“How did Indian advertising get so advanced and evolved?”

This was asked by a senior director at an Indonesian company. She had an impressive list of stints across the globe, including in India in the early days of her long career. During her stint in India she’d also done second-ment at one of their advertising agencies and recalled her Indian experience fondly.

She asked me this after my co-author Monica Cravenetya and I had presented our paper “The emergence of ‘I’ in Indonesia” to her team. Our paper discussed how the collectivist, conformist society in Indonesia was slowly evolving to a more assertive and individualist one. This had won the best research paper award at the ESOMAR Asia-pacific 2015 conference. We were on a roadshow to share the findings with clients in Indonesia and the region.

Indonesia had seen a fabulous high compound rate of growth in Media spending post ‘Reformasi’ in ’98. According to WARC, as many as 1000 ads are aired per day on Indonesian TV channels, and nearly every urban home has a television set. This gives the impression that Indonesia was a dynamic market for advertisers and ad agencies.

Yet Indonesian advertising was seen to be far behind the other markets of SE Asia. Most Advertising was merely a product announcement containing direct and literal messages. The experts that we spoke to, when we worked on our paper, felt that this was the ‘safest’ way to advertise, as more advanced styles of advertising (metaphorical, iconic etc.) were unlikely to be understood by Indonesian audiences. One regional expert based in Singapore struggled to describe Indonesian advertising and admitted that the most polite word he could think of was ‘primitive’.

So when I was asked this question at this meeting what surprised me instead was that she had framed this w.r.t India. (Interestingly the word for West is Barat in the local Indonesian language, which comes from ‘Bharat’ – the Sanskrit name for India. So when Indonesia looked to the West for inspiration, it was also towards India in many ways).

Indonesia saw its market opening up more fully around ’98 and India around ’94. As a result both markets had seen significant growth in the last three decades.

But India had several advantages. Not only was its media (relatively) freer there also was the rich heritage of cinema which lent a wealth of talent as well as a creative idiom that consumers could reference. By contrast Indonesian media and cinema were heavily curtailed pre-reformasi. And as far as advertising went, it was ‘banned’ for nearly a decade and came back fully on air in the early 90s.

But in my opinion there was another factor that made a critical difference, and that to me was the growth of the ‘insights’ i.e. market research (MR) industry in each country.

When India was being liberalized most International market research agencies were yet to enter India, but the local research agencies had done a fabulous job in terms of understanding the consumer and the markets. And it showed.

Nearly every marketer had a book called the “Thompson Index” that classified cities and towns in terms of their potential based on population, socio-economic profile, penetration of packaged goods, retail distribution etc. In addition to the annual National Readership Surveys, even a large-scale psychographic profiling of homemakers had been carried out which enlightened marketers of the different psychographic segments and which ones were more open to try out new brands, which ones to lifestyle brands etc.

A vital difference also was how the end-users were organized. The Indian branches of MNCs were relatively more independent. Thus, they were the decision makers for, as well as the end users of any MR being carried out. Needless to say they were heavily invested in the research.

As an aside, Hindustan Lever Limited or HLL (as Unilever was called those days) was the biggest buyer of MR in India, while also being the largest ‘MR agency’. The story goes that one of HLL’s factories had to be shut down, and the employees being laid off had an option to join the MR division and carry out fieldwork as interviewers, and most of them did. Thus HLL carried out a lot of MR for its internal stakeholders. And to get an idea of the scale: the amount of fieldwork that this internal team carried out for HLL was nearly as much as the fieldwork carried out by the entire Indian MR industry!

Both clients and advertising agencies supported the Indian MR Industry, encouraging agencies to explore and try out new methodologies and models. As part of the team servicing an MNC client, I looked forward to receiving international journals (notably ADMAP) from them, as well as articles about new methodologies they wanted us to try for their brands and advertising research. Clients, especially the MNCs, were also willing to invest in large-scale studies like the nationwide psychographic profiling that would not have been possible without seed sponsors. This would benefit the local companies and the ad agencies too.

In Indonesia the picture was very, very different. Though Indonesia is by far the largest country in SE Asia by population, within client organizations it was however lumped with the rest of the countries in SE Asia. Thus most decisions were made at the regional hub, and still continue to do so by some MNCs. So, marketing decisions for Indonesia were made either in Singapore, Hong Kong or sometimes in the West. The local offices were mainly for on-ground execution and deployment.

This also impacted how market research was carried out. The majority of work done by MR agencies in Indonesia was largely limited to data collection. The analysis and interpretation would be done by MR agencies in Singapore/ HK. This was also true for the Indonesian branches of International market MR agencies.

This impacted Indonesia in different ways:

  • Indonesia was not seen as an important market for MR and for a long time, never attracted the kind of investments (seen in India) for detailed studies of the consumer segments and markets.
  • Since the learnings sat in different hubs, there was no accumulation of learnings within Indonesia. Not only were the local offices of the clients less knowledge-able, even the local offices of MR agencies knew less about Indonesia than those who worked on Indonesian data in Singapore or Hong Kong. Sadly IMO Indonesia continued to be a ‘colony’ in that sense.
  • There was no development of the skillsets within the MR industry in Indonesia. Why extend yourself to analyse, interpret the findings and write reports when you are making good money doing just data collection? And since these stages (analysis, reporting etc.) were executive time-intensive, by avoiding them, the MR agencies could be more productive and focus only on doing even more fieldwork. This resulted in a significant skillsets gap.
  • The biggest setback was how this affected the local industry i.e. client teams and ad agencies working on local brands. The MNCs would at least be carrying out analyses at their regional hubs. And since detailed data was not available within Indonesia, neither were the local ad agencies nor the media teams ‘enabled’ enough to dig deeper or invest in largescale studies to understand Indonesia more deeply. They could only contribute as much to the development of the local brands and struggled to bring in evolved forms of marketing and advertising. The mindset of the local clients (mainly family owned businesses), continued to focus more on sales instead of marketing. And they had no reason to change as merely generating awareness was seen to be good enough to sell (There were a few notable exceptions of course).

Interestingly, talent was never in short supply, with a significant number of expatriates working in Indonesia across various industries but the dominoes effect of the above had limited how much material they had to work on.

Examples of advertising that broke the mould were few and rare. Tobacco advertising had no choice but to use metaphorical, lifestyle and iconic advertising, as depiction of smoking was not allowed. Indomie, the leader in Instant noodles and now a global brand, invested heavily in brand building and its advertising evolved across the decades.

But, even the advertising for MNC brands would focus more on product benefits and superiority and less on lifestyle/ emotions.

This, of course, has changed. There is a lot more attention and investment that Indonesia has attracted this decade. WPP has launched the Brand Z ranking for Indonesia, and more global MR agencies have opened their offices in Jakarta, with an independent local mandate.

My response to this question might have missed out other factors and involved some simplification. But I could only summarise it with the hope that what we were witnessing now was the birth of a dynamic local talent pool. Indonesia is a land of many treasures, and the new generations are discovering and celebrating this in their own unique, creative way fueled by a strong confidence. The potential in their advertising is surfacing just like in their Cinema, music and TV industries, which are generating fans and buyers from the region and also globally. The sequel for the super-hit film ‘THE RAID’ had a huge segment of global fans waiting in anticipation. This discovery of new talent was best highlighted when global behemoth WPP acquired a digital activation agency in Jakarta headed by a 20 year old into its fold.

Indonesia might have started slow but not only is it catching up fast, it might generate the next few breakthrough advertising ideas.

Here’s looking at you, Indonesia.


PS: (Refer to Disclaimer)