Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Trousers take over the dhoti

The Economic Times of December 6, 2008 reported that 55% of all
readymade trousers sold in India were sold in rural areas. This is
good news. It shows the depth of our retail market, the increased
prosperity of the rural areas and a welcome spread of modernization.

Some may bemoan the erosion of our ethnic culture. But since most of
the people who will so crib, will do so while wearing western clothes,
we needn't take them seriously.

Now the only people wearing dhotis would be the smart set. Like
friend Amir!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Professionalize politics

Right now we are all angry. We want something to be done. Something that will protect us in future. That will prevent a recurrence of what has happened.

And then we look at the people that we have elected to do something. That sends us into a new bout of despair. How can these people be expected to perform? These people are the dregs of our society. Remember that someone said that "politics was the last refuge of the scoundrel". That someone was right. Just look at them, their backgrounds and their track records.

So what is to be done? Clearly better people need to join politics. But why would better people join politics? What's in it for them?

Today politics is a career that does not pay if you are honest. The assumption is that you already have a career and having achieved all that you wanted to, you are now willing to work for the good of the country. Or that you are so selfless that you are willing to work for society without worrying about your own comfort.

This is clearly not working. This idealistic model is precisely what has led to the scoundrels ruling us. And that leads to the kind of disastrous situations that we have gone through.

So are there any better models that we can think of?

Plato said that the ruling elite were a different kind of a breed and suggested that they be identified when young and bred separately. They would be educated in a special kind of a way to ensure that they were good leaders. They would not marry, not would they need to earn a living, but their needs would be taken care of by the state.

Plato has been condemned as being idealistic and impractical. So his idea has never been seriously considered.

But is there something in there somewhere? Can we modify it to suit modern needs?

I think we could easily evolve an aptitude test that tests competence of people to be national leaders. Every politician should be required to take such a test before he can file his election papers.

Having identified a core set of people who have the interest and aptitude to rule, we need to find a way to ensure that they can make a living without being corrupt. Each politician who has passed the exam must get a salary that enables them to live comfortably while focusing on social work. There must be incentives to make these people rise up the hierarchy and ultimately become national leaders.

That way we would ensure that the country is ruled by a set of competent and professional people. People who we can trust to do a good job.

This idea is simplistic at this stage. But I think there are elements that are interesting and deserves to be developed into a workable system. Clearly the country needs it.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

What A Cry Baby

Australians can dish it out, but can't take it. This has been proven several times on the cricket field. Here is the latest instance.

Ian Chappell is on air complaining about India bowling with 8 fielders on the off and using "over rates as a tactic". If Australia had been using these same tactics, he would have been praising their professionalism especially if the tactics had paid off. Well the tactics have paid off for India and Australia is in some trouble (at tea time on day 3).

Come on Ian. Don't be such a cry baby just because you guys are in danger of losing the series. Remember that last ball bowled under arm by your brother Trevor, on instructions from your other brother, Greg?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Insights into the young Indian

Everyone born before 1980 in India is a foreigner in his own country.  The current generation thinks and behaves so differently from its predecessors, that it is OK to feel bewildered.  Here are a few commonly held myths and the reality as captured by repeated studies done by Euro RSCG in India. 

Before we get into the myths, a few words about the source of our data.  We have interviewed over 4000 people in 20 cities over the last two years.  We have a technique that predicts trends by studying what opinion spreaders think today.  The "reality" below are not universal realities yet, but reflect the trends that we have spotted in the Indian market.

Myth: Young people always rebel against their parents.

That is so 1960s.  Flower power and all that.  Today's youth thinks that the most important role models for them are their parents.  Parents rank way higher than iconic figures like Shahrukh Khan, Mahender Singh Dhoni and Barkha Dutt.   

Dhoni and Barkha Dutt.  Keep those two names in mind as you read further.

Myth: Trends trickle down from the big cities like Mumbai and Delhi.

Don't even mention this to Dhoni.  Or to Sunil Mittal.  Or the champion boxers from Bhiwani.  These stars of today are not learning from their big city colleagues - they are teaching them.  Teaching them the softer skills of winning.  Teaching them values and a new work ethic.  It is for this reason that we believe today's trends are not trickling down, but bubbling up.

