Brand news

Digital’s watershed moment | Sidharth Rao, CEO & Co-founder, Dentsu Webchutney

27 Apr 2019

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair

In the late ‘90s, there were at least 15 more of us that claimed to be the pioneers of digital marketing. We were the new new thing. At the height of the dot-com boom, a part of that, digital advertising, was a laughable Rs 35 crore industry at best. A silly funding blitzkrieg fuelled much of that market for consumer internet companies that investors hoped would ape what was going on in the US. In this vague, but exciting world, we sold the metaphorical shovel: in the gold rush, advertising was the red pill in equipping aspirants to create a new world order.

And then, swiftly, the bubble burst. Most shovel makers were out of business. The revolutionaries had taken an u-turn, only to bury their heads in the sand (or some other hole). Most never came back. The ones who did survive spent the next few years doing everything that kept the lights on (and this is where the metaphors end). In resorting to designing brochures, direct mailers, posters, small print jobs, the only thing separating mainline agencies from digital was a version of Adobe Photoshop or CorelDraw.

When Abbys introduced digital as a category half a decade later, not many noticed. Of the over 100 metals awarded that year, digital won a paltry four. The medium and maybe the work was not of consequence, at least yet. Where TV promised hundreds of millions of viewers, the best estimate of monthly active internet users was at 12 million. At barely 2% of total advertising spends, marketers invested ~ $50 million that year. Digital was this confused ‘illegitimate’ child of advertising. And that’s a compliment.

Cut to this year, 15 years into the social networking world, where you can’t start a conversation about building a brand in India without considering digital advertising. The active user base is 40 times bigger. The total Indian advertising market is at $8.76 billion, estimated to reach $12.06 billion by 2021, spurred by digital advertising (growing three times faster than the rest of the market.) The digital pie stands at $ 1.3 billion going to about $ 3.52 by 2021. From 2% to close 18% in a decade.

It’s not just the numbers or excitement from us ‘illegitimate’ children that should have you believe digital is key. Advertising and marketing has continuously been undergoing an evolution that’s so unhurried; we’re barely able to perceive it. The most exciting companies in the world are creating apps, and new retail, not finding new ways to sell the same cans of food. As much as the effects of disruption are questionable, the force is undeniable — except for a select few in advertising and marketing circles. The ones who hold on to their old ideas of their craft, in a world that has moved on. With digital rightfully commanding a seat at the table, people unable to justify their salaries look back with rose-tinted glasses and reminisce about the past. 

Digital will continue to grow and eventually force traditional advertising to be transformed into a more capable service provider. This brings me to the week, where the inevitable happened in our backyard. ‘Digital’ advertising agencies dominated Goafest (the new avatar of ABBYs). We made a massive mark in categories like Content, Media, PR, Direct. It was clear that the last line of defense for mainline agencies, one that promised ‘integrated communications’ across the funnel is now well on its way to being erased. 

What hasn’t changed for us is that the rules of the internet are rewritten every single day. That’s why the kinds of companies that succeed here are forward thinking on the vision, but flexible on the details. Not the other way around. These brands are proactive more than reactive. It used to happen so that good advertising could raise the ambitions of a brand. It was the time of the superstar creative hero, adjudged by the number of awards on her shelf. Now, we’re lucky to thrive in a world of imperfect information where we can only survive by staying creative every single day, by definition. But the recognition serves as a way to finally make our voice heard.

Dear peers, and pioneers of digital marketing, it may seem to some that we all had a field day because some of the big boys as always didn't participate at Goafest. However, let's remember that the themes were clear. The momentum from this watershed moment will unquestionably propel us when we compete on the other stages we all covet the most. We should not consider ourselves digital agencies anymore. We are the agency. There’s a saying I often remember when it comes to disruption: ‘disruption happens gradually, and then suddenly’. The ‘sudden’ part of the equation, more than two decades in the making, is finally here, and it’s time to earn our keep.

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