Opinion: Cause without a cause (Part 2)

In the final part of the series, Aditya Dubash speaks about the rise of Conscious Consumerism and how can brands be a part of this wave as opposed to taking a tokenist approach to cause marketing.

From Ayurveda in personal care to bamboo toothbrushes to the newer snacking options, more supermarket shelves now proudly feature ‘healthy’, ‘green’, ‘natural’, and ‘chemical-free’ products upfront. In the past few years, there has been a massive shift in consumerism (beginning with the ‘Patanjali effect’), permeating into every single product category – people are becoming more ‘conscious’ of what they are spending their money on.

While part 1 of the series addressed the need to look at a ‘cause’ from beyond a marketing lens, in part 2, we take a closer look at the consumer side of things and also, a perspective on how brands can look at framing their communication if they intend to pursue a cause.

Rise of Conscious Consumerism

A 2020 survey by Edelman points to this fact and shows that this push is twofold – consumers as well as employees of an organization.

The survey found that 64% of consumers are “belief-driven buyers”— that is, they may choose to purchase, switch from or to, or boycott a brand based on its stance on social issues.

This stance is particularly common among highly coveted young consumers. The study also highlights that a strong majority of the workforce want their C-suite to speak out about issues like income inequality (78%), diversity (77%), and climate change (73%). All this leads to brands taking note that
people are becoming ‘woke’ and that this is the age of ‘conscious consumerism’.

Closer home, in a survey by Economic Times, it was revealed that 79% Indians change purchase preferences based on social responsibility, inclusiveness, or environmental impact by the brand with more than half (54%) willing to pay a premium for the ‘value’ they see in a brand. It also indicated that ~60% of the people have reduced spending on brands that they think are ‘non-sustainable’. Basically, Indians are getting ‘woking-up’ and are mimicking the global shift in purchase especially when it comes to younger audiences like Gen Z.

Voice v/s Echo Chamber

‘Wokeness’ is a result of the change in the level of exposure that we are getting accustomed to as screen times and social media usage continues to increase at exponential rates. Social media platforms like Twitter were conceived as a means to give more people a voice. As many newer forms of social media platforms have become mainstream, our desire to express ourselves has become more and more potent.

However, higher usage of these platforms has led to online behaviour shifting towards unthinking conformity and a lack of sense of individuality or personal accountability. Truth is, we have become more hive-minded due to social media. While these platforms aimed to give everyone an opinion, they have wound up leading to very few thought leaders and too many followers trying to put their stamp on the cultural zeitgeist. This phenomenon is mimicked by brands too – all the hyped-up ‘moment marketing’, communications targeting ‘topical dates’ and trying to associate with each and every ‘cause’ are starting to come across as desperate bids for cultural relevance and being a part of trending conversations.

This brings us to the crux of the problem – brands getting ‘woke’. While there is nothing wrong with brands actually trying to do good for society, every brand should think long and hard before supporting a cause. Brands need to be sure of whether they are actually committing to it or just ‘woke-washing’ their comms.

Also Read: Opinion: Cause without a cause (Part 1) 

Adopting a ‘Cause’

The OG poster child for woke-washing remains Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad that reduced the entire ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement to “Dude, you need to chill. Have a Pepsi”. The ad got unanimously panned and it became famous across the world due to social media. And Gen Z are typically notorious with this since they are vastly more social media savvy and have absolutely no fear in calling out brands for tokenism (PRIDE flag display pictures, anyone?)

However, there are some brands that have gone above and beyond short term bursts of communication:


When Patagonia came up with ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ in 2011, they asked their consumers to reconsider their decision before buying the product. It may sound like shooting themselves in the foot, but they understood the cultural context that people are becoming more conscious in their spending and are looking towards products that last. Not only did this campaign serve as a platform for Patagonia to talk about the quality and durability of their jackets, but they also took environmental impact very seriously and followed it up with various initiatives internally (commitment towards reducing their environmental footprint in production).

They also ran a campaign promoting recycling by wearing used clothing that were donated by consumers and repaired by the brand. Going a step further, they put their brand’s voice behind supporting legislation that was pro-environment and ended up suing the U.S. government in 2017 regarding proclamations to reduce the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by almost 50%.


