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 change.org 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.

 

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Three amigos take a trip.

Journeys are always symbolic. Sometimes we travel physically to cover emotional distances, and sometimes we walk away in our minds to set our hearts free. Whatever the reasons be, we are all travelling, all of the time. Either towards or away from something, but we are all passengers in this journey to find ourselves, and our pieces. This is such a story. Of three tiny specks of sand, who took on a journey not knowing where they will end up, or who they will end up being.

 
I have always stressed on the romance and adventure of an unplanned road trip. About how it brings out the best and worst in us, and how it is so very different from a holiday. Most of these impromptu trips are born out of desperation. The desperation to breathe, or to get away, or to get together, sometimes all of these and more combined. This was no different. We three, lets call us ‘The Three Amigos’, were desperate to get out of the town during the new years. And we did, in a car, towards the sea, without a confirmed roof for us to stay under when we got there. So yes, this had the making of an epic road trip.
 
Just like every lovelorn couple, who want to run away from the world, into their own idea of paradise, we also left in the dark of the night, much before the world could wake up and get in our way. This was the first time we were doing this, the three of us – me, her and our five-month-old furry boy. Life hasn’t had been at the best of terms with us lately, and we wanted it to be. Maybe a change of scene will help, maybe we can connect back to where we started from. Maybe a midnight ride on a rented bike help us realize where all the softer parts of our relationship went. Something’s anything’s gotta give, isn’t it?
 
So we left, armed with nothing but hopes and optimism. Let me make it clear right here, I, as a man, am not a very subtle one. I am crude, I am rough and I am anxious about things that I shouldn’t be. Yes, I am an incredibly hard person to be with. Which is one of the reasons I care that much about the ones who decide to stay. My co-passenger however is the exact opposite. In short, she is a woman like a woman is supposed to be, subtle, worldly, silent and critical. But she runs on a short fuse. Our son however, inherits all of the above, specially the art of being stubborn. Yes, it runs in the family.
 
You know, we all have a picture of how things should be in life. We all mentally project our version of what the perfect case scenario should be, no matter how mundane or imp the situations be. We think and re-think it from all perspectives that we can imagine, we live and relive those perspectives and prepare ourselves for it. But somehow, life finds that one permutation that you did not try, that one situation you dint think of, and throws that at you. Yes, life has a way of leaving your stumped, even when you have had all your bases covered. And that is why a road trip is so much to look forward to. It’s like a challenge you throw to life, and surrender to it at the same time. For once, you are not challenging life to be the way you want it to be, you are accepting things to come, and asking life to figure out a solution to its own problems. It’s like being on the same team; it’s like giving yourself up to the universe and believing that it’s on your side.  
 
It took us fourteen hours to get to our destination. It was dark, we were tired, hungry, cranky; a detour had broken our ride and our backs simultaneously, and to top it all, we dint have a place to sleep for the night. See, we were supposed to have had reached our destination with daylight still on, but one wrong turn had set us back five hours, and now we were panicking. Fortunately, we got a place to rest our weary head for the night. Unfortunately, it wasn’t up to our expectations or standards. But we were out of options, so we gave in to our tiredness, for a night. Tomorrow will be a new day, we thought to ourselves as we slid deep into slumber. The gods wont continue punishing three tired souls who are looking for nothing more than a speck of joy, can they?
 
No they weren’t. The very next morning, we got a better place. Though it wasn’t the luxury we have had come to expect out of a hotel stay, but it was still mercy on the universe’s path to have gotten us that. And we sure as hell were thankful. Speaking of mercy, it’s a very odd emotion. Actually, it’s not really an emotion. It’s an action, one that is the outcome of several mixed emotions. Mercy is not forgiveness. Forgiveness stems from letting go. Mercy is an act of letting be. So yes, when I say that the gods were merciful, that’s exactly what I meant – they let us be. That day we rested like we had never rested before. It was late in the evening when we decided that we should step out now. Our rented bike was ready, and so were we. The three of us plonked ourselves on the seat and left. And that’s when our vacation really began. It was that moment when the cold sea air brushed across our skin, when we realized that we were no longer in the city, we were hundreds of miles away from it. We were at the sea, were free to be. We were at the place where it all began. It was a beautiful evening, as the three of us were a family for the first time. Sitting there in one of the open shacks that played live retro music, I realized, that through all those turns and through all those hardships that we have had to face to get here, and not just during this journey, we had come closer, all of us. I realize that we have been planning this moment for the last two years, and somehow, this was the exact time it was supposed to happen.
 
