New Delhi: Advertising veteran Srinivasan K. Swamy intends to simplify what the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) does for consumers as he settles in his new role as chairman of the regulatory body. At a time when ASCI’s role has been recognized by a parliamentary standing committee which has also recommended giving it some legal powers, Swamy intends to effectively engage with industry stakeholders and empower consumers.
Shuttling between his home in Chennai and Mumbai, Swamy has his hands full. He is chairman and managing director of the Rs600 crore RK Swamy BBDO Group, actively participates in various industry bodies, and is deeply involved in philanthropy, running schools and hospitals in Chennai.
In an interview, he discusses the future course of action for ASCI, his company’s growth, evolving advertising industry and its challenges, and being an influencer. Edited excerpts:
You have been a part of ASCI for 10 years; now that you are at the helm, how do you plan to chart a new course for the body?
ASCI, so far, has focused on urging consumers to report misleading or offending ads. I want to spend time in explaining the decision-making process at ASCI. There is a misconception that a decision on complaints is taken by ASCI board of governors. The fact is, there is a Consumer Complaints Council (CCC) which comprises majority members from the civil society including consumer activists, lawyers, educationists and doctors, who decide on the complaints. We ensure that there is a healthy mix of people from various backgrounds, gender and occupations in the council. There is a minority representation from the advertising fraternity as well.
In the last two years, the regulator has gone many steps further in forging partnerships with industry bodies and the government to crack the whip on misleading ads. We have partnered with TAM Media Research to launch the National Advertising Monitoring Service.
There is a memorandum of understanding with the ministry of consumers affairs, under which we monitor the Grievances Against Misleading Ads portal. There is also a partnership with food regulator Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. We are in talks with the AYUSH ministry as well. Therefore, ASCI has enough support to track misleading ads.
But it still does not have penalizing powers.
We are only a recommendatory body but having said that, the ASCI code is incorporated in the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994. If an offending ad has been broadcast by the broadcaster, he will be hauled up and the ad has to be taken off the air. There is compliance from the broadcaster side. When it comes to non-compliance in the print media, we have a partnership with the department of consumer affairs, which follows its own process. In the best-case scenario, the action is taken within two months.
How would you deal with Patanjali Ayurved, which has accused ASCI of defamation and threatened legal action?
I do not want to comment on Patanjali; rather I’ll give an overall perspective. When found guilty by CCC, more than 99% advertisers agree to modify or withdraw their ad. The decision taken by CCC is not arbitrary; the advertiser’s claims are first verified by asking for more data, if the claims are technical, then expert advice is solicited. India is a democratic country; we have a rule of law which is vested in the judiciary; so, if one or two wayward fellows go to court, then we have to defend it there.
There is a heated debate on whether celebrities should be penalized for misleading ads. What are your thoughts on it?
A celebrity is only a face speaking on behalf of an advertiser. Even with all the due diligence, he/she will still have a limitation of being an outsider. In most of the cases, celebrities do not know the intricate details of the product/service, nor do they have the aptitude or competence beyond a point to fully understand it. They follow the advertiser’s point of view; hence liabilities on them can only be civil and not criminal.
How is your advertising agency business (RK Swamy BBDO) growing in terms of new account wins and billings?
We have seen a reasonably good growth last year and the business is growing in double digits. Like in every business, there’s a huge focus on margins; agencies need to find smarter ways to do engaging work but at lower prices.
Your partner agency BBDO India has been creating quite a buzz with awards for campaigns such as Share The Load, while RK Swamy BBDO seems to be a quiet player. Why isn’t there any buzzy work coming out from your agency?
We are very proud of the fact that BBDO has done well. When we started RK Swamy BBDO, it was different from BBDO India. Both the agencies have different offerings, flavours and work portfolio.
We focus on creating work that solves our client’s business objectives. Winning awards is not our focus area. We have a handsome strike rate when it comes to winning pitches; if we lose any, it is usually out of commercial consideration.
What kind of projects does your market research firm Hansa Research handle?
We used to handle the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) but not for the last couple of years. To our relief, IRS has been embroiled in many controversies, from the survey not coming out on time to the quality. As long as we were handling it, we delivered it quarter-on-quarter on time. Currently, we are the largest supplier of data to Broadcast Audience Research Council India. The firm has been tasked to instal meters to pull viewership data from Indian television homes. International research firms such as Kantar Millward Brown also use our back-end services, which includes field work. So, there are a lot of projects we are handling at Hansa Research.
How are the challenges that the advertising fraternity faces today different from what they used to be?
The biggest challenge for advertising agencies is to keep pace with the ever evolving digital medium. The traditional media channels are shifting to smaller screens (smartphones). Television has graduated to over-the-top (OTT) platforms, newspapers to news websites and radio to music streaming portals. Capturing consumer attention is another challenge. The agencies which will crack the digital game better and faster will be the winners of tomorrow.
Another big development in advertising is the much-discussed programmatic buying, which simply means how advertisers can buy specific programme slots to reach specific audiences. I believe OTT will also dramatically change how entertainment or information is being consumed.
Internet of Things, or IoT (connecting any device with an on and off switch to the Internet, and/or to each other) will also transform how we consume products.
Therefore, agencies will require a new set of tools which will help speak to consumers one-to-one. So the communication landscape is changing from one to many (mass media) to one-to-one (word of mouth) and eventually to one-to-several (creating shareable content).
What do you think of the current quality of ads in India?
There are two types of advertising—one done for winning awards and the other one for the real market, which help clients grow their business. Unfortunately, most of the work in all the award shows is only comprehensible to the jury who slap each other’s back.
In my opinion, an ad which may not necessarily be creative and gets talked about but manages to sell a product, is a winner. There are times when few ads meet the middle ground of creativity and business objectives, and such ads are noteworthy. At the end of the day, ads have to help meet the marketing objectives of the advertiser.
Any such recent ads that you can think of?
I believe Amazon India’s recent Apni Dukaan ads are one of the good ones that help consumers understand the platform better and take insights from our daily lives. Tanishq ads also attack stereotypes but while it is discussed in media, I’m not sure how deeply they affect the core consumers of the brand.
You are regarded as an influencer in the ad fraternity. What is the best and worst part of being in that position?
Am I? (laughs) Well, I would like advertising professionals to take a holistic approach where they go beyond the roles assigned to them. A creative resource, for instance, must understand planning and vice versa. Many small boutique agencies are already cultivating this culture of multitasking. But since most of the advertising agencies are a part of large global conglomerates, introducing such a change is wishful thinking.
The bad side of being an influencer is that I have an opinion on everything, which I express without batting an eyelid. At times, it may ruffle some feathers.