Myth: Young people in India need help to succeed.

The stars we spoke of earlier, back themselves with an extremely high level of self belief.  They are confident, almost arrogantly so.  And they know that they will make their dreams come true.  No matter what.

Today's youngster believes that she doesn't need to be born into a privileged family to achieve greatness.  Apart from the usual sporting heroes, they point to a Barkha Dutt who has already had a movie made on her life.  And she is still young!

Myth: Youth dream of America.

No longer.  Even before the sub prime crisis and the economic meltdown, Indian youth had cooled off on the great American dream.  They would still like to visit Firangland, but they don't want to go and live there.  They are proud to be Indian and want to raise their families here.  

Not only that, they no longer want to pay premiums for the "Foreign made" label.  They actually believe that products made in India are more suited to local conditions and local hair and skin types.  Quite a far cry from the days when even "export reject" products commanded a premium. 

Myth: Indian women are either doormats or militant feminists.

For societies to change, women have to change first.  Indian women are experiencing really dramatic changes.  All the above insights apply to her, of course.  But in addition we have to understand here new balanced approach to life.

Earlier women defined themselves by their roles.  She was somebody's wife, mother, daughter or daughter in law.  On the other extreme, she became a militant feminist like Rajani or Lalitaji.  Today's women have developed a whole new approach.  They have strong views on everything and a pretty clear set of objectives to achieve.   However they are flexible in the route to achieving those objectives.  They try to take others along rather than just bulldoze through the system.  This "strategic" approach can be seen in movies and TV serials.  Jassi in "Jassi jaisi koi nahin" was a good example.

So why are these dramatic changes taking place?  Why is it that older people have become foreigners in their own land? Our belief is that there is a violent cultural remixing taking place in India and some other emerging markets.  Global culture is colliding quite suddenly and dramatically with a strong entrenched local culture.  The resultant is a hybrid that is as new and exciting as the culture of the flower power years.

But why now?  There are a few reasons why the remixing is happening more now than ever before.  

Older people are used to thinking of India as an agrarian economy.  Jai Jawan Jai Kisan has been a slogan from the mid 1960s at least.  Today that is no longer true.  Only 21% of our GDP comes from agriculture and around one third of our people derive their incomes from it.  India is today a service economy and people haven't quite got their heads around that fact.

The second big change is the rise of the backward castes in India's economic and political life.  This is a politically incorrect subject to discuss, but I believe that today's business leaders all have a brahmanical view of the world, which is out of sorts with the current reality.

Aside from the two big changes, there are several smaller changes taking place.  This is the third generation of nuclear families and so the ties of the joint family system are all gone.  And with it are gone the old traditions and customs.  Indians are seeing the world more - either through travel or through the media coming into their homes.  This is broadening their minds and extending their horizons.  

All these changes have taken place in a very quick time.  Just a little more than a decade.  In the context of cultural changes, that is a mere instant.  

No wonder, us old fogies are feeling disoriented.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


JP, who? Today is Big B's birthday
11 Oct 2008, 0311 hrs IST, Sanjeev Kumar Verma,TNN
Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP as he was widely known, gave the historic call for Sampoorna Kranti or Total Revolution from Patna's Gandhi Maidan in 1974. However, Sampoorna Kranti is today known more as a Patna-Delhi train and JP's birthday, October 11, is revered more as cine star Amitabh Bachchan's date of birth by most of Patna's sophomores. 

Ask Abhimanyu Kumar Singh, a Class XI student, what does he know about Sampoorna Kranti, and pat comes the reply, "It's an express train between Patna and Delhi." His classmate, albeit in another school, Mausam Shreshta offered a similar answer. 

Even clues couldn't help Abhimanyu and Mausam come up with any knowledge about JP. Ironically, even college students TOI spoke to were no less ignorant. 

"Sampoorna Kranti is a train but there is something more about it which I don't know," candidly confessed Brajesh, who is doing honours in History from a local college. "October 11 is the day when Big B was born," was how most of the city youths described the import of the day. Only a few could recall it also happened to be JP's birth anniversary, but only after they were given clues. 

