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A Sum Of All Parts

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It began as a three-day advertising conference in 1958, sponsored by the Japan International Advertising Association, to give Asian advertising a boost in the post-War era. Since then, the bi-annual event of AdAsia has been attracting the best minds in the business. AdAsia 2011, which recently concluded in New Delhi — it is only the second time that India has hosted this event — was no different with a star line up of 30-odd speakers and 1,200 delegates from more than 25 countries. Some of the exclusive sessions between the speakers and delegates were organised by Businessworld on topics ranging from advertising in Asia as a whole, different marketing dynamics in India and China, and revaluing our assessment of the market economy.

On his first visit to India, Michael Roth, the chairman and CEO of advertising holding company IPG, did what few of his peers do. At AdAsia 2011, he met delegates from India, Indonesia and Pakistan — Lara Balsara, business development and diversification manager of Madison Communications, India; Mela Sabina, a senior partner at Fortune, Indonesia; and Sidra Iqbal, managing director of StatusPro, Pakistan. Excerpts from the sessions:

Sidra Iqbal: Several big brands are trying to target countries across Asia. But they try to target it as one group. It is a constant battle for us to explain to the Unilevers and the P&Gs that what might fly in India, may not work in Pakistan. How do we communicate this point better to large clients?

Michael Roth: As agencies, we have to look at local markets and ensure that our communication and messaging is consistent with local markets. The only way to do that is to have a very strong local offering. We show that we are not just bringing in people from outside the market but that we also have a strong local presence. We try to build strong local agencies that are global.

Lara Balsara: Agencies from your network have had a 50-year relationship with Unilever. What are some improvement areas in the client-agency relationship?

MR: We should never take our clients for granted. What happens in our business is that once you have established a client relationship, it is taken for granted. Then, once a new client comes, you give it all that you have — show them all your bright shining objects and pitch for that. But your existing client is not getting that. By treating our clients as if we are pitching for them every day, we are bringing in all the resources and talent, and making sure that competitors, who were always trying to do so with our existing client, do not get an advantage. We have to do a better job at making sure that we are treating our old clients as if they were new clients.

SI: The role of PR agencies is still evolving. It crosses paths with other functions in communications. How do we ensure that PR remains an integrating force?

MR: What's interesting about the PR business is that social media has become an integral part. For social media, one can argue that it belongs in PR because that is the message that is going to the marketplace. (PR major) Weber Shandwick in the US employs 250 people in New York to address social media. We have to show that PR is not just crisis management, but that it can add to brand building. Then it becomes more relevant and a part of the integrated offering.

Mela Sabina: Indonesia, much like India, has a lot of consumers living in consumer dark areas (where no mass media vehicle has a reach). How do you penetrate these areas? By using local salespeople or by building a brand first?

MR: In India, our agencies employ salespeople who go to rural media dark areas with products for sampling. This is interesting about the markets here. You have some really sophisticated, digitally connected markets and you have media dark areas that require physical sampling. Using a local sales force for sampling eventually builds the brand.

The other (way) is to be mobile. People who do not have fixed line telephones will eventually get mobile phones. The medium will become a more important part of reaching media dark areas in the future.

SI: Is there a risk in a brand picking up a social cause and the cause getting politicised?

MR: The biggest risk of social media is damaging the brand. When we have 250 people working on social media, they are managing a 100 communities and watching those platforms. If you damage a brand on any community, it can be forever. That is the risk and the benefit of this open communication environment that we are in. So you have to be very careful.

LB: What is the future of the advertising business in Asia and across the world?

MR: Asia has shown high growth rates. Just by scale, it shows a continuation of those rates. That is why we are excited about it and continue investing in it. Growth prospects, particularly in marketing services, are good.

The macro-economic environment is certainly scary. We have not seen any big pull-back as a result of it, but if this continues, consumer confidence is going to be affected. And once that happens, we see a slowdown.

SI: In Pakistan, there have been floods and the economic situation has been pretty bad. Still most companies have reported an excellent quarter — the best in the past five years. How does one read this consumer behaviour?

SM: Indonesia has shown a similar trend.

MR: It is interesting that despite wars and natural calamities, consumers are still buying. That means we as marketers and communica-tion specialists are doing a good job.

Different Dynamics
Advertising company Lowe's Kitty Lun, chairman and CEO, Lowe-China, and R. Balakrishnan, chairman and chief creative officer, Lowe-Lintas, India, talk about differences and similarities between India and China for marketers. Excerpts:

Kitty Lun: In China, the client-agency relationship has an average tenure of just 1.6 years. Every time there is a pitch, the client is likely to go in for a new agency rather than stay with the incumbent. In 1.6 years, how can any agency do anything worthwhile for the brand? Clients are always attracted by the next new thing, the next new agency or the next new combination of people. That is where the competition is at its nastiest.

