You know, you can if you know at the end of day a client deserves the advertising he gets and a more mature client and a wiser client and an adventurous client gets a bigger campaign and a great campaign and more memorable campaigns than the one who’s closed and not open to new things and is not adventurous. Welcome to The Future’s Here special series hosted by Creative Brands. The Future’s Here showcases leaders and thinkers from the creative industry, namely advertising, media, communication, and branding. My name is K.G. Sreenivas and I am Editor-in-Chief of Creative Brands, a portal that covers the global creative industry and economy. Today, we have with us RAMANUJ SHASTRY & NISHA SINGHANIA, Co-Founders of Infectious Advertising, a full service, integrated creative agency. Infectious works closely with brands, such as UltraTech Cement, Inorbit Malls, ALD Automotive India, Tata Communications, TBZ The Original, and Shemaroo, among a host of others.
Ramanuj is an industry veteran. An alumnus (PRM-90-92) of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, Ramanuj has more than 25 years of experience in advertising. He honed his craft at Ogilvy and McCann and served as Chief Creative Officer at Publicis Ambience, Rediffusion Y&R and Saatchi & Saatchi before launching Infectious, along with Nisha Singhania in 2013. Ramanuj has won several Indian and international awards and has served on the film jury at Cannes Lions 2010. He has more than 200 ad films to his credit and some of the landmark campaigns he has worked on are ‘Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola’, Saffola – ‘Kal Se’ and OLX – ‘Bech De’.
A widely recognised leader in Indian advertising, Nisha, a post-graduate from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, began her career with Trikaya Grey where she managed FMCG businesses such as Proctor & Gamble and Marico. She soon moved to strategy and planning at Ambience Publicis, where she handled top brands like Lakme, Elle 18, Hair & Care, Westside, and Bisleri. Thereafter, she led the prestigious launch of Whisper Choice in India at Leo Burnett. In fact, Nisha then went back to Grey to help set up their strategic planning division in Mumbai, working with brands such as Parle Agro, Deutsche Bank, Novartis, ITC, Ambuja Cement and CRY. Nisha then joined Rediffusion Y&R to implement and launch their global qualitative research tool — the Brand Asset Valuator and managed key projects such as the launch of Tata Nano. Thereafter, she led the Mumbai operations of Saatchi & Saatchi where she helped consolidate top international client relationships like P&G, General Mills, Novartis, and Skoda.
Ramanuj and Nisha, welcome to The Future’s Here, where we look to the future to be present today — here and now.
Ramanuj,allow me to begin with the essential axiom of advertising: Persuasion. I recall in a Ted talk you delivered sometime in 2017 you said: “You buy things you don’t need with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t like.” Is this what advertising does to people… How do you think consumers have changed or evolved, shall we say post 1992 of the liberalization era?
Let me answer the first one. That is actually by Dev Ramsay, a financial coach, who first wrote it in his 1994 book. It paraphrases the eternal human existential dilemma of coping up with the Joneses in the pursuit of happiness. Advertising just taps into this need by becoming a desired producing machine, we actually manufacture desire for a better, smoother, smarter life. And with the advent of the internet and smartphones, consumers today are tremendously knowledgeable and powerful, so we have to be careful and treat them with utmost respect, because they have the Google and the Wikipedia. So, they have information at their fingertips. You cannot dazzle or hoodwink them anymore because they are way smarter than us but you know we can always make them desire stuff and you know we can always get their hearts to beat faster — it’s easier than getting into somebody’s mind because no one never wins an argument. But you can always make people fall in love with you so that’s essentially the difference in approach.
Nisha, here’s a Catch-22: Do you think advertising leads to conspicuous consumption? Yet, you need to drive consumption in order to drive demand…
So, often I think we are all guilty of buying things that we may not need. I think the advertising job is to make people aware about the stuff that is out there and beyond awareness tempt them into wanting it. Now whether you really want it or whether you can do without it is something that individually need to answer. So, yes as an industry we are guilty of making people want things, making people desire it and that is the job we are in you know. I think it is for people to decide whether they want to fall for the temptation or they want to stop themselves.
Ramanuj, you also famously said in that talk about how TV had made us lazy with persuasion being replaced by repetition, in the process forgetting that at the other end of it were ‘people’, who were replaced by the facile expression ‘target audience’. In your practice today at Infectious, how do you humanize your art and craft of persuasion?
