That Thin Line Between Edgy and an Er­ror of Judge­ment

The Economic Times - - Break­ing Ideas - Ma­lika Ro­drigues

The In­dian arm of a global ad agency came un­der fire for a se­ries of “con­tro­ver­sial” ads they’d made, for a client that hadn’t re­leased or paid for them, for the pur­pose of be­ing en­tered at awards shows. The in­ter­na­tional me­dia was out­raged at the ads of­fen­sive con­tent, the ad in­dus­try de­fended it as “edgy” in­stead, the net­work apol­o­gised, with­drew the cam­paign from the awards shows, and heads — in­clud­ing the chief cre­ative of­fi­cer’s — rolled.

The agency was JWT, the client was Ford. And what a dif­fer­ence a year makes. This May, the In­dian arm of a global ad agency — O&M — made a con­tro­ver­sial se­ries of ads for a client that it claims ap­proved them, but never re­leased them. They were sub­mit­ted, and sub­se­quently with­drawn, from awards shows as well.

But the 2014 ver­sion of this drama ends a lit­tle dif­fer­ently. An Ogilvy & Mather Asia-Pa­cific spokesper­son apol­o­gised for the ads, say­ing “The re­cent Kurl-On ads from our In­dia of­fice are con­trary to the be­liefs and pro­fes­sional stan­dards of Ogilvy & Mather and our clients.” How­ever, O&M In­dia seems to be tak­ing the view that the ads were pre­sented — and ap­proved in prin­ci­ple — by a client. Just not a client of O&M, and just not at the ex­pense of that client. “We are not wrong in this,” Piyush Pandey, ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of O&M, told ET in a state­ment.

So they had a client’s bless­ing. But they still cre­ated this cam­paign with the main ob­jec­tive of win­ning awards, not sell­ing mat­tresses — they’d been en­tered for the Ky­oo­rius A&D show, de­spite not be­ing re­leased any­where ex­cept an ad in­dus­try web­site, O&M sources have said. So how does this be­come less of a scam than JWT’s Ford Figo, Leo Bur­nett’s Tata Salt, McCann’s Hanes and dozens and dozens of other “proac­tive” pieces of work that didn’t meet the smell test?

For one, news of the Kurl-On ads scam­mi­ness broke just be­fore the re­sults of the Lok Sabha elec­tions — an ad­ver­tis­ing tree fall­ing in a for­est of po­lit­i­cal news ac­tu­ally doesn’t make a sound. Sec­ond, pres­sure from a big in­ter­na­tional source of rev­enue (Ford for JWT, Hanes for McCann) pushed those net­works to in­sist on ac­tion against loose can­nons that might po­ten­tially harm their brands again. The Ford Figo ads also seemed par­tic- ularly tone-deaf in early 2013, when a nar­ra­tive of sex­ism and vi­o­lence against women in In­dia was prom­i­nent in pub­lic dis­course. But maybe it’s just In­dian ad­ver­tis­ing that’s tone deaf. Us­ing a 14-year old vic­tim of at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion to sell your prod­uct isn’t go­ing down well in the West — but per­haps we just don’t care as much about Malala Yousafzai’s feel­ings here in Pak­istan’s neigh­bour­hood. Or in a show of true In­dian ex­cep­tion­al­ism, maybe the In­dian ad in­dus­try thinks it’s com­pli­ment­ing her by plac­ing her in the com­pany of Steve Jobs and Ma­hatma Gandhi. And per­haps the of­fen­sive­ness of de­pict­ing women bound and tied, and the im­pli­ca­tions of kid­nap, rape and co­er­cion just doesn’t get across to the cre­atives who see only the edgy means to a tro­phy. This doesn’t bode well for our abil­ity to come up with ad ideas that work across the globe. In­dian agency heads — both cre­ative and man­age­ment — seem to have the same sort of tone-deaf­ness when it comes pin­point­ing the real crime of the scam­mers. Get­ting caught — and es­pe­cially get­ting caught by big-spend­ing global clients and high-vis­i­bil­ity me­dia — is the crime for ad ex­ec­u­tives, not the ap­pli­ca­tion of time, re­sources and ta­lent to­wards re­wards for the agency’s cre­ative depart­ment, in­stead of the client’s mar­ket­ing ob­jec­tives. Scams are al­ways go­ing to pose a risk for a mar­keter — un­der-su­per­vised teams, work­ing with­out the con­straints of a com­mu­ni­ca­tion strat­egy or cam­paign ob­jec­tives are not weigh­ing risks against re­wards for the brands. (And the spate of scams that have sparked con­tro­versy show that agen­cies don’t al­ways use the best cre­ative judge­ment.) Global clients won’t let th­ese risks be taken, In­dian clients shouldn’t either. If the lead­ers of the In­dian ad in­dus­try take a dif­fer­ent path, that’s a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion. It shows In­dian clients that their in­ter­ests are not front and cen­tre for their agen­cies, and the in­evitable mis­takes of judge­ment also show them ex­actly what could go wrong.

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