Ad Land’s hidden cost of creativity

How agencies hide the real cost of their creative output & how to move beyond the bespoke creative bubble.

It is an open secret that almost every large advertising agency out there at some time or the other has underpriced the cost of its bespoke creativity. Surely not you say. Don’t agencies already ridiculously overcharge? Unfortunately, not. Here is a case for the true cost of creativity.

By and large agencies have traditionally operated either on a retainer model or on an ad-hoc project model. At the most basic level, the cost of creativity is derived from an hour cost combined with expertise cost. When I talk about the cost of creativity here, I am referring to primarily the cost of conceptualization of a creative idea and strategy, more than the cost of technical production – especially when said production needs to use external vendors. That is another story for another day.  

In a perfect operational model, the bulk of the hour work is done by junior creatives and refined further by seniors up the ladder who invest fewer hours. Their role is to deliver critical feedback and keep the work on track. The costing behind the model falls flat if seniors must pull a hail Mary and do all the work themselves. Correctly estimating the hour allocation before a project kicks off is an art. An agency’s profitability, in an overly simplistic way of putting it, depends on ensuring that the number of hours worked on do not exceed that which is costed for in the signed off estimate. There are three common hurdles that cause a mismatch to happen.

Firstly, the agency didn’t clearly understand what the client was asking for in the first place. As a result, it mis-judged the effort it would take to bring the project to fruition. Second the client kept changing the scope of work. This may be shifting goal posts or a form of scope creep – tacking on to the existing scope as the project evolved and new requirements were realised. Third, the output of the agency is subpar and needs rework. Now I’m sure the bean counters add a healthy safety margin in their cost estimates to protect against these. What percentage that really is, I can’t quite tell with certainty.  

How much the work really costs depends on the agency rate card. Which is arrived at by adding the typical hours spent on a creative task along with amounts to cover agency operational costs and overheads. A rate card is a well-kept secret. A bible of costs vs effort for both agency stakeholders and clients. Sometimes each client earns their own rate card within an agency, depending on the nature of the business and the time it has associated itself with an agency. Think of the rate card like a food menu that a client or an agency person can refer to quickly to understand how much a creative dish may cost.

With me so far? Great!

So how do agencies hide the cost of creativity? The most common trick is by pressurizing everyone involved in a creative process to underbill their hours. And this includes any team that supports them too, like account management. Yes, you got that right, it all boils down to how honestly everyone does that one task everyone truly hates. Timesheets.

In its defence if you have a rate card you need to have a timesheet. It is purely logical. It is a system of checks and balances to ensure that profitability is being maintained and teams are on track. Which is why agencies will never be able to do away with them. What they could do though is have an efficient timesheet system like the one delivered by clockify. Do check it out if you are struggling with a timesheet. I’ve used this as a freelancer and it’s an amazing to track the time spent on a project. But I digress.   

In all fairness not all agencies pressurise creatives to manipulate their timesheets. Or at least they don’t do this overtly as it might lead to a creative uprising and a call to abolish timesheets altogether by the creative folk. Yet it isn’t uncommon to hear business heads or project managers tell their teams to not exceed hours and pass the word on. This puts creative teams between a rock and a hard place. Do you optimise your creative output for the hours you are actually billing, or do you go all out and pour your heart and soul into a piece of work, hours be dammed? The answer is often a balancing act in creativity and managing expectations. The truth is, as you read this article, there’s a creative slumped in front of a computer burning midnight oil on undocumented hours coming up with a creative idea that just might re-write the story of a brand tomorrow. And the tragedy is that they won’t be able to put down those extra hours of hard work on their timesheets. Such creative success stories will become urban legends in Ad Land. Spotting these creative anomalies is easy. If everyone is giving you a standardized timesheet week on week billing 8 to 9 hours every day you can rest assured that it’s not actually capturing the accurate time spent on projects. Real life has variation, and we need to accept this if we want to move forward.

