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The Indian way


Anand Kurian  |  New Delhi 

Indians, whether in advertising or in real life, are ingenious and inspired. How does this compare with the multinational way?
Since I have been introduced as who has worked with nearly every multinational major, I thought I would talk about two contrasting styles "" and the multinational way "" as they apply to advertising and life outside advertising.
Of course, I could call them by other exotic names such as "the way of the heart" versus "the way of the head", but Indian vs multinational sounds nice , dramatic and jingoistic, as though we are all set for a very bloody session.
The Indian has always been an ingenious, inspired creature, almost cunning in making do with his scarce resources. Indian cooking with its rich blend of spices is a good example "" the masalas make for a lip-smacking experience and hide all signs of food that has probably gone stale in the tropical heat.
Now, let me give you an example of the two contrasting styles from my adfilm-making experience. One of the largest marketers in the world was launching a new variant of its detergent in India. It was keen on showing a very natural before-your-eyes lift-off, sans any special effects.
In normal lingo, this meant they wanted two dirty pieces of cloth being dipped in two beakers "" of course, Brand X would not lift off the dirt at all, while in our beaker the dirt would slowly but surely lift away.
The multinational company conducted many experiments in their labs all over the world and devised a piece of cloth that had been chemically treated "" on contact with water, the dirt would simply float away. But somehow, we felt it looked unrealistic... the dirt was floating away too fast...
So we applied our nice, scheming Indian brains to the problem "" we ground pieces of thermocol, painted them the colour of dirt and pasted the pieces on the cloth. We dipped it in water, the water gradually loosened the paste and voila, we had a lovely, "real" lift-off!
So some clever adfilm-wallahs in Mumbai had gone one step better than a giant multinational, right? Well, right and wrong! Because the multinational won in the last round (which, I am afraid, is what finally matters).
They took our method, put it down in their "Book of Learnings" and now, if they do a lift-off in Beirut or Borneo or Beijing (or anywhere in the world, in their far-flung empire), they know precisely how to knock the problem!
Which illustrates my point "" is ingenious but the multinational works in its well-oiled, organised way, records everything, plans patiently for the long-term and therefore, it must win in the end.
Does this reflect national character, does this hold good even in other aspects of Indian life apart from advertising? I think so. Let's talk for a moment about something as unrelated to advertising as possible.
Our Indian schools of medicine have evolved over thousands of years; we have observed the human body, studied it through centuries, examined it in motion and at rest, monitored it through various seasons, and at various times of the day.
Yet there is a woeful lack of verifiable data that it has provided. A doctor friend once commented when a Western pharmaceutical giant experiments with a couple of mice for three months, that test generates a mountain of facts, figures, statistics and records. Thousands of years of "have given Indian practitioners invaluable insights into the human body "" but the oral tradition has meant that there is precious little verifiable data.
In advertising, you will come up against the multinational way at every turn. Your "creativity" will have to survive the cold, clinical eye of research at each stage of execution. Your concept, your script, your "scratch" commercial and then your final commercial will all be fastidiously researched "" sometimes with seemingly hilarious results. Let me illustrate with an example.
When we were making a commercial for an aftershave, we were told that research studies declared that Indian consumers used it only for its antiseptic properties "" and not to impress women!
It would have been easy enough to laugh off the research, and initially we did. But a closer understanding of the findings revealed a more fundamental truth "" one that applies to products across the board: that men will always want a rational excuse to justify purchase.
They will buy that sexy car or mobile simply because it has appeal, but they will still need advertisers to put out an exhaustive list of features, so they can justify buying it. (It's interesting to observe that men feel the need to justify the purchase not only to others, but also to themselves.) Since then, I have always called these the ZPTO features "" they probably mean very little, but they make you feel good about throwing your money about.
So, much to our chagrin, the multinational had got it right again "" albeit in a very roundabout kind of way!
Of course, as "creative" people, we must learn to rely on our hearts, our instincts and our gut feel "" but if we are to survive and win in today's ruthlessly competitive environment, our heads must travel along on the journey too.
The two styles are not mutually exclusive. In the Hindi film industry, look at Ram Gopal Verma. He is a pioneer, he has experimented with every genre, made each film differently and constantly pushed the audience into accepting radical departures from the formula.
But his productions are ruthlessly well-organised "" the cost of artistes, technicians and sets are kept to a minimum; the schedules are quick; and the marketing impeccable. Verma has the heart and soul of the Indian artist "" and the mind of an American multinational.
Is it too much of a stretch to apply this to our national obsession, cricket? Since I can sense a stir of interest, I think I will go on. I don't know enough about the game to qualify as an expert but since we have several million "experts" on the game, it shouldn't matter if one more intrudes onto the pitch!
For many years, some of our individual Indian players have been genius personified; their natural gifts made them a pleasure to watch and, on a good day, they have always been unstoppable.
Teams like the Australians, on the other hand, have looked to me like well-oiled, ruthless machines "" prototypes of the giant multinational. They could lose an individual game or two to the sheer artistry of our players, but in the long term they won. They were almost boring in their consistency, but they won.
The "way of the heart" or the "way of the mind"; or the multinational way "" perhaps, as you leave this campus to explore the world outside, you will fuse, synthesise, and create a new and better way "" your own way... There's an exciting world out there, full of potential, rich with possibilities.
Anand Kurian is
This is an excerpt from a keynote address made recently at the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad

First Published: Tue, April 04 2006. 00:00 IST