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Change the Agency Pitch

The typical agency pitch has an air of complete predictability about it. All the agencies are provided with the same brief and asked to come back with creative strategy and communication.

We would like to believe that each agency approaches the problem differently. But most clients will tell you this – while creative approaches could differ, most strategies are depressingly similar. The choice of media, the segmentation of the target audience, the go to market strategies may look as if all agencies sat in the same room and decided to present the same thing to the client.

I remember being part of a pitch where 42 agencies vied for a tourism account. We were No. 35 or so on the list and as we unveiled the creative strategy after recapping the brief, there was a collective groan. One of the guys from the client’s side actually told us – “Ok, so French ancestry is our strong selling point, but have you even considered alternatives?” We struggled to find a response. The guy went on “We’ve sat through over 30 presentations during the past week and I am yet to find someone who challenged the fundamental assumption. Why is it that not a single agency has dared to question the status quo?”

It was a different matter that the campaign that finally evolved had no change of position – but the real point was that we did not even try. I suspect that the problem is that the same brief is given to all agencies – it’s a lot like asking a set of fashion designers to stitch something very different from exactly the same ream of material.

Maybe the brief should merely be a placeholder. The competing agencies should be asked to work campaigns with a completely different tone and voice. Sure, it won’t be an apples to apples comparison, but that’s the point. I really wonder if the current pitches are getting clients what they want. Maybe apples should be compared to pomegranates. Or peaches.

The truth is that in a pitch, the consumer is not in the picture at all. It is only the decision makers on the client’s side who are the focus. Agencies may not want to start off on the wrong foot by questioning a successful position in the market – especially if it has been working.

Risk taking needs trust on both sides. But serenading the client is not a situation in which agencies take risks. Sure, you hear stories about how a certain agency walked into the client’s boardroom and told them how they were completely wrong – and still managed to win the account. However, I have yet to see clients who take kindly to having their existing and past campaigns trashed. They have invested time, effort and money in getting those campaigns out – and no one likes to be told that they look like a bunch of amateurs.

So here’s a suggestion. Stay away from the straight and narrow. Allow wondering, because there is never one right answer with a creative solution. There are so many shades of expression that it helps to get hues, rather than the primary colours alone. And if the client does not want to be wrong, either about the agency or the campaign, expect the agencies to play it safe as well

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Obama’s Election and The Syrian Civil War

We’re accelerating faster than we know it. Technology is uncovering the genetic code and just as quickly, someone tries to manipulate it to create a virus. As we get better at using and deploying technology, we’re also getting equally good at misusing and subverting it.

Two diametrically different stories show how the march of technology and its ability to do good and harm in equal measure is being played out. Here’s an in-depth look  at the team that helped Obama correct a misstep in the election race into a sprint that carried him past the finish line ahead of Mitt Romney. From the article – They raised hundreds of millions of dollars online, made unprecedented progress in voter targeting, and built everything atop the most stable technical infrastructure of any presidential campaign. To go a step further, I’d even say that this clash of cultures was a good thing: The nerds shook up an ossifying Democratic tech structure and the politicos taught the nerds a thing or two about stress, small-p politics, and the significance of elections.

The US Elections will never be the same again. The Republicans may have lost this time due to the complete breakdown of a rival system called Orca, but they won’t be caught napping next time. We won’t see this played out in newspapers or on TV, but in shadowy technology that endlessly analyses voter sentiment, action, attitudes and affiliations. From a complex web of social media and voter databases, Obama’s team was able to extract the data that would tell them exactly who was for them and who wasn’t. Romney’s technology campaign had a rival approach that focused on getting Republican supporters to vote on Election day. But the system crashed at the 11th hour since it had not been stress-tested or used in the field.

Now, Syria. What comes on TV is the endless bombing of cities and the fight back from people in the trenches. One wonders how this is being sustained and how the two sides are getting back at each other. In Syria’s case, social media data is being mined to find out who is against the Government and trying to organise groups together. From the article – What made the hacks so effective was their deviousness. Malware was discovered in a fake plan to help protesters besieged in the city of Aleppo; in a purported proposal for the formation of a post-revolution government; and on Web pages that claimed to show women being raped by Syrian soldiers.
Whenever possible, the people behind the attacks would use a compromised account to spread the malware further. In April 2012, the Facebook account of Burhan Ghalioun, then the head of the Syrian opposition, was taken over and used to encourage his more than 6,000 followers to install a trojan mocked up to look like a security patch for Facebook.

