When Marketing with Social Media, One Has to be a Little Wary:R. Balakrishnan (Balki)

R. Balakrishnan (Balki)

Chairman and Chief Creative Director, Lowe Lintas & Partners

'You're my pumpkin, pumpkin, you're my honey bunny!' Three days after it was rolled out, this ad campaign snowballed into a contagious viral, gathering a million hits on Idea's website.

At the helm, the company's Chairman and Chief Creative Director, R. Balakrishnan--or Balki--has spearheaded many of these path-breaking ad campaigns. While his Bollywood stints as writer and director have accorded him a celebrity status, he remains true to his love for ads.

CIO: What's your take on this whole new world of social media marketing?

R. Balakrishnan (Balki):

I think there is too much of a crowd in social media. One needs to be a little more sensitive to social media because once it becomes a marketing medium, you will see people getting off it a lot faster than they came into it. Every brand is trying to create a group around its proposition. When marketing with social media, one has to be a little wary.

It is a good medium for people to come together but if marketers start to tap into this then you will find suspicion creeping in. Until a few months ago, there was far more innocence in the medium and that made it attractive. But as marketers start exploring it, it starts turning into a cynical medium.

The same is the case with television where you don't know which news or program is sponsored. Beyond a point, a marketer's interference in the media to show off their marketing skills--their use of creativity to interfere in content--will have an adverse effect.

In the US, there are very strict rules around this. There is a lot of content that you pay for--like HBO--which is not an advertising medium and you can't easily find brand related content there. Brands have less influence here because viewers pay to watch those programs. In India, however, almost everything is led by advertising. The differentiation between content-led and advertising-led programs will happen as the market matures. Right now, broadcasters, mobile operators, and digital media are all doing everything they can to get a slice of the advertising pie.

CIO: Do you see a role for a creative technologist?

R. Balakrishnan (Balki):

A creative technologist is a very important role as you need someone who is fully capable of understanding what's happening in the world and assess new things that are coming up. It could be something as simple as a new app that everybody can use on their phones. This has the potential to change their lives. It should be someone who can understand what is happening in the business that they are in and in IT, and is capable of figuring out how to marry the two. That, I think, is the most crucial role of an IT person beyond just supplying tablets, PCs, and mobile phones to people.

CIO: In a slowdown, advertising spends are the first to get cut. How do you manage?

R. Balakrishnan (Balki):

We start by cutting costs and being a little tight on ourselves in terms of spends and investments. But more importantly, I think recessions call for greater communication. You need people to work harder and stretch for your clients so that payoffs happen. We've found that in industries such as ours, a recession is a far more challenging time to do better work because you need to ideate that much more and ideas have to be that much more cutting-edge and focused. So, for me, it is less about cutting costs. It is more about working harder.

CIO: Have you seen a dip in advertising budgets?

R. Balakrishnan (Balki):

It's not that advertising budgets are being slashed, but advertising revenues for agencies are not going up as much as they should. The compensation models for advertising agencies are a bigger problem than just revenues. We run on a fee system. We are yet to crack a model where we grow or de-grow as much as our client. I think the growth model for agencies should not just be based on fees and incentives but should let us grow with our clients.

If you're accountable and put your money where your mouth is then the best model would be to say: "We will share your growth." Here's where the real growth in the advertising industry will happen.

We are trying this new model with a few clients. But a lot of our clients are global and have a global compensation model which is agreed upon at the center. Therefore, it takes a little longer for all these things to happen. But I am sure it will because it makes ad agencies more accountable and gives them a share of good results.

CIO: Can IT help lower costs?

R. Balakrishnan (Balki):

IT has already saved us a lot in terms of cutting costs, streamlining processes, liaisoning with clients, and reducing service costs. It continues to play a huge role in these aspects. The fundamental costs-- human costs--however, are not going to be saved by IT alone. Ours is a business where you can only save so much through IT.

You could, however, cut down on travel and meetings and IT has already improved efficiencies in a huge way. IT has automated a lot of our studio work and has saved time. For example, you don't have to wait to see the rushes of a film; all of us can see it at the same time as it's all online. IT helps improve co-ordination. We are already quite wired in a lot of ways. A lot of us have iPads, are on the Internet, and are well-connected.

I think IT could also play a role in digital marketing but that is still a supporting medium and while it works for some brands, it doesn't for others. IT can also make TV more interactive and even contribute in the area of mobile phones. This is bound to increase in the future, but for the next two-three years, TV and print are going to be the predominant mediums till all media converges.

CIO: What's the state of digital signage in India?

R. Balakrishnan (Balki):

The digital signage market is still in a nascent stage in India. But I think feature films are using it a lot more than advertising and brands. Bollywood has gone digital in a big way. Their marketing costs have also become astronomically high and they are using digital signage. They have motion posters and events that are announced via digital signage and the first poster these days breaks on digital even before it makes it to theatres.

CIO: How is Lowe Lintas bracing itself for the mobile wave?

R. Balakrishnan (Balki):

Things work differently on different platforms be it a tablet or a mobile phone. The penetration of 3G has not yet happened to the extent that it should have. In a lot of cases, the real problem is the quality of the network. I think we are still a few months away in terms of full-fledged connectivity. So, the rise in mobile advertising will have more to do with technology than usage. When the most common touch points become mobile then mobile advertising will explode in a big way.

In view of this trend, it is evident that you can't just do a video and make it available on mobile. You need to ideate on what can be done by using mobile touch points. For example, in retail marketing you can have targeted messages pushed onto your customers' mobiles when they enter a store. We can use it to ease a lot of conventional paper-led communication at airports, theatres, restaurants and places where you don't usually use mobiles. There is scope for a lot of targeted communication with mobile technologies.

CIO: How do you hold on to creative talent in a competitive industry?

R. Balakrishnan (Balki):

Ours is a people-driven business. We don't deal in machinery. All our ideas come from people and the most important thing is how sensitive you are to people and their needs. When people are married to a cause, they will stick together for a cause and will have faith in what they are doing. Organizations are not about retaining people, they are about offering something that will make employees retain themselves. A good organization helps its employees discover what's in it for them. And if good people find enough in it for themselves, they will stay.

We also tend to grow people from within the system. We look for people who have found something for themselves and can attract people who believe in the same cause.

It would be foolish to hire people who believe in exactly the opposite of what you do and expect them to stay. They understand the economic trends for the industry and as long as you are being fair to them--and if they feel looked after-- they will stick on.

CIO: Do big agencies tend to shortchange small clients?

R. Balakrishnan (Balki):

I think a client is a client no matter what. They work with the agency to solve their problems and if an agency doesn't pay attention to the client, it will lose them. It doesn't make sense to think that a big agency will pay less attention to its clients.

In the end, our business is about doing the best work for the client regardless of whether they are small or big. The revenue associated with solving the problem comes later. An agency is only as good or bad as the solutions that it provides for its clients problems.

CIO: On a personal front, how do you keep pace with new-age customers?

R. Balakrishnan (Balki):

I continuously access the Internet and interact with our businesses; I know how that feels. You may never watch as much television as the average consumer, but even if you watch it for an hour you get a fair idea of what's going on and realize how content, movies, and messages are received. You can't hope to understand every hope, like, and dislike of the new-age customer without becoming one yourself. It is important to be a part of today and not get stuck in the past.

Anup Varier is a senior correspondent for CIO India and ComputerWorld India. Send your feedback to anup_varier@idgindia.com. Follow Anup on Twitter at @WearyWarrior.

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