Why Creative Risk is a must for CMOs?

Why Creative Risk is A Must For CMOs?

The average tenure of today’s CMO is 18-22 months. One major driver is the fear of taking creative risks. Ironically, it is the problem of producing mediocrity that is the true risk.

As members of a society, our brains are hardwired to fit in, to conform.That’s why so many people dress the same way, have the same hairstyles and are uncomfortable to be the ones that stand out in a crowd. This fear of being different seems to permeate marketing departments every day. Many clients seem to buy advertising the same way they buy clothing – gaining comfort from what their peers are doing.

And yet, ironically, as a consumer, this same human brain is programmed to filter out everything that is known, accepted and routine. If your marketing becomes habitual and conforms to the category norms, no one will notice you.  If you are mimicking the same conversation as your competition, you’ll be ignored.  If you change the conversation you become the story teller. If you want to achieve cut-through and relevance you need an idea and execution that stands out, that is different and challenges convention.


Indifference to brand differentiation?

Over the past few months, most of us would have seen some of UAE’s top furniture brands( 4 of them to be precise) using expensive, premium billboard locations to articulate what seems to be a salute to homogenity ( or is it indifference?). What is baffling is the unabashed comfort(security?) being derived from being no different. Same message, same colour scheme and layout, same discount offer, on the same medium, within the same eco system( all these billboards are within a maximum of 500 metres from each other) and of course talking to the same set of road users on that stretch. And for the same product category.Whew!

brand differentiation

All along we were given to understand that differentiation is what separates the men (brand) from the boys. To see that being flouted and consistently so could mean any of the following:

– that this is working( and you better get ready for more of the same). End of debate!

– the rules of brand differentiation have changed and we seem to have missed the bus

– don’t make the folly of investing in ‘ brand strategy ‘– tell it to the birds

– the customer can continue to be taken for granted(discount their sense of intellect as you offer all through the year discounts)

– there is safety in adopting a ‘ herd mentality ‘- even though you might have heard things differently when you studied and deployed branding messages

– in an increasingly commoditised world, communication content or style and brand positioning takes a back seat, if at all

– Within the marketing/branding fraternity, brilliant, out of the box thinkers, end up being ‘ box pushers ‘. What could be the compulsion? Top Lines ? Bottom Lines? Why put your neck on the line? Reckon it’s time to draw the line.

– Increasingly Zero Tolerance to creative risk taking, however calculated and measured it might be. Deliver the expected(not the unexpected!)

‘Deja Vu’ is the new normal. Surprise, innovation, creativity…what’s that?

All these brands seem to be ‘ at home ‘ doing this, so, if you are expecting to see some creative brand communication which makes you say ‘ touchwood ‘, you are in for a disappointment.

(W)influence : Book, Line & Sinker

Sharing that one is well past what has been conventionally defined as an ‘impressionable age’, would be an understatement. But, having said that, the past few months had me having the opportunity to be accessing extremely well written material, which I am happy to be sharing.

EssentialismBeing a sucker for words (apart from being a self claimed wordsmith and copywriter), what jolted me to immediate attention was the title of this book ‘ Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less ‘. Having read it(and forwarded it to more than 100 of my friends and business associates), the least I would want to say is that the book, beautifully put together by Greg McKeown, is essential reading. The book is a gentle yet powerful reminder that we have been(or are) missing the wood for the trees, most of the time. A reality check in an era of virtual dominance. To summarise, what Greg says is that less done better is the best way ahead.

 zero to OneIf logical and numerical sequence is anything to subscribe to, Zero to One is the obvious way to go. Peter Thiel(co founder of PayPal and Palantir and the first outside investor in Facebook apart from funding companies like LinkedIn and SpaceX) has a different take on that. What he says is that when we make something new, we go from zero to one not when you do something that you already know. The act of creation is singular, as is the content of the creation, and the result is something fresh and strange. The book acts as a navigation tool to get there. If a risk taker like Peter Thiel suggests something, it is worth taking up.


YoutilityThe difference between helping and selling is just two letters. That’s what Jay Baer articulates in his high utility book ‘ Youtility ‘. Smart marketing is about help not hype. About brands creating content that will be valued and revered by customers. If you sell something, you make a customer today, but if you genuinely help someone, you create a customer for life. In an always on, hyper cluttered marketplace, brands just cannot break through with product messages like they used to. Providing information that is usable helps immensely. For all those brands wanting to create long term and meaningful engagement with their customers, this book is truly ‘ Youtilitarian ‘.


