The colourful face of Indian advertising

The industry’s rise reflects the country’s rapid transformation. By MG Parameswaran

No other country’s advertising industry has undergone the kind of transformation we have seen in India. In a sense, this reflects the larger sociopolitical turmoil India has seen in the past four decades. The post-independence euphoria had died down by 1973. The reality of an independent India was a lot harsher than most had imagined: shortages, inflation, war, poverty and political unrest. The government reacted to these challenges with a declaration of emergency on 26 June, 1975. Fortunately, sense prevailed and it was withdrawn on 21 March, 1977, just as I was finishing my undergraduate education at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. As expected, half of the graduating class went overseas. To their credit, they kept the innovation engine humming in the US.

The mid 70s also saw the entry of a new breed of Indians into advertising. The hegemony of the English-speaking, public school, ‘pukka’ natives was drawing to a close with the entry of freshly minted MBAs from the Indian Institute of Managements. In their wake came Hindi speaking creative talent from the Indian heartland.

The Indian advertising agencies had all the building blocks in place when the country’s economy was opened up in 1991. The leading ad agencies had the talent, the brain power, the tools and techniques to take on the competitive market. Expat talent did not have to be airlifted into the country when multinational clients arrived. From a market of single, or at most two, brands in category after category, Indians were deluged with choice. The waiting lists for scooters, TV sets, cars and motorbikes disappeared almost within a year. Choices multiplied in every category imaginable: soft drinks, soaps, household cleaners, ready made garments, snack foods, juices and more.

As multinationals came to India, they started spotting the talent in the Indian agencies. The first talent exports were in market research. Today, across Asia-Pacific, you can almost single out market research agencies that don’t have an Indian head of operation. The next big export was the media planning professional. They went from planning media in one TV channel to planning and buying time across 30-plus channels in just 10 years. At the same time, Indian creativity was coming out of its shell. The first Indian TVC to win at Cannes was the Eriksson mobile phone film. Many have followed, but there is a feeling that India’s socioeconomic milieu demands a different genre of advertising that may not appeal to an international jury. Despite this, Indian agencies are winning more and more international awards.

The other major change was the ‘multinationalisation’ of Indian agencies. The big agency groups began increasing their presence in 1991. This brought a host of new tools and techniques that Indian agencies quickly absorbed and adapted for local conditions.

The period 1973 to 2013 was one of rapid change in Indian advertising: from just a few TV channels to over 300 today; from targeting the key cities to reaching consumers across the country; the creation of new media opportunities like the IPL; the emerging mall culture; the growing presence of women in the workforce; the increasing literacy (one reason why newspapers may not die so soon in India); the mobile revolution that swept the country in the past decade; the building of new roads and the proliferation of all kinds of vehicles, from gearless scooters to Nano to luxury marques; the entry of low-cost airlines that made air travel an affordable luxury; and the growth of internet and the multiplicity of products on offer, from train tickets to jobs and brides.

The economic growth of the past three decades has pulled a sizeable part of the population out of the poverty trap. But challenges still remain, and more than 25 per cent of Indians arguably still live below the poverty line. Another 25 per cent live at subsistence levels, and are not really consumers of branded products. Current gloom and doom aside, the Indian economy will get back on the seven per cent-plus growth track soon and that should increase demand for branded products from the upper 50 per cent of the population, and bring prosperity to the bottom 25 per cent. The advertising industry should also see significant growth. The challenges will remain. Talent attraction and retention, understanding digitisation of media, tracking changing consumer trends, pushing the creative envelope and commanding the right price from clients will continue to keep CEOs awake at night.

The India 2061 report, published by Draftfcb Ulka’s Cogito Consulting to commemorate the 67th Independence Day of India, predicted the Indian ad industry will rise from just 0.5 per cent of GDP in 2011 to around 1.5 per cent of GDP by 2061. There is gold at the end of the Indian rainbow after all.


1974: TV arrives in four Indian cities

1976: Commercial broadcasting is introduced to the country

1978: India’s first TV commercial airs

1982: Colour TV transmission begins

1996: India wins its first Cannes Lion, for ‘One black coffee’ for Ericsson by Nexus Equity

2011: JWT wins India’s first Grand Prix at Cannes, for ‘Lead India’ for The Times of India

MG Parameswaran is executive director and CEO of Mumbai Group, Draftfcb-Ulka

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