The very freedom and the benefits that we prize are being used at two extreme ends of the spectrum. Mining for good, where supporters are identified and encouraged to vote. And mining for bad where opponents are mercilessly tracked, tortured and killed. One supports the dream of sustaining a democracy. The other ensures that freedom doesn’t stand a chance. In every field in the future, technology will prove to be both the tycoon and the tyrant.

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Complain. Consume. Create.

The first two are easy – complain and consume. But the third, which is where the solutions are, is the most difficult. It’s easy to buy anything these days. A phone. A car. A television. Then complain about all the things that are wrong with it. But to create anything new requires extraordinary effort and the willingness to be wrong. So most of us will spend all our lives doing the easy things – and very little doing the most difficult thing

Let’s start with the complaints. Everything is wrong. Schools don’t work. Traffic is bad. Governments are corrupt. Business destroys resources. Hospitals are the scourge of the earth. Religion polarises people. Young people have lost their direction. This is something we all discuss since we experience some aspect of this in day to day life. But we are content to leave it to those who supposedly have the power and the solutions – the government. How many initiatives do we take up on our own and then champion them? Hardy anything, since the process of change, is long, mystifying and frustrating.

We’re very happy to consume. The latest phones. The biggest blockbusters. The flashiest cars. The king sized burgers. The palatial houses. The pizza with ten extra toppings. The designer dresses. The glittering jewels. The procession of cities through airplane and train windows on package travel tours. Life, in other words, is best when it is a never-ending shopping trip.Or so some people believe. Complaining about the way the world is helps to blow off steam and reduce stress levels. Consumption does make us happy in the short term, at least until the gloss and the excitement of the purchase blow over.

But creation is different. When Salman Khan set out to teach his cousins mathematics and put up those scrawly tuitions on YouTube, he had no idea that he would be redefining education in a fundamental way. He had not set out to change the world. He simply solved the problem of distance, time and repetition required to learn a subject by making it available to his cousins to learn – 24/7. Not within the confines of a classroom, but anywhere in the world. In the process, he redefined the problem of creating millions of great teachers to one of creating access because, with Khan Academy’s system, a million students can learn at the same time.

If you Google for inventions that changed the world, the results are startling The first ball point pen did not appear until 1950 – and now about 14 million are sold every day. The bicycle was invented only around 1820 or so. The bra was not around before 1913. The button was invented in prehistoric times, but the buttonhole came into being only in the 13th century! Did that leap actually require over 1000 years of thought? And it took 200 years after the lead pencil was invented to dream up the eraser! The paper clip, an essential part of every office and liberally quoted as an icon of design excellence was invented only in 1892.

Just goes to prove that we are great when it comes to consumption. I’ll leave the truth about complaining to your judgement. If only we created more than we complain or consume, the world would be a far better place!

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Facebook ‘Likes’ are claps

One of the measures of social media relevance is the number of ‘likes’ you can get on the brand page. But like using megapixels to determine the clarity of an image, it’s probably the least effective metric of engagement.

Imagine you were a speaker at a convention. And at the end of your talk, the audience claps politely. They ‘liked’ your speech. But how many were truly influenced? How many were motivated enough to give feedback at the end of a session? Or were you just another speaker who filled a space for a short time and got due acknowledgment? That’s the trouble with just accumulating likes without aiming for a deeper connection.

