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India in Depth

Anthony Vagnoni

Indian TVC Production Looks both Inward
and Outward as it Charts a Heady Future

In addition to now being the world champions in cricket, India is also expected to surpass China as the most populous nation on earth sometime within the next quarter century.  This steady march hasn't been lost on the world's marketers, their agencies or the production houses that make their ads.

As a result, there's something of a gold rush mentality now that's taking place when you talk to people in the ad business about India.  Everyone wants to be there.
Lots of factors have played into this. One is the growing presence of Indian advertising - and Indian creatives - on the global ad stage.  Another is the increased (and, in some views, slightly patronizing) attention that Western media is now paying to India and Indian culture. Some of the interest, according to the EPs, directors and company principals we spoke to for our SourceEcreative Special Feature on India, seems like opportunism.
Still, there's much work to be had in India - broadcast still makes up the bulk of an advertiser's budget - and lots of room for the Indian TVC industry to grow.  Indian marketers are getting more sophisticated, demanding better production values in their spots and learning that good production takes a careful mix of time and money.
New media applications for film and video content on behalf of brands are growing; the webisode and web video craze is taking root in India, and more clients are looking at ways to extend their TVC shoots into new formats. Indian producers are responding with more work being shot in digital formats such as D5 and RED, giving them the ability to move faster and cheaper.
We spoke at length with a number of people at our Special Feature sponsor companies, and came away with a fascinating look at this massively complex marketing environment. This sponsor list includes Footcandles Film, one of the major players on the Indian scene, whose work has been among the top-rated TV spots in India last year; Bang Bang Films, the five-year old shop that's specializing in bringing international talent to shoot Indian work; Gobsmack!, the new content creation studio founded by creative director-turned-film director Shyam Madiraju, who's bridging his experience working in the US with his understanding of Indian culture; Nomad Films, the Mumbai shop that opened in 2002 by former agency veteran Amitabh Bhattacharya and his partner, Junaid Memon; Little Lamb, the three-year old boutique company founded by Buddy and Monalisa Mukherji, which works in both traditional TV spots and Internet shorts; and Film Farm India,  which combines TVC production with deep experience working on long-format and episodic television.
One of the biggest factors impacting the Indian TVC market is the continued globalization of just about everything - media, brands, marketing, production, entertainment, culture, you name it. Harsh Dave, Founder and Owner of Film Farm India, puts it this way: "Advertising and production has shrunk globally, thereby cutting all boundaries and borders in services and creatives. And India is becoming its epicenter."
First off, what's the opinion about India's role on the global creative stage when it comes to advertising?  That's a mixed bag, some say, and not necessarily due to the quality of the creative.  "A lot of TVC work here is fairly specific to the Indian market and to Indian emotions and values," says Anand Menon, Managing Director and EP of Footcandles Film.  "It works very well for clients, it's quite effective, but it doesn't necessarily translate well to international ad juries. It's not quirky or offbeat, and that's the kind of work that plays well."  Some might observe that, while Indian advertising seems to have a higher profile, Indian work isn't raking in the Lions. Menon might agree; when it comes to Indian TVCs, he jokes, "It's always spots with snake charmers and elephants that seem to win."
The issue of stereotypes seems to bubble under the surface when you talk to Indian producers, especially those who are increasingly looking at working on a global stage.  They know what the domestic industry is capable of doing, in terms of the quality of concepts and the production values brought to bear in execution, but they also know that the best Indian scripts often get rushed through production and starved for budget.  "It's hard to do your best work under these circumstances," says one EP.
There's also the feeling that the attention being paid to the Indian market now is something the West is doing for less-than-noble reasons.  "I think the West chooses to look at things when they're ready for it," says Gobsmack!'s Madiraju.  "It's always been the case, whether it's culture, politics, religion, and now economics. The West chose to look at the East when everything was down for them. It's strange that 'Slumdog Millionaire' - a movie that I personally love - became this monster mega hit only when they were ready to see Indians dance and sing on a global level. And it took an English director to do it! Did it piss many Indians off? Yes."