Don’t get me wrong the opposite is also true. You can only sweep only so many hours under the carpet till the truth comes out. Let’s say you have a cantankerous client and you aren’t able to deliver to your client’s satisfaction and have a high strike record. The amount of rework that ensues will ensure that the cost of the creative output for what clients might regard as “just a jpeg for a social media post” will be atrocious. Agencies will have to eventually write off some of those hours they put in. Hence lowering the actual cost of creative output to the client’s benefit. I’ve heard of this happening first-hand.

So why talk about this right now? What makes the subsidized cost of creativity a real problem is when agency folk due to life choices or a global pandemic decide to have to sell their services individually on a freelance basis. The true cost of their creativity goes head-to-head with their subsidized cost of creativity that they had been doling out inside the hallowed halls of agencies. This accounts for quite a mismatch. Individuals cannot absorb costs like agencies can. Nor should they be expected too. The safety of an agency pay cheque often makes employees forget that by underbilling their hours and manipulating their timesheet while working within an agency, they have effectively reduced their hour cost. Some of this gets offset by a yearly bonus. But not enough. By ensuring time and effort targets are met, someone up the chain can claim that they are hitting their profitability targets.  What we fail to neglect is that in reality, as creatives, we’ve cheapened the cost of the creative output. It’s truly a dog-eat-dog world.  

Still there are some people, stalwarts in Ad Land who dare to stand out of the crowd. Regardless of internal pressures they claim to actually bill the hours that they work on. Kudos to them. They are often able to pull this off because of their seniority and the time they’ve spent in an agency.  

Why consultancies are a concern to creativity

How does this tale end? A truly artificial bubble of creativity waiting to be popped? Will the pandemic make a difference? Time will tell. Don’t forget that the consulting companies are just waiting to cash in on this. Sure they’ve been buying up award winning agencies as a start. While we might think that consulting companies only sniff out the big bucks like sharks in water, you can bet that they are developing a nose for creativity too.  

I wouldn’t be surprised if consulting companies having understood this fundamental costing flaw and countered it with a strategy to flank creative agencies by creating large creative machinery behemoths with a model that delivers production line economies of scale. Like what Ford did with the automobile. Some of these companies churn creative work across multiple markets across time zones. The work literally doesn’t stop 24/7 and uses cost efficiencies derived across different markets to their benefit. Work is handed over from one creative team to another, following the sun. This not only reduces costs but increases the speed in which creative work happens. The critical difference is their attitude towards the ownership of the creative work being produced.  People aren’t bickering about who owns the idea, but how fast it gets pushed out.

Let’s not forget a consulting company has a very different brand image compared to a typical agency. And it is this that the company uses to its advantage as it snaps at the heels of agency creativity and the associated costs. Consultancy companies don’t just poach the agency pot, they attract clientele that will never walk into a traditional advertising agency in the first place. And they charge premiums for this.  

Agencies on the other hand have for too long positioned themselves as the only true saviours of bespoke creativity. The last bastion where costly original ideas are crafted to solve client’s problems with creative pixie dust. Creativity is the bread and butter for Ad Land – the idea industry. Agencies help build wheels, consultancies churn out automobiles. Or so we would like to believe.

Beyond the bespoke creativity bubble. Rethinking creative output.

Let’s not even begin to pretend that all creative output needs to be built or costed equally.

Today as consultancies and agencies go to war, in the middle of the pandemic we saw an army of out-of-work creatives make a market for themselves. These are agency folk who know how to ferret out the best creative freelance resources that have been curated for individual creators and sold in creative marketplaces and use them to solve their client’s need in creative manners. A wide range of creative resources from PowerPoint templates, video animations, social media posts, emailers, newsletters and even full-fledged web-designs to name just a few that can be purchased straight from creative marketplaces like Envato. If you aren’t buying complete off-the-shelf solutions you have the option to buy the raw ingredients too. From stock video footage to sound clips, 3D models, everything is available online already in different competing asset marketplaces.