Based on a 2020 study that found only 1.8% of characters in ads from the annual Cannes Lions festival were LGBTQ, P&G tied up with GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), one of the world’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations, to start ‘The Visibility Project’. According to the brand, the tie-up aims to accelerate LGBTQ acceptance & representation in the world of advertising by bringing together the world’s top brands and ad agencies to advance LGBTQ inclusion in ads, and create and provide tools, techniques and resources for industry executives to help increase diversity in advertising. The alliance has the potential to be a first step in reducing inauthentic LGBTQ representation and actually giving the community a chance to tell their stories.


In 2018, Vodafone launched ‘Sakhi’ to solve a real-world problem of misuse and harassment of women. This was based on a police report which had discovered a scheme where mobile shops sell women’s phone numbers to men, who then harass them with unwanted messages and pictures. Vodafone changed how recharges are done by providing women users a dummy 10-digit number to ensure privacy. They also expanded the initiative to make it freely available as well as include provisions like emergency alerts that can be sent to family members and a provision of ‘emergency balance’ enabling phone calls even with zero talktime for emergencies.

There are more such examples where brands have legitimately stepped up to walk the talk.

What brands should be looking at

Behavioural psychology author, Nir Eyal, came up with an interesting four-step framework to counter technological distractions (mostly because of smartphone addictions) and gain control over our time by understanding triggers and behaviours. It was his version of how to make technology work for us rather than becoming subversive to its effects.

If we are to adopt a similar approach towards Cause marketing, brands need to keep the ‘purpose’ at the centre and look at it from the four facets of the framework:

Master Internal Triggers – Changing our approach to move from reacting to proactively looking at and understanding, isolating, and working on policies, issues, and system roadblocks that prevent us from associating with a cause without being dishonest. This is specifically important to avoid a Nike -like situation (with Allyson Felix) where the brand gets called out for communicating a message which does not match their actions.

Hack Back External Triggers – Instead of letting popular opinion guide how the brand’s messaging is shaped, it becomes important to include and listen to the voices that have been supporting or fighting for the particular cause that a brand wants to adopt to have an authentic voice. This includes collaboration with organizations that have been in the field for a long time, case in point, P&G + GLAAD.

Perfect Distractions with Pacts – One of the aspects that a brand needs to be sure of before committing to a cause is to figure out issues that prevent the fulfilment of the brand’s core promise. A case in example is Chipotle as their attempts to talk about their food philosophy were called out on the account of hygiene and quality issues in their franchises. In this case, the brand needs to prevent these kinds of ‘distractions’ from being able to support a cause by taking steps to ensure they are not lagging on their core offerings.

Make time for traction – Finally, have a plan/roadmap/direction in trying to set up short, mid, and long term perspectives in how adopting a ‘Brand Purpose’ will shape the future identity, image, and communications of the brand. Case in point, brands like Stayfree and Whisper (Always) started off with bringing conversations around menstruation to the mainstream and have committed to educating women on menstrual hygiene in the long run.

Finally, the point that is to be noted here is that people have started becoming more aware of social issues, viewing them as agendas and have gained avenues to raise their voices where the brand is now forced into the backfoot. In the past few days, we have seen FabIndia, Zomato and Fem face massive backlash online for their attempts at going ‘woke’. Brands can no longer get away with acts of tokenism to profit from a cause. Both the brand teams and agencies need to think long and hard if a one time attempt at showing progressive agenda is worth the cancelling that they will be subject to if the cause they align towards is not imbued into the brand’s culture and path forward.

The article is authored by Aditya Dubash, Group Account Planner at 21N78E Creative Labs.


Opinion: Cause without a cause (Part 1)

In part one of the opinion series, Aditya Dubash, Group Account Planner at 21N78E Creative Labs speaks about how cause marketing, while effective, shouldn’t come at the cost of compromising the brand’s ethos.

Paraphrasing from Phil Brooks’s infamous rant, “Reader, while you read this, hopefully as uncomfortable as you possibly can be with yet another brand jumping on a bandwagon, I want you to listen to me. I have a lot of things I want to get off my chest…”

One of the biggest changes in the past few years in advertising and communication has been the inclusion of brands taking a stand by supporting ‘causes’. This has no doubt led to extremely memorable moments like Always’s ‘Like a girl’ campaign or Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’.

