Sunday, December 10, 2006

Indian Stretchable Time Is About To Snap

Remember the days when inviting a politician meant that your function would be delayed by many hours because they would always be late? Well, it’s gone forever. I was at the India Economic Summit in Delhi last month and it was amazing to see how punctual all the ministers and bureaucrats were. Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, Chidabmbaram, Kamal Nath, Kapil Sibal, Nitish Kumar, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sheila Dixit, Montek Singh Ahluwalia. All were on the stage at the precise moment that they were meant to be. Not just once, but across all functions spread over three days. Of course, the sundry bureaucrats who were also at the event had no choice once their bosses were so punctual.

It made me think. Whatever happened to Indian Stretchable Time?

Is this just a stray incident, meant to impress the foreigners who were at this conference? Is this the effect of the globalization of India? Or is this a far more fundamental change in Indians?

Then another incident caught my eye. My son is 14 years old. His day consists of going to school, attending tuitions, going for tennis coaching, watching TV. All these activities happen at precise times. His school bus arrives at 6.20 AM. His tuition is at 2 PM. His tennis coaching is from 4 PM. There is not a moment to lose. If he is late in one activity, then it affects the next. No time to waste. No time to be late.

My son may not grow to be a politician. But clearly he is going to be as punctual as our ministers are today. Happiness!

This business of ministers being punctual has another special significance. India is a hierarchical country and one way to show that you are more important than the others is to be more late than everyone else. Therefore the minister had to be really late since it showed he is the most important.

But in the new India, ministers are no longer the undisputed bosses that they used to be. These ministers today wine and dine and fuss over industrialists to invest in their state. So suddenly the old hierarchies are breaking down and there is much greater equality than there used to be.

I am a Virgo who has a bee in his bonnet about being punctual. For a long time this has been considered a major flaw in my character. I have arrived at parties only to get glares from my host which softened only when I offered to help them set up for the party. I have had colleagues wonder if I had no work at all – how else could I be so punctual? I have suffered ulcers when my bosses (this term includes my wife) have made me late.

And I have always despaired about this thing they call Indian Stretchable Time.

But now I have hope. Suddenly things seem to be changing. We have all begun to cram our lives more. We all have much tighter schedules. So we can’t afford to be late. This attitude is starting at a young age.

Does this mean that everyone is being punctual? Of course not. Nothing ever changes so quickly. But the trend is clear. More and more people are demanding punctuality. Because they are busy. Because they are more equal. Because that is just the new way. Those who don’t fall in line are suddenly going to discover that they are outdated – a part of the “old guard”. People who didn’t quite get it. Sort of like someone who still uses a typewriter and doesn’t know what a blog is.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Pictures versus words

Nobody reads anymore.

That’s a common lament from virtually everybody. Clients say that as they ask you to reduce the number of words in an ad. Teachers and parents say that about children. We say that about ourselves as an excuse for not reading that new non-fiction best seller that everyone is talking about.

But that is simply not true. Young people today read more than ever before. And they write much more than previous generations.

If that sounds like a startling statement, think of all the websites, instant messages, emails, blogs and sms messages that a typical teenager goes through in a single day. A group of Professors in the US did that recently and found that young people there are actually reading more than their parents did. How’s that for shutting up the oldie complainers?

Think of the implication for advertising. If we write interesting stuff and place the material in interesting places, then our audience is willing to read it. The problem is that we still insist on putting all our writing in old fashioned ads, leaflets and brochures – dead trees basically – when our audience is moving on to reading on the screen.

Then again, why do words have to be written? I have recently acquired an addiction to Podcasts and I can’t think of a better way to “read” an article quickly. On my iPod right now are podcasts from Business Week, Harvard Business Review, Economist, Scientific American and Comedy Central. And that’s because I have only just started. Give me some time and my library will grow.

That makes life even more interesting. Now you can get consumers to interact deeply with your words. At a pace of your choosing. But with a level of concentration that radio or TV could never even dream of.

All that remains is for us to write something that is really interesting. And find a way of putting those words in a place where our audience wants to read it. Simple!!

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Conflict - what conflict?

Consultants routinely have many clients in the same industry, because they have expertise in that vertical.  Ditto for lawyers, accountants, researchers and even models.  But when it comes to advertising agencies, the whole issue of conflict crops up.  Why is that?