The pandemic has also seen a flurry of newly minted entrepreneurs and new out-of-home businesses. There are several small enterprises that would love to tap the expertise of big-name agency bred creative thinking, but at lower costs. They are incredibly open to starting their communications with a templatised design, but they need someone to do the work of customising templates and defining a brand voice for them. This is why it’s time to look beyond the traditional bespoke creative model and take a cue out of the old adage, to steal like an artist. Freelance creatives can address this gap by tapping into these creative resource marketplaces as the starting point and marry it with their agency honed expertise to tell start-up brand stories effectively. Truth be told I’ve spotted one large sports brand which has probably borrowed a template or two for their Instagram stories. There is no shame in it. You can easily tailor these assets to match your brand style, its likely that the end consumer wouldn’t be able to pick from a line-up which creative was born from a template and which was created from scratch.  

How is this connected to the cost of creativity you are wondering? As individual creators and in-house teams create fantastic looking content quickly by buying and customising off the shelf templates and designs from these platforms, they are substantially reducing their individual hour cost by offsetting this with the cost of the creative template purchased. Heresy I hear the whispers of the agency creative folk. Yet you know that this kind of approach to creativity is probably being favoured by in-house communications teams already. This is why Canva is popular in the first place. Place It and Canva aims at offering interactive web experiences to customise the creative output. Cutting the cost of proprietary creative software installed on desktops. The gap however is that while there are such easy-to-use services, clients may not have the appetite or time to dip their toes into using the software. Their lack of expertise would literally rake up excessive hours that will be tagged onto the creative cost.

How does this approach effect the cost of creativity?

I believe that the benefit of this approach, is it fixes the cost of a certain amount of the creative effort. These assets are sold either at fixed cost or on an all you can eat subscription model. Which means this cost is fixed and freelancers or agencies then slap on their hour cost. Yes, there is no way from moving away from that.

Remember it does take exceptional creative talent to create assets that are judged by peer review and sold on these creative marketplaces in the first place. So, think twice before you dismiss these assets as it reduces the time for producing the creative idea from scratch. It ensures that the creative output is keeping with the times from a design aesthetic. It might even give more time to the creatives to finessing the communication aspect of the product they are developing!

This approach is perfect for filler content and key seasonal communication messages that need to be pushed out by brands quickly. But I think a brave brand will approach doing larger campaigns with this approach too. Just because of the sheer number of customisable creative assets sold together. It is also good to point out that often templates are picked after a creative thinks of a communication idea and strategy. The idea is then fitted to a template available. Not the other way round. So, it doesn’t really dilute the big thinking behind the execution.

Agencies will evolve with this model too in their offerings to clients. Using these marketplaces to source the building blocks of their creative output. And pass the cost savings to the clients as they focus on delivering cutting edge creative ideas within this space. They are already using this way of working when it comes to using stock photography instead of a photography shoot. Just like using stock photography, to make this work, clients will need to understand the boundary of what can be done within the template chosen. They should sign off initially on the template, eliminating the potential for scope creep and fixing costs.

To end I’d just like to say that yes this approach, by no means, is a magic bullet in correcting a culture of downplaying the cost of creativity. Rather this is the first step in triaging a larger problem. Agencies really need to focus on pushing premiums for their creative work. Justifying it with tangible real-world results. But they also need to discover new cost efficiencies that are offered by purchasing through creative marketplaces and they need their client’s approval to do this. Freelancers and in-house teams need to sell in this new model of doing creative work to bridge the cost gap. Individual creators who contribute to these marketplaces will reap the benefits. In the end more money will be made doing better creative work. Hopefully.

When short & sweet falls short

The dangers of the 15 second advertising slot.

KISS – Keep It Short & Simple. We’ve heard the saying many a time before, and today its an axiom for video advertising. Once upon a time the focus for brands was winning in the three-minute advertising space and having shorter edits of the same ad available to be plugged into any discounted slot that the media buying agency happened to provide as a free addendum to their media plan. Advertising breaks on television average 16 minutes per hour in the US and 8 – 12 minutes in the UK. Yet the average length of video advertising for brands today on Youtube is 15 seconds.

