(Ed: We chanced upon this post from V.Subramaniam (Subbu), published in October 2010. Have Indian agencies improved? According to Subbu, the improvement is marginal. What do you think?)

Indian digital agencies are sitting on a seismic fault of their own making. The fault is that they are scraping the bottom of the marketing value-chain showing little or no intention of trying to move up. Now it must be mentioned here that even traditional advertising agencies are fast sliding down the marketing value-chain. This is a topic that is much debated across agency forums and therefore we will skip that for now.What is the reason for this sorry state of affairs amongst digital agencies?

Digital agencies in India do not talk the language of the brand and business. They have no perspective on the digital revolution and its impact on culture and behaviour. The fact that digital is about ‘doing ideas that work’ is missing when you take a look at the body of work from these agencies.

Digital agencies in India are busy selling their ‘tech’ expertise. So it is all about SEO’s, SEM’s, PHP’s and SQL’s. They are great implementers and therein lies the problem. Clients view and treat them as ‘production shops’ in the much the same way they would treat a print production company – only difference being you get a digital ‘brochure’ instead of a printed one.

All this has resulted in digital agencies fighting amongst themselves for the miniscule budget that clients dole out. It is not surprising to see clients having more than three agencies in a panel with ‘jobs’ going to the lowest bidder. In many ways the current Indian digital agency scenario closely resembles the Indian IT services business. The main value they bring to the table is the low value of their services.

A quick scan of the Indian digital landscape will reveal the following types of agencies. This is by no means exhaustive but only representative.

Gremlins: Like Gremlins they replicate at an alarming rate and hence are all over the place. They normally consist of a motley crew of ‘tech’ guys who want to do ‘something digital’.

Flash Gordon: Any digital solution has to involve flash. An animated film that is a spoof of a Bollywood film that is somehow integrated into a brand constitutes a viral. It is a joke – literally and figuratively.

Master Yoda: You cannot miss them as they are the guru’s who-know-it-all on the world of social media and digital. To them it is all about conversations or collaboration or whatever is the latest jargon doing the rounds. You can see in their eyes (and mouth) the zeal and fervour of the convert and nothing else.

What unites these and other types of digital agencies and its people is their total lack of brand experience and perspective. They have never experienced the magic that comes into play when strategy and creative intersect. They have never seen how ideas, big and small, can power brands (and individuals) to another level together. They have never dared. Take a look at this amazing collection of great digital work and you will understand what I am trying to say. We in India have not even attempted to think like this, leave alone doing it. I am aware that there are many sceptics out there who think all this is a bit too much for India.

In the digital space there is no such thing as an Indian standard and a global standard. Hey, a similar view about loos in recent times drew a great deal of flak. Anyway, this is my belief and the basis for questioning some other established notions like:

We do not have clients who are prepared to take the leap: I agree. This is true even for majority of the work on TV and print media, what to talk of digital. However, this is a journey in which the agency has to take the lead…er…leap. There is no silver bullet. They have to constantly demonstrate passion with a capacity to come up with radical ideas. There will be rejection not once but many times over. Hopefully, one day they might get lucky. I am talking from experience here. 

Low internet penetration: I am not denying that India is largely a TV and print media market and will continue to be so for many years to come.  I am also aware that digital is at a nascent stage. However, that does not mean that digital has no role or that one cannot try and produce work that we can be proud of. More importantly, 5% penetration translates to over 50 million internet users and this number is growing rapidly. There are some categories, especially aimed at urban youth and young professionals, where digital possibilities are enormous. More importantly, with over 55% penetration (that is 600 million users) mobile is virgin territory!  

Digital budgets are so low: Not all ideas require a large budget. If one can demonstrate a clear benefit in terms of brand growth – sales as well as reputation – budget will be no constraint. More importantly, clients need to see value from the engagement for them to scale up the budget. They do not see it now amongst any of the agencies and therefore are unwilling to loosen the purse strings.

Amidst all this you might ask what happened to those large agency networks with their ‘integrated marketing’ approach. The only thing they are busy integrating is profits. The large agency networks are fast asleep at the wheel. They do not get digital and they do not care. I have already explained why.But things are changing elsewhere in the world. Traditional agencies are fast closing the tech divide. It is led by relatively smaller agencies like Wieden&Kennedy and Goodby,Silverstein who have developed a strong digital soul. Not only have they developed a strong digital soul, they have also demonstrated it with some outstanding work. This they do by experimenting with an interesting mix of people and by rapidly scaling their ability to navigate the digital landscape. Pure-play digital agencies are watching this development with interest and even a degree of apprehension.

Wieden&Kennedy’s views best exemplify these developments and are music to my ears as they mirror mine.  

Digital and traditional are anachronistic way of categorizing agencies.Digital is not a channel. It is a context in which everything lives. New campaigns and ideas must combine an understanding of tech and media along with ‘traditional’ skills. 

Unless Indian agencies, both digital and the older agencies trying to develop a digital soul, have a strong perspective like W&K and put it to practice, the seismic fault will result in tremors pulling everybody down. And remember you heard it here first.

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V.Subramaniam (Subbu) is Adman twice over,dotcom crash survivor and now an accidental gate-crasher into the digital party. Ignorant and restless. Nurturing a vague idea of doing something new. Sort of. Experimenting today. Looking forward to tomorrow.

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