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Thank God for telecom

K S Chakravarthy (Chax) 

There is an old joke in advertising. Agencies bully small clients into buying great work, while large clients bully good agencies into producing crap.

Today, small brands still continue doing better work than their deeper-pocketed brethren. Though now it is often for a slightly more intelligent reason – a smart marketer with a relatively small budget knows his only hope of making any kind of impact is through bold, clutter-breaking work.

So you have brands like Happydent, Emami Pain Relief and Nike breaking the mould, not just in terms of creative, but in their approach to media as well – longer lengths, more focused placements, and the number-crunchers be damned.

Or brands like TOI which have no sales objectives in that sense – theirs is more a case of, we have so much to spend, how do we create the greatest impact with it, in the broadest sense of the word.

While the classical ‘big brand’ campaigns – read FMCG – continue chugging along on their tried and tested roads, forever one careful step behind the consumer. The logic is easy to understand, if not applaud : when you have a lot at stake, risk nothing. There is the occasional Surf Excel, of course, but by and large, mainstream marketers are seldom at the leading edge of advertising creativity. Not even in categories like soft drinks, where halfway decent work seems to surface only once every five years.

And then came the telecom revolution.

Just think about it. Airtel. Hutch-who-is-now-Vodafone. Idea. And the ebullient new challenger in the arena, Tata Docomo. All with one thing in common. Standout advertising.

As brands, they are huge. Bigger than most boring old ‘big brands’. (Numbers aren’t my thing, but Airtel should be bigger than the five biggest FMCG brands put together, give or take).

Sure, I know all the arguments. The first being, they are service brands, not FMCG. Hello? Says who? With 85 per cent of consumers (not subscribers) consuming the brands once a month, a huge chunk of them churning brands regularly, and with an average recurring monthly spend of just a bit over a hundred and fifty bucks, why aren’t they FMCG? Argument number two, but they have huge budgets. Again, says who? As a percentage of sales, they spend far less than most FMCG brands. And they probably talk to a wider audience than almost any branded product. So how come their advertising is funny, endearing, warm, whacky, watchable – and above all, usually fairly intelligent? Do they know something the rest of us don’t?

I have a theory. Telecom attracts the mavericks, the risk takers, the visionaries, the guys with stars in their eyes and feet ever-ready to spring off the ground. Not to say they are flakes, or irresponsible, or lack business smarts- you don’t help power the greatest revolution in modern times by being any of that. But they are constantly one step ahead of the consumer, urging him onward, not one slavish step behind. And that, to me, is what smart, enlightened is all about.

Did any research predict that people would cough up serious money to download songs they would never hear? I don’t think so. And yet caller tunes is up there amongst the top revenue earners for the category.

What it comes down to is an entrepreneurial spirit. A belief that with great hunger must come with a stomach for taking measured risks.

Great advertising will write itself after that.

(The author is the National Creative Director, FCB Ulka)

First Published: Mon, November 02 2009. 00:35 IST