Today marketers face target audiences that are not only highly fragmented with individualistic tastes but who actively seek out specific content that connects to their interests. YouTube rules the roost for this content. No mystery then unless you signed up for You Tube Premium you are assailed with a slew of advertising pre-rolls and inserts that marketers today profess to be the ‘gold format’ – the 15 second ad clip.

Let’s take 10 seconds to think about that. 15 seconds for marketers to find a golden goose to sway an ever-limited attention span and to tell a tale that is well remembered. Seems like a tall order for something so short.  As an advertising practitioner I must acknowledge that I don’t consume ads quite like the normal consumer does. Sure I actively use Ad Blockers, but every now and then I actively seek out advertising time and again to see what Ad Land is churning out these days. Now since most of the video content I consume is streaming and advertising free – one of the main sources of getting to trending ads are – you guessed it, YouTube.

Specifically, the YouTube advertising leaderboard. Now usually some of the choicest pick of advertising is round the festive corner or pegged to a sporting event like the Super Bowl or the Olympics. And to be honest it’s been a while since I spied the leaderboard with the intent of watching every single ad in the top ten ranking. When I did so in the week of 20th August 2019 it was glaringly obvious that brands have given agencies a mandate to present work in the 15 second clip format. Yet truth be told after watching all those ads, the 15 seconds don’t really register.

To put this in context, the average reading speed is 200 words a minute, that’s 50 words in 15 seconds. With the average rate of speech being slower at about 150 word’s per minute. This translates into a message that really needs to be quite direct or simple in its twist to be comprehensible. This the tweet format for video advertising. In fact, I would wager a bet that there is but a marginal difference between a 15 second video and an animated GIF. The later might just trump because GIF’s by the very nature of their format are more likely to be viewed more than once (since they loop and you’d be less likely to skip a GIF than a video).

So how much can you say in 15 seconds that’s short and sweet and memorable. The bitter truth is not much. In most cases creativity took a back seat, except perhaps for the Subaru Forrester ad that put a puppy in the back. But even there I am not sure how much brand recall is going to be there for an advertising like that. I personally had to check the ad again since I thought the ad was for a Volvo (I couldn’t honestly recollect the car make – a problem when you involve pets in car advertising.) Some of the ads that did put a smile on my face were for technique and I didn’t quite remember the product at the end of the day. True, I wasn’t the target audience, and these aren’t brands I can pick up from a supermarket in my part of the world. But some would argue if the advertising were truly effective, I would still remember the brand, wouldn’t I?

Yes the 15 second video slot is perfect for reinforcement of a message, instead of trying to build brand awareness. I wouldn’t be surprised that the volume of media buy who have to go up to generate the effective recall of a longer advertising spot. Some things just don’t work in this format. Like a nice ad jingle. But a musical note sign-off would help build recall. At the end of the day a smaller format needs to work twice as hard to be an effective advertisement. Otherwise gone in 15 seconds will just fizzle out.

YouTube ads leaderboard: 2019 bumper ads edition

  1. Subaru Forester
  2. Eggo Waffles
  3. Frito Lays Variety Packs –
  4. Reese’s Thins
  5. Fridgidaire
  6. Cheetos Win what you see –
  7. Dove shattering beauty stereotypes –

Advertising & the allure of agile.

Advertising, scrum and other agile techniques at face value seem to be a match made in heaven. Let’s face it, if advertising had an unspoken motto it would be more for less. More output, more promises to clients, with less time spent actually doing the work and spending less on creative resources that gets the work done. There are no Oscar winning production budgets in advertising. The reality is operating on wafer thin budgets so that profits are maximised where the cost of talent and overheads can be obscene (in both a good and bad way) and the client procurement teams are tasked with tightening purse strings year on year. In all this fray, Scrum looks like a shining steed that promises to allow you to do ‘twice the work in half the time’. So you may think that it’s natural that advertising and scrum are made for each other. I mean you wouldn’t need to be flogging a dead horse if you could achieve those kind of productivity increments. In the ideal world, if every advertising personnel within an agency adhere to the rules of scrum I’d agree. Truth is, like someone pointed out, so called scrum implementations actually devolve into rapid waterfall models. I once heard a creative moan that the clients didn’t know how agencies worked. Well here is a peek behind the curtains on the challenges of getting Scrum to work for you in an agency.

