From budgets focussing primarily on digital to the influencer game picking up, the pandemic has fast-tracked change in the industry
When the CRED ads that frontlined famous people doing odd things — Rahul Dravid in a rage attack, Jackie Shroff in a Zumba class — made the viral rounds of social media, one thing became clear: whether or not you know what CRED is or does, you know it exists. This is because they tapped into two of the wellsprings of fame: influencer content creators and old-school celebrities.
In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, the credit card bill payment platform brought in comedian and now YouTube icon Tanmay Bhatt to spearhead the much-discussed ad campaign that involved Madhuri Dixit, Anil Kapoor, Bappi Lahiri, Udit Narayan, and Govinda. When Virat Kohli shared the ad of Dravid rage-smashing with a cricket bat on Twitter, it was pointed out that the tweet — made to look like a casual share, “Never seen this side of Rahul bhai” with two emojis — was, in fact, paid too.
Good advertising, print or digital, captures the imagination. It is also about slipping your message into places that already have the eyeballs — a billboard on a busy intersection, a 20-second ad inserted into an IPL match, during a film, a podcast, a paid thread in a viral tweet or, these days, even an influencer’s Instagram reel.
Accelerating the move to digital: The pandemic has shredded everyone’s attention span, directing it towards their devices instead. Companies have followed, shifting their marketing budgets from print to digital. Kainaz Karmakar, Chief Creative Officer at Ogilvy India, notes that “the change was imminent and definitely permanent”. (According to Dentsu’s Digital Report 2021, advertising budget spent on digital media has increased from 20% in 2019 to 28% in 2020, while the market size has increased from ₹13,683 crore to ₹15,782 crore. It is expected to reach 34% by the end of 2022.)
The CRED ads
The swift shift made traditional companies and offline retailers, who would previously earmark advertising money for big events and television advertisements, reconsider their business models. Aadil Poonawala, Head of Content at HOWL, a digital marketing agency in Mumbai, says, “They have suddenly come and said, ‘We have to create digital content.’ They don’t know what that means, but they want to be everywhere.” Parle, Fabindia, and many F&B companies embraced the Instagram grid.
One advantage of this is the instant access to data: how many people clicked on the ad, how many people bought the product, what is the cost per click, cost per sale. “People have grown much more impatient in terms of sales expectations and numbers. That is one very prominent shift. You cannot walk into a room and pitch a phenomenal tagline and creatives without an answer to ‘How much will I be able to sell with this?’” Poonawala adds.
Big brands are dominating online: What has become clear over the past year is that the notion of digital media democratising marketing is false. First, the digital landscape is hyper-competitive. “Your ad is not just competing with other ads for attention. It’s competing with everything on the internet!” Karmakar says. Then there is the fact that for customers now moving to digital purchases, the preference for and trust in the “big brands” remains. Moreover, it is these bigger brands who are able to pump money into digital marketing, which are now suddenly saturating the market. As a startup with a modest budget, there is little you can do to cut through.
Tapping the influencer market
Budgets playing catch-up: At the onset of the pandemic, advertising executives found themselves pitching for more clients and bringing in more clients (as the switch began in earnest), but also facing a slash of budgets, salary cuts and layoffs. But now, companies seem to be stabilising. Karmakar says clients “are back to spending on television and launching in mass media”. However, while much of the budgets for print advertising are being redirected to digital, the latter is still working on small budgets. “If for a print campaign they are willing to give, say arbitrarily, ₹1 crore, they’ll probably give ₹40 lakh for a digital campaign,” says ad-film director Akhil Vishnu Nair. Another copywriter says even this is a stretch. “If companies would give ₹1 crore for a TV film, now they are only giving about ₹10 lakh for a web film.”
Influencers are more in demand: Such budgets are also seeing brands increasingly working with influencers. India’s influencer market is estimated to be $75-$150 million (approx ₹550-₹1,100 crore) a year. Nair says that before the pandemic, he would be part of meetings where, if they had to choose an actor to play the role among three cast options, the client would always consider the one with a greater social reach. The logical extreme of that today is Instagram influencers being used to fit an ad into regular content. Like Ankush Bahuguna, with over 700,000 followers, fitting a Xiaomi phone ad into his regular comedy sketch about his mum forcing him to dust the living room fan. Or Kusha Kapila, with over 1.7 million followers, fitting a CRED ad into her regular comedy sketch (by reacting to Dravid’s road rage as if she was sitting, horrified, in the passenger seat).
Radio to the fore
- Part of the digital flood is a sudden boom in audio ads. Over the pandemic, radio’s popularity surged, with All India Radio, Jalandhar, noting that radio listeners grew by 20% across the country during the lockdown. Twitter debuting ‘Twitter Spaces’, corresponding to the sudden Clubhouse revolution, could be one of the markers that audio ads are revving up for a comeback. “Just like they repackaged television ads as ‘video assets’, I have a hunch that radio ads will reincarnate as ‘audio assets’ in a big way,” Kanitkar notes.
Instagram Reels is an understandable explosion. “If we post a video on IGTV, we’ll get 300-400 views. If we put the exact same thing on Reels, it’ll get 2.6k-3k views. It is almost 10x,” says Poonawala. But he is also cautious that, as the newness of Reels and influencers wears off, advertisers need to be smart about how they use these platforms. “An influencer can change the brand story overnight, they can skyrocket viewership and bring credibility to brands, sometimes. So, it has now come down to doing it smart. Having an influencer doing a boomerang shaking a bag and you reposting it is going to do nothing for your brand.” In fact, Neeraj Kanitkar, Senior Creative Director at Taproot Dentsu, adds that he wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing influencers on billboards, hoardings and TV ads. “Fame is fame, and brands love famous people,” he says.
Additionally, companies must be more cognizant about how they are spending their money. With the line between a content production house for designing ads and a company that sells products blurring, there is an imminent bubble waiting to burst. For example, CRED was spending over ₹700 to make a ₹1, a model that pumped money into advertising and marketing, hoping for a handsome pay-off over time. A lot of companies are taking revenue earmarked for operating costs, and using it for advertising. But as Poonawala says, “They are forgetting that the goal is to sell a toothbrush.”