Make your Mark


Seth Godin, Scott Belsky, Sebastin Thrun, Chris Guillebeau, Andy Dunn, Tim O’Reilly and several more of like high pedigree, all in one book, offered as a distilled compendium of actionable, future ready nuggets…how is that for impact? Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide To Building A Business With Impact features hard won wisdoms from 21 leading entrepreneurs and experts. Make Your Mark (published by 99U, Behance) arms you with practical insights for building a creative business that will make a lasting impact. So, if you are ready to make a ‘ dent in the universe ‘, this book is for you.


StuffocationYet another brilliantly coined title pulled me towards the book ‘ Stuffocation ‘by James Wallman, the author tells us through a compelling narrative, why we have had enough of gathering stuff and why we need to accumulate experiences more than ever. It’s a happy confluence of Freakonomics meeting The Tipping Point.

These were some of the ‘read hot‘(pardon the pun) books that I had the privilege of reading the past few weeks and I look forward to sharing more in the coming weeks.







Sacrifice is NOT a four letter word

Since consumers are not willing to, its time for brands to make sacrifices!

It’s the gore truth, however inconvenient it may sound. And a question that more and more brands will ask in the coming year/s: what are you prepared to sacrifice?

It seems that consumers do not want to make the world a better place (sorry Bob Geldof!). They expect brands to do that for them. Well, that’s a simplification of a complex issue.

Sacrifice 1

But when it comes to making the world a better place, the shoe is squarely on the other foot-many consumers are setting a more stringent standard for brands than they are for themselves. Does this come as a surprise? Not in the least. And let’s face it: given decades of unethical operations, rampant pollution, disinformation and more, brands deserve it. After all, many brands have worked extremely hard to create many of the behaviors and lifestyle choices that well-meaning consumers are now finding so hard to change. The hunter has become the hunted.

To quote a recent global survey of 30000 consumers done by Accenture & Havas Media in June 2014, 72% of people said that business is failing to take care of the planet and society as a whole.

 The situation now? Endless brand sustainability initiatives and CSR-speak (a lot of us cynical enough to title it CsRAP speak); endless consumer skepticism.

The only meaningful path left for brands is to stop talking and act. One powerful  form of action that will rise to the top of the consumer agenda in 2015 and beyond? Real,  constructive, painful SACRIFICES.

Because the message from many of these consumers will be ‘do as I say, not as I do’.

Sounds unfair? Who said consumers had to be fair?

Still, if you take some time to understand the epic force driving this trend, you’ll understand why consumers are acting this way…

Sacrifice 2

In the pursuit of the nirvana that is GUILT-FREE CONSUMPTION, consumers are looking for brands to make SACRIFICES (so they don’t have to). But, sacrifices aren’t easy. In fact they are downright painful. We all are aware and conscious of our carbon footprints. But how many of us have actually stopped flying or reduced flying? How many flights have you SACRIFICED this year? According to global travel body IATA, the air traffic passenger demand worldwide has increased by almost 6% compared to the corresponding period the previous year. Because while some consumers are actively making SACRIFICES of their own, many more crave a new kind of consumption: one that allows unabashed and continued indulgence without guilt over negative impacts on SELF, SOCIETY or the PLANET.

And here is the irony. A contradiction of serious proportions: The easiest and most desirable way for consumers to assuage (or obliterate!) their guilt?
For brands to make visible, meaningful and constructive SACRIFICES: of products, processes, attention and opportunities. Here are a few examples worth taking note of:

Brands Sacrificing for the Self

CVS Pharmacy chain in the US stops selling tobacco products at all its outlets. The potential loss in revenue is almost 2.5 billion US$ but CVS wants to be seen as a brand that does not contradict its position as a healthcare/wellness provider.

TESCO supermarket chain in the UK will stop selling Candy at its check out points based on a survey amongst 65000 consumers, driving them to more healthy options.

Brands Sacrificing for Society

In January 2014, multinational technology firm Intel stopped using materials from conflict zones to build its microprocessors. Minerals such as gold and tungsten are often mined in countries affected by armed struggles and human rights violations, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In March 2014, Irish brewer Guinness announced it would not participate in New York City’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade because gay and lesbian groups were prohibited from carrying gay-friendly or LGBT identifying signs. The brand, one of the event’s biggest sponsors, withdrew support the day before the event after negotiations to reverse the exclusion policy failed.

Brands Sacrificing for the Planet














In June 2014, Tesla, the US Electric car manufacturer  announced that it would no longer initiate patent lawsuits against anyone using their technology in good faith. The company stated that given the incredibly small size of the electric car market relative to the total automotive market, and the urgency of the carbon crisis, there would be an overall benefit to humanity in making their technology available (even to potential competitors).