You know when television first came in, we were in of awe of it — and you know amazement — but then you know how it is — people are captive audiences and large corporations made boring TV commercials but because they had great financial power they could just repeat it ad nauseum ad infinitum until you remembered every bit of it even if you were woken up from sleep! Now that is irritation and I remember many irritating ads — let me not name those clients or their products — but you know the ads made you wonder like what was happening, what were they thinking when they were making it, and because it’s a powerful medium and because you have a lot of money you can’t bore people to the death. If you say that you are about persuasion and if you are somebody who wants to make a person fall in love with a brand then you have to woo them and boring people to the death is never considered part of wooing.
Yes, TV advertising makes some of us lazy. At Infectious how we approach to things is we ask for answers every time to simple questions. Simple and profound questions and it is what do people care about and when you really look at people… people don’t care about cement for example in Ultratech, people care about building a house, you know owning a house and the journey of building house is a long and lonely one. You are suddenly the CEO of a project which involves your lifesavings and you have zero experience of ever doing that sort of work and suddenly you are with a contractor, you are discussing steel rods and plinth and so on… you could be a professor in Botany but you don’t know anything about this! You are like a novice and it’s a lonely journey and you know it’s a journey fraught with anxieties. You know baal safed hojate hai they say… your hair greys when you build a house and realise this loneliness and as Ultratech’s digital partner we created this property. It’s a digital initiative which is partnering the home owner in this long lonely walk of building a house. It helped the home builder with tips and hacks — you know information and education about every aspect of building a house and you know eventually you know help him build a great house or a house that he is very proud of. Now it’s an initiative that won then Effie and it’s a campaign that we are extremely proud of because it’s always around that one question ‘what do people care about?’ and once you answer that question honestly there are very few chances of you going wrong.
(Nisha): Let me just add to that Sreenivas… I think the starting point is we never look at people as ‘target audience’. Even in the internal discussion, the minute you mention the phrase target audience there are things like demography, age, and so on, you know you dehumanize the person and you know you are not looking at them as ‘people’. What we try and do is every time we are working on a brand we try and think from the perspective of the consumer’s mind and we try and humanize the person and I think that’s what helps us to create work that people can connect with. You know therefore they are not bored with it and therefore they want to engage with it.
In fact, you anticipated my next question, I would have skipped that question about how you probably steered the creative vision at Infectious. It’s a tricky equation perhaps — more often than not advertising has become about what the client wants — I mean a lot of creative people complain about it — rather than what people really care about or what really people aspire for. How do you walk this razor’s edge as it were?
(Ramanuj): Pragmatically. You know, you can if you know at the end of day a client deserves the advertising he gets and a more mature client and a wiser client and an adventurous client gets a bigger campaign and a great campaign and more memorable campaigns than the one who’s closed and not open to new things and is not adventurous. So, for somebody who is that close to the product to think what do people care about is a jump and I understand that jump you know because that is very natural to be very close to what you have made and what you have in your hand and to leave that and to enquire as to what people care about is probably a little jump. But it is a very important thing because people don’t care about cement, they don’t care about cars, they care about going from point A to point B with their family or you know to impress their friends. It is people, it’s not about your machine, it could be any machine that could do it. It could be any product that could do it but what is it you tap into it and own in the consumer’s life. So there are times when I tell them this is the great medicine and you know they are very happy and they take it but there are times when you know they self-diagnose themselves on Google and they say but I want Crocin… So I still write out the prescription and take their money because you can’t help people evolve, you can always show them the right way but after that the choice is entirely upon the clients whether they take that truth or not, I will take their money of course and I will still do a good job.
Nisha, in Pandeymonium, Piyush Pandey takes a slightly critical view of research, bordering on impatience. You have done over 200 hours of intense consumer contacts and through Unilever tools developed the “Brand Key” for Lakme and Elle 18. You have also led blue-sky projects and you were featured in the August 2005 Business Week Online for deeper understanding of Indian women. You also led the Brand Asset Valuator initiative at Rediffusion Y&R. Tell us about the continuing salience of research and insight mining.
So, to my mind it is entirely on what you do with the research and how you do it. You know a badly done research — and if you are going to take it at face value — can definitely irritate the creative person no end. You know I think you need to step back and first ask yourself the question that why are you really doing this research? Are you doing this research just to talk about people and humanise the target audience? You know then you need to understand them beyond the product. You need to understand what makes them think. What are their fears in life? What are the things that they really live for? What are their ambitions? What are their goals? These are the things we sitting in ivory towers often don’t get to know because we are dealing with a huge set of people you know and they may not be us. Often you tend to put yourself in the consumer’s shoes and say main aise karta hoon (I do it this way) or my spouse or my family does that. You may not be the consumer and I am a very firm believer in research and to my mind every time you go out, you chat with people, you know there is so much that you can learn. And they really connect with you and that’s what happens when research is done well. They really talk their hearts out to you and that’s when you realise what their dreams are, what do they really look for and beauty is when advertising or communication can use that information and tap into those dreams and tap into their anxieties and create something that can solve a problem that they care about, then I think research is well used and you know that’s how research ideally should be used.