Look around and listen and you hear agencies trying to implement elements of Scrum in their daily operations. Or so they would have you believe. It’s not exactly a selling point to clients after all. Stand up meetings and weekly review meetings for project reporting is an ideal example of how Scrum manifests itself, right? Truth be told, the weekly meeting in most agencies involve stakeholders that don’t really need to be there, and falls into a routine rut. While Scrum stand ups are to help establish and eliminate roadblocks, the weekly agency meeting more oft than not devolves into a progress report for the upper echelons to keep track off across multiple teams. The fact is that there is no overlap between most of the teams, resulting in in-efficiencies and an inevitable waste of time.

Scrum works best if you have one project that you focus on. Look at job applications for advertising and you will inevitably see that they want candidates who excel at multi-tasking. Why? Because teams are often spread thin across multiple projects with timeframes that clash. So these resources would be at the beck and call of clashing scrum masters. What’s more since you are handling multiple work flows, a daily scrum meeting across each workflow isn’t going to see much progress.

Scrum revolves around sprints. Advertising revolves around mad dashes. It’s sometimes incredulous the time creative teams are given to churn things out. Clients are spun a good yarn about how the team has been slaving over weeks over creatives that probably were hashed out over a weekend or Friday night.  If you stepped into advertising’s hallowed halls you might notice builds and artwork is taken down to the line forget providing enough time to iterate. Some are even done in a cab ride to the client’s office. Scrum on the other hand advocate workable builds after each scrum sprint in a two week timeframe.

Scrum advocates a level of transparency that you rarely see in advertising. True there are some agencies that try to institutionalise this a bit better than others. However if the prevailing attitudes are that everyone will find out by talking to each other and there is no formal way of distilling information to teams, implementing scrum becomes difficult. This is especially true where certain teams such as account management have always functioned by carefully controlling and distilling the flow of information from the client to agency stakeholders. This is partly to keep teams motivated, with the account management team caught between a rock and a hard place also to ensure client agendas are achieved. Agencies that work on a secondment model, where they work on agency premises, do try to eliminate this gap and form a better model for Scrum (unless there is a scrum that includes the client and a progress WIP that doesn’t). This is an excellent way to boost transparency, while ensuring that the agency provides a dedicated team that isn’t two timing its clients by moonlighting behind its back.

Having a scrum master on the team and having final say about how the project proceeds is another thing agencies will have to wrap their heads around. While it is true we do have creative services teams and do have project managers, in today’s advertising world they are definitely the glue that holds things together. However they are often unsung heroes, with little power. There is a considerable amount of glamour associated with the creative and account management teams. Support teams like creative services on the other hand (where scrum masters are likely to be slotted in) is a thankless job that sees people being underpaid for the pains they go through to birth award winning campaigns. These project managers and creative service staff are often not equipped with the right tools of the trade. And I am quite sure few have been inculcated and empowered to run teams using scrum. What’s more these creative services teams draw the last straw, having to make the impossible happen against impossible deadlines. An empowered creative services team that uses scrum and who can stand-up to key agency stakeholders is the bedrock on which the next generation of agencies will be built on.

Though I do believe that scrum does show some interesting promises for advertising. I am especially excited about Jeff Sutherland’s pricing model on how to implement Scrum with clients from a cost point of view. The technique basically calls for associating scrum points for the effort taken for a certain task. Instead of buying hours, the client pays for Scrum points which he can then reallocate across different tasks and deliverables. This gives the client flexibility to iterate and not fall into a change request pricing trap. At the same time it allows the agency to avoid over burning its hours. Will this work? Will scrum points become a panacea for hours? I think there is going to be a lot of negotiation between account management and procurement teams before this becomes the norm. But procurement might be convinced of this as they try to tighten agency budgets, it just might be the better for it.