Following allegations that suppliers in China were mistreating rabbits during the production of angora wool in November 2013, multiple global fashion retailers have removed angora products from stock and suspended sourcing. More than 30 brands, including H&M, Forever 21 and Topshop (who received a petition with more than 100,000 signatures), committed to removing angora products, with ASOS, Mango and John Lewis implementing permanent bans in the UK. Other retailers, including Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, committed to global bans. The original video footage was released by animal-rights organization PETA and was widely circulated on social media.

Brands seen to be doing good have a better chance to be the best in the now and in the future. But it does call for a rethinking of convention and the tried and rusted. So brands: what are you willing to SACRIFICE?

Is SAD the new HAPPY in Advertising?

SADvertising puppylove
SADvertising puppylove

Lets begin with the obvious. Its an always on world. While being technologically connected, and geography being history and all of that, at no time have humans been so socially disconnected in the real sense. The need (and significantly unmet) desire for human bonding has never been greater. Nuclear existence has stoked the potential that is kinetic in humans. There is a clamour to reach out and brands are bending over backwards to suit the new found relish for the pathos.

It’s a given that sad news travels fast. But, advertising (or SADvertising as it is being called these days) that strikes a strong emotional piano chord and opens up the tear ducts travels, fast, wide and deep. Empathy meets exponential sharing, opens up a floodgate of brand conversations, triggers otherwise hard to come by response, sustains brand dialogue and keeps all stakeholders be it brand owners, ad agencies or end users, happy (ironic as it may sound!).

We have moved on from an era of media scarcity to an era of attention scarcity. Getting people’s attention is what we’re trying to do, and I think that meaning, something that people can relate to on a very visceral level, is what drives a lot of the decisions we make when we’re talking about things. Hyper competition has forced brands to not only assure customers a good product or service but make it very relatable and more meaningful than any other good product.

Over time brands have realized that the consumer culture has evolved and people are more reflective and mindful of their lives. There is a constant search for deeper layers of meaning once you have all the things you need and most of the things you don’t need but desire. The ad industry of the last decade was mean, cynical and celebrated bitterness. Those were the days when brands wanted to be Sexy, Swaggering or Sweeping. That showed up in most of the work that was put up. Don’t blame them as it seemed to work for all concerned. But, then after a while, people got sick of it and when a voice and tone which conveyed exactly the opposite stuck in, the positive reaction was overwhelming.

Lets list a few of the work where brands have stirred up a flood of emotions all over the world and that includes P&G and its commercial released around the last Olympics, Honda’s Project Drive In, Coca Cola Life in Argentina, Nestle Good Life commercial in India, Google’s Dear Sophie, Dove’s Beauty Patch, John Lewis (where the small boy waits patiently for his Santa booty), Budweiser’s Puppy Love, the charming tale of a canine equine romance or Expedia’s commercial about same sex marriage where the father fights his prejudice etc. If you are not in a ‘tear’ing hurry, you can shed a tear or two when you access the above referred commercials on the below links:





Coca Cola: 






John Lewis:






The flip side of this (which is worrying) is that it has become a trend. The word ‘ emotional ‘ is now become the most over used word in client agency briefs. If you are used to agencies creating a trend which should ideally be the case (rather than following one), its time to take stock. We just might be at a tipping point on this one. But, till such time, it sinks in, its cry, cry, till you succeed for brands and agencies.

Brand IPL: The juggernaut rolls on!

According to a recent American Appraisal study conducted in February of this year, the brand value of IPL has been pegged at US$ 3.2 Billion (in 2010 Brand Finance had valued it at over US$ 4.3 Billion). Considering the property is only in its 7th year, with just 8 teams as things stand now, and played over just 43 days in total, the figure is indeed staggering. Add to that is the fact that there are just a motley number of countries that play the game the world over. Compare that to the English Premiere League (kicked off in 1888), that lasts nine months of the year with and which is currently valued at US$ 12 billion. For a global sport that is played by more than 200 countries.

The numbers are truly mind numbing. There is more.

Season 7 IPL

In 2008 Sony bought the broadcast rights for the IPL for an eye popping US$ 1 billion for a 10 year period. Subsequently, (through some arm twisting and covert blackmailing), we understand the figure was increased by another US$ 200 Million to be made US$ 1.2 Billion. The IPL Broadcast now straddles the footprint including the Indian Sub Continent, Middle East, Hong Kong, the Caribbean, the UK, the USA, South Africa (somehow very under represented in cricket playing countries like Australia & New Zealand). Times Internet & Go Sport.com ensure that by streaming the IPL through the web, its creating diverse, desirable and dispersed audiences. Pepsi has paid a mammoth US$ 72 million to be the title sponsor of the IPL (the earlier incumbent for the first 5 years was DLF who had got the title rights for less than US$ 50 Million). Sony, the host broadcaster has been pitching a 10 second advertising spot at about INR 4.5 lakhs this season and had reportedly earned anything between INR 900-950 Crores in advertising revenues during IPL Season 6.

