IMPACT Annv Spl: Chintamani Rao’s life, in 7 lessons

In his 37 years in the profession, Chintamani Rao, President, RK Swamy BBDO, has learnt several valuable lessons. Here, he shares the seven big ones…

e4m by Chintamani Rao
Published: Nov 15, 2011 8:24 AM  | 8 min read
IMPACT Annv Spl:  Chintamani Rao’s life, in 7 lessons

I’ve learnt a lot more than that, I hope, in 37 years of work, but in keeping with IMPACT’s ‘7’ theme – in no particular order – are the seven big ones...

Advertising is about people: No one actually needs a print ad or a TV commercial or a Facebook page or 300 GRPs (except those whose business it is to make or provide them). Advertisers spend money to induce people to do something. The half-page ad or the TV commercial or whatever is only an instrument to get them to do it. No doubt “God is in the detail” – or the devil is, as some would have it – but don’t get so caught up in the minutiae of what you do that you lose sight of why you your client is spending money. David Ogilvy in his Confessions had a delightful mythical conversation overheard on a London bus, in which one woman says to another, “I would have tried that new perfume if only they hadn’t set the body copy in 9-point Garamond.”

“...stop defining yourself by the tactics of marketing as a function, and embrace the strategy of marketing as a cross-enterprise idea,” says Jonathan Salem Baskin to CMOs in Advertising Age (“Why it’s so Hard for CMOs to Keep Their Jobs”, Sept 12, 2011). “Own the insights and not the tools. ...understand... the drivers of engagement and subsequent action from more diverse sources. Science. Sociology. Even art.”

“Read marketing books written before 1970,” he goes on to say, “and history written before today’s media convinced everyone that our eternal Now is utterly different from every other Then.”

To give our best advice is our duty. To not take it is the client’s prerogative: For all the sound and fury that accompanies its work, an advertising agency only gives advice. It’s the marketer who has to decide where to put the money. Your passionate recommendation to your client is only your opinion based on what you know, combined with judgement born of your experience – and your biases. But the great thing about marketing is that there isn’t one right answer.

Your client is at least as entitled to his opinion as you are to yours: it’s his money. And he may turn out to be right, which in marketing doesn’t necessarily mean you were wrong.

Respect is not a right. It is earned: “They don’t respect us,” is the most common lament in the advertising business, ‘they’ being anyone who doesn’t take you at your word. Clients don’t respect agencies; Creative don’t respect Account Management; Creative agencies don’t respect Media agencies; Media Planners don’t respect Buyers and vice versa; and so on round and round the mulberry bush. (The only people who don’t seem to have that problem are the Creatives, but they have their own pecking order.)

If you ever feel that way about some part of your ecosystem, ask yourself what they should respect you for. What value do you add: does what you do either help them do better work or facilitate its progress?

A long-ago cartoon of unknown provenance shows a huge, imposing dam and, in the foreground, a beaver telling a rabbit, “I didn’t actually build it, but it was based on my idea.” Some people I show it to laugh at the beaver for claiming credit for something so clearly beyond its scope; others identify him with the role they think they play on their teams.

My advice to young people: first, know more. And not only about your specific job. Advertising is about life. The best advertising people have well-furnished minds. They have an after-hours life that is not confined to the bar or the bedroom. (They didn’t even in the ‘Mad Men’ era.) Politics, economics, books, movies, music, art, theatre, wildlife, photography, travel, sport... everything is grist to the Advertising mill. Have you noticed how people at the top seem to know more about more things than most people do? That’s not because knowledge is a senior management perk: those who know more always knew more, and that’s partly what got them where they are. Don’t have the time? You’ll make it, if you think it’s important to.

Second, at the end of every week ask yourself what value you added. Do so by asking what difference your absence would have made. If you hadn’t been at work all week would everything have happened exactly as it did? Was there anything that would not have happened quite as well or as smoothly as it did? If three weeks in a row the answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’, you have something to think about.

The job’s not over until the paperwork is done: A media agency is a high-risk business. We incur liabilities to media owners on behalf of our clients, but we are liable to pay the media whether clients pay us or not. Consider an agency that earns 2.5 per cent commission and operates at a 20 per cent margin. That means every time it releases Rs 85 of media, it earns Rs 2.50, and after paying for rent, salaries and other operating expenses, retains Rs 0.50. If an insertion is wrongly released – wrong date or time; wrong publication or channel; wrong material; not authorised; etc – the agency is liable to pay for it but the client is not. Work out the arithmetic: that insertion will cost the agency its entire profit on Rs 14,450 of media, or 170 times the cost of that error. So every lakh of rupees of agency error costs the agency its entire profit on Rs 1.70 crore of net billing, with the corresponding impact on its ability to pay higher salaries and invest in research, knowledge and training. Think of every release order as a post-dated cheque. There’s no reason why the process and the paperwork for issuing one should be any less stringent and thorough than for issuing the other. Yet, as we know, it is not.

Win-win wins: We expect clients to be mindful of our interests, and to “treat us like partners”. (That they don’t is the other great lament of the advertising business. For that, go back to “Respect is not a right....” above. But that is not the point here.) We don’t seem to think the same thing applies to media and other vendors we do business with, though, do we? The biggest buyers can arm-twist vendors, and derive value for their clients and for themselves at the cost of vendors. That is certainly one way of doing business. But whatever your size, fair dealing brings value to all. Being a good customer means being demanding but being fair; and meeting your commitments, your side of the deal.

You can’t cost-cut your way to profitability: Five years into my career, I was hired for my first profit-centre assignment, to turn around an agency office that had been bleeding money all eight years of its existence. The office had been pared down to just Account Management, with all other functions out of Bombay, yet it continued to lose – both business and money. It was only after I joined that I was told if the office didn’t break even in the following financial year – starting in three months – it would be shut down.

Faced with the prospect of that ignominy, I developed a plan to get to profitability by investing in the office to make its offering marketable. My bosses bought it, as did their bosses in the network. The office broke even in the first year and grew more than 10 times in the next four, and became hugely profitable.

Twenty-odd years later, I took over an(other) operation in the red. As its nose came above the water, it was put under pressure to meet impractical profitability targets. The network management was not interested in a sustainable business, only in meeting the year’s numbers, impossible as that was, and proceeded to slash costs. I left. The agency – a fine professional outfit – was merged into another to make it viable.

There are easier ways to make a living, but not many that are so much fun: “Advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on,” said Jerry Della Femina. There are lots of ways to make a living, and in many of them you could make more money for the same effort, or make the same money for less effort than in Advertising. But I don’t know too many in which you get to spend your working hours with so many intelligent, talented, fun people. Of course Advertising has its downsides, but which profession has no occupational hazards? If you don’t enjoy what you do, if Monday morning is a drag, then what Jeremy Bullmore described as “our agreeable, necessary, not vastly important, almost wholly innocuous business” is not for you. Find something else to do.


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