Staying on the speaker analogy, what your brand needs is action. When people rally around or bombard you with questions at the end of your talk, you know you have touched a nerve, challenged their assumptions. There are people who ask for your card and want to stay in touch. They are the genuine fans, the ones you can build a deeper bond with. Even in a large audience of 500-600, you can hope for deep connections with just a fraction. The rest may simply not be interested in your ideas or moved enough to contribute or even stay in touch later. But that’s ok. One of the rules of brands that really go places is that they build a committed core – and it grows from there

The successful brand pages, the ones that have already got millions of fans use social media to drive their core to expand the base. Look at the Red Bull Facebook page. It literally tells you on a day to day basis that the brand is into adventure and extreme sport and let you know if some thing’s happening close to you. The other thing that Red Bull expends a lot of energy on is to recruit brand ambassadors whose job is to throw Red Bull parties. The profile of the brand ambassador is sharply etched – they need to be active, social and fun loving individuals with entrepreneurial and leadership qualities. Helping people have fun is their job.

Does it then mean that social media is largely for brands that have the potential for a social connect, as opposed to those which don’t? In a sense, yes. Trying to be social when your product and market are inherently not is a lot like trying to be an extrovert when you are an introvert. You end up looking like a wannabe who is trying too hard and that actually gets you more pity than social mileage. For example, here’s the BP America Facebook page. Every single post gets criticism and angry activists attacking the company’s policies, practices and profits. These are cuts that go really deep. It’s the equivalent of having graffiti right next to your suave advertising message. Every fact is thrown back, heckled and stamped upon. It’s a PR disaster that does nothing to improve the company’s image – even though there are over 300,000 ‘likes’ for the page.

The simple lesson is that social is not for every brand – and some brands are safer staying away from the social arena. It’s like Principals gatecrashing the dorm party. They aren’t welcome and everyone lets them know it!

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Armchair Expertise

It’s the most widely available in the world. And completely useless, at least in solving the issues at hand. You see armchair experts everywhere. Lounging in street cafes holding animated conversations. Or consigned to a little square on your TV screen. Waiting patiently for nearly an hour to get two minutes and answer a question posed by a breathless anchor. Who is out to ‘break’ another story or tell you exactly what is going to happen to the country next.

Armchair experts are people with lots of time on their hands. And nothing much to do, really. They have an opinion on everything – whether you ask for it or not. Sample these pearls of wisdom. Sachin has overstayed his time at the crease and should retire. Manmohan Singh is an ineffective Prime Minister. Corruption is India’s biggest problem, Then the same experts proceed to pay a few lakhs in cash to obtain admission for their non-performing child to an engineering college without skipping a step. India is one of the dirtiest countries in the world – no civic sense, they will proclaim while tossing an empty mineral water bottle out of the car window.

Every one of us if guilty of armchair expertise at different points in our lives. We cannot be experts on everything, but we come up with solutions to various issues on the spot with no understanding of what the problems are. Let’s take a general one – unauthorised parking on the streets, that narrows the space available to drive. If you were to call a meeting of residents along the road and ask for solutions, one of the first suggestions that will come up is – the government should build more parking lots. When asked where space is, they shrug. That’s not for them to determine. They have already provided a ‘solution’ and it is up to the government to implement it.

However, armchair expertise does provide an escape valve for all the frustrations that we face. It allows us to ‘solve’ the problem in our heads and console ourselves that it is the perfect solution – even if we do not have the power to implement it. On another plane, It allows the conversation to flow. Otherwise, what would we talk about, anyway? If we could not gossip about stars, or get outraged over the stolen millions by politicians, or defend the past instead of the present, what conversations would be possible? According to everyone, the best times were when they were young – the schools, the people, the movies, everything was much better then.

People come closer because they hold shared views, even if the views have nothing to do with reality! And armchair expertise is a wonderful way to tackle the big problems of the world without moving a muscle – whether it is disease, war, education or corruption. We have all the solutions at our fingertips and we discuss them with anyone who will listen. There’s no investment required, no real work needs to be done and we can all go home and sleep it off and not worry about whether the problem actually got solved. And yes, this post is written by an armchair expert – but one who has no illusions that he is helping to ‘change the world’ – what does that inane phrase mean, anyway?

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Audi Vs. BMW

According to a feature in Wired, Audi is now the car of choice among young entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. It’s the mark of having arrived and reached a certain status among peers. The BMW, or the Beemer, is apparently no longer as ‘cool’ as it used to be. It’s become a victim of its own success. How about the  Mercedes and the Lexus? Well, they are the symbols of success for old Wall Street bankers and you know that demographic is in the doghouse, in terms of public perception and respect.

