The New Digital Divide

The signs are worrying.

An Indian ad agency seeks an interactive creative director for its digital arm. Its requirement? Just four years of interactive experience. The simple fact is they can’t afford anyone more seasoned.

Numerous digital advertisers in India get their banner creative thrown in for free. Naturally, the creative quality is hardly up to scratch.

Got a digital production job to outsource? In Mumbai, India’s advertising capital, agencies make a beeline to the same handful of production shops, many of whom also conceptualise the solution.

For a nascent discipline, digital in India has had its challenges cut out.

The boom in India’s consumer economy has led to an explosion in television channels and retail malls; and consequently TV advertising and activation led BTL. Digital has remained the “last slide on the 360 presentation”.

On the agency side, account management has to evangelise and sell digital to a mass media-obsessed client who delegates digital to an assistant brand manager. Creative then has to conceptualise and execute a brief in less time than that allotted to a retail poster.

Indian digital agencies have survived on pure passion, and typical Indian seat-of-pants resourcefulness ( jugaad). How else does one turn a website or campaign on a dime? (And, for a few dollars, some cynics may add.)

A decade after the digital revolution began, many digital agencies are still working project to project on a brand or on a retainer with wafer-thin margins. Result: insufficient and inexperienced resources, and patchy branding and execution.

Vicious Cycle to Virtuous Cycle
Moving from a vicious cycle to a virtual one.

The challenge of digital is best summed up by a recent article in New Media Age by Ian Tait: “We have to understand the technology, the culture of networked societies, the changed nature of economics, and ignore user experience at our peril”.

Growth in Internet Ad Spend per user in India
Indian Internet ad spend per user has grown incrementally compared to the West and China Sources: IAMAI Summit presentation by Adrian Moss, DGM Worldwide based on stats from Zenith Optimedia and Internet World.

So how should agencies and marketers in India even begin to meet these challenges?

Agencies Marketers
1. Stop committing hara-kiri by selling at the lowest price and focus on defining and delivering value. Easier said than done, but better than putting yourself out of business.Agencies that are part of a global network need to take the best of the West, experiment, and build on what works for them. 1. Invite pitches by all means, but go beyond the lowest bidder to the most innovative idea and brand partner. And back the ideas with the required budget for execution.
2. Invest in learning/training: go beyond the occasional digital summit talkfest and embrace building holistic digital skillsets. Use a social learning approach and the wealth of content online (e.g., Webcasts from the famous Boulder Digital Workshop, Colorado). 2. Every time your digital marketing manager moves on to a new role or job, you lose out on all the learning. Find a way to capture best practices and build on them. And yes, save the agency the bother of educating the new guy all over again.
3. Attracting and retaining talent. There is a young generation that’s coming into the job market that lives and breathes digital. You need to build an organisational culture that makes them feel at home and help hone their design and marketing skills. Otherwise, you risk losing them to other more glamorous sectors of digital and marketing. 3. As you go up the marketing organisation, you find the bosses are of the analogue generation. Start immersing them in digital culture and practices now, before they need the shock treatment that the Swedish uber digital school Hyper Island is providing marketers and agency folks in New York. (Read the recent piece in Fast Company: “The Future of Advertising“.)

Many of my friends in the digital space, especially those focused on social media and mobile marketing, are gung ho about the future. For their sake and for that of Indian brands, I hope I am wrong, and they are right.

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