But the real challenge stands in adopting a purpose to guide a brand’s overall strategy without being accused of inauthenticity.

Changing Perspectives 

In the past, it was clear to most brands that their marketing communication was all about showcasing the brand and product in the best light to sell the product or service to you. This was great when all you had was TV, outdoor and radio. But in today’s age, the age of dwindling attention spans (especially if we are exposed to 6,000 to 10,000 ads daily), it becomes hard to stand out.

Enter, ‘Cause Marketing’.

Brands and advertisers realized very quickly that in order to make their communication go  ‘viral’, the simplest way to do it is, “Make them cry, make them buy”. The reason for many ads to follow a pattern of ‘triggering’ us is that we register them for a long time since we start relating to them through our own emotional experiences.

Also Read: Cause Marketing campaigns that gave the cause a purpose

But that’s not all ‘cause marketing’ is. By definition, it refers to when a company does well by doing good i.e purpose-driven marketing. It stems from the idea that a brand subscribes to a  strong ’purpose’ for being in business and aspires to use its products and reach, to cause meaningful change. A growing number of brands are relooking at what they mean, offering to their customers beyond functional benefits. A brand that stands for something will have a  higher recall – this change in perspective is caused by two factors:

  • The brand wants to show that it has more responsibility to people and society  (Lifebuoy’s ‘Help a child reach 5’, for example).
  • The customers are looking to validate their personal stance by associating themselves with a brand that reflects it (Vegan and organic food movements).

All of this has become even more pronounced in 2020-2021. Stories of brands stepping in to help people out through the pandemic have become somewhat a norm now.

Empathy has become a common communication theme across industries but that doesn’t mean that it should come at the cost of the brand’s basic promise (thank you, Bob Hoffman).

No amount of socially conscious acts will do a brand any favours if its core offering is not able to deliver upon its promise. What it actually means, is that it has become a necessity for agencies and marketing teams to fully understand and evaluate the ramifications of associating with a particular cause and look at long-term metrics and real-world impact over chasing fleeting gains such as ‘virality’.

The article is authored by Aditya Dubash, Group Account Planner at 21N78E Creative Labs. Watch this space for the second part of the series.


Opinion: A viewpoint on converging customer journeys

Brands are no longer competing just for patronage, they are competing for attention on about six inches of real estate, says the author

In 2009, Apple came up with a phrase that was a foreshadowing of how our purchasing patterns would be forever altered – ‘there’s an app for that’. Since then, smartphone apps have branched out into almost every industry. In the ‘good old days’, options for purchase would require us to shuffle between shops, speak to the staff, bargain to get the best deals, and finally make their choice. Today, options for each specific app exist within our app drawers.

Research shows that, on average, a smartphone user has around 80 apps installed. Knowing that their competition is just a touch away, brands are adapting and adding to their core offerings by looking outside their core category of expertise (Swiggy for example, has added groceries and intra-city deliveries) to get more people into their ecosystem. Brands are no longer competing just for patronage, they are competing for attention on about six inches of real estate. With the conversations around super apps, we are moving from ‘this one’ to the ‘most convenient one’.

The psychology of convenience

As slaves to modern society, we live in an increasingly fast-paced environment where we have to make decisions as part of a demanding lifestyle – multiple roles, WFH, and long hours. When it comes to making decisions we rely on two types of guides in our mind:

  • The analytical guide – What we use the majority of the time to work things out properly and decide. It is conscious, controlled, calculated, and requires a lot of effort.
  • The intuitive guide – What we use when reflexively making snap decisions – ‘gut feeling’. It is unconscious, automatic, and doesn’t require effort.

Today, our purchase journey has become more and more complicated:

With limited rationality and willpower, as the complexity of the journey increases, our decision making becomes susceptible to one of four influences:

  • Aspiration – Seeking to be better versions of us
  • Manipulation – Influenced by marketing
  • Instinct – Impulse buying
  • Decision fatigue – Overload of information

In the latter two states, when we try to make a purchase decision about comparatively smaller things (food for lunch, for example) our minds automatically rely on the intuitive guide to help find easier ways to make a decision – we are wired to seek convenience.

