Everyone has a mobile

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Richard Humphrey has ‘been there done that’. Having seen the evolution of advertising and media through several decades. Humphrey is out to make a mark in a new domain, that of mobile advertising – or as he puts it, content. He started as a writer for BBC, headed his own agency and then went on to become the CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi Worldwide. Today he is the Chairman – Non Executive for Affle the UK headquartered mobile media company. With a commercial launch with Airtel coming up shortly, we’re sure to see more of him in India soon.

In conversation with Ruchika Chitravanshi, Humphrey talks about all things advertising, the potential for mobile advertising, and of the changes that technology and evolution of media have brought about for the marketer. Excerpts:

You started your own agency in 1978, which was acquired by Saatchi & Saatchi. Later, you became the President of Adcom Investors, which was sold to Publics. Was there a conscious approach to Build-operate-sell or did things just happen that way?

Actually, it was in a way a conscious approach. I am quite entrepreneurial. I started my agency when I was relatively young. When I left University I went to a company in London (it doesn’t exist anymore), it was a publicly listed advertising company. Quite early on I became the Managing Director of one of the subsidiaries of the company. So I got a taste of managing business as well as creating advertising. I started as a writer. So that really gave me the desire to start my own company, where I would sit on both sides of the fence. I started in London and expanded into Europe, specializing in the early days in the record industry, pop music. Then in the mid 80s I sold it to Saatchi and Saatchi. They bought it partly because it was quite a successful agency, had some good accounts. It was primarily to get my management team and me, because as they were growing they needed more managers. That was in ’85. And I was there until 1992 or 93. During that period, I moved very much form managing advertising to managing business. But I still like to keep very close to marketing function, became that’s after all why the companies exist.

Lately, I was spending much of my time in America, so I missed my big clients. So after Saatchi, I formed a conglomerate that bought agencies and I rescued a few agencies that were getting into trouble. So I sort of became companies’ doctor as well. That combination of interests and skill is something that made me continue to do the same thing till today as well. So in the last 10 years, I have been involved with a number of small companies interesting ideas and developing markets and developing areas. And Mobile marketing is very much at the front of that. It is very exciting as a global business. Particularly exciting I think, in India, because you have particular market characteristics here that really drive the global marketing.

Do you see increasing competition between various media? In terms of share of revenues spent on medium, consumption by audiences? Where will mobile advertising revenues come from?

It depends from country to country. If you are talking about India, then I think there is enough money for everyone. And at this particular point of time, in the foreseeable future I guess the press, the magazine, the television, the mobile industry and outdoor advertising will all make more many every year without struggling with each other. Form the point of the new medium, I think it is a great time to start, because it is not a question for clawing money right now. It is a question of adding to the marketing mix. And I think as things progress marketing mix will become even more sophisticated to terms of what you add. I think there is plenty of room for something like mobile marketing to build this business. The danger for the other medium is that it will eventually be a massive medium. Everybody has a mobile phone. Everybody uses the mobile phone and identifies with it. The challenge would be, not to feed unacceptable advertising or unacceptable content to users – simply because then you don’t have their acceptance. So they are not going to want a lot of ads appearing every day. They are going to want an advertising message only if it is something they have kind of chosen to see or indirectly chosen by going through certain content thus showing their interest for it. So that is slightly different from turning on the television and being a non-driver and watching a car ad. That is not at all appropriate.

What have your observation been about the Indian advertising agency business?

Well I have to admit I don’t know much about Indian advertising agency as much as I do about agencies to many other countries – partly because in early 90s India was not such a force in worldwide advertising market. And a lot of very good Indian individuals came to work in other countries either for training of to settle in US of wherever. And most of the multinationals didn’t own Indian agencies – – they had associations or affiliations. The market has now changed dramatically partly because of the growth of India as an economy. That has been true for any other market in the world. As it develops as a strong economy, the advertising agencies come up the global players want to play part. Now India is one of the top places for WPPs etc.

How important or fruitful do you think are international alliances for ad agencies in India?

Yes, certainly. You can’t be in isolation in the modern marketing world. And advertiser like Proctor and Gamble, who have partnerships in India, will want connection between agencies around the world. They have a lot of consumers learning that resides in the agency and they won’t want to start again in a new market. Though there are cultural differences there are certain similarities in the buying behavior and in product acceptance and things like those. So the international marketing companies wouldn’t want to lose that. Therefore, it helps to have an international agency with links and communication with the local agencies. So its inevitable I guess.

Do you see talent as a problem in the Industry?

Yes, I think the advertising industry probably doesn’t do enough to train people. And that is very relevant for a market like India which really doesn’t have perhaps so much history in the industry. Also, there is a lack of academic training in terms of university courses or college courses. You can’t really beat real people working at real jobs. I think that has always been as issue in the industry. We are too busy in making money than to think of the next generation. Multi-national agencies should have a proper training programme where they move people around the world to help other people. It is essential part of developing one’s own future for the company as well as the people that was in my days very true of the whole of the Asia. It didn’t have the depths of markets like the US, UK, Germany or Australia, lets say. Therefore I tried to bring people from all these markets into the Asian markets, to into China for instance, to train local people.

Where do you see the best of work coming from?

There is no simple answer to that the most admitted in the world is one thing. And there are certain highlight places obviously, UK is one, which is seen as a very creative market compared to the US market. That has partly to do with the culture and the retail environment works, media works. US has developed as much as harder sell. In UK, it is much more sophisticated to the extent of barely mentioning the product you are selling or trying to get a laugh or whatever. But I see the quality of advertising around the world is developing very ,very quickly and improving a lot. That is also because the world is smallest in terms of communication. I think Indian advertising is quite impressive may be because you have such a strong film history and a strong film industry. It has a particularly… a vibrant, kind of a lively local flavour which is very communicable around the world. There is a lot of interest in celebrities, your cricket team advertising herepicks that up very well.