"Big B immediately hits your mind as his birthday is widely covered by the media," one of them thus explained his ignorance. 

Student leader Ramashanker Sinha is not amused. "The state has been ruled by JP's disciples for so many years, but none of them bothered to do anything concrete for making the young ones understand the importance of the leader who is credited with ushering in a new era in Indian politics," Sinha said. 

Agreed state's public health and engineering department (PHED) minister Ashwini Kumar Choubey, himself a product of JP movement. "While the previous governments having JP's disciples at the helm did nothing to educate the young ones about JP and his ideas, even our government in the first three years of its rule has not been able to do much on this front," he said. 

Choubey said there is a need to organise special programmes in schools and colleges at least four times in a year — on the birth and death anniversaries of JP; on March 18, the day he led a silent procession in Patna in 1974 and on June 5, when he coined the concept of Total Revolution the same year. "Our youngsters would thus know JP," he said. 

Saturday, September 27, 2008


The good thing about blogs is that there are no editors around.  Editors are the natural enemies of writers.  Magazine editors are the worst of the lot because they have a space constraint in addition to their natural instinct to "improve" the piece.

Anyway, Business World magazine asked me to write about books I was reading and, in general, about my reading habits.  My responses are given below.  They then published an "edited" version that is shown in the picture alongside.  You judge whether the editor did a good job.

Q: Which book are you reading at the moment and why did you pick it up? 

A: I am reading “The last lecture” by Randy Pausch.  I watched the video of the lecture just after Randy Pausch died.  I found the lecture absolutely fascinating.  I have therefore bought the book to read in greater detail.

Q: What you have learned so far from the book? 

A: Fascinating book about the values that helped him achieve his childhood dreams.  These are the lessons that he wants to tell his children about, but had no other way of communicating since the author was dying of cancer.  I find such books inspiring and uplifting.

Q: Is it the kind of book you normally read? If not, what is your preferred reading (fiction, management, self-help, spiritual etc)? 

A: I normally read non fiction books that cover a wide range of topics from physics to philosophy, from Indian culture to management, from biographies to humour.  I firmly believe in the dictum that facts are stranger than fiction.  If you want to know more about the books I read or recommend, go to my blog (sumansrivastava.blogspot.com) and look at the “Favourite books” box on the left hand side.   I have a list of books that I have read with my ratings for them.  Among my all time favourites: 

May you be the mother of a hundred sons by Elisabeth Bumiller

What should I do with my life? By Po Bronson

The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham

Q: How do you buy your books (based on reviews, browsing on the Net, favourite bookstore etc)? 

A: I buy books almost indiscriminately much to the despair of my wife.  I enter book stores whenever I can - there is a Crossword very close to my house in Bandra, and I also go into book shops in airports.  I buy whatever catches my fancy.  I also read a lot about books in magazines and hear podcasts about them.  One of my favourite book reviewers is NPR (National Public Radio).  I listen to their book reviews via podcasts.

Q: What are some of the other books on your reading list at the moment. 

A: I get nervous if my “to read” shelf at home is empty.  So I always keep it stocked.  Currently among the books bought and waiting to be read are:

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Billions of Entrepreneurs by Tarun Khanna

Myth = Mithya by Devdutt Pattanaik

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Rap your way to knowledge

Education is getting more fun all the time.  My son is in an IB school and I marvel at the teaching techniques that they use. So much more interesting than the rote method that people of my generation had to ingest.

Here is a rap video about the new CERN collider.  A lot of nonsensical stuff has appeared in the media about this, but the video talks about what they are really looking for.  It is probably over simplified, but it is still not easy.  But turning it into a rap song may help the scientists connect with a lot more people in the younger generation than scholarly articles.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Last Lecture

I have been hugely impressed and inspired by "The Last Lecture" of Randy Pausch.  It is funny in parts, entertaining and educational.  I have seen the video and am currently reading the book.  If you haven't seen the entire lecture yet, please do see it here.