This has become even more prevalent as mobile and online ordering facilities have brought a level of convenience for all our needs that weren’t there before – make your choice, pay and arrange delivery or collection from your smartphone or computer. Thus, allowing us to quickly and easily get what we want when we want it:

Which makes sense as services like Prime have become an almost default subscription. As a thumb rule, ‘easy and fast’ makes a tired brain happy. Apps have ensured we are reliant on them to experience easier decision-making.

Three eras of retail

As a major disruptor, digital, was expected to completely swallow offline businesses (as feared by people with torches and pitchforks). But what it has actually led to is more Darwinistic. It has taught us to adapt to convenience and induced a long-term change in our behaviours. When it comes to the retail ecosystem, as consumers, we have gone through three major eras:

The offline retail era

The era of traditional retail where signs claiming ‘Customer is king’ were hung proudly behind cash counters. King, we may be, but the real power lay with the retailers/owners who controlled how the business would run within their locality. However, it was also an era that was driven by strong relationships between retailers and consumers, especially knowing the customer personally, and offering hyper-personalised recommendations as well as benefits like credit/khata to regulars with good relationships. There was also a definitive air of ‘assured fulfillment’ as retailers would take orders from the customers and go out of their way to fulfill it for them by getting the required goods from their networks. It was an era of personal bonding that is still seen among smaller stores (local kiranas for example) in metros and neighbourhood stores in smaller towns and cities.

The O+O (offline and online) era

With the boom of e-commerce, major players like Flipkart, Amazon, Shopclues, Myntra etc ushered in the era of mobile shopping. With the backing of evolving technological platforms, burn money, and increasing smartphone/internet penetration, the driving forces behind this era were availability, accessibility, and affordability. The pace of technological integration combined with unequal distribution of internet access made it difficult for offline retailers to adapt to this wave. The wild wave of discounts, EDLP, and signup offers drastically changed the power structure and the power shifted to the consumer. Although tech has tried very hard to bring the experience of ‘knowing what you want’, but has ended up largely being intrusive and sometimes, annoying. On one hand, the customers lost out on more human touch, on the other, they gained the convenience of all in one place.

Collaboration era

According to a 2020 Mckinsey report, around 96% of consumers have adopted new shopping behaviour, and approximately 60% of consumers will make the shift to online shopping in the festive seasons and continue it in the ‘new normal’. One of the fastest-growing consumer segments of the past year for eCommerce has been the 50+ category. The pandemic and the lockdown have led to one of the most significant shifts in the way we shop. Whenever we decide to buy something that is beyond a staple/necessity, we now Google for options. Psychologically, we are getting more digitised.

While the rise of digital acceptance has led to increased online shopping, the initial days of the lockdown exposed the fact that e-tailers did not have enough infrastructure in place to fulfill the drastic adoption. This led to people going back to relying on neighbourhood stores. Brands noticed and one of the key changes that came into place was online players working alongside local offline players to not just fulfill orders, but also help deliver on convenience.

The driving factor for this era will be dependent on brands nurturing on-ground relationships with sellers/outlets/GT Owners and no longer see them as competitors but as partners in inclusive growth. Thus, leading to convergence of channels and a shift towards true omnichannel experiences.

Experience is the key

In the past year, as businesses were still going through major overhauls to adapt, having to adopt a hybrid business approach became increasingly popular among offline retailers, especially small business owners. The most common and prominent examples being local kirana stores accepting orders through platforms like WhatsApp and contactless payments while offering doorstep deliveries – thus, adding a convenient experience to their arsenal.

E-commerce brands witnessed a massive spike in orders from tier II and III cities and towns. This has been a trend in the past few years but amplified with lockdowns and wide acceptance of digital payments. Even in these regions, shopkeepers adapted to UPI payments and began adding QR codes to their cash counters.

The theoretical blurring of boundaries between ‘online’ and ‘offline’ sales channels has been spoken about for years. But these behaviours are on full display today:

  • People planning their visits to stores more carefully, while looking for availability on online channels.
  • Customers wanting to know whether a store offers online ordering with in-store pickup.
  • Another common behaviour change is checking for prices/offers online while shopping in a supermarket for better offers.

Consumers today need reassurance that they’ll find what they’re looking for before they leave home. The necessity for legacy retail brands to have a strong e-commerce presence grows every year, at the same time, digital-native brands are opening brick-and-mortar stores to attract new customers. These behavioural shifts are driven by convenience and are centered around the promise of a seamless shopping experience.