This is not a technical analysis of the relative merits of each of the brands. There are enough auto magazines and websites performing the service if that’s your requirement. I’m more interested in seeing how they steer their images in this brave new world of technology ubiquity. Most high-end cars today have significant digital components, in addition to the mechanical ones. The map and fuel consumption interfaces, the notifications and lights at every stage of driving have transformed the overall experience.

When it comes to projecting these features, one of the hardest lines to walk is to keep the luxury quotient relevant across the target audience spectrum. It helped earlier that success was a gradual process and by the time people could afford these cars, they were well into middle age. Today’s millionaires are in their 20s and that makes it difficult to keep the pitch tight. Their perspectives on life and what entitlement is about are vastly different. Both need pampering, but the younger one is more about brashness than status. One wants to flaunt it, the other wants to build a distance and limit access.

In terms of conveying the image, a choice has to be made. One will have to be alienated in order to favour the other.

Take this Audi commercial that aired during the latest Superbowl. It highlights a single feature – the headlights as bright as daylight breaking up a vampire party. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a vampire party in a luxury car commercial? It is obvious that Audi has made the primetime choice. They no longer have the smooth suave definition of luxury when it comes to their brand. They’re willing to breach their citadel for the newly minted, IPO fueled millionaire.

And now, here’s the latest BMW commercial. As trite a definition of luxury as you can find. Convertible, wind blowing the hair, long uninterrupted driving shots, pearls necklaces fluttering in slow motion, it’s all there. And what does the tagline say? BMW – The feeling remains. What feeling? It’s careful not to anger the current set of customers. But it does nothing to attract new ones. The two comments about the ad were actually more interesting. The first one said “5 people just bought an Audi” The response – “Piss off” I have no idea how old the commenters were, but it does not take a genius to figure out. The Audi commercial has been watched over 7 million times. The BMW – just over 70,000.

Images age just as humans do. What was the epitome of youth – flower power in the 60s is now the symbol of a forgotten generation. The Beatles were the Justin Beiber of the 60s. Evoking just as much hysteria and awe. But things change. And that is the way it should be.

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Bread, Butter and the Media

Imagine that every channel is a slice of bread. And a slab of butter is the money available to spread across the slices. The smaller the loaf, the easier it is to spread generously. But as the number of loaves and slices mount, it becomes one of the hardest jobs to do. Which is the story of how media companies became the force they are in today’s advertising environment.

We’ve gone from a few loaves to hundreds of loaves in the last couple of decades. If you count ‘channels’ on the internet, it’s in millions. Assume that news is one of the loaves and you’ve got national, regional and language ‘slices’ catering to smaller and smaller audience segments. The same rule applies to music, or movies or sports channels. But the money available for advertising has not grown at the same breakneck speed. If anything, applying the butter has now become a statistical game of mind-boggling proportions. Figuring out where the customer is going to be is an art – and a science with a lot of equations and algorithms built in.

There are nearly 200 channels on the TV that one can watch today. But the vast majority are going to confine themselves to a maximum of 10 or 15. If you’re interested in football, you can now choose between 4-5 tournaments at any given time. There are three 24 hour sports channels in India dedicated to cricket. There are already 20 ‘top’ cricket websites listed by ‘The Telegraph’ and readers contributed several more. So, sports fans are not a general category under one umbrella. The cricket segment needs to be weighed against those who watch football or tennis or Formula 1 racing.

We’re watching sports, movies and serials on screens that start from 5 inch handhelds and go all the way to a giant 55 inches. Designing communication that effortlessly straddles this entire spectrum is a huge task. We’re in subtly different mental states when we watch TV, surf the latest episode on a mobile or catch a celebrity interview on the tablet. So, something that is meant to intrude on TV can get very annoying when extended to the mobile screen. We’re getting better and better at shutting out rather than letting in.

