AAAI membership of digital agencies an important step in future-proofing: Ashish Bhasin

Bhasin looks fondly at highlights from his illustrious journey with AAAI and how the body has evolved with the changing times

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Sep 14, 2020 8:18 AM
Ashish Bhasin

It feels like the end of an era as Ashish Bhasin, the President of the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), is all set to pass on the baton after his illustrious journey with
the association.

Before taking on as President for AAAI, Bhasin, the India Chairman and Asia Pacific CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network, served as an office bearer of the industry body for more than a decade and also held various positions ranging from Treasurer to Secretary to Vice President.

On the sidelines of demitting his post later this month, the industry veteran chats with exchange4media, fondly looking back at standouts from the journey with AAAI, issues that it should continue taking on, and more.

Edited excerpts below:

Looking back at your time as President at AAAI, what are the highlights that stand out?

Well, first of all AAAI is a 75-year-old organisation and our members account for almost 80 to 85 per cent of the advertising spends in India. It is a very prestigious body. It is an industry body, an association of agencies and is not open to membership to individuals. Our members are agencies. So, given that, we have managed to get the profile of AAAI up very well.

One of the areas we have witnessed success is in the whole area of diversity.

For the first time in more than a decade, I had a female Vice President supporting me throughout both my terms. And if all goes well, for the first time in several decades, perhaps maybe only twice, it will be the second time in a 75-year-history, we might see a woman President succeeding me. In terms of inclusivity, we also try to bring in members from other cities, not just Mumbai, and have a good mix of smaller and bigger agencies in the EC. That part went well, in my view.

From my point of view, what really worked well was that on one hand, because it is an association of agencies, we are all competitors, competing in the market, and quite fiercely for our respective businesses. But when it comes to industry or association issues, we all work well together for the common good. If we had not, I think the whole industry would have suffered. So, not on one but on several occasions and particularly on the media side, I think there was great solidarity exhibited and which was unique, in my opinion.

Another thing I would like to say is that we are in an ecosystem where there are several sister associations with whom AAAI has really forged long-lasting and very good relationships. In the last few years, we have taken these to a great level. And the proof of this is that we all worked in collaboration, particularly during this Covid period, especially bodies like INS, which is the newspaper society or IBF, which is the broadcaster’s body, AROI (radio association), ASCI, AdClub, IOAA, ABC, MRUC and BARC, among others. So I think, the relationship with these bodies has got to a very good position and I have to thank them for a great amount of collaboration and friendship, particularly through these very difficult times.

The other area, I would say, is digital. So, we have for the first time in 75 years opened our membership to digital agencies, which I think is an important step in future-proofing AAAI, because we know that the spends on digital are increasing. If we don't have digital agencies as a part of our fold, then the relevance of AAAI might decrease in the years to come. Hence, I think that was an important step. And we have now managed to do that, and hopefully, we will now open the doors to several digital agencies for our membership, which makes it even more inclusive.

And last but not the least, over the years media-related issues forced media agencies to sometimes take a lot of interest and work together, be it issues regarding BARC or IBF, INS, etc. Therefore, they normally take an active interest. However, the creative agencies, over the years, have taken a little bit of a backseat. We had a plan to revise that. While it is still work in progress, we have made some good improvements in areas like IP protection, pitching and so on. It is still not complete, but at least we have made good progress.

So, all in all, it is a very fruitful experience for me and I really have to thank the members and all the senior leaders in advertising for collaborating and helping me through this process. In AAAI, we also have a good succession planning system. Thus, hopefully, the next set of leaders will take it to the next level and the trend will continue.

How have you seen the body evolving over the years?

To be honest, we have made the bonds much stronger with the ecosystem, particularly in the last few years. Inclusivity is another angle. Like I said, to have a female leader is great and hopefully, many more will come in. So, many of the answers that I gave you in the first bit will apply here. That's how we saw the change. The relative salience and prominence of AAAI has also significantly improved over the last few years.

What to you are the main challenges facing AAAI and how have they changed over the past few years?

I believe, the most important thing going forward has to be continuous future-proofing because advertising is a fast-evolving industry. When I joined this business, 32-33 years ago, back then, digital didn't even exist, and so on and so forth. So, it is a business, which always is naturally in a state of fast evolution. And I think, one of the challenges for any association that is 75 years old, in a fast and evolving industry, is to continue to future-proof themselves and stay relevant. This is the reason behind making digital agencies our members as well.

Likewise, the seeds that we are sowing today with digital agencies, 5-10 years from now will future-proof the association. In that sense, something else might emerge. And you have to constantly keep changing, which has not always been easy to do in a 75-year-old organisation, particularly an association with so many stakeholders. But on the whole, we have managed it well.

AAAI recently reached out to the government for business continuity. How was that approached and how have things been for the ad industry since then?

According to me, we had some success but I think the government could have done and should do more for the industry. Some of the state governments did release some of their overdues, and so on. The government can do a lot more to encourage advertising. It is in the government's interest to incentivise advertising because advertising is something that generates demand and demand is something, which will generate economic growth.

It has been a very traumatic period for advertising. So they must encourage and incentivize advertising in any shape or form. We are not asking for sops from the government, but some kind of incentivization, which will be a win-win for the economy, for the government and for the industry.

How long will it take for the ad industry to completely climb out of the Covid trough?

I don’t believe there is going to be a V-shaped recovery but I do believe there will be a steady recovery and every month will look better than the previous month. So, if you remember, by April the industry had completely collapsed maybe by 60-70%. Post May, certain operations opened up and things were slightly better than April. June was better than May. August was a little better than July. So, it is going to be like that.

Hopefully, we will have a better Diwali. However, there is going to be no magic wand, after which everything will suddenly come back to normal but it will be a slow and steady climb back to normalcy. In my view, Covid has set us back as an industry by 18 to 24 months. So, in the beginning of this year, everybody was predicting that most agency groups including ours, will have a 10 to 12% growth. In reality, I feel the industry will be somewhere around 15 to 20% negative. So, we are talking about a 30% negative swing. That is about more than Rs 22,000 crore of a potential loss. So to cover that up, it will take anywhere between 18 to 24 months.

Any industry issues left behind on the table that you want AAAI to continue taking on?

Industry issues are always continuous and ongoing. A lot of the work that we have started, digital or inclusivity, is an ongoing process and not something that finishes on a particular date. Equally, there will be new issues, which today we cannot even dream of. Who knew that there would be a Covid-like situation that would come up and we would have to interact with the government for this. Consequently, the association has to be adaptive to what is happening on ground, and that’s a continuum.

What future do you see for AAAI in the years to come?

AAAI has an extremely important role to play because while we compete as individual businesses, there are areas of common interest where if we are not together, as an industry, we will suffer immensely. Also, to my mind, advertising used to be a much more attractive profession a few years ago than it is now. Over a period of time, let’s say in about 20-30 years, as an industry, it became less attractive because new options have come up such as technology companies or channels.

AAAI needs to represent the agency's interests in the first instance and needs to work to ensure that the profession continues to be attractive, especially, to the younger talent that is coming in, as the desired option for them to build their careers.

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