Convergence is simply convenience

Brands that will stand at the top of the ‘collaboration era’ will have to seamlessly mix both traditional and online channels into a digitally enabled ecosystem. This includes understanding and creating O+O experiences by leveraging the right tech solutions and digital-savvy employees and customers. This ‘hybrid’ model will be the mainstay retail model as research predicts that 78% of purchases[9] will still be made in stores by 2024.

Brands can no longer depend on a traditional ‘path to purchase’ in the expectation that a consumer will be pulled into the funnel. They will have to reframe the journey and look at it from a different, proactive perspective – a path to sell:

1. Identify (Using a combination of data-led insights and hardcore offline research)

  • Buying behaviours (Guided by convenience)
  • Trends (Their adoption from a long-term POV)
  • New platforms/channels (Emerging out of necessity or innovation)

2. Collaborate (To provide the right products, services, and benefits)

  • Technological interventions (Taking advantage of the merging of O+O)
  • Logistical innovations
  • Partnerships for scale

3. Deliver (On brand promise and provide a seamless experience)

  • Touchpoint options
  • Purchase options
  • Delivery options
  • Personalisation options
  • Loyalty options

With increasing consumer familiarity with digital, what we define as a ‘path to sell’ will act as a guideline for the transformation of traditional retail. The outcome of this transformation of the retail sector will be a more personalised experience, simplified digital operations, integrated supply chain, with fintech acting as the backbone. The idea of adopting this approach is to keep the brand at the intersection of convenience and share of attention while aiding the consumer in finding ‘the one’.

(Aditya Dubash is group account planner and Don Bosco is head – consulting practice, 21N78E.)



21N78E Creative Labs wins digital mandate of ManipalCigna Health Insurance

21N78E Creative Labs has won the ManipalCigna Health Insurance business following a multi-agency pitch called recently in Mumbai. The agency will handle the creative work for the brand across digital channels. The brand previously worked with Hyderabad-based agency GenY.

Talking about the win, Sudhir Nair, CEO & Co-Founder 21N78E Creative Labs, said: “In a category that has been early adopters of digital, driven largely by performance, ManipalCigna has taken initiatives that makes it stand out. Our focus will be to not just do clutter breaking creative work, but also to move the needle on key business metrics. We are excited to partner MCHI in their next phase of brand growth.”

ManipalCigna had undergone a re-branding change from CignaTTK to reflect its new partnership with the Manipal Group a few years ago. Since then, the brand has operated under the new moniker of ManipalCigna.

Sapna Desai, Head of Marketing and eCommerce, ManipalCigna Health Insurance says, “Since the launch in 2014, ManipalCigna has done well to strengthen its brand awareness and has carved a successful niche in the Indian market owning ‘Health and Wellness’ space. As we look towards a future of delivering more affordable, predictable and simple healthcare, we are absolutely pleased to welcome the 21n78e Creative Labs team on board, to take the social mandate forward and bring to life the unique value of our brand. 21n78e Creative Labs understands the essence of our business, growth strategy and we look forward to working with them to help us connect with a larger audience in even more meaningful ways across digital platforms.”

Speaking on the pitch, Navin Kansal, Chief Creative Officer, said: “We are delighted to be working with a brand which has a slew best-in-class products that are poised to disrupt the category. We want to do work that can do justice to these products and makes a compelling difference in the marketplace.”


21N78E Creative Labs retains Motorola’s creative account

The Delhi branch of the agency will handle the account

exchange4media has learnt that 21N78E Creative Labs has retained smartphone maker Motorola’s creative account following a multi-agency pitch called in March this year; the decision was taken recently. 21N78E Creative Labs will continue to serve as Motorola India’s full-service creative agency. The pitch was called in Delhi and 7-8 agencies are believed to have been in the fray. The Delhi branch of the agency will handle the account. 21N78E had first won the business in 2018 and will handle the through the line mandate for Motorola with a keen focus on digital-first initiatives.

Confirming the news Navin Kansal, Chief Creative Officer, 21N78E Creative Labs says, “We are delighted with the faith reposed in this partnership. We will continue to put our best foot forward to create work that shines and makes a difference in the marketplace for this iconic brand.”

