Oh, Weeds...

Not only I love the sitcom Weeds, I love the title track too. Not for any other reason, but for the relevance it has with the Sri Lankan society where everybody wants their kids to one day become doctors, engineers and MBA grad’s; own a little boxy house that Ceylinco built; drive pajeros and corollas and send their little ones to the best college in Colombo. Aaaah, the wonderful Sri Lankan Dream..!

So here goes:

Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of ticky tacky

Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same

There's a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one

And they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses all went to the university

Where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same,

And there's doctors and there's lawyers, and business executives

And they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course and drink their martinis dry,

And they all have pretty children and the children go to school

And the children go to summer camp and then to the university

Where they are put in boxes and they come out all the same.

And the boys go into business and marry and raise a family

In boxes made of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

(Malvina Reynolds - Little Boxes)

Read my earlier post on Weeds here.


From Toilet-graffiti to Road Signs

I had a college-mate who used to carve his name on his writing desks and every surface available, and imaginable. The toilets in the college belonged to him and so did the trees and park benches.

Driving around in Colombo these days reminds me of him. Even though he is a good few thousand miles away from home, he seems to have left his legacy behind with the business community.

Of all the temporary road signs in town, there's hardly any that qualifies to be a proper traffic sign. So are some of the permanent ones. Traffic signs are the language of the road and it is closely guarded, and followed by the British to the letter. They even have a Road Traffic Regulation Act that defines every aspect of road signage and its placement. So do the Americans, the Europeans and the rest of the world where common sense still prevails.

We, the islanders of Paradise, do seem to think different. A turn-off on the road is a good place to have my logo legally placed; and the best way is to offer a traffic sign that does the job. Roads and their signage are a right-royal-mess in Colombo – thanks to the good samaritans who donate the signage to the City Traffic Police. I would be surprised if the City Traffic or the Municipality does not have funds to put-up signs themselves – but thanks to the advertising and marketing gurus, we have created another a sea of branding opportunities that has swallowed up the beauty of the city. Traffic and information signs in the city are cluttered with sponsorship messages, branding and logos, some are almost impossible to identify until you are too confused, too close or too late.

Sponsorship is a good idea. But a good idea badly executed, is a bad idea. In this case, it is a very, very, bad idea.

All we need is standardization. For example, the traffic signs should remain traffic signs, not hoardings or display boards. They should not have any other branding or logos on them at all. But, considering the fact that this is Sri Lanka and the financial aspects... and the view point of the good samaritan, we could do with a bit of branding space on the signage. Ideally, limited to a pre-defined, confined space: say around 15% of the total height of the sign, for example. This space, reserved at the lower part of the sign, should not over-power the visual impact of the traffic sign; therefore, ideally should be monochrome or reversed out.

Then, the visibility of the sign is undisturbed and the purpose of the sign is not lost.

Even if I have my wish granted, and the signs are rid of unnecessary branding, our people need to know about designing the signs, if we were to get this right. There are internationally accepted – ISO Standard – signs and symbols for every possible requirement on the road. However, we do not seem to be aware of this either – we are great at painstakingly cutting out stencils in Sinhala and spray painting them all over town. Some are almost impossible to read, but, thankfully the city is so congested we DO have the luxury of time to sit in our vehicles and actually decode the stencils.

Simplicity is key: follow the standards and there is no need to write in three languages when a simple symbol can do the job. Traffic diversions, detours, road closures and check points... they are all there. If not, we can adapt or create a simple pictogram that works. The Passport Control sign can also work for a check point, easily.

Most countries that use more than one official language have adapted a system where a typical traffic sign is a pictogram with no writing, because everyone understands a simple picture (and there are no ill-feelings of racism or inferiority) whenever you see a traffic sign.

Then comes the next problem: implementation. Most traffic, warning, and information signs are fixed on the wrong side of the road – hidden away between store names and lottery booths. Traffic signs are for the drivers, not the passengers and pedestrians – so the best place is on the driver’s side, in a place clearly visible and undisturbed by the clutter.

Roadside information is as vital as any other information, in this day and age. Leave aside informing traffic congestions and road closures to drivers, some cities like Sydney even warns people when they are ready to plant a tree on the side of the walkway.

Now, that’s something nice and refreshing to know when you are driving by.


Awards or Brand Building?

Last few years have seen a remarkable change in the advertising industry in Sri Lanka. Starting from the Brand Mantra to AdFest, and a few international awards, there’s a new awakening in the air. We see Sri Lankan agencies beginning to win in Asia, and beyond.

The taste of success is a good thing. Hunger to win more, is even better.

But, along with this sudden awakening, there looms a danger. Are we winning for the sake of winning or are we doing some brilliant “advertising” work that truly deserves accolades in gold?