Ramanuj, tell us something about this research in action. How do you incorporate it into your practice and how often do you read the writing on the wall?
Very often. My partner is a researcher and she believes in research and if I did not respect her — you know her belief in research — then you would not be partners for seven years, we would have parted ways in the first year itself. I also believe strongly in research, I believe that we must first know research is actually a search for answers… a search for insights… and research can give me insights that I cannot just think of you know by sitting at my desk and chewing my pencil. If it was that easy, when there are ten insights in front of you then you have a good problem — it’s a problem of choosing among the best insights to work on… and I don’t want a non-insight and the half-baked idea to choose between. Of course, after a point in time you know you have to first decide what you are looking for, even research needs to have a particular end and that end is to get better creative work. So, yes research should be shown to gain, there are things that you don’t notice when you are creating an ad.
(Nisha): Just to add to that Ramanuj, I think the very important thing about research is also what not to take. You know, often consumers will tell you things that you may want to hear and I think a good researcher will scratch beneath the surface and try and find out what they haven’t told you which is so much more important! You know, the important things they are not telling you, those are the kind of things that one need to tap into and you know if you can get that that’s when you will come up with strong insights.
In fact, interestingly during this pandemic, in the wake of the circumstances I think a lot of people went beyond brands when it came to the services or products, daily utilities, or whatever. What you think of that temporary shift? Didn’t brands really didn’t quite matter during this crisis?
(Ramanuj): Brands going beyond television and doing real stuff on the ground is laudable, because it’s by walking the talk you prove your worth… Otherwise you are just talking. If, for example, you know a hand-wash brand distributes a million sashes to the economically disadvantaged for a hand wash then I would say that, that’s like walking the talk and that’s going beyond the framework of what a brand needs to do and doing something that is truly amazing. But I don’t know if too many brands did that… I am not sure too many people went out and helped the economically disadvantaged.
Ramanuj, in another talk, you talk about how being ad free is premium stuff on television. Shall we step back a little and probe you a bit more on the essential quality of advertising. Has advertising become less engaging or interesting or has it become less to do with stimulating ideas and more to do with as you said earlier repetition. Why is ad free premium stuff on television?
(Ramanuj): I have a four year old whose finger hovers over the YouTube ad roll and she knows the 3…2…1 routine and she does the skip… She can’t even make sentences properly but she knows how to skip ads because the ads are not cartoons. If the ads were cartoons then she would have probably watched them but there are ads about mothers raising children and giving them cereal and stuff… When a four year old is watching you give her a duck walking across the road or something funny she will watch it for the ten seconds that’s there… but there is no relevance. People just buy ads in bulk and so if a four year old can be served the wrong ads then obviously somebody at 48 can also be served wrong ads. You know it’s just an irritant. And in television I am even ready to listen to and see ads because it’s kind of free… it’s not free actually because I pay money to every channel but at the end of day there are ads and I have to see ads and make peace with them. On the internet, people will no longer listen to your boring stuff while they are on their favourite YouTube or listening to the song or watching their show, absolutely not and you know that’s premium. Being away from the grasping hand of advertising, the premium is the thing to show off now.
(Nisha): I think the fact of the matter is the traditional way of doing advertising is an interruption. You are looking at the content you want to see and there is an ad that interrupts you. You are reading something you want to and you know an ad interrupts you. I think the new way to look at is rather than interrupt and therefore irritate people, how can we be more engaging and like Ramanuj gave the example of his four year old daughter. If she likes cartoons, then how can a brand package their message in a way that is interesting for her as well rather than an interruption in the cartoon that she is currently watching.
(Ramanuj): I mean look at the work of RedBull, each one of their acts — I will not call them ads — goes viral and is shareable. You know amazing work — after one piece of work after another you know great stuff and people remember RedBull! Do people equate RedBull with excitement and energy, of course they do. Do they think it is fantastic? RedBull is a really cool company. So instead of making an ad about how this guy has RedBull and you know suddenly becomes this Cheetah which runs across, they are doing other things, they are making people jump from space… You know they are making people cycle across continents. They are doing crazy things. That’s what is real and is shareable because it is not fake and you know people love that. Every client we believe can find that world to which they can tap into and you know make great content instead of doing one more ad because once I have Googled you, you don’t really need to tell me what’s the new ad, I will figure it out.
