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'Advertising's become a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog biz'

Last updated on: June 28, 2012 12:29 IST

Merril Diniz

For those students who want an exciting, challenging and creative career, Sam Balsara, the doyen of advertising advises them to not look at remuneration alone.

An alumnus of Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai, Sam Balsara took over Madison Communications in 1988 and went on to turn it into one of India's most successful agencies. Today, sans the presence of a foreign partner, it boasts units spread across all areas of advertising and marketing. Before joining advertising, he learned the ropes of marketing and brand management.

In this interview, the doyen of advertising shares with Merril Diniz, what attracted him to this field, how it has evolved today in terms of depth and size, and what every fresh recruit must know before setting foot in this dynamic, faced-paced and competitive sector.

You have been in the advertising and marketing profession for almost three decades. What attracted you to the industry in the first place?

Before starting Madison, I was in advertising at Contract in 1979 and later Mudra. Until then, I had spent eight years in marketing as a brand manager (at Cadbury's and Sarabhai's). I thought I should do something else after eight years in brand management and the alternative for me was to either go into sales management or advertising, and advertising seemed a lot more attractive because it offered you the opportunity to work on different problems, rather than in just one company.

So, I chose to leave Brand Management and instead joined advertising.

How has the character of advertising evolved in the last two decades? Would you say you are happy with the turn it has taken?

The advertising agency business has become substantially larger than what it was when I started. The good thing is that it has grown rather well. The unfortunate thing is that it has moved from being a profession to a business and I think, that has brought with it, its own set of problems.

There is a fundamental change in the way clients and people in advertising view advertising. Today, like in all other businesses, it has become a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog business. It was not always like that. Earlier it was a gentleman's game where everyone played by a set of unwritten rules or a code of conduct, which one seldom overstepped.

'Advertising is not just creative and client servicing'

How have these changes influenced the hiring scenario?

I think advertising offers tremendous opportunities, and gives enough responsibility at a young age. The industry takes in a large number of students every year by way of trainees. Of course, compared to 20 years ago, a lot more avenues have opened up to young students. So we've had to do with, if I may say so, a lower quality of talent opting to choose for advertising.

This has partly to do with the fact that whilst advertising pays well, other careers like the finance profession, IT or management consultancy, pay higher, due to which advertising has slid down the ranking. Having said that, for those students who want to pursue an exciting, challenging and creative career, I would urge them not to look at the remuneration alone but to look at the total package -- which involves the kind of job it is and the kind of fulfilment that an advertising career can provide.

Attributes you would approve of in a fresh recruit in the ad world...

I would look for a combination of logical and lateral thinking, a desire to be inquisitive and a lot of youthful energy. Also, good observation powers. I think that would make for a good advertising person.

The profession has become very specialised just like medicine or engineering. In today's world does it pay to be a generalist or a specialist?

Today is the world of specialisation. Advertising is not just creative and client servicing. You have media, mobile, digital, rural, retail, analytics, public relations, out-of-home, sports, entertainment, lots of different areas, and depending on one's interest, you can choose. As specialisation gets more and more intense inside the agencies, you will find more and more schools offering specialist disciplines like rural, mobile or media. Agencies would be happy to hire from specialist schools than just hiring generalist MBAs.

For instance, what kind of person would thrive in a specialisation like rural marketing...

You can't be a city slicker, and hate travelling to a small town or living in a village, to become an expert in rural marketing. One must be fundamentally comfortable travelling in a village, and one must be able to relate to a villager's life. You should love the outdoors, you should love farming -- all these would naturally help you to spend more time in a rural area, which would make you a better rural executive and expert. It's not necessary that you should have lived there, but you should like it. That's the crux of it.

'To succeed ad campaigns have to appeal to the heart...'

Any schools that have impressed you?

I would not really like to name any because there are so many of them, and it's a competitive field on its own. But there are so many different levels in these schools.

Do you feel that the MBAs that you hire are industry-ready from day one?

No, I don't think most of the generalist B-School students are industry-ready. But a quick six months to one-year training gets them ready. Though it would be nice if this kind of training -- related to the specialist function -- client servicing or account planning, or media planning -- is given to them in the school itself. It's not a simple thing though, because it would also depend on what discipline of advertising the student wishes to join.

What are your favourite advertising campaigns?

Last year clearly the Airtel campaign 'Har Ek Friend Zaroori Hota Hai' was excellent and it brought new life into an old and established leadership brand like Airtel. It was a wonderful campaign, and the campaign besides emotionally connecting with a large audience, it also did well in terms of brand image for Airtel.

What is it that makes a campaign like this click?

Well, that's a million dollar question! But I think these days, campaigns that do well have to appeal to the heart and not to the mind -- that is the trick.

And finally, your advice to aspiring advertising professionals -- what must they know?

Don't join advertising for the superficial thing that you hear -- that it's a glamorous profession or it involves models and shoots. You should have a genuine interest. You should be capable of a lot of hard work, because most advertising people irrespective of the specialist discipline, work very long hours, are going home late virtually everyday. That's the kind of beast advertising is. So, if you're passionate about it, only then are you likely to succeed in it.

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