Advertising observes what goes on and pick up the sharp points. The important thing about the ad is that it has get to be interesting.

These days, we see ad agencies playing the role of consultants. You have been an adviser to various agencies. Do you think the role of ad agencies has changed today?

I think that over the period of my life in advertising which is quite long, it has gone much more from servant department. I remember in the early days when you got a job to do and you were off and did it. Then you got a commission on the thing and I didn’t think agencies would be seen as close partners of the companies. That has changed now. There is almost a role reversal at certain times. But certaintly now, the selling function, the marketing function and the advertising function are all the same thing really. They have to be vital to life of most companies. They are, in fact.

If you look at the movement of people between the marketing side and advertising agencies and vice versa, there is change in skill and talent. So I think of some body sets out for a job in one field, it is not necessary that they will spend their entire life there. When I started working in America, there were people who had not only worked for one agency all their life, but they worked for one account all their life. So they started up as Junior Account Executive and then ended up as may be as the Account Director on a big account like AT&T over a 30-year career. That doesn’t happen anymore. There is an interchange on both sides of the fence… that’ a fairly good thing.

The other change is that in the early days the advertising agencies booked media, designed ads, they did the whole thing. And there was very little planning because there was very little media around. Now media specialist skill has arrived. Research and creativity are also seprate functions, probably to the benefit of the ad.

Creativity – how has the perception changed towards that?

I suppose, because media is so pervasive in people’s lives, the requirement to try harder and competitive nature of creativity is quite strong for agencies. The greater challenge for agencies is to keep freshening the creative product. You can receive the creative message a thousand times a day, a minute, whatever the statistic might be. One has to keep himself ahead of the game by being inventive. This is a major challenge. Particularly, given the dozens of ways in which the message can come across. We are now talking about computer or mobile phone, logo or sponsored messages, product placement in movies. There are so many ways. You have just got to be constantly thinking about ways of not just getting across the message but getting it across in a way that people will like. There has to acceptance at the consumer level to make it work. Or they have to be very, very relevant at that particular point in time, which is why I was talking earlier about content being the key thing. Therefore if you have a particular advertising message linked to a particular sort of content, then almost by definition advertising is content itself to the end user.

Digital marketing is quite a talked about thing these days. India is catching up still, while worldwide it is said to have taken over a greater percentage of ad spends. Do you see Digital marketing as the future?

India maybe catching up in few area but India may also be ahead in some area. In UK, Internet advertising has overtaken Press advertising in term of revenue, which is fantastic. We couldn’t have imagined this 10 to 15 years ago, India is different from the UK in the sense that penetration of mobile phone is higher, penetration of Internet users is lower and the number of both are massive. So perhaps things will develop in a slightly different way here. So, it’s hard to say India is behind or ahead. It will be ahead in some ways in the end.

TV and Print still remaining the primary medium for advertisers. Digital still figures last in the list, in spite of all its benefits, it is ‘interactive, accountable, measurable’. What do you think is the reason for this?

I think this happens everywhere. Digital – it is a very hard sell to advertisers. They want to play safe. They are not going to experiment with their entire budget. They might experiment with one percent of it. They are going to take their time. They want to see someone else prove it first and they will accept it. They are not the most adventurous of people because it’s such an important part of their whole revenue that goes into making the advertising effective. And anyone who would experiment in it and then had it fall would lose his or her job. So people are pretty careful. Very few majorly advertise on the digital platform. Yet, it will happen. A lot of progress has been made in terms of accountability, measurement of ads. It’s not just hits anymore, it’s more than that. So as digital media develops, these measurement tools, the ability to use creativity in a digital way… things will take off.

What is the current size of mobile advertising globally?

I have the faintest idea about the current size. What has been done is a wrong sort of a thing. If you hold a mobile phone you don’t really want advertising or you don’t want to have what you think of as advertising. You think of it as spam or unwelcome message beamed at you. Where it will grow will be in the way sponsorship have grown or chosen advertising has grown. People will seek out their topics. So the tip of the iceberg has barely appeared.

Potential in India….

Great potential… partly because of penetration of mobile phones and because it is the easiest way to reach people. You see, mobile advertising has to be relevant. It comes from learning the behavior, what the consumer wants and says – – then giving them an opportunity to act on what they say. That is the way to tackle mobile media. You can’t blast people with messages. People see enough of ads on the TV. They can maybe fast forward these but in mobile phone you cannot fast forward. You can look past a hoarding and pay no attention but in mobile phone people will react badly to product he doesn’t want to see. So it is very inadvisable to put advertising that is not acceptable. You have to differentiate between the different slices of the audience. Make sure you are relevant and you do that through content. Affle is not an advertising company. It is a content company.

Thoughts on Google’s new offerings for mobile…

Very interesting to watch, We find it encouraging that so many of the major players are all fantastically interested in what is going happen in the mobile advertising space.

Do you believe in having specialized agencies?

It has been a trend, which has been there for quite long, with different media that has come up Ideally, a client or a marketing company should have access to any medium or any specialist skill. You need specialist groups within the company but I find the idea of just made specialist agencies a difficult one for major advertisers. Having said that, there is certainly specialist skill for dealing with different media but overall best people of one are going to be the best of the other media.

What are your plans for Affle? What is next on your agenda?

We are focusing on India presently. We have a having a big launch with Airtel. We are developing our content very carefully. But Affle is a global company. We are looking at a number of different markets. Each market is different, there are different penetration levels, different market leaders. In India our focus is very much on good and user-friendly content, where we can add value to consumer experience, build our business. Our ambitions after that, who knows? Depends on technological advances.