

3. And dramatic effects often have distant, sometimes subtle causes.


Lets see if we can apply these to understand one common underlying reason for the downfall of Indian advertising.

If one looks at advertising objectively ( despite subjective being the more popular refrain in the industry I am using the term objective) and delve deeper beyond consumer research, brand values, soul of the brand, the cornerstone of any great work in this industry has been trust.

I can hear someone say – Motherhood statement.

And I would agree without the context it is.

But the concept of trust runs deeper in the history of Indian advertising and has shaped the industry more than any other economic, social or moral reasons. And our industry has never been based on this foundation and has always been more of an indulgence than a necessity.

Post independence most of the big businesses that shaped our economy were in the shadows of towering personalities (Tatas, Birlas, Modis, Goenkas) and these businesses were more their fiefdoms. And these individuals were extremely secure due to the socio-economic approach the country had decided as its path to destiny (red-tapism, favouritism, non-competitive are some other modern & recent coinages for the same).

This pre-globalization business set up can be seen more in context if it is put in the framework of a kingdom rather than a professional set up, with the owner as a king of this terrain.

The king obviously has his vazirs, military advisors, generals and so & so forth. Among all this elaborate paraphernalia there is also the court jest, whose role is to amuse the king.

And in the Indian business the court jest was none other than the advertising fraternity.

Court jest technically does not impact the future of the kingdom in any way (there would be some dissenting voices, which would say in the historical standpoint jest’s role was to tell the truth to the king. Humor them, but largely I would choose to ignore them), which is decided by the advisors, they are not involved in either expansion of the kingdom or protecting the kingdom, which is handled by the generals. Their sole survival was based on their ability to keep the king in a good time and if this was done well, they were in turn indulged.

The that era of Indian advertising, the golden era, advertising was most unnecessary. I want to buy a scooter, I have only one choice (and I want it so badly that I am willing to wait fro 18 months for my turn) do you really think someone needs to tell me “Hamara Bajaj” (or whatever slogan was playing then).

Advertising was just nothing but a drum-man singing the paeans for the benevolent king.

Than came 1990’s “the independence era” and suddenly these hosanna singers were a nuisance to the erstwhile kings.

The era of nawabs and kings was over.

But like an old whore who still puts her make-up and stands on the street hoping for a customer advertising industry was literally left high & dry.

The survival required action and sound advice, which was coming from the vazirs and
generals – The professional managers.

It was fun(ny) till it lasted and as any actor would tell you, the second act is always the toughest and sequels have never done well.

Until or unless the industry does not come back as in a new avatar and adapts itself to the new reality they would always be like an actor whose time has run out.

Do let me know if you think that the joke has fallen flat.



P.S: When I had started writing the article I had planned to build on the theme of trust. The logic would have gone something like this: large businesses run by individuals needed to base their future on others they could trust. And the earlier work generated by the industry was more a result of trust that was bestowed upon them by so called kings rather than based on sound logic.

The fact this trust was not betrayed (though there can be some stray examples) exemplifies the honesty & commitment of the people who shaped our industry. This commitment is missing from the present generation and the trust needs to be earned by them rather than expected as a perk…. So & so forth.

But somewhere along the analogy of the jest ran amok like a wayward child and despite my best efforts could not be reined.

If suggested I am willing to give this thought another shot.

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