Packed venues welcome the teams wherever they go. The first phase of IPL season 7 played in the UAE witnessed unabashed audience following triggering a new line of thinking (and possible opportunities for the Gulf nation) in the times to come.

Great sporting brands across the world have been built over several decades of fan following, successful performances, the ability of a team to attract great talent, and continued association from large companies, partners and sponsors. Teams like the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, Manchester United, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Los Angeles Lakers and the like have become highly sought after brands by advertisers and represent brand values in the billions of dollars range.

In the IPL, brand value is derived from a wider variety of reasons keeping in mind the Indian viewer’s vernacular proclivities, cricketing knowledge and celebrity influence. You cannot put a finger to it but it seems as if the IPL is here to stay (controversy or no controversy). So roll along and enjoy it while the likes of Maxwell light up the stands or the Great Arc of Chennai (McCullum, Jadeja, Raina and Du Flessi patrolling the offside field for team CSK).

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right, Two Tongs Don’t Make it Tight!!

They have coined it ‘ Incredible India ‘. And ‘ India Shining ‘. And so on. As the world’s most populous democracy gets ready for the next round of general elections in April this year, the communication strategy on display, especially of the leading lights (heavyweights actually!) in the fray really makes you wonder – is this  ‘ Thinkredible India ‘?

If unofficial estimates are to be believed, almost 2000 Crores(Indian Rupees) in advertising and spin doctoring will be spent by the various political parties to reach out, influence, coerce, bully, motivate, wake up a wary, suspicious, apprehensive, unsure, frustrated, reluctant electorate, already at the end of its tether, given the performance(or the absolute lack of it) of the Government of the day. Its common parlance in advertising circles that an agency can only be as good as the brief it gets from the client and if you have been seeing some of the communication on television, print etc, there is ample bearing of that testimony.

Two Wrongs Dont Make A Right

What do the UPAnishads(read election manifesto of the ruling party) say? A lot actually without saying or committing anything. Very much on expected lines. Flaky, pie in the sky, neither here nor there, sitting on the fence- nothing assertive, decisive,  relevant   or meaningful. The communication is no different. If the objective of the campaign is to create the ‘ feel good ‘ factor, it does achieve it and more. In fact it actually makes you ‘ feel good for nothing ‘.Terrible showcasing of a Prime Ministerial candidate who is unsure, inarticulate, under confident, tentative and an unwilling (and probably involuntary) victim of ‘ die-nasty ‘ politics. And we all thought that brand ambassadors have to be cut of a different cloth. And just for the record. Money spent on articulating ‘hollower than thou’ nothings is 500 Crores (Indian Rupees). We have all heard that advertising can never sustain a bad product or service. The ruling party obviously hasn’t. For them, I reckon this really is the last (st)raw!

The saffron brigade is subjecting us to a different kind of safforing…oops…suffering. Cartoon network at its worst. A state of a state is not actually a state of the nation. Yet that continues to be the USP (though several SPs in the state would beg to differ) being mouthed from dais’s across the nation. An eNDAscopy of what they are all about is in order. That being said, the fair weather pundits are already clamoring for and saluting the RiSSe of the BJP. Budget for this colossal waste of resources: a whopping 400 Crores(Indian Rupees). Is there serious reliance on vested interests for these funds to come from? Your gas…I mean guess is as good as mine.

Lets look at the Third alternative in this seemingly sordid vortex( no reference to the Third Front here which to me is more a personal affront than a coalition politics compulsion)- its an AAP AAP world. Born out of guts, glory, gumption which had the electorate swooning ‘ AAP Ki Kasam ‘ as they made light work of the bigwigs in the electoral race in Delhi, a few months on, thanks to a surreptitious mix of a well designed media blackout , a well orchestrated witch hunt and unabashed indiscretion on its own part, has the same set of loyalists crooning ‘ AAP tho aisey na they ‘. And what do they have to communicate…well we are still waiting….and even if they have, we may never know.

Non performance backed by communication that is a non starter…din meets stench…two wrongs never made a right, but then who the hell cares?

Stereotyping: This just doesn’t smell right!