Randy died last month.  I wish I could talk as well as he does.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Resist the two year itch

I sound like a stuck record when I tell young people that frequent shifts in jobs may get short term gains, but is not a wise long term career strategy.  I point out as evidence the number of agency heads, creative heads and office heads who have been with their current agencies for a long time.  

Now there's a study done by a global research and analytics firm that supports my statement.  An article on this was published in today's Business Standard (click here) The study shows that across industries, senior executives look warily at people who change jobs too often.  It also shows that people who have changed jobs very quickly don't get sufficient training and other developmental inputs from their companies and hence suffer in the long term.  

I wonder if young people would heed advice such as this or just dismiss them as typical rants from old people.  I know that my own young relatives often look at me as a creature to be pitied rather than censored.  I am equally sure that saying "I told you so" is not going to improve my image.  

I guess the only way young people will learn is by making mistakes themselves.  It may well be too late.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Let's not talk ourselves into bad times

For the last few weeks the media is full of stories about the bad times coming to India.  There is data to show lower growth rates in many sectors, the stock market indices are going down, the real estate boom seems to have plateaued and there are features about how consumers are buying less than before.

I am not quite sure whether all this is media hype or a reality.  I have tended to think that it is hype.  When growth rates fall from 9% to 7.8% that is not a recession.  Especially when you consider that in a previous decade a growth rate of 7.8% would have been a huge cause for celebration.

Today, there is a comment from the Chairman of ICICI Bank, KV Kamath, which points out that it is too early to talk of a slowdown (click here).  I am so happy to see this statement - even though it is a little half hearted.

Slowdowns are about human sentiment and therefore if we all believe that there is a going to be bad times, then there will be.  The secret is to stay positive.  


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Alternative. Entrepreneurial. Community service.

I just read about this IIMA graduate from Bihar who has gone back to his village in Nalanda to sell vegetables.  He has designed an ice-cooled pushcart in order to market them and hopes to do so across the country.  Read the whole article here.


Our studies at Euro RSCG India have been looking at some trends among Indian youth.  We keep talking about Indian youth looking for alternative career options.  We believe that Indians are entrepreneurial (jugaadu).  And we believe that today's youth wants to serve society if he can (Rang de basanti, Munnabhai).  

This one story highlights all the three trends.  Its the sweet spot of the three trends.

I was attracted to this story because it is so different, but also because of my IIMA and Bihar connections.  So that's another sweet spot!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Indian are like a chest of drawers

Pawan Varma said that Indians were like a chest of drawers.  Different aspects of their personality are kept separate and do not conflict with each other.  What better way to prove this than this piece from The Economic Times.  Scientists offer prayers before they launch rockets.  If you think there is no contradiction in that, then Congratulate yourself.  You are still an Indian in spite of your education!

Here is the full Eco Times article.

Indian scientists secular, but firm believers in god
14 Jun, 2008, 1304 hrs IST, IANS

NEW DELHI: Indian scientists are very much secular but that doesn't go against their belief in god. A survey has found that many of them seek divine blessings before embarking on major scientific missions. 

The study, "Worldviews and Opinions of Scientists in India", carried out by the Trinity College of the US with help from Centre for Inquiry (CFI) India, a non-profit organisation, has found that 49 per cent of scientists believe prayer is "efficacious as therapy". 

Though most of the 1,100 Indian scientists surveyed described themselves as "secular", they refused to be called irreligious. The survey came out last week. 

"In 2005, space scientists went to Tirupati to seek the blessings of Lord Venkateswara before launching the rocket and satellite," the study reveals. 

It also found that only eight percent of the scientists said they would refuse to work on stem cell research because of moral or religious beliefs. 

Nearly 83 per cent of respondents described secularism as the "separation of religion from state and government" and 93 per cent termed it as "tolerance for religions and philosophies." Only 20 per cent considered that secularism means atheism. 

"Indians are by nature god believing people. They don't put spirituality versus science. Our ethos is broad - while we are rooted to our belief we are also open to new ideas, knowledge and innovations," renowned scientist Y.S. Rajan said. 

"There is broadly no conflict as we are for religious plurality. Let me be clear, there is no basic dichotomy between science and god," he added. 

