Opinion

Y&R’s Hari Ramanathan: adland needs to stop killing itself in the trade press. We’re not going the way of BlackBerry

Hari RamanathanHari Ramanathan, the chief strategy officer at Y&R Asia, is one of the region’s top planning talents.

In this interview, Ramanathan talked to Mumbrella editor Robin Hicks about why good planners are so hard to find, the advertising strategist of the future, and why the trade press should stop ranting about the death of the industry.

David Tang, the boss of DDB Singapore, told me recently that a good planner is harder to find than any role in Asia. Why are planners so difficult to find?

It’s hard to find people from all disciplines in advertising.

Fundamentally, the industry is partly to blame. If you’ve read any trade publication in the last four years, all the talk has been about how the industry is dying. If you’re a curious individual, you’d Google ad agencies and all you’ll read are articles about how the industry is going south. No sensible person would want to peg their career to that.

We need to stop killing ourselves in our own media. It’s so stupid. Even the scam discussion is pointless. I’m not saying that shouldn’t be acknowledged. But either you take it head on, or you drink the kool aid. The trade press is half full of press releases, and the other half is guilty conscience pieces about how the industry needs to change and how we don’t get digital.

So you don’t think the industry has issues?

Are we challenged? Yes. But it’s unfair to say that everyone is completely clueless about the future and we’re floundering. If you read the trade press you wouldn’t believe that WPP is still growing very quickly, or that one of the biggest mergers in history has just happened [Publicis Omnicom]. You’d think that we’re going the way of BlackBerry.

So why else are good planners hard to find?

The second reason is that the industry used to attract risk takers. But now the risk takers have found other avenues to realise their dreams. Grads want to join start ups not ad agencies.

And I think the idea of a gap year is slowly catching on in Asia. Kids don’t feel compelled to go through the sequential order of the education system and take on a traditional career. Kids are more willing to take time to fulfill their passions, and make money at the same time.

We don’t do a good job of selling what we do, and the role the industry can play in society. Look at any ad an agency makes to promote itself and you can tell that the creatives do not take much time on it. Traditionally we’ve never been good at advertising ourselves in the same way we advertise our clients’ brands.

And we need a lot more than an individual agency to push the profile of the business. We need an industrywide effort to show what we do, and why we do it. In the old days, ad agencies used to have a big presence at the campuses of the Indian business schools. Now the tech companies and the start ups have taken over.

So what do you think makes a great planner these days?

Tricky question. First, I would say intelligence – but not the academic sort. You need the ability to absorb and transfer learning from, and to, the world around you.

The second most important thing is conviction. No matter what data you have to back up an idea, you need a point of view. And you need the conviction to defend that point of view, because your ideas will always be challenged.

The third is resilience. You need it to pick you up when you’re down. Sometimes things don’t go your way, but you need to approach the next problem with the same passion as the first – and that takes toughness.

Everyone always says curiosity, but that’s a hygiene factor.

It has been suggested to me that strategists are self-publicists who sit around all day writing opinion pieces and blogs rather than doing actual work. What’s your response to that? 

The thing with blogs is that you are creating your own fan club. Bloggers and their readers endorse each other about how bright they are. But they tend to exist in a bubble where there is no dissent. Readers are welcome if they have something nice to say, but are not if they don’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I learn a lot from reading blogs. But it’s a full time job being a blogger. It’s not something you can do properly as a sideline.

So how much of a role is thought leadership for agency strategists?

It’s important. But who are you promoting this thought leadership to? Only to clients – and clients don’t read industry publications, where agency folk tend to flog each other to see which part of the industry is more dead.

Often opinion pieces are just rants masquerading as thought leadership that provide no answers. There’s so much stuff out there that lingers on what is wrong with marketing or marketers, which is not constructive. You’d never see that in the science world. If you read Nature magazine, you wouldn’t see a piece on the death of scientific research. Our journals should be like legal journals – they should add to the body of knowledge of marketing and move the industry forward.

Our approach to thought pieces is to invest time and money into creating a genuine asset. It’s not Hari’s point of view on Asia. It’s a view of the world based on facts, be that a social experiment or a piece of research, that contextualises an issue a client or a category faces.

Some people say that planners don’t make good agency bosses. What would you say to them?

Tom Doctoroff [the regional CEO of JWT, who has a planning background] would beg to differ.

It has become a fad for planners to be rebels. Of course, rebels would make bad bosses, and at some point they’d make bad planners too. It’s not helpful to take the opposite of the status quo to tackle every problem. And that attitude would make it difficult for an individual to make a good administrator, which is where a planner would fail as a boss.

But 80 per cent of planners don’t have very good administrative capabilities, but they do have the ability to see patterns in numbers, qualities that are key for being a good leader of an agency.

How has planning changed in the last few years, and how do you see if changing in the near future?

It has changed a lot in the sense that planners are now doing more of the thinking than before, when strategy was also a function of account management.

I think this will change even more. Our business sells people and their brains. But if you look at the legal industry, you don’t have a guy who thinks and a guy who represents the guy who thinks. I see that falling by the wayside in advertising, with the account management function becoming more of a project management role.

Another big change will be the speed at which we do things, driven by digital. We now do things quicker than before, and clients and consumers expect things quicker than ever. That means we will start generating dynamic responses to consumers on a large scale, that are very personalised. And with that need for speed, I think we will lose the layer in between.

We will still need project managers to handle the administrative side of things. But now what is known as creative and planning are going to have to be faster at what they do, and that will mean cutting out the middle man.

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