I will go to and find the review of the product and I will anyway know what others think about you. I don’t buy anything from Amazon without checking the reviews and the ratings right. So I am a smart customer, so I don’t waste my time doing another listing about your ad, do something that is shareable, interesting, I can share it to my friends on WhatsApp. I will just give an example, this ‘Men Will Be Men’ campaign is something that I can send it to every guy in my WhatsApp group and you know chuckle. So it doesn’t always even have to be RedBull, even if you can do a ‘Men Will Be Men’ campaign which is a mirror and which is a bit of satire too… it’s a joke everybody can share, so you have don’t have to do boring is what I am saying.
Ramanuj, do you think Return Investment can be measured if we kind of skip ads on the digital medium. You play your favourite music, you immediately will skip your ad… isn’t that wasted? How do you measure ROI then?
(Nisha): Honestly, I don’t know how relevant these kind of viewership data is and if that’s how you are calculating your ROI return on investment then you know I don’t know how much sense does it make. To me, I think engagement would be a far better way to judge the effectiveness of the campaign and how much people are willing to watch you, are they seeking you out, are they engaging with you, I think that’s a far better way than just evaluating the ten-second viewership.
Ramanuj to take you back at bit you know and look at the three emblematic campaigns among the many you have done…. ‘Thanda matlab Coca Cola’, Saffola – ‘Kal Se’, or OLX’s ‘Bech de’. How did you map this process? What was the method in the creative madness you pursued?
(Ramanuj): Nisha was very much the part of the inception of ‘OLX — Bech De’ and we did a lot of research to figure that out. People are uncomfortable selling their old stuff in India. They just want to keep it because it is considered not so cool to start you know having people over to your house, checking out your old stuff, bidding… and it’s not very gentlemanly or elegant. So out of shyness a lot of people didn’t want to sell their old stuff but at the same time they figured that if you get a good price then everybody was willing to sell their old stuff. So which is where the ‘Bech De’ comes in — it basically flips that sense of pride by taking it on and you know every time somebody says ‘Ye computer bechna kya’ and then people will say we have sentimental memories about this computer, how can you sell it. ‘Papa, you are getting Rs. 7,000 for it’! ‘What are you saying?’ ‘Rs. 7,000, sell it then’. You know the thing is that it’s all drama — essentially all your emotional stuff. If you get a good price, you will definitely sell it, so sell it here at OLX which is a discreet way of you know getting rid of your stuff without your entire mohalla coming to know of it.
So that was one and this idea cannot come if you don’t understand Indian psyche, this idea cannot come if you don’t understand how we are in the privacy of our homes and how and what different animals we are when we are in private and in public. So again this was very insightful work and it was continued by OLX and they did some great work again on that same theme and because with that insight you can just continue to find situation after situation you know.
‘Thanda Matlab Coca Cola’ is a legendary piece of work — I mean it was the courage of the client more than anything else, because to be part of Cola and to run that stuff at that time in India I mean was something that people forget! Prasoon and I get all the applause but the marketing team who really stood up to the global team and did this against all odds and against you know opposition from powerful places is something that what I had said in the beginning about great clients deserving great advertising! ‘Thanda Matlab Coca Cola’ is just one example how great clients demand and get great stuff from their agencies because if they are brave and if they protect us then we can do really amazing work.
Probably one of the earliest examples of localization.
(Ramanuj): Absolutely and it took some fighting. And it didn’t come easy.
Ramanuj and Nisha, lately a large number of smaller agencies, shall we say boutique agencies, have come up. They are perhaps more nimble and more sharply focussed but with a more carefully curated body of work. What do you think about this fragmentation in the creative world. In a sense it could be more the merrier, but how does it affect the large or mid-size agencies and their relationships with their traditional clients, especially given concerns about costs and ROI. What do you think about this efflorescence of agencies in the landscape today.
(Nisha): I honestly don’t see it as a fragmentation… Gone are the days of agency client relationships which meant years of years of marriage. Today, every client halts at about 4 to 5 agencies… They are working out projects. It’s become very common for the client to say we are looking for new ideas and hence we are talking to five other partners. You know so yes for an independent boutique agency it can be an advantage because it can give us inroads into a lot of clients who we have been working for a very long time. However, the flip side of that is that if clients continue to flirt widely it’s going to be very difficult for agencies to invest in understanding their businesses and it is going to suffer in the long run. You know my sense is that there needs to be some kind of long-term relationships that need to be there for agencies to be able to put into that the vital understanding of the business, the brand, and the consumers. So, you know and so there is a positive and a flip side to it.