Way back in the mid 1800’s, stereotype was used as a noun that meant “image perpetuated without change”. Possible fallouts of it included justification of ill-founded prejudices or ignorance and the unwillingness to rethink one’s attitudes and behavior towards stereotyped groups.


Well into the 21st Century, nothing much has changed and the best exemplification of it is articulated in many of the TV commercials that we see for deodorants these days. Most of us would have an axe or two grind with many of the brands that showcase the Alpha male strutting his stuff only to see the Beta female fall spray I mean prey. Its very difficult to make any sense(olfactory or otherwise) out of it. Do a quick dipstick(or should it be deo stick?) on these unsuspecting women and men and you will have protest rallies that would put the Occupy Wall Street one to shame.

What is it that makes these brands(many of them looked after by seasoned marketing & advertising gurus) heap layer after layer of communication that glorifies a non existing stereotype(of either gender) right from Denver to Park Avenue, geography notwithstanding? Isn’t it all very foggy? And just done on pure impulse? Or do we grudgingly reconcile to ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same ‘ syndrome?

A lot of hot air, most of it carbon unneutral. And you begin to sense that s(t)inking feeling! And despite claims by some that it won’t let you down, it is difficult not to feel otherwise. Its time to give the audience their due. Time to wake up and smell the …coffee. Till that time, the axe will continue to grind!

Is your brand X’y?

No its not the preserve of the select phew! Or Reality Television. Y should it be? It need not remain a steadfast tenant at number 24 in the alphabets table. Everybody can have it. What is your X Factor? How can it help you succeed?

We can no longer emoshun it. We are talking emotions. The kind of conceptual branding that is about finding the all-important X Factor and getting that message out there.

X Factor

It’s a different math. This X Factor is about creating engagement, arousing emotion and that which demonstrates how even the most unlikely brands can find an emotional touchstone: sadness, joy, anger, loyalty, laughter, frustration, pride and many other emotions. The X factor is (surprise, surprise) multiplies attention, attraction, appeal and action.

Lets travel beyond the typical visual clue. The DNA of a unique, differentiated brand is far more than just a logo, a typography set and colour palette. The plate needs to be fuller. The consumer believes in brands that tell a story and convey a clear, simple, believable message. Brands should appeal just as much to the heart as they do to the intellect. Call it State of the Heart branding!

As brand guardians we have the fundamental responsibility of ensuring that our brands and the associated concepts are imbued with the X Factor, no matter what category or sector the brand is from. Every brand has the potential to be truly unique, be it cement, telecom, fashion, bank or a coffee shop. Lets realize that in an increasingly over commoditized world, USP is passé. The day and age belongs to UFP (Unique Feelings Proposition) and brands that understand Y the UFP factor is vital to customer loyalty will be devoting more time and attention to embedding the X factor into their offerings and laugh their way to the bang! And Y not!

The Creative Apocalypse: Preparing your client

There is great, there is good and there is average (ok). Superlative. Comparitive. Relative. Most of us want to (atleast there is good enough intent!) do good work and over a period of time how that transmits to average and below remains an unsolved mystery. Have we ever started out saying; Lets do some Great Work? No one came into the profession thinking ‘I really want to produce work that’s a bit meh, a bit vanilla, that makes no impact on the world and sinks without a trace.’ So how come we don’t see brave creative work that often? The occasional breakthrough shines like a lighthouse across a lacklustre sea of work that is often boring, weirdly familiar or just a little bit disappointing.

Creative Apocalypse image











So how is the end game playing out? It’s a whole new world out there. Recession or no recession- there is a perennial pressure on budgets and jobs. The ‘always on’ shifting media landscape and the move from broadcasting messages to managing conversations. The balancing of brand, ROI and an increasing reliance on data and metrics. There is safety in numbers (metrics reloaded!). And how! All of these things have stitched together a sinister conspiracy in the last 10 years or so and made it more difficult for creatively brave work to ever see the light today.  It takes real balls for a client, or an agency, to take a leap of faith in this climate. Till then, it’s a lip of fate! And sealed at that.

Where does the skull drudgery end? What can be done? Selling creatively brave ideas requires an ability to promote the safety of risky situations (don’t miss the contradiction here), psychological management skills and a client that can hold their nerve. Sometimes you have to help hold it for them.

This situation provides both agency and client an absolutely perfect platform to do creative tango. So here is the brief: Depart from norm, break free from convention whilst remaining true to creating lasting campaign impact and brand recall. Surprise, delight, intimidate and come back to do more of the same. Don’t just hand hold the client, hold his heart and get to your customers’ soul in the process. That should be your sole goal.