What I do believe is that scrum is perfect for those newly formed agencies that are pioneered by people who have seen the way Ad Land works and wants to make a change for a more fair, equitable and balanced approach to doing business. Hopefully they share a vision for shorter work days and no work weekends and have the tills ring with cash with a team that is more empowered, agile and focussed on solving client problems. More creativity, less operational chaos and costs. That would truly be the sign of success of scrum in advertising.

The price to pay


There is a not so secret war being waged in the world of advertising, completely oblivious to the common man who breezes past the average ad. The bean counters of procurement divisions from the world’s leading brands are facing off against advertising agency suits who are valiantly trying to defend their budgets and their creative legroom. It’s painful.

As a creative in an ad agency it’s at times hard to understand why the agency just doesn’t get the right resources to create an award winning ad. Collaborating with better production houses or technology partners for example, while the agency focusses on crafting bigger and better interactive ideas. With my recent stint as a senior regional account manager however, the frenzy of the frontlines of finance makes things a little bit more apparent.

In their quest to cut budgets and streamline spending, several major multi-national corporates are trying desperately to put a number to creativity. There are fancy words and equations being bandied about in this name, like any other religious rhetoric you may expect to hear on a cut-throat crusade of this kind. There have always been murmurings of ROI, accountability and the returns on advertising spend. However there is a new found fervour of trying to peg the agency creative output to marketing KPI.   Seems we have come a long way from the old adage of not knowing which part of your advertising investing works, or have we?

Today agencies are being asked to commit their allocated budget spending to key ROI targets. Failure to meet KPI means agencies fail to get paid a certain amount. While procurement teams hope to magically improve creative effectiveness while reducing overall costs on a year by year basis, agencies struggle to meet creative overhead costs. It’s frustrating for the marketing teams of these MNC’s as well as structured marketing campaigns have at the final stages needed to be stripped to leaner versions to compromise. I would argue that when number crunchers need to make key decisions on creative strategy, tactical profits may take point but brand equity unwittingly finds itself in the firing line in the long term.

While MNC brands hope that their agencies deliver more for less, the truth couldn’t be farther from reality. In order to tighten purse strings and run major clients on shoe string budgets the only viable option is to reduce the number of people working on the client. It’s cheaper to have junior talent who are always on and driven to perform on the brand. Senior talent is relegated to an occasional oversight nature rather than being involved in day to day operations. While this leads to the most junior people in advertising (unbeknownst to them) becoming the most powerful people, it also means collective experience working on the campaign plummets. !

If you were a brand manager, how do you hope to ensure your agency comes up with the next award winning campaign for your brand? Procurement tells you that you can’t afford the Creative Director with more than 10 years of prior experience on your brand anymore because of the agency rate card. The resulting work you are going to see from the agency is going to go through multiple iterations compared to the past just because you are working with someone a little less experienced. Cost cutting stifles creativity and can increase lead times. As a marketer this may not be very evident on the bottom line when looking only at budget spends. Agencies don’t win either as the result is that they tend to over burn hours due to the inexperience and puts additional strain on internal resources.

As a procurement person I can only venture to guess that it is hard to put a tangible value to the softer side of marketing efforts. After all you can’t quite hand the agency a blank check just because the next ad campaign could be a hit or miss.  There is no ready formula for a winning marketing campaign. Even if there was, adherence to such formulas would make the brand grow stale. It is a challenging task thus to ensure the brand gets the most for its buck.

Perhaps the solution is more people from procurement teams who have worked in agency finance departments or as account managers. Presently one of the biggest hurdles is explaining the technicalities and time taken to create advertising that works. Most agencies will try to push for a retainer that eliminates the need for constant bickering over man hours and rate cards for each and every job. Yet getting procurement to sign off on retainers becomes even more challenging with a lot of browbeating carried on between both parties at top levels. Once retainers are signed off, the challenge is to ensure that there is no scope creep or shifting goal posts. If achieved though, the agency has some room to breathe as it is protected from seasonal spending by clients and guarantees monthly revenues. Agencies are then in a position to outsource a certain amount of work to ensure that they meet their own cost efficiencies. After all to have having everything in-house negates the very cost effectiveness that the Procurement teams seek. Especially true if the quantum of work done for an MNC clients fails to pay for a dedicated agency team 24/7. Sharing resources between multiple clients is as tricky as it is, without having to deal with shrinking budgets.