Our internet connections are getting faster year on year. The size of our hard disks is growing by terabytes. There are 50,000 movies being produced every year. The Gracenote database shows a record of over 97 million songs that have been recorded until now. Like accumulating unread books in a library, we are accumulating humongous wish lists of movies, music, travel and art. And even if we were to spend decades viewing, listening or experiencing even a fraction of the catalogue on offer, we would hardly have scratched the surface.

So, if the choices that fight for our attention are bewildering, imagine the plight of the media owner desperately trying to maintain the freshness of the programs on the channel and predicting audience taste. Like butterflies in a sea of vibrant flowers, we now flit aimlessly from one experience to the other. From food to fashion to drama to sports to sex, we have more options than opportunities. I think we are in for a lifetime of distraction rather than fulfillment and achievement.

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The Olympic Boo-Hoo

A couple of days ago, an anguished sports writer said what we all know – India is a one-sport nation. He moaned that we treat all our Olympian heroes who toil away unknown for nearly four years with such callousness, it undermines our ability as a nation to win more Olympic Golds. Which is true. With a population of 1.2 billion people, we won all of six at London 2012 – and that is our biggest tally so far. At this rate, we should be able to hit double figures within the next decade or two!

The races at the Olympics start with the race to host it. World leaders throw their collective hat into the ring and bring all the force at their disposal to woo the Olympic Committee. The economics are simple. The city that wins gets featured across the world for two solid weeks and a surge in economic, tourist and infrastructure building activity is assured. Not to mention that HD TV cameras will zoom into every nook and cranny and commentators wax eloquent about the facilities, the history and of course, the actual events.

How often do we watch these events outside of the Olympics? One of the reasons these diverse sports are put together every four years is that some of them – equestrian or fencing or canoeing, will never command the same prime-time audience on their own, except in very limited pockets. The oxygen of the games is TV. Synchronized swimming is a thing of beauty. But would you tune in every day to watch the same routines? The way you settle down to a game of football?

Even if the TV cameras were to follow our wrestlers, our archers and our chess players we would quickly tire of one piece swimsuit-clad sweaty hulks hovering around each other trying to lock into a firm grip. The slow motion coverage of the arrows hitting the bulls-eye at London 2012 was amazing. But again, would we want to watch this every day of the year? And even if we were to see a chess game in fast forward, the nuances would be lost. You can’t televise the act of thinking and strategy.

The athletes who choose what they do have no illusions about their abilities or their prospects. They know that they will never enjoy the warm embrace of national pride for years like the cricketers do. They toil in anonymity because they choose to. Mary Kom’s story, just like that of Sushil Kumar, Saina Nehwal and Yogeshwar Dutt is inspiring. They did what was necessary and stayed the course. Today, they can cash in on endorsements. Unlike the athletes of even a couple of decades ago, who faded back into anonymity

The journey to an Olympic medal is never cheap, in terms of actual money spent or the sacrifices made by the family. There is no guarantee that the efforts will pay off after years of toil. So for many Indian families, it is never an easy decision to support a child’s dream. Abhinav Bindra’s father had the means to build a shooting range for him. But Mary Kom had to lie to her father to engage in the sport she truly loved. Facilities can be built. But passion and commitment cannot be created by the state.

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A Fast Life

We’re addicted to speed. We want cars that go faster with every new model launched. Automatic guns that discharge hundreds of bullets every second. There are drugs nicknamed ‘Speed’ because they provide an instant high – never mind the crash landing and the burn later. There’s even a new invention that allows you to inhale alcohol to get a high much faster than imbibing a few drinks over hours.

We do this in spite of knowing what the consequences are. At 90 miles per hour, we are effectively seeing only through one eye, since both cannot focus quickly enough at a single point. When several hundred rounds are fired in a second, the ability to cause immense damage goes through the roof. In a war, there may be justification for such a weapon. When one soldier is surrounded by the enemy and needs to have a chance of survival. But in peace time, in a civilian environment, it can only cause unimaginable misery to hundreds of families who lose their loved ones in a senseless instant. As we have been seeing in the news headlines month after month.

