Feature

Asia: The new global hub

India's ad industry is enjoying the fruits of the country's economic boom, Arun Sudhaman writes.

Lenovo is a Chinese company that grew big by purchasing a US rival. Its chairman hails from rural China, and it rotates its headquarters between Beijing and North Carolina.

When the time came to choose its global advertising hub, Lenovo opted for Bangalore, the city that has risen to fame as India's own Silicon Valley.

While the PC-maker raised eyebrows in an advertising industry more attuned to seeing accounts led out of Western markets, the move can hardly amount to much of a surprise. India's economy is muscling its way out of decades of isolation to become a genuine contender on the world stage - and its advertising industry, for better or for worse, is along for the ride.

"I wasn't surprised by the coverage," Deepak Advani, Lenovo's global chief marketing officer, admits of the reams of commentary devoted to finding a deeper meaning behind Lenovo's move. "But I know that, since then, a couple of my CMO colleagues at other companies want to know what lessons are being learned."

As Advani points out, Lenovo is hardly alone. The list of multinational companies that have chosen India as the base market for regional or, in some cases, global advertising operations, has grown considerably in recent times. Last year, BT awarded a $1 million contract to Tribal DDB India to manage a global online assignment, while Nissan, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Motorola and Johnson & Johnson have all begun to create work for other markets out of their Indian agencies. And India is the creative hub for a number of Unilever brands - including Lifebuoy, Clinic Plus and Surf.

Arvind Sharma, the chief executive of Leo Burnett India, which developed a regional value programme for McDonald's last year, says that two trends are at play. The first, illustrated by the McDonald's campaign, sees ideas developed in India being exported to other markets; the second - and perhaps more significant - occurs when a multinational company decides to base multi-market activity out of the country, such as another Burnett client, Procter & Gamble's Tide brand.

"High-quality talent is available," Sharma says. "If you look at Unilever and P&G ... there are lots of India in their global system. Clients will go wherever the work can be done well and done economically."

From a creative perspective, India can be an attractive destination. Its creatives are comfortable with English, and are also experienced in developing ideas that can run across the dizzying array of languages that are spoken in the country.

India's emergence can be traced back to the 1992 decision by the then finance minister, and the current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to finally open up the country's economy. "For a very long time, it was an unimportant market for everybody from a revenue perspective," D Sriram, the Starcom Asia-Pacific chief executive, says. "Multinationals lost interest for about 15 years. Because of economic policies and because it wasn't a consumer market, there wasn't really a role for agency networks."

The rapid influx of everything international has profoundly altered the country's economic terrain. Advani notes that Lenovo's selection of India stemmed from an earlier decision to launch its first consumer products range in the country. And despite a backlash against globalisation from various segments of Indian society, it is hard to find anyone in the advertising industry who shares these concerns.

Even the offshoring debate - which may yet see the US enact legislation to prevent certain services being shipped out of the country - ruffles few feathers in India. "I see nothing wrong with it because it creates opportunities for the market to grow faster and more people to come into the industry," the Lowe India president, Pranesh Misra, says. "There is a lot of value we can bring to the world, and a lot of the emergence of the Indian middle class is from outsourcing. If we stop thinking of it as low-value work, then why not?"

Reviewing India's creative output over the past few years, it is difficult to disagree. Perhaps surprisingly, the country's creative tone has become considerably more "Indian" - a manifestation of the increasing ease with which India struts on the world stage. A good example of this trend is this year's Happydent campaign from McCann Erickson, which wowed local audiences and awards-show juries alike.

The flipside of the overall equation, India Inc setting its sights on global pastures, is still in its infancy. Observers agree that, eventually, the dynamic will bring benefits for India's advertising industry, in the same way agencies from more mature markets have piggybacked on the global aspirations of their local corporations. "It will gather momentum, but, initially, it has been the core sectors which are not very advertising-sensitive," Misra says, pointing to the likes of the steel giant Mittal and the IT player Infosys. "But we are seeing the beginnings of the Indian brand going global, through motorcycle companies such as Bajaj and TVS, and Tata's tea and beverages division."

Or it may be India's "soft power" that becomes its most successful export. "The culture has the potential to define the culture of the world," the McCann Erickson South-East Asia executive creative director, Prasoon Joshi, says.

"As India opens up to the world, it is able to see its quirks and oddities in an appealing new light," Young & Rubicam's regional creative planner, Hari Ramanathan, says. "And that is by far the biggest effect global practices and processes are having on the Indian advertising field. It is helping them fall in love with 'Indianness' all over again."

INDIA'S THE PLACE TO BE ...

A quick glance at the senior management of many agencies in Asia-Pacific tells its own story. Indians remain in considerable demand after a decade that has seen a significant proportion of the country's ad talent seek their fortunes abroad.

It is hard to find a single agency or, indeed, a multinational marketing department in Asia-Pacific that does not feature Indians in senior positions. The whisper in agency circles is that perhaps there are too many, rather than too few.

It is an irony, then, to note that this talent-drain appears to be slowing. As India becomes more engaged with the outside world, more of its people, it appears, are realising they can accomplish their goals within, rather than without, the country.

"There was significant financial incentive to move out of the country and a significant career incentive," D Sriram, who left India in 1998 and worked his way up to become the Starcom Asia-Pacific chief executive, explains. "The Indian advertising industry has boomed, and that is slowing down people moving out."

One area that has not seen quite so much movement is creative, where only a few of India's genuine superstars - perhaps only the Bates executive creative director, Sonal Dabral - have left the country. "They might not be leaving, but they are experimenting with other fields here such as film, TV and radio," the McCann Erickson South-East Asia executive creative director and Bollywood director, Prasoon Joshi, explains.