It’s very important to have firsts in a relationship. First kiss, the first touch, the first flower or the first time you let the other person touch you, is really very important. Those are the things we remember, we commemorate and celebrate, and they become the highlights of our lives. But sometimes, for couples, who carry the burden of individual past, firsts are very hard to come by. Most things are a repeat, a constant comparison, or a painful memory. It’s never really a surety of whether your gesture will make the other person smile or hurt a throbbing vein. That is why these couples stumble ever so often. Because we are always walking a very delicate balance, never truly care free. We always have our mittens on, our brakes in check, and our brains on alert. The lack of a clean canvas muddies the experiences. Especially during occasions and holidays. And funnily, these are the kind of people who need firsts more desperately than the others. Firsts help us bond, firsts help is fill that void we are trying hard to fill, firsts makes us believe that all hasn’t been done as yet, that there is still room for plenty more. And yes, we got our fair share of it this time around.
There are many such details during this trip that will make no sense to the outside world, but those details, a week of living as man, wife and child made us realize a lot many things about each other than we would had if we have had been in the city. We saw our five-month-old boy turn into a complete beach bum, we saw him in his courageous best and his yappiest worst. We realized that he really is a brave little pup with the soul of a much older man. We understood how being close physically helps solve things in a much simpler and cleaner way. We realized that this is how we eventually want to live the rest of our lives, and I saw it in her eyes that it was a possibility. But most importantly, we realized that five hundred miles was enough distance to put between us and awkward realities that haunt us in the concrete jungle. We realized that there is a fighting chance of us being a family, if only the world would let us be. So while the world was never quite completely forgotten, and I was never quite the gentleman I usually am, and she wasn’t quite the friend she usually is, we, for a moment there, on that rented scooter, on that beach bed, between the cold waves of a surging sea, we were really one. And that is the distance we covered, that is the journey we took. And I think it turned out to be a muchbetter start to a new year than we ever imagined for the three amigos 

Shut up & drive.

Life is like a road trip. It happens. As opposed to a holiday. And there is a very thin line. Something that is planned, and well executed, at least to have had reached the destination is a holiday. Impromptu impulses that make you leave the house and on to the tarmac is a road trip. And that’s what life is, a series of impulses acted upon. Of knowing the reason you want to go, but never quite sure what you will face on the way, or how many people you will come across or what awaits you after the next turn. We just keep going, that is the reason we left in the first place.
Starting off, you may find yourself stuck behind thousands who seem to be going in the same direction as you. You might want to turn back and give up. But if you hold on, if you keep driving, you will realize, that no one else is walking your road, they are merely crowding the gate. And the more you keep going, the more you would want to, that is how life is, at least for the ones who are not happy settling for the next exit. Never mind the dangers, people slip off their bathroom floors and die, and if it’s your time, you will too, so why worry, you are not in control of it anywhichways. Just make sure you respect the journey, make sure you don’t lose control of yourself on the way. Speed, but not at the cost of your overshooting a bend, be cautious, life throws hairpin bends without much of a warning. If you are not careful enough, you will oversteer into the railing, or end up upside down in a ditch. Stay on it, and you will find yourself smiling ear to ear at the sheer thrill of it.
Life is a road trip, and there are many ways to derive that analogy, but I wont go into all of them. I wont even explain further, I will just end this by saying, that if your life didn’t turn out quite the way you wanted it to be, then it’s because you never took a road trip, you always planned a holiday that never happened. Stop planning, take a road trip, you don’t know where you will eventually end up, and that’s the whole point. Serendipity is real, only for the ones who seek it.