Agency leaders in India on how the advertising landscape will evolve for them and their clients in 2019

A cluttered advertising landscape as agencies fight to help brands reach audiences is the situation in India.

India has become one of the most enticing consumer markets in the world in recent years and advertising agencies in the country have monetized on the market potential to generate more creative and marketing content for various brands.

That means the agency landscape in India is evolving quickly, as agencies seek to tap into this growing opportunity for clients who are trying to reach tech-savvy Indian consumers, as the strata of the society are merging on digital platforms to avail various kinds of services.

Consumers are also dictating the kind of communication that comes their way, which sees both big and small brands taking steps to communicate with people in their local languages. For example, Marks and Spencer recently launched an India-specific marketing campaign to translate its core values while tying in local insights and messaging that will speak to the target audience locally.

All this has, however, led to multiple-format content on multiple platforms, leaving a cluttered advertising landscape as agencies fight to help brands reach audiences.

Therefore, in 2019, it is extremely important, and challenging, for agencies and their clients to stand out with their content, says Chirag Gander, the co-founder of The Minimalist, a design agency based out of Mumbai.

“A rise in freelance work opted for by clients has created a space where individuals take on the onus of brand building,” Gander explains to The Drum. “However, what an entire creative team can offer in terms of services and expertise, an individual will seldom be able to live up to them. Agencies are competing with freelancers, but it is imperative for clients to focus on how a creative or a marketing partner can act as a catalyst to their growth.”

Kawal Shoor, the founding partner at The Womb, agrees with Gander and explains that agencies are trying to ride the content wave. He says they are also indulging in the integration talk because India is going through an era of transformation led by deep changes in media and media habits, resulting in too much focus on the ‘new and shiny things”.

He points out agencies are still waiting for integrated case studies to become famous and waiting for content to go viral in different cities. He explains as plans do not inspire, only real work does, he is hopeful that some walk will come out of all the talk, so that magical and new age work will start happening in India.

“Two clear sides of the scale have emerged. There are those agencies that do nice TV work – which incidentally is still important for a market like India – however, they are all single, individual spots,” explains Shoor.

“And then there are the new worshippers at the altar of everything ‘new-age’. We would be stupid to not do the so-called digital work, but digital-obsession is a grave danger for our future, as it moves the client-agency conversations downstream. Agencies are unwittingly trying to take creativity downstream and find themselves sitting with junior clients. Have you ever seen a CEO worried about a ‘post’?”

That is why The Womb is going upstream and engaging clients primarily on their business issues, according to Shoor, as the agency wants to help them with the big, category-busting and culturally intrusive platforms. “We aim to take creativity upstream into strategy. And we naturally end up working with the decision-makers at the clients’ end,” he adds.

Atika Malik, the chief operating officer at Cheil Worldwide India, echoes Shoor's call for agencies to ‘walk the talk’ as conventional vertical team structures are beginning to give way to horizontal collaborative teams, which means film storytellers are learning to work with social influencers and tech teams.

"The industry is ‘unlearning and relearning’ every day. Collaborations and M&As are reshaping the agencies as they race to add new capabilities," she tells The Drum.

"Even the definition of an ‘agency’ is shapeshifting. Is a consultant who has acquired a creative unit an agency? Or a digital publisher that produces branded content an agency? Or a media/ event company that creates commercials an agency? The lines are completely blurring.

She continues: "Data crunchers and analysts that were once considered alien by the ‘creative types’ are being forced to rely on each other. Industry gurus look for the millennials in their ideation teams. Televison ad volumes are up 15% and digital is growing at 30%. These are interesting times."

The extremely crowded and competitive agency scene, however, is a welcome boost for others.

For Rajiv Dingra, the founder and chief executive officer of Dentsu Aegis Network-owned WATConsult, digital growth is ensuring that all agencies adopt a more digital-friendly approach across the board. All agencies, including mainline and media agencies, are focusing on expanding their expertise in digital, he feels.

Kunal Vora, a partner at branding agency ABND, adds that it is good news for clients as it gives them more options to find the right agency. “They now have a plethora of options to choose from and can make informed decisions. Right from agencies offering services that match your budget to even finding an agency specifically for niche expertise, you can always find one that matches all your needs,” he explains.

Biggest challenges for India-based clients this year

As India prepares for the general election this year, all signs point to 2019 being a year of huge risks and challenges for various clients in terms of finding media space for advertising. Elections are the time for heavy political advertising and while all media spaces will enjoy wholesome revenue pouring in, the prices and availability will shoot up.

Other than the elections, events such as the International Cricket World Cup and Indian Premier League will hugely dominate all media.

Gander says the risk of a change in government means that there are high chances of new policy introduction which may affect companies’ financial decisions on marketing investments. Already, the new foreign direct investment (FDI) restrictions on e-commerce in the country have made an impact on both foreign and local brands.

The primary challenge for brands now is to strategize their marketing in order to capitalize on their mass markets.