At the end of the day it is for the agency and procurement to identify and justify where value is being created and to work hand in hand to find common ground. This is reshaping client agency relationships across the world from large agency networks to smaller boutiques. A more well-armed procurement team hopefully will lead to advertising that is not only more effective and meaningful but keeps the bean counters happy as well.

The marketed mind in Madurai

The marketed mind in Madurai

A few months ago I moved to Madurai with my parents, taking a sabbatical from my career in advertising. A drastic change some would think after having stayed 13 years in India’s most bustling metropolis- Mumbai. Someone called Madurai a village city and that is an appropriate description. For those of you who don’t know Madurai, it’s located about six hours away from Tamil Nadu and Bangalore by road. It is otherwise known as the Temple City being famous for the Meenakshi Temple which is the city’s landmark. So join me for a few observations on mystical Madurai and how to make your mark in marketing here.

Aesthetics & the South Indian mind

Before I even begin to touch on the various aspects of how marketing in Madurai is different from the metros, it is critical to understand that there is quite a difference in aesthetics. I think is noticeable in any city if you keep your eyes peeled when you drive from the airport to your destination. There are tell-tale signs. The first is the hoardings. You notice that bright contrasting colours are a norm, as are thick strokes and painted drop shadows. You will find quite a few hand painted signs here still, while there are vinyl printed signs in the more populated areas.

The love for bright and somewhat garish colours is also evident if you have an opportunity to glimpse into people’s homes. Shades of bright pink or luminous green is not uncommon here, both inside or outside your home. Local painters often balk at painting light shades like cream, (a challenging task for my mother) and they do so with a lot of reluctance.

The concept of whitespace is also quite alien in some of these locally painted signs. The fact that the Tamil font is so cursive is probably a reason for this. You get the feeling though that space is a premium

So in short if you need to do something that looks local, you can’t go wrong with the simple formula of – thick borders or strokes in white or black, black drop shadows, lettering that is coloured with two colours horizontally, all on a nice garish backdrop.

But that’s not all. One interesting piece of artwork that glaringly stands out is found on the road. You may notice that some long distance buses bear some interesting visuals on its sides. I was quite amazed to see colourful and realistic paintings of movie characters like the Navi from Avataar and even Japanese Manga characters. A sign of the changing aesthetic? Perhaps, only time will tell.

Retail in Madurai

Madurai has always been known for small shops on narrow bustling streets that you tackle once the searing heat abates as the sun sets. The heart of the city near the Meenakshi Temple is where you venture for anything you need. This is an area crowded with small shops and hotels. Years ago you wouldn’t quite conceive that shopping formats like retail stores or brand outlets would crop up in Madurai. Now you have a Big Bazaar, Reliance Retail and a Spencer’s outlet here apart from some local chains. While local chains try to mimic larger retail stores they do have hang-ups from their small store operations.

One example is the payment system that I noticed in a large local department store. While you have a modernised checkout counter with a person equipped with a bar code reader, the actual payment is entrusted to a common cashier. This means that you make a bill at the checkout counter and then proceed to another counter to pay the bill. The number of cashiers is less than the number of checkout counters, which naturally causes a bottleneck. This is also true in medical stores where one person finds the medicine, another person bills it, then a cashier and a person who hands over the medicine finally. Why this arrangement you ask? I would guess that it’s a matter of trust and some weird check and balance for inventory management. The result though seems to defeat the purpose of the retail format. Also eliminating the entire concept of last minute purchases at the checkout counter.

Another observation is the number of people that are manning these retails stores. In most other cities, most large retail stores are self-serving. While there are a number of shop assistants to help you if you need something, in Madurai, there seems to be markedly more people per square foot of retail space.