Navin Kansal, Chief Creative Officer, 21N78E Creative Labs

Adding to that, Sudhir Nair, CEO & Co-Founder 21N78E Creative Labs says, “Motorola handsets enjoyed great following and was high on the agenda of people seeking style and cutting-edge tech.  And for a brand to hold that kind of sway, as we are witnessing with even the recent launch of Motorola Edge 20, speaks to the strength & popularity and as well as the deep connections it has created over time. We will focus our energies on dialling up the Motomagic even more.”

Sudhir Nair, CEO & Co-Founder 21N78E Creative Labs

On awarding the account to 21N78E Creative Labs, Shivam Ranjan, Head of Marketing, Motorola India says, “21N78E Creative Labs demonstrated their deep understanding of the category and the changing Indian consumer needs. Their pitch narrative was insightful, consumer-centric and creative and their understanding of the brand narrative and values over the past few years ensured that their proposals were extremely relevant and resonated with the DNA of the brand. The team is passionate and brings their A-game to every brief. I’m keen to see the team push boundaries of innovation as we extend our partnership and take the brand to the next level.”

Shivam Ranjan, Head of Marketing, Motorola India

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Coins for Oxygen: Has it worked for CRED, or does it look gimmicky?

CRED is letting users donate their ‘coins’ towards the supply of oxygen concentrators. The initiative has fetched polarising responses on, and off, social media.

Users of the CRED app now have the option of donating their ‘CRED coins’ towards the supply of oxygen concentrators for COVID patients. The fintech brand has partnered with Milaap, an independent NGO, to execute this initiative.

CRED coins are accumulated by users when they pay their bills on the app. Now, a UI/UX tweak allows them to donate these coins in the fight against COVID.

To begin with, CRED was already being called out, by users and rival brands alike, for its lack of clarity on the real world value of these virtual rewards points. However, this latest coins-for-oxygen move has drawn some serious flak.

While some are lauding the move, many are questioning it, not least because there’s no clear information about how the team plans to go about ‘converting’ virtual points into lifesaving oxygen.

There are many who echo this view. All in all, will this effort to be charitable backfire and make the brand look opportunistic and gimmicky? Here is what five industry experts have to say.

Edited excerpts:

Navin Kansal – chief creative officer – 21N78E Creative Labs

When I redeemed my CRED coins, I was in two minds about whether I should share it on my social platforms or not but I went ahead and did it anyway so as to nudge other Cred users to act too.

The goodwill that Cred will get out of this initiative will be a result of the branding work they’ve done in the last few months since they’ve been very disruptive when it comes to their advertising. As far as this initiative goes, it is low hanging fruit for Cred since most users already had Cred coins that they in all likelihood hadn’t redeemed.



Opinion: Metrics that matter and the ‘Real’ ROI

Plenty gets tossed about on the topic of various performance indicators and ROI. The digitisation of the world has given marketers so many new acronyms to choose from that it’s become harder to keep track of them all. ER, CPC, CPL, CTR, CTOR, time spent, stickiness, page depth, CPM, COCA or whatever else that catches one’s fancy. The plethora of ‘X must-track metrics for all marketers’ listicles out there clearly shows that many marketers and pundits unnecessarily tie themselves up in knots.

As Michael Porter puts it, “The essence of strategy is to choose what not to do.” The situation is further complicated when even more abstract concepts such as ‘Brand Purpose’ are thrown into the mix. Sure, they can either be great tools to drive value and thereby measure ‘Real’ ROI (not without its own issues) or become wonderfully elaborate rugs under which to brush failures. With companies slated to be spending 17% of the budgets on analytics as per cmosurvey, it is important to be clear on what to measure and what to ignore.

So what is ‘Real ROI’? And how does one lock in on the metrics that matter, both short-term and long term? This will depend on what business you’re engaged in and what your long term and short term goals are. Ultimately, everything boils down to how much business you can generate through the activities you conduct, but when it comes to marketing we can all agree that some of this pays off only in the long run. To stay on course and also measure in the long run, one can undervalue or overvalue one’s efforts in this regard.