“Another interesting thing to note is the speed at which SMEs and (micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are becoming more organized,” he says. “While the local markets are getting organized, digitization is essential for them to stay in the business. Digital services in terms of creation and management of content and technology supported platforms are important for sustaining traditional businesses in this fast-growing country.”

Besides revisiting and changing business models, businesses will need to focus a lot more on building stronger brands to ensure they can seamless adapt to changes, says Vore. Therefore, it is imperative for companies to plan their marketing strategies in advance and optimize media usage.

“Change is possibly one of the most important things for any business or brand. As it is rightly said, Change is inevitable. But accepting change comes with its own share of reservations. Like every year, 2019 promises new innovations and technologies,” he explains.

“Clients often find themselves in a tough spot deciding between being the early adopter which comes with its fair share of issues or is wise to wait and watch by risking the first mover advantage.”

Malik predicts that as digitally native and asset-light brands like Byju’s, Oyo Rooms, Beardo, HealthKart will navigate the speed of change better, it means the big category leaders need speed and new thinking to deal with this challenge.

Shoor meanwhile, notes urban migration is reaching a peak in an emerging economy like India and the result is that the traditional Indian family concept is breaking up. That means there will be the inevitable separation pangs, and those will bring great opportunities for brands and categories to become the new glues of familial connection.

In addition, he points out pressure-cooker lifestyles are becoming the norm and they are creating ill-health. He says this means as growing affluence and health literacy are creating an understanding and acceptance of ill-health, it will lead to two big healthcare opportunity areas – one in the area of care and recuperation and the other– lifestyle related.

“So right from gyms to green tea, from to nutraceuticals to fitness apps and devices – categories built around these will start approaching center-stage of India’s marketed industries,” he explains.

Key media platforms for clients

Navin Talreja, Shoor’s co-founder at The Womb, points out OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Video, Hotstar, Zee5 are all investing heavily in Indian content and it will be interesting in 2019 as last year, some of the shows done were extremely successful.

He says this year promises a lot more, as Bollywood has big releases this year and is expected to grow by more than 10% on a large base. However, he highlights that brand integration has always been flaky on all these platforms and finding the right balance of being there, but not in-your-face, will be an interesting challenge.

Gander adds that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn will continue to be the biggest players by number, which means brands are increasingly investing in social platforms that are committed to users' needs and interests.

“Marketers are actively exploring the best ways to deliver personalized content to users. This has made Instagram the hottest social media platform and a powerful marketing tool for companies,” he explains.

“Visual information consumption is rising by the hour and audiences are following brands on Instagram more for their content than for their products or services. Engagement is the biggest driving factor in advertising and a platform that is by itself driven by UGC and engagement is the best tool any brand can leverage for achieving their marketing goals/targets.”

What agencies are looking forward to in 2019

Gander says The Minimalist is looking forward to expanding client experiences beyond its digital domain to omnichannel experiences and voice-based interfaces. The reducing attention span of the audience is a challenging task for the digital world, and it hopes to catch people’s attention through minimalism in design and thinking.

For The Womb, Talreja says the agency’s journey has taught him and Shoor a simple mantra for success. That is, it needs to keep doing an honest job for its clients and people because reputation and revenue will follow.

“Our approach to clients business is like a holistic healer rather than a quick fix quack. Besides Carvaan this year that has helped us define the business and brand strategy for Axis Mutual Fund, Honeywell Air Purifiers, Fogg and many others that are in the pipeline like National Geographic etc. Touch wood, but all the businesses we manage are doing well in the market with profitable share gain,” he explains.

Dingra says WATConsult is focused on creative excellence and will continue to create path-breaking digital work that gets talked about not just in India but globally too, while Vora notes that with the ever-evolving environment, it is not about providing one foolproof solution to sustain the ends of time, but rather solutions that can be easily adaptable.

“We consider branding and strategy as a tool to help our clients solve a problem. 2018 saw a mix of extremely exciting and challenging briefs which involved helping B2B brands connect with their consumer base, creating new brands in already crowded market segments, as well as brands for completely new business categories,” Vora says.

“In 2019, we expect to see more challenging projects, ideally arriving at a space where we have a reputation to take on projects which other branding agencies can't!”

Cheil is looking to scale up operations, says Malik, which means the agency will do three things in its 'Digital 2.0' phase, which is to continue to develop new business solution specialisms in digital and retail, add to its team of domain experts from beyond advertising and accelerate its growth pace in Mumbai.

With advertising investment in India is set to reach an estimated Rs. 80,678 crores ($11bn) this year, which represents an estimated growth of 14%, or two times the country’s gross domestic product growth, for 2019, it will be interesting to watch how agencies and their clients evolve their ad strategy this year.

Get The Drum Newsletter

Build your marketing knowledge by choosing from daily news bulletins or a weekly special.

Come on in, it’s free.

This isn’t a paywall. It’s a freewall. We don’t want to get in the way of what you came here for, so this will only take a few seconds.