The study found that a majority of scientists believe in the existence of god or "some higher power". Some even said that they don't know whether there is god or not. "The majority of scientists think they are spiritual," the study found. 

Placid Rodriguez, former director of Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, said religion or belief in god is a part of the Indian value system. "It's a part of our family value and social need." 

"I as a Christian have broken coconuts at the beginning of some programme (though it's a Hindu practice). God or religion is an inbuilt belief," Rodriguez, who is currently a Raja Raman Fellow and distinguished professor at IIT Madras, said over phone from Chennai. 

The study found nearly 75 per cent of these top scientists - whom the survey termed as "elite" - said they believe in the Hindu cycle of life. At least 29 per cent believe in karma, 26 per cent in life after birth and 20 percent in reincarnation. Similarly, 38 percent said god performs miracles. 

"I don't think, we can call the karma and rebirth theory unscientific. The belief helps us do good work and leads us towards ultimate equality. It's a beautiful imagination to improve yourself," Rajan explained. 

The study sampled participants from 130 universities and research institutes in India between July 2007 and January 2008. 

Barry A. Kosmin, the lead researcher of the study, said, India was chosen because of its increasing scientific and economic importance on the global scene." 

Family run businesses - A good perspective

I just read this very interesting article by T N Ninan in the Business Standard on the Ranbaxy deal.  I liked it so much, that I am reproducing it in full below.  Before you go, here is one thought from me:  Why is corporate India / Indian media so upset that a good Indian company has been bought by a foreigner?  Is that we can only dish it out (buy other's companies) and not take it?

Here is T N Ninan:

A friend commented that it must be nice for Malvinder Singh of Ranbaxy to pocket Rs 10,000 crore and also get nice things said about him by the media. Perhaps, but it is instructive to look at all the families that did not sell out when the going was good. Many of them are still in control of their companies and groups, but these are pale shadows of what they used to be at the height of their glory—and many of them live and work in the same city as the Ranbaxy chief executive. There are the Nandas, for instance: two brothers who have had their differences, who have parted ways, and whose companies are a far cry from their father's Escorts that Swraj Paul raided a quarter century ago because it was (among other things) the country's leading tractor manufacturer and also its leading motor-cycle company. Escorts no longer makes motor-cycles. It has got into a series of other businesses, none of which have done particularly well, and it finally resorted to converting a charitable trust (which ran the Escorts hospital) into a company in order to sell it and make some money.

There is the other company that Paul raided: DCM. The brothers who ran it had squabbled for years, and the company was split into many parts, some of which have done quite well and others have not; one even defaulted big-time on deposits taken from the public. The combined sum of the parts today is a far cry from the DCM that used to be the country's fourth or fifth largest company. At its core, the company's decline was a failure to recognise that all the members of the third generation were not equally endowed and therefore fit for business responsibility.

There is also the saga of the Modis, nine brothers and cousins who once moved ambitiously into an impressive array of businesses, most of which have fallen by the wayside. Modi Rubber used to be the king of the truck tyre business, Xerox was a Modi partner in India and so was Blue Circle, once the world's leading cement manufacturer. You don't hear much about the Modi businesses any more, other than for BK Modi wanting to sell his stake in Spice and Lalit Modi organizing cricket's Indian Premier League.

These Delhi examples can be multiplied in other parts of the country, almost ad infinitum. Ahmedabad's Sarabhais, for instance, were among the country's premier business families, so were Mumbai's Mafatlal and many of Kolkata's Marwari clans. None of this is to argue that there is something wrong with family-run businesses, because the evidence is that they often do better than the ‘professionally' managed companies. The issue therefore is to recognize that the interests of a business and those of its controlling family are not identical. Also, whose interests do you put first: that of the family, or of the business that has other stake-holders? If the operating principle is that all members of a family must be given an equal role in the business and that they will not make way for better managers who are not members of the family (in other words, the feudal principle), it is hard to see such a company prospering for long in a competitive market.