Like moths attracted to a burning flame, we are rushing forward into a future that seems bright but is actually a cauldron. We have become so busy that we don’t nurture relationships or find the time to do the things that satisfy us the most. Do we really need that shiny new car that goes from 0-60 in 3.5 seconds? What is missed out is where you can hit that speed. On a remote highway at 4 o clock in the morning – on weekdays, not weekends. Have you noticed that most car commercials are never set in metros? They are conveniently staged far away from civilisation – and traffic. And we buy into that projected fantasy with enthusiastic fervour.

Today’s newspaper headline is indicative of the times – Marital Woes Flood CM Cell. The Chief Minister’s office in Tamil Nadu gets close to 2000 letters, emails and couriers every day. And from couples who have no idea what it means to build a marriage together. Financial independence is reducing their dependence on each other. And any argument can become a flashpoint for a permanent rupture. And to what end – each one trying to justify the origin and the ‘rightness’ of their positions.

There’s a lot to be enjoyed with slowness. Like a quiet dinner broken only by the sounds of chirping crickets. When we curl up with a book – we are actually reading at an average of 200-250 words per minute. Even walking at a moderate intensity, we stride 100 steps a minute. So life in the slow lane is not exactly as sleep-inducing as it is made out to be. It’s just that in comparison to zipping along in a car or playing a shoot-em-up game, they are slower.

Try this the next time you feel stressed and totally drained – allow only limited inputs into your senses. Close your eyes, since visual processing is what takes up the maximum load on your brain. Spend 5 minutes just listening to your breathing in a quiet room. Keep the volume on your radio, or your tablet low, so that it just registers on your ears – and does not pummel your brains. You’ll be surprised at how much more relaxed and ‘alive’ you feel. Without having to pay anyone for the privilege!

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Happily Ever After

Its the fairy tale ending – the bookend to the phrase ‘Once Upon a Time…’ that signifies the starting of a story. The beginning that promises interesting times ahead. One used to yearn to know what happened after ‘Happily Ever After’. Did all the complications in a character’s life end? Or were they simply not significant enough to write about?

As a child, accepting Happily Ever After was easy. It meant that the characters went off to some eternal state of bliss on earth. You closed the book and moved on to other things. But it soon dawned that there was no such thing as a Happy Ending. You cannot have a book or a movie that only portrays one big happy family. After some time, the syrup begins to overwhelm. Conflict is the fount of engagement, not happiness. Bliss leads to stupor – fat lazy days that roll into one another with no discernible seam. As long as the next move is uncertain, the audience watches with bated breath. The moment there is a resolution, the interest wanes – like the drink goes flat when the fizz is released from a soft drink bottle.

We understand happiness mainly as memory. As adults, we look back to childhood as a ‘happy’ time when we had no worries or responsibilities. But that’s not true. Exams were terrifying. Remember waking up the middle of the night thinking that you knew ‘nothing’ about the question paper the next day? Or the wait for results that seemed to be never-ending? And yet, when you ask anyone who had a ‘normal’ childhood ( whatever that means) school, friends and growing up, they remember it as a happy time. Or as boring – when time moved with all the pace of a shadow lengthening on a school wall. 40 minute school periods seemed to stretch to infinity. It’s only by gritting teeth and grinding through the boredom that one got through.

So, one learned to prize even small breaks in the routine. Even a walk to the beach to simply watch the waves rolling in and the ceaseless lapping of the surf had its own charm. The sand clung to the feet, distributed itself into the depths of clothes and even a few days later, a few grains of sand could be retrieved from the pocket. Riding in a car or a train was a treat and the window seat was prized and worth fighting over. Eating out was frowned upon with tales of the dirty kitchens and ‘God-only-knows- who-was-the-cook’ kind of remarks.

So what does Happily Ever After look like today? The father at his computer. The mother watching a serial. The kids zapping demons or aliens to kingdom come. Each member of the family in their own personal bubble with only smatterings of conversation. Nobody eats at the table anymore. We’re used to being fed on a constant diet of drama and conflict that plays 24 hours on one of our many screens. We hate it when it has to be interrupted by guests seeking conversation. Real experience is substituted by the virtual – and we are blurring the difference with ‘pretend’ conversations all going on at the same time. The illusion is that we are doing and achieving more – even as we retreat into shells that are only shadows of our so-called real selves.