India and advertising: chasing lions in the French Riviera

The biggest celebration of creativity is back, and in-person after two years. Ahead of Cannes Lions, five advertising honchos discuss what’s changed, digital vs film, and why meaningful brand connection is key

June 18, 2022 11:44 am | Updated 11:44 am IST

(Clockwise from top right) Senthil Kumar, Bobby Pawar, Anupama Ramaswamy, Subhash Kamath, and P.G. Aditiya

(Clockwise from top right) Senthil Kumar, Bobby Pawar, Anupama Ramaswamy, Subhash Kamath, and P.G. Aditiya | Photo Credit: Illustrations: Mu Ajay Krishna

That the last two years have changed everything is a truism. As the world gets ready for the 2022 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, questions are being asked about how it has impacted advertising. “The pandemic coincided with what is being heralded as the Third Internet Revolution. It has become a catalyst for a surge of new concepts to join the mainstream,” says P.G. Aditiya, the co-founder and CCO of Talented, and a Lion hopeful from India. “The Web3 economy has swept in game-changing ideas like crypto and NFTs, and this is impacting how we work today. Gautam [Reghunath, co-founder of Talented] calls this a ‘renaissance period for artists’. The sheer volume and variety of art being created now is huge, and as commercial artists, we’re always looking to higher art forms for inspiration.”

Read | ‘Enjoy both parties and perspectives’ at Cannes Lions 2022: Prashant Kumar

But as the marketplace morphed, so has the consumer. After a forced hiatus from brands that once used to be an intrinsic part of their life, the post pandemic consumer is carefully evaluating and assessing which ones to allow back in. A brand’s equity is now directly proportionate to its values and emotional quotient. And the creatives are taking note. The Lions’ first shortlist includes Engine Creative’s pro-bono campaign, ‘Long Live the Prince’ (where EA Sports turned Kiyan Prince, the late British football prodigy who was killed at the age of 15, into a playable character in Fifa 21, with all proceeds going to the Kiyan Prince Foundation); the Cadbury Celebrations’ ‘Shah Rukh Khan - My Ad’ by Ogilvy Mumbai (where the brand and the actor exhorted viewers to buy from neighbourhood stores), and Aditiya’s ‘Unfiltered History Tour’, created while he was with Dentsu Webchutney (a project about the disputed art at the British Museum).

Campaigns that made a mark: (Clockwise from top left) Mumbai Police’s Punishing Signal,  Livspace’s series with Anushka and Virat, Tanishq, Shah Rukh Khan - My Ad, and  The Lost Daughters

Campaigns that made a mark: (Clockwise from top left) Mumbai Police’s Punishing Signal,  Livspace’s series with Anushka and Virat, Tanishq, Shah Rukh Khan - My Ad, and  The Lost Daughters

Historically, creativity has surged when humanity was plunged into crisis. As global brands and their creative custodians return to the Palais after two underwhelming online editions, can we expect the same? We spoke to some of India’s celebrated Lion whisperers — Subhash Kamath, CEO BBH & Publicis Worldwide, Anupama Ramaswamy, National Creative Director - Dentsu, P.G. Aditiya, Bobby Pawar, chairman and CCO Havas Group, and Senthil Kumar, CCO Wunderman Thompson — about the changing face of advertising just before their departure to the French Riviera.

2022’s disruptors
Dentsu Webchutney: The Unfiltered History Tour
DDB Mudra: MacDonald’s EatQual
Wunderman Thompson: The Lost Daughters
Ogilvy: Mondelez India’s Hate is Unstoppable and Shah Rukh Khan - My Ad, 5Star NothingCoin, and Cadbury Dairy Milk Kuch Khaas Hai
Lowe Lintas: Lifebuoy’s Hackwashing
Leo Burnett: Zomato Cravings, #JeepDemocracy, Spotify, Mumbai Police’s Punishing signal and Swiggy’s Kaise Dekhoge

How did the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown impact the industry?

Kamath: The lockdown caused slashing of marketing budgets, shrinkage of fees, redundancies, and job losses. [But] from an advertising spends perspective, digital boomed and the transition — which may have otherwise taken five years — happened in two. Life was lived on devices and video calling technology thrived enabling the WFH [work from home] model, which had structural implications on organisations. Marketing spends on digital shot up.

Read | P.G. Aditiya has a hat-trick to beat at Cannes Lions

Aditiya: While the pandemic shut down mainstream communication with consumers, it opened up new channels of engagement. Influencer marketing, mobile communication, and social media marketing flourished. It presented us with opportunities for innovation and breakthroughs. The growing importance of marketing year on year is hard to miss. What’s also hard to miss is how this doesn’t seem to translate into a growing role for the agency. This discrepancy will not be addressed until the agency model changes.

What’s the new normal now?

Pawar: Some things have definitely shifted. As the consumer switched from traditional screens to smaller [mobiles and laptops] and digital platforms, so did commerce, followed by advertising. An increasing number of brands in India today are becoming digital first. Another interesting transition is the shift from on-ground activation to virtual. And lastly, consumers have become more concerned about a brand’s purpose in society and the values associated with it. Those that make a meaningful difference in people’s lives are the ones that are gaining traction.

Aditiya: In 2010, when digital media made its debut, ‘going viral’ became a buzzword — works that got noticed were the ones that went ‘viral’. In hindsight, it was earned media [exposure gained from methods other than paid advertising]. The truth is that even today we’re still looking for virality, agnostic of its medium. For example, the best print ads are those that are spoken about in social media.