Burger King is a great example: unlikely anything except gain of market share against total spends would determine their ‘Real ROI’, however, each campaign had key metrics such as total people engaged or converted, total PR generated, overall sentiment, total sales generated, etc. These would be metrics for each campaign that ultimately helped ascertain whether meaningful progress was being made towards ‘Real ROI’. The reality is that very frequently ‘Real ROI’ can be quite nuanced and is something that has to be custom-defined for what you want to achieve with each marketing or advertising activity. CMO Fernando Machado put it best: “Not all campaigns will do everything, but they should be doing something in the direction of the objectives you have.”

To illustrate with an example, a recent project we were involved in forced us to define our success metric as the total number of people who changed their behaviour in a particular way. Given that there was no accurate way to measure this in the short run, we further abstracted it to the number of people who interacted with our communication in a very specific way that would indicate a tendency towards a shift in behaviour – with comments on social media, reflective of the same. The ‘Real ROI’ in this case was the total number of people that we could effectively bucket into this category. Counting and bucketing comments wasn’t easy, measuring success is hard work!

Media metrics (social and otherwise), vanity metrics, costs per Xs, among others, became indicators tending towards this one ultimate goal.

So why is this important? Starting with an end goal in mind is pretty obvious, but ensuring that it’s nuanced and well-articulated is something that gets skipped over in the hustle of our advertising lives. Machado says, “In the beginning, you need to prove the case, make sure everyone is aligned, telling them, “This is our strategy and this is how we will match success.”

Defining the ‘Real ROI’ for a specific activity or campaign helps make the strategic approach a lot clearer, the creative outcome is infinitely sharper and most importantly, the creatives not just quantitatively, but also qualitatively measurable. Continuing with the Burger King example: in February of 2020, Burger King decided to play a prank on Ronald McDonald on Valentine’s day. Gaining market share is ultimate ROI, of course, but the use of their #LonelyNoMore would have been their primary metric and the real ROI here would have been in how much free PR they got from the whole exercise.

Obviously, having metrics that matter in the long run will ensure your clients stay with you even if things don’t necessarily seem to work out as planned. If this isn’t good enough for you, there’s a very good possibility that when it comes to review time the clients, and agency partners alike, will appreciate having an honest conversation where it’s easy to identify what to repeat for future success and what to add to a list of ‘Dont’s’.

Who is responsible for defining and articulating these metrics or the ‘Real ROI’, you ask? While everyone can chime in with their thoughts on what the ‘Real ROI’ should be, the burden lies on the suits. Business (agency and client) plus strategy. The business teams have an understanding of what’s going to make the accountants happy and the strategic team understands what’s going to move their audiences in the right way to make the accountants happy.

How does this ultimately impact the work or the business? In this day and age of short term interests, buzzwords and so much data, there’s a tendency to shift our focus away from what may be really important. Sometimes this could also be a function of confusion due to the sheer number of stakeholders and everyone looking out for themselves. Having a handle on the ‘Real ROI’ on any activity helps to have a more meaningful and long term perspective on all the work being done. Ultimately only adding to the business would be considered ‘Real ROI’, but the truth is that adding business is in itself a long term goal, and there are meaningful pit stops that one must make along the way. As touched upon earlier, giving your business team an honest picture of what worked and what didn’t while also giving your creatives a way to evaluate and more scientifically approach their craft are also ways to improve the quality of your work. Not just on further iterations of that specific activity, but also take that freshly gained perspective and apply it to other work. That’s how you increase your success ratio across all the activities and projects that you undertake.

So what’s the TL;DR?

Meaningful Metrics and Real ROI are something that we should all be cognizant of, especially in this day and age of short-termism and data overload. It’s something that adland has managed to confuse, to everyone’s detriment. While there’s no cookie-cutter solution, having these honest conversations on what matters v/s what doesn’t make for a better industry in the long run.

Mark Ritson says that our understanding of metrics is broken and it’s time to get back to class for a “101 on market orientation”. The good news is that it’s not that complex, it’s about going back to basics and focusing on the metrics that matter!


Grey area: Sudhir Nair, founder and CEO, 21N78E Creative Labs

Ex-Grey ad folk reminisce about their time at the agency with Grey Group set to fold into AKQA

Campaign India is running a multi-piece series featuring ex-Grey ad folk. Here, they reminisce about their time at Grey Group, their fondest memories and learnings, and share their thoughts on brand Grey ceasing to exist in a few months.