There was a lot of great work coming out of India as far back as the '80s and '90s, Madiraju continues - back when he was an art school student, planning a career in advertising or design. "The West started looking at India when the economy started rising, and when India started buying all these big companies," he says.  "Everyone was like, 'What's going on here?' And now, all of a sudden, the spotlight is on India."
"Advertising is not detached from everything else that's happening in the world," adds Footcandles' Menon. "Everywhere in the business world, people are looking at India and China. So it's completely understandable that there would be all this interest in our ad and production industry."
The attention can only help, Menon suggests.  "The competition it's bringing is good for us. We can't sit here with our heads in the sand," he says.  "I think it will raise the level of the work, and everyone will benefit.  Creatives will write better scripts, and hopefully clients will actually look at the scripts before deciding on what the budget should be, or before buying media time that they're locking you into."
That said, he feels the international interest needs to swing both ways. "It can't be a one way street," Menon asserts, wherein foreign production companies or directors look to come into the Indian market and cherry pick the best work.  That's why companies such as his and others are looking to markets outside India, to agencies in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, even the States and Europe, to expand their markets.
Roopak Saluja, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Bang Bang Films, says the current fascination with India is part of an overall media interest in "all things Indian," there's more to it than that.  "In our industry, production companies in the US, the UK and Europe are looking for new markets," he says.  "They're all still dealing with the effects of the recession. China and India are instantly appealing, but China is more difficult to navigate."
India, with its highly educated, entrepreneurially-bent and largely English-speaking ad industry, is seen as poised to take the next step, Saluja continues.  "I think a lot of producers want to invest in India now, with the expectation that it'll pay off both financially and creatively a few years down the line," he says. "They realize that budgets are getting better here, and clients and agencies are more open to working with foreign talent."
At the same time, Indian companies are looking to expand beyond India.  Bang Bang is opening an office in Singapore, for example, while Film Farm opened an office in Sri Lanka, has worked for agencies in Bangladesh and is looking at work for clients in Dubai.
What about the agency point of view?  Anil Thomas, Executive Creative Director at McCann in Mumbai, teamed with Gobsmack! on the production of a spot for TVS motorcycles that utilized a top L.A. production company well-versed in shooting two-wheel and four-wheel racing vehicles.  He feels the international approach to TVC production that Gobsmack! is taking - in which they take Indian scripts and export their production to the right resources abroad - might not be for everyone, but it definitely has its appeal.
"I think it's gaining momentum, as increasingly clients are seeing value in a system like this," Thomas says.  "If a competent local production house can get the services of a specialized director or production values, it makes great sense, as Indian agencies and clients see the need for a global standard of production. There are some fantastic directors in India, but it doesn't hurt to see what new things can be achieved to set new benchmarks."
Thomas sees some categories that are ripe for the approach.  "Apart from automobiles, there are fashion brands, food brands and others that could stand to benefit, as these categories are no longer localized to a country or region," he says. "A Volkswagen, let's say, or a Levis or a Kraft; these are brands that would want their production quality to be great in every region or country where they do business."
There are other benefits to this approach, Thomas adds. One is the sharing of knowledge and information between production houses in one country and agencies in another.  Another is that spots such as the TVS bikes spot that Gobsmack! worked on with L.A.'s Bandito Brothers can be produced for the Indian market, yet look so culturally neutral they can run cross-borders with no restrictions.  
Also, he adds, this infusion of new blood will help push the better Indian directors to become better still. "To bring in fresh perspectives on how a spot can be visualized or produced is a great thing," he says. "And for the over-hyped and overpriced production house? Well, it's a reality check!"
At Little Lamb, Director and Founder Bauddhayan Mukherji, also calls the influx of new talent and new players healthy. "It means that I can't take things for granted," he says.  "I've always felt that I was only as good as my last film. I need to make sure that each job helps lead the way to the next one. In this regard, I think we can't be complacent anymore. There's always going to be another director or production company willing to produce the same script for less, so you need to be ultra competitive."