R. Balki: China, too, will learn from this flirting-with-agencies. Do you change your marketing manager or CEO every one-and-a-half years? You do not. Most clients in India have understood that it is not just a relationship but a thought process together. Clients give their agencies a long rope before they cut links. It is an invaluable thing that is happening in India. It is a mature stage of advertising. In fact, it is much more mature than in the West, which is far more flirtatious.

KL: It is very complex to plan media in China. The media is controlled in terms of the content, but there are hundreds of channels and newspapers. It used to be said that Coca-Cola has 66 media plans for China. And that was some years ago.

Kitty Lun, Chairman and CEO, Lowe-China

The Internet is always the flavour. Last year, a certain social network,, was very popular. This year it is Weibo, a cross between Facebook and Twitter. It has 500 million registered users, very popular. A lot of brands are still trying to figure out how to use it. My worry is that by the time we figure that out, the next thing will come along, maybe in mobile.

RB: For the next 3-4 years, television will continue to be the lead medium in India. Even after that, video will be the lead message platform — irrespective of television or the Internet. The strategies to make people watch your video or contribute to it or engage with it are going to differ with the medium.

KL: In terms of creativity, the stages of evolution of the advertising business in China are a lot different from India. In China, advertising is very culturally rich. You cannot transport something from the West.

RB: The beauty of India and China is that there are very bright creative people who understand the world besides their own. This is unlike the rest of the world where creative people under-stand their own part of the world but not other parts. What we take for granted in India can be seen as really rude in China. For instance, if I dirty someone's clothes in China and say, "There's Surf Excel. What's the problem?", it would be rude. But if I dirty someone's clothes and the person himself says, "There's Surf Excel, don't worry", it is okay. Things like these can change the whole dynamics. These two cultures are so different from the West, and from each other. It is a fascinating journey.

An Illusion Of Numbers
Anna Bernasek, US-based author of the Economics of Integrity, and Swami Sukhabodhananda, founder-chairman of Prasanna Trust, discuss the need to revalue our assessment of the market economy, sustainable marketing and messages.

Anna Bernasek: You talk about finding the goodness in oneself — that is how one will create not just financial wealth but also spiritual wealth. The same can be done in a market economy.
Swami Sukhabodhananda: The way I see it, the world at large is focused on just creating wealth, (but) not knowing why they are creating wealth. I see an error here. They want to create wealth because they want to be better than somebody else. Second, I find a spiritual error. It is all about numbers — if I am No. 2, how to get to No. 1. It is an illusion of numbers, so the very context of creating wealth is missing. If wealth decides who I am, I am a victim of wealth. So the way I see it, you can create wealth if you are richer than wealth.

AB: Does this illusion of wealth come from a market economy, or from human nature?
SS: It comes from mass hypnosis, which we have not questioned. There is a genetically inherited error and an un-inspected lie that has been controlling our lives, one that believes that consumption makes you happy, or another that pleasure equals joy. Having said that, pleasure has its place. You cannot denounce it, but you do not make a distinction between pleasure and joy, and then you get confused, so you only seek pleasure.

AB: Isn't that because we do not really understand what we value? I see businesses facilitating these wonderful lives that we lead. But we are hypnotised by messages from mediums such as television, marketing, etc.
SS: When I was growing up, there was a cigarette advertisement that showed a rich man sporting a Rolex watch, smoking with others who were looking at him.

Swami Sukhabodhananda, Founder-chairman, Prasanna Trust

You are confusing people. You are giving the message that if you smoke, you are rich, and pretty girls will look at you. Your idea of success is messed up with the image of smoking. The value (of smoking) is not digested but dumped through the brilliance of media.

AB: Advertisers and marketers are starting to think if what they are doing is sustainable. There is probably a reawakening, a movement at hand. Do you feel optimistic about this?
SS: They are moving, yes. But is this sufficient? We need to have a healthy doubt, so there is urgency to this issue. Right now, the whole drive is to achieve while balancing.

AB: What can we do as businesses?
SS: We have to address the basic errors of life. Life is a platform where we go on achieving things. The focus globally has been on the achievements in one's life. But we delete the very basis of this life. We are all caught up in ‘becoming'. So I humourously say, "even if you win the rat race, you will still be a rat".

AB: Is that balance really achievable in a market economy?
SS: It is easily achievable. But there is lack of vision, or too much hurriedness or lack of consistency in reaching your vision. One should be inspired to move towards that vision. And if you do not make this big error, that my success is dependent on someone else's failure, you can achieve it much better.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 21-11-2011)