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Project-based models in advertising: One night stands or happily-ever-afters?

27-May-2010
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Project-based models in advertising: One night stands or happily-ever-afters?

Earlier this month, CavinKare moved out of the AoR (agency of record) system and decided to award its business to agencies on the basis of projects. In a sense, Ogilvy India winning the adidas 2010 campaign was also project led. Similar examples were seen last year as well when TVS Motor Company called a creative pitch for its new projects and Bajaj Allianz Life assigned work to Percept on a project basis. While project-basis style of working is not new to Indian advertising, is it really an effective way of working?

For some, working with one agency is the ‘preferred’ way. S Srinivas, GM-Marketing, TVS Motor Company said, “For advertising of an existing brand, we prefer working with one agency. But there are times when you want to launch a new brand or a new brand design when you appoint an agency on a short-term project basis.”

Senthil Kumar, VP & ECD, JWT India compared the situation to marriages and extra marital affairs, stating that while in the long run both thrive, the game is always about ideas. He said, “Companies roping in new agencies for projects puts everyone on the edge. It is cutthroat competition but in most cases it can also be converted into new business opportunities.”

Project-based assignments help in identifying right partners

One cannot deny that clients are in a mood to experiment and explore like never before. Srinivasan K Swamy, Chairman & Managing Director, R K Swamy BBDO observed that some clients can handle project assignments better than many others. P Subramanian, Director - Client Service, Ogilvy India, agreed with Swamy, and added that the project-based model might suit large corporates, who have substantial in-house knowledge on the business and brands and are not leaning too much on the agency to provide directions.”

However, the two leaders present different opinions when it comes to the viability of the process. Swamy said that there was nothing like a group of people who were constantly thinking about a brand's health and growth opportunity. But Subramanian believed that brand building will not suffer as the brand custodian is the client, who is taking the final decision. He asserted, “Brand custodian is only looking for a creative solution to a strategic problem.”

TVS Motor Company’s Srinivas reiterated that the onus of maintaining the brand promise and positioning falls on the client for both the project-based agency and the regular agency.

Clearly, project-based relations can be used to identify the right partners. But is that the reason why brand managers are resorting to this kind of exercise? Or is it to save monies? Ogilvy’s Subramanian replied, “It’s not to save a few pennies. Clients are trying to get the best through that process but only time will tell whether it serves the purpose.”

The long term risks still stay

Veteran advertising professional U Jayraj Rau, who has spent close to three decades with JWT India, brings a different perspective. He said, “Sheer desperation and profit motives drive agencies to go for any pitch and accept ridiculous fees. But there is no logic in hiring an agency on project basis. An FMCG or a durable brand needs constant attention to grow the brand. Brand managers believe that they are saving money but do not realise the long term pitfalls.”

An experienced FMCG professional said, “Even when clients are working on project-basis, it is still relationship driven. One tends to go back to the same agency unless you really want to experiment.” Rau contested that and argued, “Even if the same agency is hired for another project on the same brand, the brand manager will have to deal with inconsistent inputs, short term ideas and intermittent marketing inputs that may not help with building the brand.”

Senthil Kumar too believes that brand building would take a beating in project-based model. “Every brand needs an agency that plays the role of a marathon runner aka ‘long term brand custodian’. Short-term alliances are like one night stands -- some you remember, some you want to forget.” He said that assigning projects to new agencies could work as testing grounds but once the right partner is chosen, the next task should be to go the distance and see the future together.

Advertiser alone cannot be Brand Custodian, steady agency partner required

Kumar explained, “When advertiser alone is the brand custodian, which almost is the case in a project-based system, it is like a single parent attempting to care for a difficult child. Obviously it's a quick fix but the pressure is undivided. It can be telling if you are looking to build a long term brand with short lived affairs.”

Swamy said, “It is not easy to be consistent about the brand offering when you don't have the same group working on it. New people tend to add ‘value’, which could however be in a different direction. Client organisations also have people changing and all this simultaneously could complicate matters for the health of the brand.”

Industry observers believe that companies will lose out on the long term gains, when they get used to short term spending, as is the case in the project-based method of working.

Srinivas said here, “Every time you change an agency, a lot of accumulated knowledge on the brand is difficult to transmit. Hence, while the new agency might address the problem with a fresh perspective but you have to start from scratch.”

The industry leaders believe that Indian business place lacks the maturity of the western corporate world and scant regard is paid to developing perfect project briefs and sticking to timelines. Coupled with frequent requests for iterations to please the many bosses, it is a death knell for agencies that get into project-based assignments.

The onus is ultimately on the clients to make sure that brands are well nurtured and experiments like these are a way of doing it. Television did not kill cinema, Internet did not kill television -- similarly project-assignments will not kill full-time engagements. The two will co-exist, and advertisers will try everything and settle with what works best for them.

(Report edited by Jhinuk Sen.)

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