Over-specialisation it was that dealt a body blow to the industry in the mid-nineties and robbed it of its charm. Add to that the overabounding mania for success of today’s youngster

By Gopinath Menon

I remember in the mid-eighties when I joined the advertising business I joined an agency called Mudra Communications. A completely homegrown agency amongst the multinationals. The ‘firangi’ agencies, as they were known, had attitude; as they believed that their attitude decided their altitude. Mudra had simple, real advertising people, who understood life and its nuances. They were keen observers of human emotions and had tons of commonsense. To top it all, they were committed to the business, had integrity like hell and were ready to slog. These are lethal traits and rare to find as an amalgam. This made the advertising profession a sought-after one with high-calibre youngsters. The top 10 advertising agencies gave all the top multinational FMCG companies a run for their money at premier business schools.  I remember at Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi, they always used to get Session 1 on Day 2. This was remarkable.

Big reason for setback

Advertising had its glory days from the eighties up to the mid-nineties, when one bright finance guy from one of the top agencies decided to break up different departments in the name of specialisation. His argument was simple; each department could earn better if they were to be classified as an independent profit centres. Not surprising, as what more can you expect from a finance guy; other than profit? That sowed the seeds of doom in an industry that was from then on looking down the barrel of a gun.

To give you a commonsensical parallel: Can you imagine a good hospital where the neurologist does not talk to the cardiologist? Or the pathologist not in sync with the diabetologist? All these “specializations” are aimed at working in harmony to attain one simple goal—to make the patient hale and hearty so that he never comes back to the hospital. In the process, this patient goes away a healthy man and tells the world how he was cured by some great doctors. This amplification is what builds credibility for the hospital, and makes it sought after.

The advertising business was no different. We were brand doctors who were involved in building great brands which made clients rich and famous. This made them happy and advertising agencies were rewarded for their contributions. As a result there was also a time when advertising agencies had more patients that it could handle. So there was never a need to solicit patients, and this was the big high then.  The joys that you got from advertising were priceless, and no amount of money could buy that feeling.

Now, Media and Creative were divorced and became separate departments catering to the same client separately and managing their own overheads and wage bills. These professionals were handicapped as they were thinkers but had never seen or analyzed balance sheets in their life. They understood the business, but not the heartaches of administration and handling personnel. Thus began turmoil in their lives as they were managing functions which they had no idea about. This disheartened many and they left the business to become entrepreneurs. This further cut down the fees the agencies were charging as many new players gave reason to clients to pay less.

However, the biggest damage was the medium and the message to function in isolation. This disharmony was evident as advertising was not as impactful as it used to be and this resulted in the client’s business suffering. They started looking for smarter new agencies. The market plummeted further as the bright guys moved to foreign banks or became brand managers at the clients’ companies.

As we moved to the mid-noughties, there was a serious talent crunch at the mid-management level as attrition rates grew significantly. As it was difficult for mid- level personnel to maintain and attain targets; it became difficult for them to keep their jobs. This constant shifting of the backbone of the agency reflected in its wavering morale and the happiness quotient of the agency moved silently downward. The happiness and joy quotient was the single catalyst that made creatures like me join the field. We were told by our illustrious seniors to chase respect and joy before chasing money as money would happen as a result of that. I, fortunately, understood this equation early in life, but the youngster of today is of a different mettle as he is hijacked by his hormones and then succumbs to peer pressure. So, he is never himself and never successful at being someone else. It’s a wierd chakravyuh that he is caught in and there is no coming out victorious.

The Future

Advertising has now become a default profession. If you have a good business degree and have failed at all marketing jobs then you join advertising—for a short period till you are thrown out again. This short term deputation of talent on paper has spelt doom for advertising as a career. There are neither any advertising companies at good business schools any more , nor are there any bright youngsters  lining up to join the business. The Passion has died.

Advertising has fallen prey to materialism and greed. But short cuts and street smartness will never work in a business which needs to study emotions or behavioral economics. This is not about understanding how advertising works, but understanding how humans work in different situations and why they do what they do. It may sound simple, but it’s a whole new magical art blended with science that we have lost forever. A revival is possible only if “greed” goes out of our lives.