The World: India's indomitable spirit surfaces post-attacks

Following Mumbai's terrorist attacks, the ad industry prepares to rebuild trust with international brands.

The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower and the Oberoi Trident hotels in Mumbai are open again. Their return to business marked a return to normality - symbolically, at least - for India's commercial capital, media hub and the spiritual home of Bollywood.

The five restaurants at the Taj, Mumbai's most prestigious hotel, were all fully booked ahead of its first night in service since November's massacre by a dozen gunmen raised serious questions over India's viability as, among other things, a secure market for international agencies and advertisers.

A trivial question in the scheme of things, but would India's media channels be fully booked, too? Informal reports say that many festive season advertising and events were postponed or cancelled.

Three telcos that were set to launch major campaigns, didn't. Empty billboards are dotted around the city, and it now looks like the prediction made by Aegis Media six months ago, that India's ad market would grow by 21 per cent in 2008 (to $5.3 billion), is more than a touch optimistic.

India is a country that could never be accused of lacking in confidence, even now, and a handful of ad campaigns have launched that show the country's self-belief has not been dented. While careful not to refer directly to the attacks, RBS ran a TV ad featuring the legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar saying: "In good times and bad, I play for India."

Some campaigns have been uncharacteristically subdued. The same cannot be said of sentiment on the street. Outrage at the inadequacy of India's security forces has been expressed via off- and online media, and through mass demonstrations across the city.

Hundreds of Facebook groups have been created, some solemnly reflective ("Stop the blame game and look within"), others quite the opposite ("We want war for Mumbai attacks" and "Pakis are to blame for Mumbai attacks", which mercifully only has one member).

Consumer confidence in India was the highest in the world last May, according to an Aegis survey. That is unlikely to be true now, although Nirvik Singh, the chairman and chief executive of Grey Group, South and South-East Asia, says that the general mood is defiant. "The terror attacks were intended to destabilise the stature India has earned as a global economic power. But most Indians do not believe for a moment that anything can stop us."

The reality, though, is that bombs have been going off every other day since Diwali, a month before the siege. Terrorism is not new here. The difference this time is that the violence was not directed at the general public, on a train or a bus. It was volleyed at international businessmen and wealthy tourists.

"Many regional clients have cancelled trips to Mumbai," Goh Shu Fen, a principal at R3, a marketing consultancy, says. "I personally know clients who had to flee the hotels. Everyone was terrified."

Of course, global economic jitters were applying the brakes to India's economy before terrorists made things look a lot worse. But the worry is that India will be seen as a dangerous journey into the unknown for brand owners wishing to cash in on the country's growth potential, particularly as tensions mount across the border with Pakistan. Industry watchers say that the effects of the global slowdown have yet to fully wash through. More softness is expected in the first quarter of 2009, but it is impossible to tell how much of this could be terrorism's fault.

Another worry is that India will no longer be able to attract overseas talent. With the likes of Tata (which now owns Jaguar), Jet Airways and the motorcycle brand Bajaj going global, agencies increasingly want people with a more international outlook.

This is why Charles Cadell was hired to run Lowe India a year ago. The Brit, formerly the president of Arc Asia-Pacific, says: "There is clearly some unease among the expat community here. Especially among those for whom India is a first-time posting. But those who are more used to the ups and downs of Asian expat living are taking this in their stride."

Not that there are many foreign faces in Indian agencies at the moment. India is arguably the toughest market in Asia for expats to "crack", such is its complexity. It also has a talent pool that boasts creatives more famous for their Bollywood films than ad reels.

But India is not the punishment posting it used to be, and more expats want to rise to the challenge. Matthew Godfrey, the chief executive of Publicis Asia, says: "I have friends who moved to New York post 9/11. So why not Mumbai? There are huge opportunities for people who want to operate in a market of growing importance on the world stage."

Meanwhile, the mood across the industry has moved on from shock to sober contemplation. Almost everyone knows of someone caught in the gunfire. Akash Das, the creative director at Publicis Ambience, was trapped at the Taj for 20 hours, during which time he gave updates to his bosses via SMS.

Others weren't so lucky. Rohinton Maloo, who over a 25-year career helped CNBC, CNN, Cartoon Network, Star Network and Haymarket, Campaign's publisher, launch in India, did not make it out of the Trident.

"End-of-the-year parties were replaced by quiet evenings to usher in the New Year. Even Bollywood stars toned things down," Manoj Motiani, a former Ogilvy creative director who embodies the indomitable spirit for which "Incredible India" is famous, says.

Undeterred by the upheaval of recent weeks, and the global downturn, Motiani quit one of the country's biggest and best agencies to start up his own shop, Thought Bubbles.

"I am quite confident of getting work," Motiani, whose venture is as yet clientless, says. "I don't know how, or from where, but it will happen. After all, this is India."