Like Thomas, Mukherji believes that, in many categories, the impact of foreign talent makes a lot of sense. "For some specific genres of advertising, it's a welcome step," he says.  "Indian directors have not really been known for automobile or action films. But increasingly, India is looking inwards. Advertising here needs to reach the rural heartland, while also appealing to Indian hearts. Under these circumstances, it pays to have Indian directors who understand the roots, and have clarity on local nuances."
Benefitting the most from this shift are clients, Mukherji adds, by virtue of greater options and more pressure on the part of production companies to hold down costs.  At the same time, clients are also beginning to realize that the game has changed and the stakes are higher; they need to reflect a deeper level of professionalism in how they manage production.  In fact, Mukherji says, some have reached out to him and his partner, Monalisa Mukherji, to conduct educational workshops for their executives, so that they can become familiar with the rudiments of production.
"Most clients are MBAs who came out of management schools," he notes. "They often have no idea how the creative process works. What we do is introduce them to the realities of creative work, in the hopes that they'll no longer ask for things that can't be done - like edit a spot in three hours and get it on air."
The education process helps them become not just more practical, Mukherji says, but more pragmatic, too. And the increased knowledge gives them more credibility when dealing with their counterparts at the agency and production company. "What we're seeing is a maturation process on the part of clients in India," he concludes.  "If we're contributing to that in some small way, all the better. It's what the production community should be doing."
Amitabh Bhattacharya of Nomad Films sees another part of the maturation process of clients - one that's having an impact on production companies in the US and UK - and he's not crazy about it.  Referring to it half-jokingly as the "Bwana of Procurement," he explains: "What the birth of the 'BoP' has done is that it's made a whole lot of so-called responsible production houses look at costs a little more diligently. It has opened them up to the idea of collaborative creation. It has made them look around and say, 'Voila!' They now see simpler, better, more economical ways to get work done.
"Filmmakers might not agree with this," he continues, "but the birth of the 'BoP' might actually pave the way for a better product."
What's the overall outlook for the Indian TVC industry?  While many admit there are growing pains, the general consensus is that things can only get better all around as processes are refined,  creative gets better and accountability improves.
"As a community, we should look at turning down 'patli gali' scripts (roughly translated to mean things like scam ads) and concentrate on educating everyone around us, so that the ridiculous timelines are a thing of the past," says Little Lamb's Mukherji.  "It would be nice to have a life of our own and not have to work on Sundays!"
Nomad's Bhattacharya sees production companies evolving into something more like project management companies, taking on areas beyond film production to include other forms of marketing deliverables.  "We should be putting our expertise into helping the agency manage a project, whether it's film, print, production service, direction, whatever.  Because the needs of both the client and agency have changed. And therefore, how these needs are addressed needs to change, too. There's no reason our skills-sets need to be tied down to a 30-seconder. This can give clients the opportunity to bundle services and cut costs."
As for the lure of co-production - the route, in some variation, that companies such as Bang Bang (which now represents the directors of Believe Media in India) and Gobsmack! are toying with - Bhattacharya says it can make a real contribution.
"We had an opportunity to work with Stink, London on projects for Honda and Dulux, and it helped us in two ways," he recounts.  "It brought us considerable insight about how leading production houses approached the business.  And we also realized – not without relief – that the problems we were facing are  universal. That's why we believe that better coordination and pooling of resources and talent across borders can really help redefine how the production industry does business. When circumstances force you to look around, you are bound to discover new and interesting solutions."
Nomad has a decent amount of experience in this regard, as they've collaborated on numerous visual effects projects for Indian clients with the Prague-based animation and effects studio Eallin Motion Art. "Working this way helps us source the best talent for India, while helping us manage projects for international production houses that are looking at India for more reasons than one," Bhattacharya explains.  "This network ensures that we can have the best people working on each project, in the best locations, at a competitive price.
"It also has a great potential for learning," he continues.  "Styles, techniques, processes - every project brings something new to learn. This multi-cultural and multi-disciplinary collaboration forces us to review everything we do.
"A nation like India can use fresh talent and craftsmen from across the world," Bhattacharya sums up. "The world can access economy via India. Cooperation, instead of jealously guarding our own fiefs, can only help us all do better."

 Chapter 1: Footcandles...       Chapter 2: BangBang...       Chapter 3: Gobsmack...       Chapter 4: showcase...