The vindication of Malvinder Singh's action is that the new owner of Ranbaxy wants him to continue as the chief executive. If all the businessmen who have presided over the decline of their companies had asked themselves whether they would be able to retain their corner suites even if the company passed into other hands, the history of Corporate India would have been different.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Evolution of our business model

The biggest change in the communications industry over the next 4 years is going to be in our business model itself.  I think it is going to look very different from the way it is today.  In this piece, I shall examine the factors that are causing the change and the possible direction that the change may take. 

The biggest challenge facing the industry is getting good talent.  The challenge in getting good talent is that we are not paying them enough especially when you compare our pay scales with that in media, retail, IT and other sectors.  The reason we are not able to compete is because our clients have squeezed our margins.  Our margins will only improve if we add dramatically new value to clients.  So that is one set of factors that will force our business model to change.

The second set of factors relates to our client’s business needs.  Their business models have evolved rapidly as well and most marketers are faced with new challenges that do not have enough precedents.  So they need to have trusted advisors who will help them in navigating through these storms and air pockets.

The third set of factors relates to technology.   The internet, video conferencing technology, the mobile phone (including the Blackberry) and the laptop have dramatically changed the supply side of the industry.  The effects of all this on our industry is only just beginning.  In future, agencies will be able to have larger catchments than simply their own cities, regions or countries.  Also it will be easier and cheaper to set up agencies than ever before and so agencies will face greater competition than ever before.

To summarize, we have to increase our margins by adding value to clients.  Clients need more and better advice. And technology will change the scope of our markets as well as bring in new competition.

Clearly therefore agencies have to move from earning most of our revenue from execution to earning most of our money from consultancy and ideas.  This seems obvious, but I would like to outline some of the deeper issues involved.

As an industry we think we earn on the basis of ideas just because we may have moved from a commission based remuneration model to a fee based one.  But that is not true.  We still justify our fee based on the number of people and man-hours that we will spend on the business or on the basis of the output these people will create.  We never base it on the quality of our ideas.  How then are we really in the ideas business?

Our processes were created in an era where we earned commissions and we haven’t changed them after we moved to a fee based structure.  We still wait for client briefs and tend to be reactive.  Consultants are more self driven and work according to well defined deliverables and milestones.  We have yet to learn how to do that.

Also, while at a top management level, we talk about integration and 360 communications, we don’t actually walk the talk.  We still have divisions based on our specializations and each of them have business targets.  Thus their advice tends to be highly skewed towards their own disciplines.  This makes the client suspicious of our recommendations.

Given all this, here is what I think the business model of the future would be.

Agencies will organize themselves around industry verticals – rather like the practices that consultants have, rather than around their service offering.  Thus we will have divisions like retail, technology, healthcare, consumer goods, durables etc.  Each of these divisions will develop proprietary knowledge into their industries.  This knowledge will enable them to provide advice with confidence to their clients and actually command their respect.

Our remuneration will grow to much higher levels but will carry more risk.  We will no longer get assured fees at low levels, but high fees that are indexed to the outcomes for the client.  A kind of pay by results model that the internet has taught us. 

Agencies will then need to plan their portfolios well.  They will need some clients who will perform steadily with low risk, others who will perform brilliantly but with high risk.  Each agency will have to balance these types of clients according to their own risk appetites. 

Very few clients will be able to afford the integrated service model that agencies will offer.  Only the really large clients or clients in complex competitive situations will sign on as integrated clients.  Most clients will focus on specific areas where they need high quality help.  For every thing else, they will be able to access commoditized services off the net.  So in effect, our industry will evolve into two – a customized, high price model and a mass produced, low price one. 

I am really looking forward to the next few years as these changes unfold.  Advertising is still the activity where you can have the “most fun with your clothes on”.  Only now it is going to evolve into a slightly different kind of fun. 

Put your seat belts on.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


I have spent the last 2 and a half days at the India Today Conclave in Delhi. It was a superb event with lots of very interesting speakers. Unfortunately this conference not been covered widely in our media, because media groups do not allow coverage of each other's events. Its really petty when you think that the news media in India covers such inane news most of the time, and yet couldn't (or didn't) cover excellent speeches by a glittering array of speakers. So much so that just now when I searched for "India Today Conclave" on Google, it didn't show up any results! Of course, the India Today group does have very extensive coverage of the event - you can read the reports, watch the videos and look at the pictures by clicking here.