Read Sudhir Nair’s memories of his 15 years at Grey Group. He quit the agency in 2015 as senior vice president and head of Grey Digital. Excerpts below:

How did you feel on knowing that brand Grey will cease to exist after a few months or in a year?

I’m very sad and disappointed. Grey was home for 15 years, and to not see the name after a few months is not easy to digest. While AKQA is a name to reckon with in other markets, it certainly is not in India.

Every agency has its ups and lows. In my 15 years at Grey, we bounced back twice when people had started writing our obituary. There was a lot of pride at Grey in telling everyone that we are doing well despite not having a roster of globally-aligned businesses. Even the current acquisition that is aligned to Grey – Autumn – has a good local standing. I don’t understand why one would replace it with AKQA. While I am sure there are some good reasons for this move, I don’t think local realities were taken into account.

In terms of professional growth, what did your time spent at Grey mean to you?

I joined Grey in 2001 when it was still Trikaya-Grey and the office was in Phoenix Mills. My role was to restructure the IT infrastructure. To be honest, though, it was that interview with Subhash Kamath that got me excited at the opportunity, with him alluding to a possible stint at the interactive division. As luck would have it, I was asked to take charge and revive the interactive/digital practice in just about eight months after joining the agency. There has been no looking back since then. It was a dream run for 15 years. We had great clients, arguably the best digital team, won Agency of the Year twice, and achieved many more professional milestones. Had it not been for those 15 years, I wouldn’t have taken the plunge as an entrepreneur.

Could you share some of your fondest memories at Grey?

I cannot forget the day Nirvik (Singh) called me when I was in Bengaluru in 2001. The first call lasted just 2-3 minutes in which I was told to take charge of the interactive division. I was given a generous 20 minutes to think about it. I said ‘yes’ and the next thing I knew, I was told was to present a business plan the following week. I thought I was presenting a rather brave break-even plan. Nirvik’s response to that was short and curt. He said, “I understand only profitable plans”.  And now, even I don’t understand break-even plans.

The other one is a pitch, which to me till-date is a masterclass on on-the-fly thinking. Nirvik simply gauged the mood of the room, decided to shut his laptop, and just talk. We won the pitch, but what he spoke that day had nothing to do with the presentation we had made!   The other one was when Ashutosh Khanna, Prathap Suthan, Alok Agarwal and I pitched for the launch of the ‘Incredible India’ campaign to the then joint secretary of tourism, Amitabh Kant. We won the pitch and I got a call from Kant (who spoke to me in Malayalam!) and reminded me of the seven-day deadline to launch the website and the campaign. What we churned out in that one week was an incredible 300 banners, a website with fresh content and nearly 250 pages.

What about Grey’s ethos and philosophy did you carry with you to your subsequent workplaces?

What was symbolic of Grey, to me, was its entrepreneurial spirit. Everyone was encouraged to think as business owners, be it in terms of the clients they manage or the divisions they were responsible for. In the Late Vinod Prabhakar (ex-South CFO at Grey Group who passed away in 2012), I had the best mentor that one could ask for. Sujit Sen (South Asia CFO at Grey Grey), who we lost to cancer last week, made sure we maintained financial discipline. Be it business plans or managing P&Ls, I have learnt it all at Grey. I continue to maintain that logic in my agency too. Some of those business principles are timeless.


Sudhir Nair of 21N78E tells us about the impact of the pandemic on the advertising business.

Sudhir Nair of 21N78E tells us about the impact of the pandemic on the advertising business.


Creative Block; not just for Creatives

You’re on a strict deadline. The clock is ticking. The document is open. You know what the right thing to do is but you don’t know how to go about it. So, you just sit there staring at the blinking cursor on the screen because you have hit a wall.

All my friends call it “The creative block”

A rather cliched beginning to an article that talks about creative block, isn’t it?

Since the initiation of the lockdown and WFH as the new norm, I’ve heard my creative partners complaining about how they were going through a creative block. They had no one to discuss & dis the ideas with. There was lack of inspiration.

I didn’t really understand this problem then, until one day when it took me 2 hours to make one PowerPoint slide.

I was trying hard to wrap my work as soon as possible so I could go back to my lame Ludo tournament with my cousins, but I just could not. I knew what I wanted from that slide; I knew all the details. But it just wouldn’t come out. When this exact same thing happened to me over the next two days, I knew it had hit me.

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