The year that brought back the Roaring 20s

Guest Column: Amaresh Godbole, CEO, Digitas India, writes on the landmark moments of 2019 and what 2020 will bring for the industry

e4m by Amaresh Godbole
Updated: Dec 26, 2019 9:06 AM


Amaresh Godbole

Maybe it was just a coincidence. Or perhaps the universe likes reminding us every now and then that it does give us signs. Big neon ones. Whatever the case, the year gone by happens to usher in a new decade, and the happenings in it have set the tempo for what our industry will look in the 2020s. And really, what ‘our industry’ even means anymore.

The 1920s were christened as the Roaring 20s in the West because they carried an air of prosperity, artistic flourish, jazz and dance, much like our collective memory of the glory days of advertising. But we are walking into the 2020s with a sense of doom resembling the Great Depression, which ended that party.

For years, the pundits have been writing obituaries, invoking nostalgia about champagne lunches and lamenting the impending death of advertising. This was largely because they were entirely focused on the problems that plagued established Surname & Surname agencies, while thinking of ‘digital’ as a different beast, existing in its own parallel universe. One which didn’t affect them in any way.

While analysts waved flags about de-growth and decline, ‘digital agencies’ kept growing in double and even triple digits. Sure, they were smaller. Then.

While gurus mused about what an agency of the future would look like, those pesky millennial founders were busy building it.

Only in recent years when the stock market started penalizing holding companies, did the industry wake up and smell the coffee. And as is our wont, we got busy buying up these shops. But sadly, we left it at that.

Within these companies lies the blueprint for what an agency equipped for the demands of modern marketing looks like. That’s right. These aren’t just ‘digital agencies’. Sprinkle on some seasoned talent, and they are the agency models of the future. They contain the traditional brew, but allow room for much more. Be it the width of skills, the culture to sustain them or the DNA that allows them to collaborate with a wider ecosystem of technology companies and content creators.
The smart players took the cue early and evolved. Leo Burnett in India for instance with its Wave 3 approach could put any digital agency to shame. New age skills coupled with an experienced and progressive leadership team has made them unstoppable. A fact acknowledged by unicorn brands like Tinder, Twitter, Spotify and many others who chose them as partners. Globally there are several notable examples such as R/GA and a couple more in India as well.

But most of the industry missed the bus and let these precious digital purchases languish in isolation when instead they could have used them as change leaders.

2019 showcased the power of new age capabilities to impact all the 4Ps of marketing. Using location data, Burger King ring-fenced their competition and shattered the norms of Promotion and Place. Using Wechat based pop-up stores manned by their customers, KFC China challenged the very construct of Place and Price. AI and Voice have changed the game for digital products and holistic customer experience. Dynamic pricing is disrupting legacy models. But what about reach, you ask? Well, India surpassed 500-million plus people online in 2019. And the world has clearly provided plenty of inspiration on how to use this.

But as they say, change happens slowly at first, then all at once. After a decade of denial, we suddenly heard hurried announcements of big name legacy agencies being merged with erstwhile digital shops. 2019 was when these mergers started to take shape.

Fortunately for us, at Publicis Groupe we had for long organized around the Power of One strategy, which meant that we could integrate seamlessly without losing specialistion. In 2019, this became the No. 1 growth driver for all our agency brands. And in a time where the industry is complaining about shrinking budgets, we are poised to have our best year ever in India.

One Indian ‘digital agency’ gave all the established creative agencies a run for their money in major awards. Despite being a competitor, I have been cheering their blitzkrieg because awards still seem to be the only thing that make people in advertising stand up and take notice. And when the industry does analyse their work, I hope they find a new brand of advertising which uses APIs and data lakes and programmatic buys and machine learning and all those other things that used to put creative minds to sleep in unbelievably creative ways. I’m hopeful this will open the Indian industry’s minds to the wonderful opportunity that’s all around us.

And that’s what our clients need going forward. The ability to harness the potential of this crazy, crazy tech powered world and make it meaningful for a human being through moving stories and enriching experiences that forge real connections.

It is what advertising always was. And it is what advertising needs to be today to achieve the same outcome.

We still very much need film and print craft, but we also need to go far beyond. I know many brilliant minds who have upskilled themselves to be fighting fit in this arena. But they remain the minority.

The ones who evolve are being rewarded. Speaking for ourselves, we’ve been growing in double digits year on year and in 2019 Digitas grew to nearly 500 people and surpassed many long established agency brands that you might assume were bigger, in both terms of revenue and headcount. And I’m certain we aren’t the only digital players getting there.

Because the fact is that clients haven’t tightened their purse strings. They are in fact paying top dollar for this new breed of capabilities. We need to acknowledge that for a client, ‘advertising’ now includes consultancies and tech companies and independent creators and so much more. Accenture Digital calls themselves an agency and today they are larger than any of our most respected agency brands have ever been. And if you think you can dismiss this scale with creative snobbery, then let me remind you that Droga5, one of the most revered creative shops in the world, chose to join them. That, in a sentence, summed up 2019 for me.

All things considered, I don’t think that we need to fear the demise of advertising in the coming decade. In fact, there’s good reason to believe that it’s going to be a lot like the Roaring 20s for people in advertising. The real question is, will you and I still be one of them?

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of

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