It has been a challenging few months for the advertising industry. Prasanth Kumar, a veteran in the industry and CEO South Asia, Group M, says it has also been a time of learning, and he expects the recovery to gain momentum from April. Excerpts from an interview:
2020 was a bad year for most sectors. How did the advertising industry respond to the pandemic-induced slowdown?
If you look at the calendar year, the first quarter (Jan-March) was quite okay in comparison with the previous first quarter. I started from that quarter because there is a phase in which this pandemic happened to us. In quarter two it had quite an impact. The lockdown period; none of us knew about it. Month on month there were signals of improvement. To the extent that by quarter 3 things were almost back to normal. Quarter 4, because of the festivals and IPL, was quite good. There was a V shape recovery in 2020 itself. But probably the loss is quite deep and it has played onto multiple media in different forms. For advertising, the biggest challenge in this challenging time was, how do we reinvent ourselves. It is a rapidly changing and evolving time. New consumer behaviour is happening, accelerated digital growth is going on. All of that was playing and therefore the biggest challenge was to look at how we can reinvent ourselves to offer solutions that will matter to our clients across categories.
There was a time in April-May when people didn't know how to deliver the product. Those were times when we had to step in and we had to look at different partnerships. Technology and data became a useful tool. We faced challenges in production of content. Social influencing as a practice emerged out of it. There is multiple data-led technology-enhanced content that has been coming and it has been producing results to many of our clients.
Even for the advertising industry, the ways of working have changed. There was a lot of emphasis on the training programme, as upgrading and upskilling became critical. Specialisation became important.
The industry has been quite busy, looking at the solutions, preparing ourselves and preparing our clients.
Many companies are cutting costs and advertisement seems to be the primary casualty. But to bring back business, these companies need to advertise. How do you see this predicament?
In marketing, different companies have different philosophies. Marketing is an expense and an investment. Advertising and marketing love for businesses to get their momentum back. The past few months is too short a period to judge how companies reacted. What is more important are the solutions. Clients will be asking if a particular solution is good enough to reach to the consumers and have a connection with them. Answering that question is the primary purpose of advertising. The industry ecosystem should start putting effort on how we can make better solutions, take leverage on the assets we have, and leverage technology.
India is a country with depth and width, and versatility is available. There is a significant rural market. In 2009, when we had real difficulties, rural markets did well to bring the economy back.
It is a situation when I would rather focus on solutions that matter than worry about cuts. If you are able to get solutions across markets, across different audiences, different categories, that will help clients.
How quick will recovery be?
It depends on categories. Edtech, for instance, is coming up. Retail, on the other hand, is facing challenges. Gaming, as a category, has come up. There is progress happening. From April onwards progress will gather more momentum. The shape of the recovery may not be the same in all sectors. We need to prepare solutions and leverage according to the pace of the recovery. For some, it may be three years; for some three months.
The tools that are at the disposal of digital marketers obliterate the need for mass advertisement. In such a scenario what is the future of agencies?
We are looking at a situation where there are 600 million internet users in the country. The pandemic has also accelerated the use of digital platforms. All these digital platforms are bringing in an opportunity for the advertising industry to study the consumer better, and use the insights and leverage the technology. That is how the transformation starts. When that happens the solutions offered will transform. Look at the solutions we had 20 years ago, and what we had a year ago. They had completely changed. Every three years, I think, the transformation has been happening to all of us. In my view, it is an exciting future.
How strong is the case social media influencers make in comparison with traditional means of advertising?
Traditional means of advertising have their own power and their own purpose. Social media influencing is not something new. In print we had advertorials. Both methods have their own strengths and purposes.