Narayan Devanathan: Six of one, half a dozen of the other

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Narayan Devanathan: Six of one, half a dozen of the other

The French writer, critic and journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr articulated in 1849 what has probably been true since the beginning of time: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose; the more things change, the more they remain the same. Narayan Devanathan is Chief Client Officer, dentsu India. Opinions expressed here are his own.


As we end another year, a century forward from the last global pandemic to have stopped time in its tracks, I thought it might be interesting to look at this past year, and the one coming up, from the perspective of half a dozen timeless quotes from advertising greats (some publicly acknowledged, some who may not have known that advertising would co-opt their wisdom).

Did things stay the same? Did they change? Did they equate to be one and the same thing?

Let’s take a closer look through these timeless ‘trends’.

1. “I am one who believes that one of the greatest dangers of advertising is not that of misleading people, but that of boring them to death.” – Leo Burnett

The 2021 mirror: Advertising’s battle against banality doesn’t seem to be one it’s winning anytime soon. For every interesting and un-boring piece of work, there were 99 others that made people reach for the Skip Ad button. To be sure, there’s great work that helped build/sustain many brands in 2021, but they continue to remain the exception rather than the rule.

The 2022 crystal ball: Impact at scale has always dictated strategies of reach and frequency that frequently trumped the interestingness quotient of advertising. But if social media have taught us one thing, it is that we can bet more sure-footedly on creativity delivering outsized impact, and not just be dependent on buying our way out of being boring.

2. “We want consumers to say, ‘That’s a hell of a product’ instead of, ‘That’s a hell of an ad’. ” – Leo Burnett

The 2021 mirror: We’ve definitely trended towards work that draws attention to itself more than to the product or what the product enables. And while self-referential, self-deprecatory humour might have its place in the sun, it’s certainly not the secret sauce every brand needs all the time.

The 2022 crystal ball: This is as much a prediction as a wish that advertising will work towards getting consumers to say, ‘That’s a hell of a feeling!’ And not just ‘That’s a hell of a product.’

3. “I’d rather apologize than to be so timid as to never try to do anything smart or brave.” – Lee Clow

The 2021 mirror: It’s amazing that in a world that seems more entrepreneurial than ever before, one where capital is freely available to anyone with ideas and the appetite to fail, advertising seems to tend to look for the safety net even as start-ups and creators turn into trapeze artists, leaping and flying above conventions.

The 2022 crystal ball: The problem with problem-solving is that falling is a given. Concurrently, what is also a given is the rising again. Here’s to turning advertising—a lot more of it—into the land of the free and the home of the brave (especially since America seems inclined to vacate this space lately.)

4. “If you want to understand how a lion hunts, don’t go to the zoo. Go to the jungle.” – Jim Stengel

The 2021 mirror: The difference between virtual and IRL has blurred to some extent. That said, social media can tend to be an echo chamber, one reflecting only a limited scale of people’s overall lives. And yet, we flock to this zoo and base our actions on observations of each other in these cages and take them to be truths about our entirety.

The 2022 crystal ball: The metaverse’s predicted impact notwithstanding, our avatars are unlikely to be our complete selves. As marketers and advertisers, the best thing we can do is to keep going back to the jungle because that’s where we live too, as people, not just as ad professionals.

5. “Stopping advertising to save money is like stopping your watch to save time.” – Henry Ford

The 2021 mirror: It’s almost 2022 and so many businesses still see advertising as an expense that is the first to be put on the chopping block in times of crisis. This ‘investment’ strategy defies perhaps the most apparent wisdom of the investment field: buy in a bear market, sell in a bull market.

The 2022 crystal ball: Perhaps this will be the year when the CFO becomes the CMO’s best friend, to make the case for advertising as an investment and not as an expense. That will change the game more dramatically than CMOs – or agencies – making the case for themselves.

6. “A good ad should be like a good sermon: It must not only comfort the afflicted, it also must afflict the comfortable.” – Bernice Fitz-Gibbon

The 2021 mirror: To some extent, we have seen some good advertising that has comforted an unprecedentedly afflicted world. But this is also the year when advertising has been an easy target to hit at by the comfortable—from religious fanatics to political bigots to hate mongers of all stripes, they have all trained their guns on brands and their messages, reacting violently to any attempt to afflict their comfort. And in turn, it’s made most advertising pusillanimous.

The 2022 crystal ball: In a world where it is no longer enough to ‘do well by doing good’, this is the carpe diem moment for businesses to do well by doing right. To stand up against all-comers. To be different by making a difference.