So in my own small way, I shall now fill the breach and tell the two and a half people who read my blog, all about the conclave. Or at least, the bits that impressed me the most.

Space tourism is here. We got to see a model of the plane that will launch the space vehicle, a model of the space vehicle, a video of the first test flight and an animation video of what it will be like when the space vehicle goes up with passengers. All this was presented to us by Stephen Attenborough, commercial director, Virgin Galactic. The most amazing bits about the space travel are the two breakthrough innovations that are going to make space travel cheaper and safer at the same time. One is the idea of launching the "rocket" from the air rather than the ground. It requires less energy and is safer because if something goes wrong, the rocket can simply glide down to earth. The second idea is to have rotating wings that turn to slow down the vehicle's re-entry into the atmosphere and ensures that it is not as stressful an event as it has been for the space shuttles. Difficult to explain in a few words, but you might like to go to
Virgin Galactic's site and watch the flash videos about the technology.

Sunil Mittal and Wim Elfrink, Chief Global Officer of Cisco, made excellent presentations on the future of communications. Not just about what technology is going to do, but how it will affect human beings. Sunil spoke about empowerment of people the mobile phone will be the identity card and the credit card for the poor. He also made a fervent appeal to not have any more regulators for his industry. Mr. Elfrink showed us the benefits of "Tele-presence" and how that would change the way we live and work.

Now that I have revealed my fascination for technology by opening this piece with the most techy bits, let me move on to the other people were fascinating.

Narendra Modi, Vikram Akula, Yasin Malik and Peter Roebuck were the speakers who made the biggest impression on me. That is saying something since the other speakers included Bill Clinton, Al Gore, L K Advani, Chidambaram, Mukesh Ambani, Adam Gilchrist, Amir Khan, Preity Zinta, Sachin Pilot, Farookh Abdullah, Digvijay Singh, Bishen Bedi, Ashok Amritraj and Craig Venter.

I must also mention in this context that some of the moderators were brilliant too. Aron Purie, Anand Mahindra, Shekhar Kapur and Prabhu Chawla excelled in this role. I have never seen such high quality moderation at any panel discussion before.

Narendra Modi & Yasin Malik (the Kashmir Liberation Front leader who is fighting for an independent Kashmir) were the two anti-heroes who came to the conclave. I think everyone was very curious about these two people and we were not disappointed. They both put forward their views in a very forceful and convincing manner. After the session where Mr Modi spoke, I asked many people who they would vote for between him, Digvijay Singh and Farooq Abdullah. Mr Modi was the clear people's choice.

I didn't dare do a similar exercise after Yasin Malik's speech. I did put my foot in my mouth by saying that I was impressed by him to a person who, I later discovered, was a Kashmiri Pandit. This gentleman was already seething and he just let me have it. He called Malik a murderer, a rapist and a terrorist and criticized the India Today people for having him at the conclave. He was not alone. A few people were demonstrating outside the hotel and one person actually entered the hall and shouted to have the event stopped. He was escorted out by the security people.

Mr. Al Gore’s speech was billed as the highlight of the conclave. The turnout for this absolutely amazing. Half the Indian cabinet (including Mr. Chidambaram) were present. All the speakers stayed on to listen to him – this included film stars like Preity Zinta and Amir Khan. All the industrialists came back from their meetings. (I even noticed Mr. & Mrs Adi Godrej, who seemed to have flown in from Bombay just for this.) The décor of the hall was changed to reflect the “green” look, and the who’s who of Delhi turned out in their most designer clothes.

In the end, the speech was a little disappointing. I guess it is tough to live up to such hype. Especially when you have just one theme to talk about and everyone has seen the movie where you said it all. Still, he did very well in the Q&A. I noticed that Mr. Aroon Purie only allowed the high and mighty to ask questions of Mr. Gore.