Read | Cannes Lions is ‘a wonderful bottle opener — for emotions, for normalcy’: Piyush Pandey

The word viral is just a reference to its shareability. Whatever ends up on social media is social. This is now a working principle for all our work. A campaign is no longer looked at in terms of duration. The question we now ask is ‘how many news cycles do we want to be part of?’ Digital optimises our resources, and while it’s not mandatory for a campaign to be tweeted for it to be successful, the reality is that when people like a piece of work, they talk about it on their digital platforms. They share.

Is this the end of traditional media?

Kumar: I disagree. Traditional media [television] is never going to die. Right now, it seems like digital has dwarfed everything else, but what’s at the heart of a digital campaign? Film. It is the most powerful way of telling a brand story. We just have to master the craft of telling these stories in shorter formats. For instance, Wunderman Thompson created 10-second films called Thumb Stoppers for Facebook that were effective. Similarly, we created 10-second cinemographs called Energifs for Tata Glucoplus, which are now being downloaded by people from

This year in a nutshell
* Consumers are done with product sales pitches. They want a more personal interaction with brands
*Digital is not a media ‘option’, it’s where life happens today
* Agencies do not need to create brands; they need to create meaningful brand connection opportunities
* A campaign timeline is measured in terms of news cycles, not weeks
* Agencies now want to be integrated solutions providers, and have reintegrated digital with mainline
* Humour is back — consumers have had their fill of ‘emo’

Digital will continue to spike because we have now experienced the value of communicating without the itinerant restrictions that other mediums bring. And as the penetration and performance of digital grows, spends will do the same. If the IPL is any indicator, TV and film will be back. Every single spot for the IPL is sold out on TV as opposed to its digital avatar, Hotstar.

Pawar: The ‘one size fits all’ advertising is done. You cannot adapt the same message and stick it on different platforms. A TikTok is different from a tweet which is different from an IG post. Data now plays a huge part in communication strategy and allows the marketer to micro-target its consumer and share different facets of the brand’s personality on different digital platforms. It also allows the brand to react and respond to a real event in real time, be it a celebrity wedding, a world cup tournament or a war, election or pandemic. This makes digital a very significant player. Having said that, TV will continue to remain relevant in India, as the most effective way to reach the masses.

Is purpose taking over the product story?

Kamath: The youth makes up 65% of our population, and is a highly socially-conscious segment that looks up to companies and brands that are contributing to society. Given a choice between two brands, they will align with the one that has committed itself to values that make a social impact. A purpose, however, is not an advertising idea. When you build brands with purpose you have to walk the talk, or you end up doing way more damage to the brand than good.

Pawar: Purpose has become paramount. In fact, most of the award-winning entries from India [at Cannes] this year, are purpose-driven pieces, such as [MullenLowe Lintas Group’s] Lifebuoy H for Handwashing [a multi-year digital campaign comprising alphabet books designed by writer Ruskin Bond, songs, and cartoons].

Campaigns that made a mark: (Clockwise from top left) MacDonald’s EatQual, the  Unfiltered History Tour,  Zomato Cravings,  Lifebuoy’s Hackwashing, and  5Star NothingCoin

Campaigns that made a mark: (Clockwise from top left) MacDonald’s EatQual, the  Unfiltered History Tour,  Zomato Cravings,  Lifebuoy’s Hackwashing, and  5Star NothingCoin

Ramaswamy: Unless the purpose is relevant to the brand, the communication can feel like a regurgitation of the planning deck. Last year, I had done a gender-based activation study, called the Paytm Divide, in which finance-related questions were put to men and women. Participants who got the answer right could take a step forward. Not surprisingly, most of the women were left behind, proving a deep lack of financial literacy. In this case, the insight and the intent to back financial literacy in the women of India, makes implicit sense for Paytm. The market is so overloaded with purpose-based communication that, sometimes, simple brand-lead ideas are the ones that stand out. For example, the Livspace Anushka and Virat series.

Aditiya: The pandemic has made us all self-reflect, even brands and corporates. When a brand finds a purpose that is larger than itself and talks about it, what’s wrong with that? From an agency perspective, if a brilliant piece of creative work solves a problem in society, it deserves to exist and be celebrated. If it’s misused, it will be shot down soon enough.

Be happy or reserved?
Cannes Lions is expected to have two vibes this year: celebratory (it’s in-person after two years) and reserved (acknowledging the challenging times). The five days will see a mix of daily meetups, interactive events, sundowners, and more. Good business is expected — for instance, TikTok will be showcasing its capabilities to global advertisers for the first time. There’s also trend-ready events, such as Future Gazers, a collab with Twitter that will have speakers focussing on topics including VR and synthetic AI, the metaverse, Web3, and livestreaming. Netflix will also take the stage here for the first time. Co-CEO Ted Sarandos (who has been named the 2022 Entertainment Person of the Year by Cannes Lions) will join Sway podcast host, Kara Swisher, to discuss creativity and the need for constant innovation.

Is the Lion losing its roar?

Kumar: The Cannes Lions is the Olympics of advertising and who doesn’t want to win gold? From a country standpoint, all the industry stakeholders want an Indian idea to shine, for an Indian brand story to get noticed and appreciated on the global stage. Sure, the premise of all the work we do is to solve a marketing problem, but every creative person wants to do it in a way that’s never been done before. That’s what drives us. Therefore, the importance of the Cannes Lions [and other such award festivals that celebrate creativity] will only grow. This year particularly, the industry really needs to feel rewarded, given the way we have dealt with the challenges that the pandemic hurled our way. We need to regroup as an industry, share experiences and discuss what the future holds. Albeit with a little more circumspection regarding the price tag attached to participation.

Cannes Lions is on from June 20-24.

Priya Mirchandani is a journalist and former ad woman.

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