Winning awards is not that difficult, especially in the “Print: Single” Category. For example, here’s one easy way to bag a metal: pick a pro-bono client, sell your one-off idea, use the media-muscle to strike a deal with a magazine or a paper and you are on your way to glory. Its pretty much like photo-captioning: you have an idea or a visual in your head and all you do is find a brand that fits. One off, one award, and forget the client. Its like the ethical version of what Triad did with the Daily Mirror and the ‘umbrellas’ to win at the inaugural Chillies.

Could this approach add a metal to you mantle? Yes, most likely. Would it move the goods off the shelf? I doubt it very much.

Lots of agencies around the world, and quite a lot of creatives too, choose this path in the beginning to launch themselves. Some evolve from that point and become brilliant creatives while some remain rogues. A rare few, become brilliant rogues.

Knowing Sri Lanka, I can confidently guess where we could end up. Some international awards, huge ego’s and the death of brand building. I just hope that clients and media wouldn’t fall prey to agencies that are trying to win a few awards by hook or crook, on their account.

“Sham-awards” could be the next cancer that kills the originality and creativity – because unlike “sham-ads,” these are even harder to detect.

Winning awards is a good thing. Winning awards while selling goods is the best thing. That's what should be on our agenda - because that’s the right thing to do, and that's the ethical thing to do.


Local Advertising and the (bad) Indian Influence

I remember attending a presentation by the regional creative director of McCann Erickson India (whose name I shall keep to myself), a couple of years ago in Colombo. The event was organised by the advertising fraternity riding on the brand mantra hype, trying to bring-in international knowledge and wisdom to the local ad-scene.

I wasn’t impressed by the presentation or the work – and not so surprisingly, nor was my colleague who was relatively new to the world of advertising. We Lankans, seem to think that the Indian creatives are the best, and seem to be hiring them, offering a lot more than the talented locals could ever bargain for. I know for a fact, some of the Indian imports are indeed international rejects – once I was surprised to find out an Art Director who was kicked out of an agency in Dubai was working as a Creative Director at one of the leading international agencies in Colombo. I was the Head of Creative (Activation) in Ogilvy & Mather Dubai at that time, and was aware of this particular person’s work.

Most of the Indian creative rejects (and I mean ‘rejects’ – with respect to my colleagues who I know are brilliant) are great repairmen, they steal ads and ideas from all over the world including the archives and the annuals. They fix them nicely to fit, and sell to the local agencies and the clients alike – camouflaged as their original work. No one, I mean no one human, is capable of remembering or keeping a tab on all the great work produced all over the world every year – so there’s no way we could find out before its too late. Unfortunately.

Sri Lankan advertising fraternity must stop emulating the Indians. Following the Indians is not the only way to get to the New York Festivals or Cannes. We must take a good look at ourselves, our rich culture and heritage, our great literature and communal values, habits and norms, get the insights and we could easily find a million ways to communicate effectively and creatively. Entrust our talent with the challenge, believe in them – I know we DO have quite a few good local creative young-guns who are quite capable of delivering outstanding work.

Yes, we do not have formal training in advertising, nor do we have ad-schools. Yet. But there are quite a few Sri Lankan creatives who carved their names in the international arena, perhaps we should import them for lectures and seminars, not the second-rate creatives from other countries.

But then again, that’s just me dreaming. My wishful thinking – I know it wouldn’t ever happen: I forgot that our ‘ego’ is bigger than the Jaguars we drive. Ooops. Besides, why a Sri Lankan, when the foreign names look glamorous in the agenda, anyway..?

Enough said. Here’s an example to illustrate how our ad industry gets influenced by the second-hand Indian garbage. Perhaps its my imagination, perhaps its sheer coincidence, or perhaps its just the truth. I shall let you do the math.

2008: Ole Plus launches a ‘light’ version. A billboard campaign appears all around town. One of the executions shows the label slipped at the feet of the bottle.

2005: McCann Erickson Mumbai wins a gold medal at the New York Festivals for Diet Coke press advertisement. There’s a bottle of beautifully-photographed Diet Coke, and the label is falling loose.

Creative team is led by the gentleman I mentioned above and there are two art directors and two copywriters for an ad that doesn’t even have a solitary word of copy. Perhaps it needed four people to perform the tedious task of flipping through numerous annuals.

I dare to say that because:

2003: Orangina – the famous French citrus juice – launches a ‘light’ version. The ad shows the bottle – you guessed it – with the label fallen at the feet. This campaign was well remembered by many, and of course won quite a few awards. Including the New York Festivals, if I’m not mistaken.

Stealing an idea or a concept can be defendable and harder to detect as long as the style of execution remains vastly different from the original. Pea-brainers do that, while the no-brainers go for the outright robbery:

PS: Coincidences do take place, I have seen them happening. But I would be surprised if the Regional Creative Director (SE Asia) of McCann Erickson and his team of four were indeed ignorant or unaware of the Orangina ad.

Lets talk about Olé Plus, later.


