It was unexpected. After launching a series of ads exalting the virtues of its network, Bharti Airtel launched a campaign featuring disgruntled consumers complaining about poor network, call drops and lack of connectivity, among other things. But the telecom company’s effort to be transparent about its coverage, and convey its commitment, seems to have struck a chord with consumers.

Three ads from Airtel’s Open Network campaign took the first three spots in the Mint-Ipsos-TVAdIndx survey for June. A fourth ad took the seventh spot. The ads also took the first three spots, and the fifth spot, on the ad diagnostics index.

In a way, the campaign owns up to network issues that are common to all telcos. It features customers complaining about poor network and call drops, documentary style. Then, it explains how Airtel customers can check the location of mobile towers and signal strength in their vicinity through a mobile app or website and tell the company about network problems.

The Open Network initiative used a communication mix that included TV, print, outdoor and digital.

“This is a path-breaking campaign in the journey of brand Airtel and a frank conversation with the customer. Network quality is at the core of the experience we deliver to our customers and we are willing to say that our network can certainly be better. We are opening ourselves to feedback and questions from our customers and inviting them to help us make our network better. The look and feel, tonality, of the communication is very different from past Airtel communication and we hope that it will help the brand establish a strong connect with customers," Rajiv Mathrani, chief brand officer, Bharti Airtel, said in a statement in June.

The ad that topped the survey is a montage of different customers talking about the unkept promises of mobile service providers. Another ad compared network coverage to the inequitable distribution of sweets, more for some, less for others.

Created by Taproot Dentsu India Communication Pvt. Ltd and shot by Mumbai-based Equinox Films Pvt. Ltd, the idea was to showcase Bharti Airtel as a firm that acknowledges the problem and is willing to address it in a transparent manner by letting customers access all the mobile network information through an interactive online interface. It displays Airtel’s mobile network coverage across India, in addition to site/tower deployment status.

The agency got its insights by talking to friends, families, its own office staff and Airtel customers. “We literally got them directly from the consumers’ mouths," says Agnello Dias, chief creative officer and co-founder of Taproot Dentsu. “Rarely have we executed a campaign in such an organic manner and it was fascinating to see how much reality we could draw out of people by pressing the right triggers. Some of them got so personally intense that it was a bit scary during the shoot. That was funny," he said.

“Their strategy is brilliant," says K.V. Sridhar, chief creative officer, SapientNitro India, an integrated marketing and technology agency. “Brands need to be transparent to win consumer trust. Earlier, trust was a function of the number of years a company or brand had been around, but that alone is not enough any more. Consumers today want transparency and they want facts. With the campaign, the first premise of transparency has been established, where consumers can actually check their claims of a superior network. Moreover, this campaign puts the consumer in control by allowing them to participate in finding a solution to the problem—whether it’s checking network strength or setting up towers."

Sridhar believes a stronger digital push could have helped forge an even better connect since that medium is interactive.

Ram Madhvani, the Equinox Films director who shot the ad, says: “Really, the biggest job of any film-maker is to try and get to some truth. And the people had to feel comfortable enough to ‘open’ up. Their irateness was fun to dig out. And the biggest joy was seeing their change in expression and attitude when they finally saw what Airtel was actually going to open up about." He liked, he says, the honest documentary approach that the client had in mind.