On the one hand, clients want domain knowledge and experience.  On the other they don't want you to work for the competition.  Why is that?  Confidentiality reasons did you say?  Are you telling me that advertising agencies know more about their clients' business than management consultants, lawyers, auditors and tax specialists?   Or are we saying that clients don't trust advertising agencies to keep their mouths shut?

The focus on confidentiality is all wrong.  Insiders in each industry routinely know everything important that there is to know about others in their industry, long before the client gets around to briefing their advertising partners.  If there is something they don't know, all they need to do is to invite an employee from their competition for an interview and then give him or her a gentle grilling.  You don't even need to hire the person.

Although people are changing jobs all the time anyway.  Both at client end and the agency end.  So how do you keep things confidential from your own people?

So perhaps it is not confidentiality.  Perhaps clients want their agencies exclusive because they want the best ideas for themselves and not have to share them with others in their industry.  There may be something in this.  However, even this thesis breaks down when you consider that clients are today shopping around for ideas from so many different places.  From their celebrity models, their event agencies, their PR firms and so on.  Most of them are not bound to exclusive contracts like ad agencies are.

In fact there is a lot to learn from model contracts.  There are two kinds of model contracts.  One which prevents the model from appearing in any competing ads, and the other which does not.  The first is a lot more expensive than the second, for the same amount of time.

Perhaps ad agencies need to codify such an arrangement with its clients.  If you want exclusivity, it will cost more.  Then we will know how many clients seriously worry about their agencies leaking information.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Remixed Diwali

{This article was written last Diwali and published in The Times of India.  Just saving it here for the record and for eliciting comments from others)

The other day I read a news report about an Indian company that had invented a device to explode crackers from a distance – using an ordinary TV remote!

That got me thinking once again about how young Indians are combining the modern and the traditional in all new ways to create a whole new culture.  At Euro RSCG we did a study earlier this year that found that the youth of the country is no longer either traditional or blindly western.  The youth has found new ways of remixing the two.  That is why we are calling this generation the Remixed Generation.

Teen patti on the internet.  How much more remixed can you get?  A group of friends who are no longer in the same city, have decided to get together on Diwali night and play with each other long distance.  They will chat online and will presumably settle their bets through their credit cards.

My generation found it hip to be anti religion and anti rituals when we were young.  We thought the way of the future was the western way – supposedly a scientific attitude to life.  The new generation, however, has become ritualistic with a vengeance.  This generation is not necessarily religious, but is very keen on all rituals and celebrating all festivals.

Perhaps it has to do with the pride they feel in being Indians.  All previous generations of Indians have been a little ashamed about the colour of their skin and have tried hard to adopt the language and the culture of the West.  Everyone knows of people who get an American accent just because their brothers live in that country.  Well, today’s youth is aggressive about maintaining their Indian accents even after they have lived in the US for several years.

Last week we were inundated on prime time soaps with characters observing Karwa Chauth.  In office, I found several young women who were observing the fast.  At first I was surprised.  I thought advertising people were meant to be modern and progressive.  Then I realized that this is the new modern and progressive attitude.  An attitude that wants to observe traditional festivals in whole new ways.

Husbands fasting with their wives.  That is a remixed way of observing Karwa Chauth.  An act made famous by Shahrukh Khan in DDLJ exactly a decade ago.  But now metro-sexual men do not think it infra dig to show their love for their wives by fasting along with them.

A popular radio jockey who is also an actress was talking on air about having a lot of sweets on the sets.  Why?  Because everyone had started receiving sweets at home.  But they were too conscious of their figures to eat too much.  So what’s better than to share it with your friends?  This is a remixed attitude again.  Have your sweets and keep your figure too.

The biggest change that we have observed is in the attitude of children to crackers.  Time was when as kids we would beg our parents to buy us more crackers – the louder the better.  Now one feels so passé when you talk to today’s children.  If you so much as suggest crackers, they give you that “you philistine!” look.  

There are many changes in the gifts that are being exchanged too.  For one thing, there is a lot more of them.  Diwali is to India what Christmas is to the west.  Complete with gifts for everyone.  

Also the nature of gifts has changed.  Cadburys is already selling chocolate covered dry fruits.  What else can we expect?  Mithai with bhang – a la Holi?  Or perhaps Vodka Rasgullas.  

Expect the youth to dance all night on Diwali night.  They will dance because they like dancing.  They will dance because they need to work off the extra calories.  They will dance because the latest remixed hit is playing and they can’t resist.

Happy Remixed Diwali.