On the whole though, Madurai is still about individual retail outlets rather than malls. While money is being invested in the aesthetics of the retail space, more often than not the products are expected to sell themselves. Sales personnel are not very vocal about their spiel. The salient features of a product or a product range needs to be coaxed out of them. This is probably a remnant of over the counter sales mentality that comes from running a small shop. In fact sometimes they come across as being quite adamant that one should just pick up a product that they are referring too. This said that you might be surprised to find a wide variety of brands and merchandise that you may think is only available in a metro. This is thankfully due to retail penetration no doubt.

Advertising in Madurai

From the look of it, you can guess by now how advertising in Madurai looks different. You will see the same font and colour palette treatment. What in my opinion doesn’t work though is when you see the occasional piece of retail material or signage that has something in Hindi in it. This is a complete waste of advertising space. Probably conceived by an agency in Mumbai or Delhi for a national campaign, the message is completely lost on locals. There are very few people here who could understand Hindi, lest read it. On tv most advertising for the South Indian market is done on Sun tv and other channels that have Tamil content. At the same time there is a small group of people who consume English channels. The problem is that you notice a lot of Hindi ads being displayed on these channels, but no content that is tailored for the South Indian market. I guess the numbers don’t add up for the media planner, but it does seem to be an untapped opportunity at some level as well. It is also to see English words written in Tamil. Useless to a person who can’t read both Tamil and English. This is just as bad as English words written in Hindi. How do these trends catch on?

The T-Shirt trend

The winds of change are blowing though Madurai though. Madurai airport is now an international airport with direct flights to Sri Lanka and Dubai, so go figure. Madurai now has a movie multiplex – an Inox nonetheless (though tickets here are much cheaper than in any other city mind you). Another thing you may notice on the streets is that nobody seems to be wearing collarless t-shirts, or printed ones. But the retail stores seem to be overflowing with them. And then you watch a movie and notice that its catching on with the college crowd who seem to wear it like a sign of the changing times and needs.

Digital in Madurai

The pinnacle of change is perhaps digital penetration. You now find e-commerce ventures that are being home brewn here. You can now supposedly order your groceries online and have them home delivered here in Madurai. The infrastructure is improving. The broadband speeds are quite good here in Madurai and compete with what you find in metros. Added to this smartphone usage is up and obviously growing. Apparent by the number of new mobile stores that you see here.

What you don’t see

Well a fitting end to this article is what you don’t see selling in Madurai and what are possible marketing opportunities. Madurai has quite a few colleges, but the café culture hasn’t caught on. You don’t see any of the common India coffee chains like Café Coffee Day or Barista here, let alone the more flamboyant ones. You don’t find any large bookshops here, the only Higginbotham is painfully derelict. While there are few fastfood outlets, the characteristic home-delivery scooters or motor bikes are apparently absent whizzing through traffic.

The best advertising books

So you want to make a break into advertising or are looking to fine tune your copywriting skills. Here are a few good advertising books in no particular order that will help make you a better advertising person.


Books to sharpen your ideation

  1. The advertising Concept Book Pete Barry
  2. Whack on the side of your head Roger Von Oech
  3. Copywriting Mark Shaw
  4. Cutting Edge Advertising Jim Atchinson
  5. Kiss & Sell Robert Sawyer
  6. 1001 Advertising Tips DuPont
  7. Hey Whipple Squeeze This – Luke Sullivan
  8. Whack on the side of your head – Roger Von Oech

Books on the day to day business side of advertising

  1. Creative strategies Mario Pricken
  2. How to do better creative work

Books by advertising big shots

  1. Ogilvy on Advertising
  2. Hegarty turning intelligence into magic
  3. Hegarty on Creativity
  4. Then they set his head on fire Phil Dussenbury

Other interesting reads

  1. Ad land Mark Tungate
  2. It’s not how good you are it’s how good you want to be Paul Arden
  3. Ads to icons Paul Springer
  4. Advertising is dead long live advertising Tom Himpe
  5. Idea Industry Brett Robbs Deborah Morrisson

Award books

  1. Epica book 26 Creative Communication
  2. D&AD 2013