Cargills should be Keells and Keells should be Cargills

I remember growing up in Diyatalawa. At a time when essential items were only distributed through the cooperative shops, we had only two places to buy any “luxury” items in the 70’s – the Army & Navy Stores in Diyatalawa and the Cargills in Bandarawela. Cargills Millers, as it was known then, had everything from film rolls to champagne glasses. If my parents bought some chocolates from Cargills whenever we went to the “town,” it was the ultimate treat. Because, Cargills was the ultimate shop.

Keells, on the other hand, became a popular household name not so long ago, with popular products such as Keells meat balls, bacon and the sausages. Keells pork sausages made its way even to the United Arab Emirates, a true testimony to the success of the brand.

Today, both are in retail business. They are in modern trade, own and operate supermarkets island-wide.

Their positioning? Keells is the premium store, that commands a premium price. Cargills aka Food City, is the place for the masses – the place you stop by on your way home. They even challenge that they offer the cheapest price, if not, you get the difference refunded.

In my mind, it was Keells which began as a brand for the masses, and Cargills was the premium brand. Goes back to our understanding of advertising and marketing. Too many marketers with too many qualifications, and just no common sense. One must understand the core values of a brand/product/service and what it stands for, before thinking of its positioning.

Cargills could have easily been the most premium superstore in the country if they didn’t forget where they came from. Cargills was THE name. They could’ve earned billions more, if only they didn’t forget their heritage. Period.

“Food City” could’ve been a brand on its own, for the masses. Easily.


Business Today or LMD?

There’s a debate in the market about the better business magazine: is it the Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD) or the Business Today (BT)?

A good business magazine is something that provides me with information that helps me make better business decisions. It should keep me in-the-know, provide me with insights and tricks of the trade. It should be something that‘s worth investing in the subscription, and it should be something collectible and filled with stuff I’d like to remember. Hopefully, it should arm me with the knowledge that sets me apart from the rest, apart from my peers.

I took two copies of either magazine, flipped through and kept them back. A day later, I still remembered what was in BT, while LMD had nothing memorable inside. Perhaps its the way the articles are presented (layout) in BT or the content itself. Perhaps the “template” look of LMD makes every page, every issue look monotonous that nothing stands out.

Then, comes the most important question: Content. Business Today has got it right in the mix. Not perfect, but good enough. LMD’s biggest sin – it presents articles that are suitable for newspapers, not magazines. I could keep a BT for 10 years and still learn from the articles; while LMD carries news that’s too old by the time the magazine hits the newsstand.

I have also heard the argument about foreign contributors to BT while LMD has a pool of local contributors. In my opinion, the two styles are a world apart, and they are a world apart in value and content too. I’m blessed to have international business wisdom at my hand for half the price; and I have very rarely seen an original write-up from a local contributor that’s on par with the world. Our writers lack substance, there’s no meat and there’s no meaning. No disrespect to anyone intended, but that’s my humble opinion.

The key difference: LMD is business news and BT is business knowledge.

News gets old, knowledge doesn’t.


The Next Big Thing on Showtime

Stayed up almost all night watching Weeds.

Weeds is an American comedy television series revolving around a young, recently widowed, single mother trying to cope with her troublesome two sons and trying to make a living by selling ganja to the affluent – including the city councilman. Funny, witty, insightful and very well written; its just beautiful to watch.

Currently in its fourth season, Weeds attracted 1.3 million viewers to Showtime, the highest ever for the channel.

Sri Lanka needs to break-away from the crap that’s on tv and offer the viewers something that’s worth watching and something that’s stimulating. Meaningful entertainment, brain-food perhaps. Definitely not a daily dose of imported Indian crap: rapists and child-molesters making love to each other. Maha-gedara is a good title and bad content. Weeds on the other hand, is a bad (?) title, but good content.

Going back to Weeds here’s a bit of dialogue that stuck in my head. Andy, the young-US-Army-volunteer, is having a conversation with Doug, the city councilman – seeking his help to withdraw from the call-of-duty.

Andy: “I’m not going to Iraq to fight in some bullshit war about oil money..!”

Doug: “Bullshit war?? What about 9/11? Didn’t Iran hide the terrorists?”

A: “We are fighting a war in I-R-A-Q Doug, and neither country has anything to do with blowing up the World Trade Centre..!”

D: “Well... they both have SAND...”

A: ”Bush invaded a sovereign nation in defiance of the UN. He’s a war criminal, and now I’m supposed to be one of his disposable thugs with a f**king target on my head in the middle of the desert, waiting to be blown up by a car bomb rigged by a 12 year old who loved Friends and Metallica until one of our missiles blew up his house..? I don’t think so!”

D: “Well... whatever...” [grabs a key from the drawer and stands up]

D: “Look, I’ve got a lotta’ shit to do...”

A: “You name me one thing you have to do that’s more important than the corporate takeover of our democracy..!”

[Doug holding up the bathroom key]
“I’ve gotta take a shit...”