23 January, 2010

Coffee Conversations...

It’s almost a year since I started writing this column – recording my own observations about the Retail Industry as well as analyzing and interpreting decisions and actions of Retailers and their activities. I must admit that I have acquired a lot of admirers and a few critics on the way – not on a personal note but more on a professional stance. To make your reading more interesting, I am introducing a new column titled “Coffee Conversations”. In this section, I seek answers for queries that I have from Industry experts and stalwarts, while also discussing my own thoughts about the same. This is not mainline journalism – and I am not a journalist. Nor are those who opine spokespersons of their respective organizations. They are mere professionals who share their thoughts on certain specific topics.

The first such column is about the recent advertising fiasco featuring the world’s best known Ice-Cream Retailer and one of the most respected agencies. Many of you would know the fauxpas already – the agency communicated on a signage that entry to the newly launched store was “restricted only to holders of international passports”. What they meant was something else but this irked the Indian sensibilities almost immediately and what followed was brand bashing – offline and online. They say “Any publicity is good publicity” but I guess this is the last the Brand would have wanted even as they move into one of the toughest consumer markets in the world. The agency has been removed from the services of the company with immediate effect and it is yet to be seen what happens next.

I spoke to my good friend Akshay Ananth, a young and energetic advertising professional who leads the Client Servicing Division for one of the best known agencies in the world, which is also the most popular and respected one in India. Excerpts from the conversations that we had recently over coffee:

Shriram (SS): Tell me Akshay, how important is the role of the Advertising agency to get into the DNA of the Retailer or the Brand, especially if it is new in the Indian market?

Akshay Ananth(AA): Whether the brand is old or new it needs someone to communicate with the consumer. It’s the agency that does it right now. The whole idea of an agency is to talk the consumer’s language as opposed to manufacturer speak. Some of the best brands have been created by the agencies. E.g. BBH raised Johnnie Walker to where it is now. Lemon, Axe, McDonald’s. The list goes on.

SS: Is it important for the Retailer/Brand to engage the agency at a very early stage – say, even when the Brand plans to enter the country?

AA: Yes absolutely, the brand that will win the war over minds is the one that makes the consumers tell the right story. If the entry itself provides a story, why not?

SS: Is the agency solely responsible for all internal and external communication that goes out? What about the Brand Management Team?

AA: When s**t hits the roof, somebody has to be holding the can – accolades to the brand team and all s**t to the agency. It’s a hurting fact but its true… Globally.

SS: When there is a result that is not the most desirable (like in this example), what is the stance that the agency and the Brand should take? Defensive? Mud-slinging? Does sacking and replacing the agency help?

AA: I guess there are two things here, do the due diligence (also get someone to wear the black hat) and the second is, get a crisis plan ready.

Mud-slinging is our national sport, so I guess that’s good entertainment. Other than that, if you do not stick with each other thru thick and thin, what team are you? Firing the agency was a knee jerk reaction and an easy one. I would have started with firing the brand manager.

SS: What happens with the image of the Brand? Is it true that Consumers forget and forgive? Can you cite some examples?

AA: Yes, to a great extent. With all the clutter in the consumer space, nobody is an Einstein. People do have very short memories today and a lot of brands to take advantage of this fact. For examples, I will only say Lexus, Mattel and Cadburys & Pepsi.

SS: Last words of wisdom for Brand Managers?

AA: The agency is not your slave, but a partner. If you treat as a slave, like all slaves it will run at the first sign of trouble. A partner will see a problem and solve it, have a back up plan or atleast stick with you. Additionally, clients that treat agencies like dirt always end up paying the price. They see attrition rates shoot through the sky from the other end.

Only one word of wisdom to the agency crowd: one of my bosses was fond of saying: “client ke client ko samjho”, believe me, this piece of advice is invaluable.

Thank you, Akshay for your time and keep up the great work. Best Wishes for your future endeavors. Cheers.

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