Eyes and ears of marketing

“Sir, the new Tarzan ad of Strepsils is really funny,” said Ajay Mohan (name changed) to me. Ajay was then the sales representative of Boots in Patna. I thanked Ajay and asked him where he had seen the ad, and if he had visited Delhi. Why Delhi? Well, the ad he spoke about had been aired only on the Delhi TV channel. So there was no way he could have seen it on Patna’s Doordarshan channel. 

Ajay quickly corrected me: “No, Sir, the ad comes on Patna Doordarshan. I have not been to Delhi in a year.” Aah! What was happening? I asked a few other representatives who had gathered in Patna for the quarterly sales review meeting and most of them had seen the ad.

You may be right to surmise that the above episode happened around the mid-1980s. Why was it of significance? Well, India had television only in seven cities in the 1970s. The Indian government set up a network of 170-plus Low Power Transmitters [LPTs] in the early 1980s and advertisers were told that these LPTs would relay Delhi TV, but commercial advertising was allowed only for an hour. This was known as the Delhi and LPTs telecast. The catch: The rates were high and the slots limited. If we advertised during that one hour, we had to pay a huge premium. So, many mid-budget brands decided to stay out of the Delhi+ LPT game and focused on advertising on just the Delhi channel, which gave a good coverage of Delhi and its adjoining districts. We, too, had decided to avoid the high rate of Delhi plus LPT and aired the Strepsils ad on Delhi DD alone.

If this is the DD transmission plan, how come Patna folks were seeing the ad? This got us thinking. Fortunately, around the same time we were holding quarterly sales review meetings in more than 12 cities. And brand managers attending these sessions were asked to do a quick dipstick with sales reps from the non-metro cities. Did the sales reps remember seeing the Strepsils Tarzan ad? The unequivocal response was “yes”.

The moment we got back to Mumbai, all of us brand managers called our media buyer at the then Clarion Advertising for an emergency meeting. We wanted to know what was happening. The team from the agency was flummoxed. We were told that their sources had confirmed that LPTs were Delhi programmes only for one hour. But we had found that this was not true. And we had discovered something that no one knew or at least none of the other brands active on DD did.

We asked our agency to book as many ads as possible on Delhi TV at the [low] Delhi rate. We tried swearing them into secrecy so that they didn’t share this with the commercial department of DD Delhi and their other clients.

We knew that there was probably a procedural confusion. The LPTs were supposed to only relay one hour of Delhi’s commercial programming. But they felt that there was no harm in relaying four hours of the better-quality Delhi shows. None of the advertisers had cottoned on to this. The window of opportunity lasted a full six months. And we managed to get a great bargain.

Why is this story relevant today, more than three decades later?

Media experts point out various flaws in the BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council) television rating system. But what they don’t point out is that BARC ratings (or the earlier TAM ratings) are not used by advertisers in isolation. They also have thousands of foot soldiers in the market who give them live feedback. It was, therefore, heartening to read the comments of R S Sodhi, managing director, Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (makers of Amul dairy products) in the newspapers: “The company does not decide its media plan only on the basis of TRPs but uses its own field workforce to understand what is being watched in towns and cities.”

Agile marketers can monitor television effectiveness by listening to their sales representatives, retailers and distributors. But I suspect media planning and buying has become algorithm and numbers driven, without any human intervention. Further, with super-specialisation of media planning within marketing organisations, the media buyer may never be attending quarterly sales meetings or making sales calls in small town India. In the absence of feedback from the field, media buyers are going only by TRP numbers.

Sodhi has probably expressed what many CMOs in the country are not saying. A good marketer should not and is not buying media blindly on the basis of TRP. They are listening to their sales teams and adjusting the numbers. I am sure the new version of Ajay Mohan can communicate with the head office on a minute by minute basis with his smartphone. He need not wait for the quarterly sales review meetings of yore. While TRP ratings are important, marketers do have another port of call, their frontline sales teams.

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