Digital Advertising in India – One ‘Un’ready Player

I like me a layered analogy. It gives context colour, and texture. In a world where everything is click-bait; a long-drawn analogy is required to help understand nuance. Because smart people look for nuances, it’s the understanding of the intricate that helps craft the elaborate. I feel so, you may not. And that’s okay.

Like you may feel that digital advertising is growing in this market. You might also be happy at the figures that they throw at you, making you feel positive about the future. All figures in green. But you would be wrong. There is something plaguing the advertising industry, and most agency heads blame digital for their shrinking bottom-lines. Gold-star, Cannes coming out of their ears sort of agencies have salary issues and hiring freezes for over a year. There is a lot of blame to go around too – The clients are not spending, revenue targets are not met, media percentages are disappearing, etc etc. They would be wrong too. The whole industry is. Mostly because there is never a want to break away and be itself to begin with. I have never heard ONE SINGLE CLIENT ever say they wanted to ‘create’ a trend, instead of ‘following’ one. And by trend i do not mean throwing money at the social platforms to appear in side list for a moment. Only to be used by clueless ‘digital’ agencies as screenshots for the next three meetings. Where everyone will pat everyone else on the back, and get back to being abjectly mediocre. In fact, most of the times, the brief is – Follow the trend, in some form or the other. Get on top of that one topical shit that people seem to give a damn about for literally just a second, and milk it. Hashtag chasers, i call them. This is why Selfies are a real marketing tool in many a brand’s kit in 2018 India. Selfie died two years ago. But what would we know? We are a mediocre market.

And speaking of mediocre, have you seen Ready Player One? Have you read it? Are you fan of Spielberg? Or Earnest Cline perhaps? Or maybe you are just a fellow nerd, drenched in whimsical pop-culture references, always the one to tell people around you the difference between Gundam, the Iron Giant and Optimus Prime. Are you a nostalgia whore?

And if you didn’t get, care or follow any of what i said in the last para. If your brain’s reaction to all those words was to trail off, and not be outraged at the mere comparison of manga with cheap American knock-offs; then you are a normal person. And today I talk to you. The normal. Ones who are fans of the popular sport, watch popular movies, use popular catchphrases; the ones every communication is targeted to, by everyone. What an assault of senses that must be. What a high it must be to always be in the middle of the wave. Not the edge, not the after-wash. The fucking middle. Always going where the wave goes, without a second of thought spared as to who is directing it, or why. I speak to you today, to let you know that you are being gas-lit, day in, day out. (Google ‘Gas-lighting’, and figure it out)

And i use the IP – Ready Player One, as an example to do so. And if you know anything about this cultural phenomena, you will know that this was the ring, to rule them all. This was the epitome of nerd culture, in the same way Pink Floyd was the epitome of what 60s had to offer to the world in terms of music. And we can differ in opinion on that as well. You would still be wrong, but we can differ, sure. But all this was happening in a market where branding, content, nerdism, geekism, had over half a century to ferment. The US of Trump. We didn’t. Like we never do. Like we weren’t remotely into with the PC revolution, before the smart-phone one washed us to its side. And we just joined in, like we join in on every wave. We hardly had any time to understand the internet, learn through it, before we jumped head-first into 50mbps broadband & 4G speeds. Like we hardly have the cultural learning, or appropriation to be interacting with the world, but here we are; social media in every hand, whether deserving or not. A major portion of our populous still doesn’t know what phishing is, or what cat-fishing is in terms of social spaces. We don’t know what PC culture is, we clearly as a country don’t have a proper understanding of personal space even in the physical world, why will be give a fuck about it on the virtual one?

What I’m trying to draw attention to, is the fact that just because two people have the same tool, doesn’t make them both equally adept at it. Especially if one of them has had years of training, is always at a home-ground advantage in terms of ownership of the platform, the language used. (Facebook will a very different place to us, a very different experience, if it was invented in Kanpur, had head-quarters in Delhi, and was also in Hindi)

But does that stop us? No. Because we as a society know when to get on board. We are in the middle. You understand? We shift as everything else shifts around us. We are in the wave, not on it. We cannot catch up to the ones who are directing it. The reason is, we are not primed. We are not ready. We never are. Mostly because we are lazy. Let’s face it, it’s way easier to use an app than to make it. So let those people make it, we will use it. No one wants to know how the fridge works, while everyone knows how to use it. We are that. Which is why, no cutting edge ever works here. We aren’t dictating shit. Mostly because we don’t have any unique perspective to offer. Everything we do, is a version of what’s already been done, and perhaps done better.

Like Ready Player One. For which btw, someone had to run a petition online. Yes. A movie that made over 400$ Million worldwide, didn’t get a release in India till a month later, and that too after a lot of begging. By that time, i had already seen all the YouTube reviews, I learned about all the 300+ Easter eggs, etc etc. But that’s me, i like that sort of thing. I took two of my ‘normal’ friends to watch this movie with me, and to no surprise, they came out of it, underwhelmed. They would be, since they hadn’t the preparation time, or the intent that I did. I knew the nuances, i knew the references, i knew the point of the movie was the celebration of 80s pop-culture, and not the plot itself. I knew that to enjoy such a movie, to appreciate what was crammed into 120mins, one had to have over a century worth of global pop-culture knowledge ready to go. And my knowledge was second/third hand to begin with, and mediocre at best.

And that’s the issue with the Indian advertising industry. We are forcing our audience into experiences to which they have no context, no nuance. Mother’s Day is not something the Indian customer is emotionally primed into, or invested in. I am guilty too, of fanning that kind of fire, to make such a thing stick, so I do apologize. But we did it 3 years back, and I didn’t have this perspective. So i understand that we want our audiences to see the stars with us, without stopping to think that they might be flat-earthers, and that there is a huge learning curve that is integral, and missing. We have to slowly wean them into it. There is still a large portion of people in this country who have no idea Cambridge Analytica happened, that Fake News is an epidemic on Facebook, or that Instagram bots are a thing, and that those bots might be smarter than them.

In short, we as a market are unready. Unready to keep up. Not due to the lack of infrastructure, but due to the lack of context. We need to stop riding coat-tails, and find a way to shape our country’s approach to communication. We should stop throwing things at our audience to which they have no context. Doing the Ice-bucket Challenge, and understanding the context of ALS & social gestures in America are two completely different things. Stop following trends blindly. Stop, understand if that makes any sense to the Indian audience at all. Better still, know that a trend is like a mayfly, if it’s born, it’s already closer to death than life. Forcing your audience to consume stale ideas, just because you want a quick bump on the analytics graphs is a lazy fucking approach, and we are all guilty of it. Find your own conversations, ones to which the audiences here have had context to. Something that people will understand the nuances to. So that craft can exist. PaperBoat did that, i mean as a brand. They gave 90s nostalgia an Indian flavour. And it worked. It connected. It stuck.

So please try and avoid short-cuts. Too many short-cuts might get you there faster, but not often. Plus you’ve had completely missed the point of the exercise. Also, when the time will actually come, to prove your worth, it will be very clear who knows the terrain and who doesn’t; who put in the effort, and who clearly found a way to cheat. Like if you go and see Ready Player One, it’s very easy to spot fake fans, who hopped on the bandwagon after they someone told them that nerd was new cool. Don’t be that guy. Put in the effort, or get the fuck out.