The conclave was exceptional in the wide range of topics that it covered. The theme was “Leadership in the 21st century”. Sessions were ear marked to study leadership issues in communication, ethics, spirituality, sports, entertainment, the environment etc. There was even a youth forum where speakers spoke on what they would do if they could change the world. This is where Vikram Akula, who is India’s answer to Mohammad Yunus, said he would like everyone of the top 20% of India’s population to spend one day living the life of the bottom 80%. He believes that will generate empathy and create the conditions for real change to take place.

Its tiring sitting in those uncomfortable chairs all day for two and a half days. One eats a lot and doesn’t exercise at all. But in this conference, the mind got good food and good exercise. Thank you India Today for that.

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Scam ads.

Two short words that stir up a lot of debate and strong feelings. Clients & competitors snigger at them. Creative people hate the term and fiercely defend the concept. Journalists ask award show organizers their stance on scam ads. Award juries spend more time debating whether an ad was a scam than its intrinsic merits.

Fashion shows.

A ceremony where designers show off clothes that nobody would wear in normal life. Where celebrities, critics, journalists and the public go into raptures about the relative merits and talents of the designers. Where only the most naïve and forthright people question the need for creating those dresses. So why aren’t those clothes called Scam dresses?

Formula 1.

A car race for cars that can’t be driven on normal roads with normal traffic. Where car, tyre, fuel and lubricant manufacturers jostle to create cutting edge products that aren’t for the lay public. Another place which generates a lot of passion and excitement but where nobody talks of scams.

I could go on with examples from other industries and other walks of life. But let’s now address the key question. Why is it that only advertising gets the label of “scam” and why is it that only we talk about it so much?

The answer probably emanates from a misunderstanding about the nature and purpose of creative awards.

Creative awards are meant to recognize work that has pushed the boundaries of communication. Effectiveness awards recognize work that has pushed sales or other results for the client. In the context of cars, Formula 1 races are creative awards, while car rallies are effectiveness awards. Get the difference?

I think juries of creative awards should be looking for unique insights, creative expressions and execution techniques. These insights, expressions and techniques could be demonstrated in the form of scam ads. That’s fine. What is important is their brilliance, their creativity.

Perhaps creative awards should drop the criteria that an entry needs to have been done for a real client and released. Why is that essential? If I have a brilliant insight for selling cars, then I should be allowed to use that insight in an ad that I create for a fictitious car and enter it for awards. If the idea is really great, then I should get an award.

Dropping these two criteria (or real client and release) would release ad agencies from a huge moral dilemma and also save the industry a lot of money. We all know that scam ads get released either at agency expense or by culling favours. Shouldn’t we just abandon this hypocrisy?

The advertising industry doesn’t have much of a R&D budget. We may do the occasional research, but that is usually to get PR for our companies rather than to genuinely unearth new insights. But there is a huge opportunity for turning creative awards into an engine for industry wide R&D.

This is where we can develop path breaking insights, expressions and techniques that would then be used (perhaps in a modified or watered down manner) for normal everyday work. Insisting that path breaking work be released is like asking Albert Einstein the practical uses of the theory of relativity. There are uses, but not all of them are apparent when the theory is first propounded.

Once we make it clear that creative awards do not need to be done for a real client, we are free from the constraints of that brand’s guidelines. We are out into the scary green fields of pure creativity. If we can then create something that makes the whole industry gasp – a show stopper in a fashion show – then we really do deserve all the accolades that we can get.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Gold jewellery no more Indian bride's best friend

That's the title of an article that I read just now (click here to read the original article). A couple of thoughts about this "trend"?

My first thought was to feel happy that finally we are letting go of our irrational love for the yellow metal. Although I think we are so much in the lead as the biggest hoarders of gold, that it will take a long time for us to fall from the top slot.

The second thought is happiness again that the Indian woman is feeling so economically liberated and secure that she doesn't feel the need to hoard gold. I don't think the price of gold has anything to do with her not buying more (as this article suggests). In fact quite the contrary. If the price of gold goes up then that is so much more reason to buy gold and keep as an insurance.

Clearly she doesn't need the insurance that much. That is why she would rather have a laptop and that plasma TV. And what of the future? Well, that's what the mutual funds are for!