To the President, AAAI

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An open letter to the new head of the Advertising Agencies' Association of India.

The Abby award
The Abby award

Dear Mr President,

First, accept my congratulations for winning the election to become the President of the Advertising Agencies' Association of India (AAAI).

I am sure you must be relieved that the last month is behind you. As a well-wisher of the advertising industry and one who has had occasion to know about the running of the AAAI from rather close quarters, I shall make bold to set out a possible agenda for you and your team.

The Elections: While I have always been a very public votary of consensus in the choice of those who would occupy honorary industry positions, the wafer-thin majority you got is a reflection of the mood prevalent in the advertising industry. I do not see it as a vote for the manner in which your opponent conducted his campaign. I do not see it as an indication that people like a real rabble-rouser. I see it as an indicator of the validity of several points that were raised by Mr Goyal in his very systematic poll campaign. I see it as a wake- up call for the AAAI and the advertising industry.

Advertising business

Advertising is a business. And if you wonder why I am stating the obvious, it is because the manner in which the advertising industry conducts its business raises doubts in many minds if they understand that it is indeed a business. A good business pre-supposes a vision and a mission. It seeks to provide benefit to all those interested parties who make up the industry. It seeks to create and nurture something that could be called “built to last”. And finally it seeks to be seen in a favourable light by all its stakeholders. I believe that as a finance man of considerable experience and standing, you, Mr Alai, are well suited to explain and highlight these seemingly obvious truths to your flock.

To the smaller agencies you could hold workshops on how to manage money (you were requested to do this by a past-president more than eight years ago) and the virtue of realising that a rather minuscule portion of the considerable money that flows through them really belongs to them. The major portion of the money is the client's, and then media's. I think many smaller agencies either forget this, or do not know the virtues of cash management, a malaise that puts them in a very sorry state of affairs.

To the larger agencies (by whatever nomenclature they might be called today), please explain the importance of earning a decent profit margin (no, it is not a set of bad words) that could help them attract talent from good management institutes and provide professional services that would match those of the management consultants who have effectively usurped the strategic role of the professional advertising agencies today. You might want to tell your media agency members (who were unbundled not because they chose to, nor because they were even consulted, but when some people thousands of miles away thought it was the right thing to do for everyone in every country), that while they might enjoy their new-found independence and money power, the client deserves a coordinated strategy where brand management and media planning are inexorably entwined, and they should never forget this.

Small Agencies

Yes, there is life beyond the realm of the big agencies and in a democratically elected set-up the problems of the smallest agency need to be addressed with the same urgency and gravity as those of the bigger agencies. The fact that they might not have the reach and clout of their larger counterparts must make you walk that extra mile towards them. Something tells me that they are feeling a little left out these days. Please do make the time to meet them and listen to them. Initiate some steps to help them train their staff to become professionally competent in the best of what global agencies have access to. You will be pleasantly surprised to experience the warmth of their response to your initiative.

India, beyond Mumbai and Delhi

A past-president once referred to the AAAI as the AAA of M (Advertising Agencies Association of Mumbai) and proceeded to organise a series of reach-out programmes in his term, which took the message of the AAAI to Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai. Why re-invent the wheel, Mr Alai? Maybe you could replicate it in your own unique style.

The Abby Awards

I really thought the merger of the interests of the AAAI and the AdClub Bombay, when it came to awards for creative excellence was something that was not just unavoidable but also positively desirable. Some people actually felt that the AAAI had managed to swing a fantastic deal for itself, what with its award being considerably smaller than the Abby, and I know that at least one past president of the AdClub berated the present President of the Ad Club Bombay for having “sold out” to the AAAI.

I had taken the stand that considering the events that led to the merger, the President of the Ad Club had done what he had to do. Just a few days ago, a former President of the AAAI told me that the MoU which was signed by the AAAI and the Ad Club with regard to the Abby awards effectively gave the entire rights of setting the rules and regulations that govern India's biggest and most prestigious award for creative excellence in advertising, and the conduct of the judging procedure therein, to the Advertising Club Bombay. That, in effect, reduced the AAAI to the role of a mere event manager. And even that function is further outsourced to a real event manager.

That, Mr Alai, means that people can continue to make a mockery of the judging process of the Abby awards and you and your team can only stand by, wring your hands and whine, instead of coming out and firmly taking any real action against anyone. I have not seen the MoU, Mr President, but if this is true, and my source is normally impeccable, that MoU needs to be revisited in your term and a modicum of equality and equity should be restored urgently. In fact, this should be done before the “call for entries” goes out this year-end. We must realise that the entries for the awards come from the members of the AAAI and if your association does not have at least equal control over the entire process, you are short-changing the industry and its representatives.

Best practices

While the advertising industry plays a very important role in our economy and does a rather commendable job of building brands and the image of many manufacturers and service providers, its own image lies in tatters. I will not dwell on matters I have already publicly commented upon, but this is the time when you must make the industry look inwards and realise the folly of its ways in certain affairs.

This will involve some hard talking and some leading by example. Both these are not impossible. I recall a conversation where a senior advertising person said that the cut-throat practices that are making the people who run this industry look like a bunch of shysters could be resolved if just 10 honest men sat around a table and decided that things just had to change. Mr President, I sincerely advise you to look for these 10 honest men, though that might be a daunting task in itself, and have that talk. The industry never needed it more than it does today.

Mr Alai, we often talk about converting challenges into opportunities. This is your moment where you could convert these many challenges into opportunities. To bring together a divided house that has surely not forgotten that they still belong to one family. To listen carefully, and with an open mind and then act swiftly and decisively. To take our partners like the advertisers and the media into your confidence and carry them with you as you embark on what could be the most momentous year in your life and that of the industry. To try and make sure that advertising agencies regain their place inside the chamber of the CEOs of advertising companies, to quote a very wise former President of the AAAI.

I wish you well, Nagesh.


An incurable optimist.

(Ramesh Narayan is a communications consultant.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 12, 2010)
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