Ramanujam what do you think of financial and structural implications of this fragmentation?
(Nisha): To my mind, there is enough business for everybody. I think there is enough going round for everybody. But I think somewhere the mid-size and the larger agencies are probably finding the independence and nimbleness of the smaller agencies kind of creeping in… they are probably feeling the pinch of that.
Nisha, you are a member of the Consumer Complaints Council of Advertising Standards Council of India. This is a question to both of you. A complaint is perfect — providing it’s do with unvalidated claims or shall we say derogatory representation of sexuality, gender or faith…whatever. On the other hand, you have a situation where a well-intentioned message is taken out of context and politicised — example the Tanishq ad. There have been other recent trends — objections over Netflix and government bringing under its ambit of censure online content, including platforms such as Netflix. What do you think is happening…
(Nisha): I think advertising is probably one of the last to face it. You know, I think this kind of intrusion or this kind of dictating has been happening for a while. That is an unfortunate commentary on the way country is headed, on how we are viewing things, and how we are getting offended by the smallest of things which would probably have been celebrated 20 years back. So if you look at the Tanishq ad, it was about an inter-faith marriage — now something like this would have made beautiful movies a couple of years or a decade back. And it would have been celebrated. Bombay was one of those movies which was highly celebrated and it was seen as a progressive thing to do. And unfortunately today there is a large number of people whose mindsets are becoming close and they are starting to dictate… the bullying that is happening and now almost managing to make brands like Tanishq to pull out those advertisements is a sad state of affairs.
(Ramanuj): It’s really sad… it’s a commentary on how intolerant we have become as a nation… and how you have to think whether you have all religious angles covered and you are not offending anybody. Every time you speak you know true freedom doesn’t come like that. You know if you are anxious about something then you can’t really speak from the bottom of your heart. Sometimes you want to talk about it but obviously you are worried that if I am offending this section or that section. You know it’s a weird time to be doing creative work because you know you have to be so careful not to offend anybody not to step on anybody’s toes. People have free time and people have lot of anger.
Absolutely! Have you encountered any such existential dilemmas in your work where you had to negotiate this sensitive turf?
(Nisha): Fortunately not. Also like Ramanuj said one is very careful nowadays of what you put out there. We always look at it from the future… if it would offend anybody and being the diverse country that we are you need to be watchful. So one is that you deliberately don’t want to offend anybody and the other is people can take offence about anything. So you are a little careful today.
Ramanuj, so the final question to both of you: Do you think advertising can or will have a transformative role in society and culture with reference to all these limitations we just spoke about?
(Ramanuj): I love advertising. If it was perfect I wouldn’t have loved it… you cannot love anything perfect because it is imperfections that I love it and because it has great power and it can be equally stupid… I love it because it can be raised to a point where it is almost religion. I love it because it is dichotomous. I wouldn’t have something else in its stead because I have loved it from the time I have joined advertising and I think I love it till the end of my day. It’s a great thing it’s great power and unless you realise what you have in your hands it’s sad. You know for a lot of people, it’s an 80:20 principle, 20 people know exactly what they are doing in advertising and 80 percent don’t. But it takes a lot of love, it takes a lot of failure, it takes a lot of learning… and there are some great and amazing creative people in my life. My love for advertising has only grown stronger not lesser though it is difficult to be optimistic these days. But because it is about persuasion, it is not about a 30-second ad, it is still about persuading. As long as it is about persuading it doesn’t matter how you do it, you can do it with a small play, you can do it with a song, you can serenade him or her. You know there are a thousand new tools with which you can entertain today’s young people, and still persuade them and still be relevant to them. We have to be relevant, you know brands will always exist. So it’s a great profession and it’s a great opportunity. I feel thankful everyday that I get to do this you know but yes it is something that can also be done very badly like everything else in life.
Nisha your closing thoughts…
So I will just continue from where Ramanujam left off… you know that I think we have great power in our hands. We can persuade people to change their minds, we can impact behaviour, you know that’s not the power that everybody has. Our ideas can do that and if we use it well and if we use it for good purpose then there is so much that can be done with that. So, I just hope we get opportunities where we can do that and create some iconic work.
Thank you so much Ramanujam and Nisha, thank you very much.
Ramanuj and Nisha: Thank you for having us.