We are all set to deliver growth that’s above industry average for 2021: Alok Lall, McCann

Lall, Executive Director & India- Head of Advertising, McCann WorldGroup, remarked that agencies should relook at their culture and be far more inclusive and welcoming of diversity in these times

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Feb 16, 2021 8:24 AM
alok Lall

After a rough 2020 that caused seismic shifts to the state of advertising, the agency landscape is finally hopeful about growth. As things finally catch steam for ad agencies, Alok Lall, Executive Director & India- Head of Advertising, McCann WorldGroup, in conversation with exchange4media, admits that the agency is gearing up for growth in 2021 in full-swing as the dust around the pandemic finally seems to be settling down. Lall opens up on newer kinds of advertisers commissioning ad films lately, how campaign briefs have changed after the pandemic and how creative powerhouse McCann WorldGroup is beefing up its capabilities for a stellar 2021.

Edited excerpts below:

Ad agencies had a tough year in 2020. As agencies recover from the impact of layoffs, what do you think is crucial for growth as we go forward?

Yes, advertising like other businesses, have gone through an extremely adverse period. However, I believe that the ad industry is far more resilient and knows how to adapt to the environment.  Advertising in general follows consumer demand and has adjusted its response accordingly. At the core of advertising lies the ability to mine for human truths and insights and then convert them into powerful brand platforms. And that requires creativity, and in McCann, one of the truths all employees globally have imbibed is: creativity is the only way to survive.

The obvious answer for growth is to have a larger play at the clients marketing wallet.

That requires diverse specialist skill sets to exist within the system so that each of them is a revenue stream for the agency. At McCann, we have all these at play and are already engaged with the same key clients that the mainline agency works upon. Our diverse skill sets include digital, CRM, marketing automation, performance marketing, experiential and on-ground activation, and digital &broadcast production capabilities. We also have a formidable health agency.

We can offer end-to-end client solutions at scale. So needless to say we will be deploying full capability for growth.


How do you see the agency model evolving?

Like I said, creativity will always sit at the centre of the agency model. So that can’t change.

Having said that, I think WFH is here to stay for a bit and therefore agencies will need to be far more flexible. This would naturally allow for a more diverse workforce and that’s a good thing. Agencies will need to relook at their culture and be far more inclusive and welcoming of this diversity.

Some agencies (actually led by McCann) have already started on this path. At McCann, globally, we have reserved one day to run a programme called ‘Day For Meaning’. This is a work session that’s run on the same day in each and every office. Imagine the entire McCann eco-system of 25K odd employees doing this at the same time. The only single agenda we pursue is to talk about diversity and conscious Inclusion.

I believe “agency culture’ is a competitive advantage in today’s environment.

Apart from this, the pandemic has forced convergence of the traditional and digital advertising work streams. The screens (from just DTH TV) are changing with a large population consuming content on smartphones and other distribution platforms like OTT.

Advertising will need to be more informed by data, but storytelling to engage consumers emotionally with the brand will still be centre stage. The mediums might shift, but the task still remains the same, as advertising remains the cheapest known medium to get the message out. For agencies, the immediate task would be to quickly acquire specialist marketing and communication skills and offer end-to-end holistic solutions to their clients.


How have you seen campaign briefs changing after Covid?

The consumers are now seeking more value from every brand they consider to buy. Value not just in terms of pricing, but how the brand plays a meaningful role in their lives. One notices that in briefs, there is certainly more sensitivity to the environment. Purpose-driven marketing was already a buzzword before the pandemic hit.

For brands, sensitive messaging will certainly carry more weight. Purpose will be held to a higher standard by both consumers and juries. We see a lot more empathy built into the briefs that we are either co-creating with our clients or are coming our way by marketing teams.

From a consumer response perspective, the briefs during this time are certainly seeking to deliver more on human values whether its hope or just sheer goodness and focussed on what’s real and what really matters.


What are the new areas that brands are keen on developing these days?

Brands in general follow consumer buying behaviour. And tend to activate themselves at each touchpoint of that buying journey. What’s really changed significantly with the pandemic and forced lockdowns is the consumer behaviour and indeed the path to purchase. Digital convergence into the buying behaviour is now here to stay. E-Commerce is soon becoming the new norm for any purchase.

The growth of online content has given consumers more power. They are no longer a passive party when it comes to learning about products. They’re not waiting for you to tell you how great your products are. Instead, they’re going out and doing their own research.

Brands will have to deal and answer to the fact that consumers today expect a seamless experience from the first spark of interest to customer service after the sale. From personalised messaging to a customer-focussed culture throughout their customer journey, an experience that delivers quality across all channels is more likely to drive brand affinity and deliver long-term value for brands.

Each touchpoint in the customer journey needs to be re-evaluated and brands need to re-align their teams and their plans to serve this new reality.

This situation led to far more digital adoption for particular sectors? How can the late adopters of digital solutions challenge the first movers?

This is not a match or a conflict. Yes, the pandemic has accelerated digital adoption, especially when it comes to e-commerce and other digital media consumption. It’s certainly not about challenging the first movers. But most definitely, an imperative for survival and eventual growth.

Digital adoption for both clients and agencies is now par for course. There will be increased pressure on the advertising industry to improve how it measures ROI across different media. Companies with analytics, direct response and ad auction technologies have a headstart. Using digital and social media to get information out was already a trend before the pandemic, this situation has rocket-fuelled it. The big mainline agencies will however have an edge since they anyway specialised in consumer truths, strategy and brand building creative. And if they haven’t already, they will need to quickly re-structure and cast talent and that adds to the already existent capability. Specialist skill sets in data analytics, content and performance marketing will now be key. It is now critical for the industry to upskill and re-purpose talent that caters to the new media.

Clients anyway don’t like to deal with multiple partners for their brands, so they should welcome this. It’s time to re-skill and fast. This is also a time to collaborate with specialist agencies/offerings. Some attitude adjustment to this new reality will also go a long way.


Now that ad film shoots have resumed, albeit amid restrictions, what are the challenges you see the ad-world facing and does it affect pricing?

The biggest challenge that the ad industry witnessed during this Pandemic has been production/shoots. However one must acknowledge and applaud agencies and production companies to have found a way to keep the show going. At McCann, we must have shot over a 100 pieces of video content/ and films during this pandemic. All thanks to the ingenious solutions both our creative and production partners devised, whether it was remote shooting across locations or shooting through high-def phones etc.

But for the film production industry, there is a longer-term worry. For both agencies and production outfits, the modus operandi has been to produce top quality advertising films with the highest production values. The problem, however, according to a research conducted by Oxford University, is that when you look at the audience's reaction to lower production values, consumers don't really care, especially on digital channels.

The question that will need to be addressed is, if you can get the same result by spending less, why wouldn't you do that?


Have you seen newer/different kinds of advertisers commissioning ad films lately? Do these brands prefer digital to TV?

Yeah new categories have mushroomed or gained greater relevance as consumers have been confined and have sought out newer ways to keep themselves engaged. Most of these advertisers or brands are digital in nature, from gaming, online education, fitness at home, to social e-commerce and fintech.

They have used events like an IPL to gain salience. Having said that I would submit that all have made their presence felt in digital and continue to do so.


What is the overall growth that you are expecting in 2021, and what's your strategy to achieve that?

We are all set for delivering growth that’s above the industry average for 2021, and have all our specialist disciplines that give us multiple revenue streams activated.


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