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.