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Wednesday, Apr 27, 2005

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City of Hope

Ramesh Narayan

IF Kolkata can be called the city of joy, Mumbai must be, and I believe is, the city of hope. Thousands of immigrants from all over India find their way into this metropolis hoping to make their fortune. This is certainly not a recent phenomenon. Ever since the Portuguese gave the seven islands that make up Mumbai today, to an English prince as a dowry, the city has been a melting pot of diverse cultures, languages, people and ideas. This wonderfully varied mix of people who came here with nothing more than hope in their hearts and a prayer on their lips has resulted in the establishment of the most prosperous city in India.

It seems almost natural that this delightful amalgam should also throw up a vibrant industrial culture, an explosive media scene, and the cradle of the Indian advertising industry.

In a city where the Times of India, affectionately called the "old lady of Bori Bunder" has ruled the English daily newspaper scene for over 160 years, nothing can be taken for granted. Another centurion, the Mumbai Samachar, which seemed to have an equally unassailable hold over Gujarati readers, was unseated by a complete newcomer to the Mumbai market.

The Mumbai reader is as dynamic as he is unrelentingly forthright. No one dare talk about newspaper reading as a habit. The Free Press Journal was a venerable newspaper that has been condemned to publishing public notices to an amazingly small audience.

Investigative journalism and political firepower took the Indian Express past the 1.40-lakh circulation mark. No sooner did the content and the marketing edge wear off, than the circulation dropped alarmingly. The same has been the case in Marathi newspapers as well.

Today, the media scene is all set for yet another churn. Newer, more aggressive players like the Daily News & Analysis (DN&A) are seeking to implant their image on the DNA of Mumbai. The Hindustan Times (HT) of Delhi has also been threatening to launch its English edition. The Times of India is not likely to give up its hegemony in a hurry. One thing DN&A and HT must be complimented for is the return of true journalism to the Times of India.

No longer is it just a colourful catalogue of socialites and advertisers. Suddenly they have introduced pages dedicated to international news. Even more delightfully shocking is the recent introduction of four pages of hard-core city-centric local news. The Times of India has woken up to the fact that there is more to news than the broken finger nail of a Bollywood starlet. I am pleasantly surprised to see "local" news about the everyday issues like water, power, roads and sewage reclaiming their place among the headlines.

It is just one year (to the date) since a clear sense of black and white was infused into the business newspaper segment. One hopes that some salmon pink papers will soon realise that if one wanted to see cartoons one could buy a comic book.

Yet, competition has only been good for the newspaper reader. The luxury of serious choice backed with the right marketing inputs would see everyone in the market scampering to improve quality.

The television scenario has been a true battleground. New channels have mushroomed. Children are being targeted even more. Toon Disney, Hungama, and Animax join the ranks of Pogo and Cartoon Network to whip up "pester power" and increase sales of a plethora of products aimed at a younger audience segment.

News in general, and business news in particular, is being seen as prime area of growth. Channel 7 has joined the Hindi news segment, NDTV Profit has taken on CNBC and there is more action around the corner with many entrants queuing up to join the party.

Niche channels like Zoom, for entertainment, and Discovery's Travel channel are picking up whatever is left of the market. And all this is in addition to the big established general interest channels in all the languages.

All this has meant that the media planner has become a very important person in an advertising agency. The fragmentation in the market, the amazing buffet of channels available, and the segmentation of the reader and viewer have resulted in media planning assuming star status.

The advertising rupee has to be judiciously spent and a thorough knowledge of the market is a prerequisite. This has an interesting side effect as well. In order to arm the planner, data is essential. And the gatherers of data have never had it so good.

Market research is on a roll. It is now a critical activity at every stage of the marketing game. Identifying the target group on one hand and the reader or viewer on the other is de rigueur, and rightly so. Then comes testing creatives, and post-launch tracking, and the market research business could look forward to rewarding days.

What about agency structures? Well, there seems to be corporatisation at every level. The last year has seen the shift from centrestage of modern heroes like Ranjan Kapur and Mike Khanna. Their continued presence, albeit in different capacities, is a great source of solace and continuity in an industry that likes to think that obsolescence is measured in hours.

Where does this leave the marketer? Hopeful of course, but also confused, unsure and rather desperate. Feelings that manifest in a need to have management consultants on one end of the spectrum and endless pitches from advertising agencies on the other. A macabre merry-go-round that could help him pick his way through tortuous terrain that the new market realities provide him with, using the twin crutches of "outside" advice and free ideas.

Yet, the state of the economy and the stage of development India is in right now set the stage for exciting times.

A time where a mix of knowledge, creativity, faith and good old-fashioned derring-do can take one on to great heights. I remain an incurable optimist. As they say, hope for the best. And that's what you will get.

(The author is Head, Canco Advertising.)

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