Advertising is in real danger of death by obsolescence: Dr Sandeep Goyal

Veteran adman, media entrepreneur and author Dr Sandeep Goyal has used his lockdown time well, coming out with his 7th book – ‘Future Shock’. Inspired by Alvin Toffler’s masterpiece of the same name, Goyal’s Future Shock’ traces the journey of entertainment, media and advertising, over the decades.

What started as a series of commissioned essays for The Economic Times Brand Equity, grew into a book on future gazing, tracking and analysing trends across diverse domains. The book covers food, travel, education, health, beauty, luxury, religion, families, love and more.

In conversation with Adgully, Dr Sandeep Goyal speaks at length about his latest book, how the pandemic has changed lives, dealing with life in the new normal, changes in consumer behavior, a candid look at where advertising is headed and much more.

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Alvin Toffler had written ‘Future Shock’ in 1970 and your book ‘Future Shock’ comes to us in 2020. What, according to you, have been the most remarkable developments that took place in the Advertising & Marketing space in these 50 years?

Alvin Toffler’s masterpiece is my original inspiration. In fact, my book starts from mention of the Alvin Toffler original, which was first published nearly 50 years ago. My mother gifted me a copy on my 16th birthday and I spent perhaps a full week pouring through the masterpiece. Not that I understood all of it at that young age, but Toffler fascinated me; conjured up new worlds, new visions in my head. Toffler’s insights were not just enlightening; they were loaded with possibilities that made you think farther, higher and beyond. His postulations were seemingly simple, but actually pointed you to what could happen not just in the near future, but over the long horizon. Much of what he predicted has already come true in half a century. Toffler’s book is timeless. His writings are relevant and real even today.

Lots have changed in the world around us in the last few months...look at just leisure and entertainment…In ‘Future Shock’, I have traced the journey of entertainment from the birth of the gramophone in 1901 to the birth of Hollywood in 1910, the birth of The Silent Era in Cinema in the 1920s to the birth of television in the 1930s, the appearance of the car radio in the 1940s, to reel-to-reel recording and 3D in the 1950s, colour television in the 1960s, Walkman and cassette tapes in the 1970s, Compact Discs in the 1980s, MP3 in the 1990s, On-demand entertainment by the time we were in 2000, and to the birth of streaming by 2010.

The world of advertising, too, has kept changing. Print ruled the world till the 1960s. Television started to disrupt that status thereafter. TV was already a potent force in the West in the 1970s. In India, TV only took centre-stage after Asiad 82, though it was a Doordarshan monopoly. The 90s saw the advent of cable & satellite. End-90s saw the appearance of the dot coms. By the mid of the first decade of 2000, the mobile emerged as a force multiplier and DTH appeared on the horizon. 2G moved to 3G and onwards to 4G very quickly, hastening the adoption of digital and smartphones by larger and larger numbers, impacting both print and TV, and creating a new audience for video, OTTs and more. So, lots have changed in advertising and media.

What prompted you to write ‘Future Shock’? What is the objective of your book?

It was late April. The whole world had come to a shuddering full stop. All of us were home. One day, I was talking to the editor of a leading pink paper. We got chatting about the future. The conversation went on and on. The editor asked me if I would like to write about how the world would look like tomorrow, now that the world was in the midst of such a major transition. I said I would if I could write long essays. He asked how long is long? I said maybe 2,000 words, maybe more. We agreed on a 6-part series.

When I started writing the first piece, I figured 2,000 words were too little. The first of the ‘future’ series eventually turned out to be 5,000 words! I was very apprehensive if anyone would read such a long piece in today’s day and age of digital brevity. Luckily, I got hundreds of messages congratulating me on a well written and well researched piece. Many domain experts also reached out with very positive feedback. The rest was easy. Over 6 weeks, I covered travel & tourism, food, health, education, jobs & careers and leisure & entertainment.

My publisher called me as the series was tapering off and suggested that I write a few more essays and we would have a book that would be current and topical. Hence, ‘Future Shock’ was born. From start to finish, the book took me three months to write. So, at least from the literary point of view, the lockdowns have been a blessing in disguise for me.

This book has been born in a crisis. That too, a crisis of unmitigated proportions. This is perhaps one time when the world was cumulatively, and simultaneously, impacted more than any war or natural disaster.

The impact of the virus will be around for years and years.

With no past precedents, every country, every domain, every institution, every business, every family, every individual has coped with change, uncertainty, fear and disease differently, and uniquely. As I was writing the book, multiple trends were starting to be visible. In the past few months, many of those trends have become more pronounced and are headed to permanence.

My book points you to what can happen, may happen…not necessarily what will happen. The book, I hope, will become a seminal work whenever the pandemic is discussed in subsequent years.

Since you have analysed the trends during the COVID and lockdown period, what have been the most disruptive trends that you saw during this period?

Technology has got fast forwarded by at least a decade in almost every domain. Ed-tech in this country would have taken at least another couple of decades, even longer, to get to schools and colleges. There was just too much skepticism, too much resistance. The pandemic pushed all those who opposed the introduction of technology to a Hobson’s Choice. The shutting of all schools and colleges left no alternative and ed-tech entered through the virus! It is still not an ideal situation, but at least the fort has been breached!

Similarly robotics. The introduction of robotics beyond just precision manufacturing would have taken a generation, if not more. But today, ‘touch-free’ requirements have seen robots getting into hospitality, into service industry, into introduction of robotic chat bots, into conversational AI solutions and much more. So, change has been put on skates.

The customer too has evolved. E-commerce has taken a big leap forward with shops and malls shut. Streaming of entertainment has risen exponentially because cinemas have been shut. E-payments have seen massive acceptance because ‘no-touch’ was seen to be the safer option.

So, necessity is the mother of invention. The pandemic has demonstrated that for sure.

How does the advertising industry need to move ahead in this never normal era? What are the major changes that this industry will see in the coming times? What are the practices that will become redundant?

Advertising is headed to a generational change. In 1992, the arrival of private broadcasters finished off the monopoly of state-owned TV. In the next 10 years television proliferated. In 1995, mobile arrived and by 1997-8, Internet made its presence.

Today, the consumer is no longer a prisoner of formats or bound to any one kind of messaging. Content is all about story-telling; content is not bound by mediums or formats; content is not wedded to devices. So, advertising is no longer a commercial silo but a medium that goes beyond just brand messaging.

Advertising today is truly communication-without-lines. That is its biggest challenge. But I am not sure ad agencies are really resourced to deliver beyond the traditional domains of press and TV; success rates in digital and social media have been very poor; there are no experts in the area of ‘voice’, which is the next frontier. Agencies are lagging far, far behind where the pandemic has taken the world to.

The ad agency of tomorrow will need copywriters who can write code; it will need strategists who are engineers and technologists who can understand consumers’ digital journeys; it will need communicators who think 5G…a different world all together.

A lot of behavioural changes have happened in the consumers in the last 6-7 months. In what ways do brands and marketers now need to re-read their consumers?

I have explained some of that above.

In media, machines and algorithms will replace buyers. They already have. Programmatic is the future. So, data will become even more important. Consumer crumb-trails will overtake traditional research. Cookies will govern what brands make of consumers. Consumer profiles, and digital footprints, will become the basis of future media planning. This data will impact product planning too.

In the olden days, advertising was required to propagate great ideas. Today, the client is the idea itself. AirBnB or Uber or Netflix or WeWork are the idea. The Big Idea. And they have created their own market. Advertising did not make these brands famous as it did say in the case of Nike. So, the world of tomorrow will need advertising to fight for relevance itself. That is the biggest challenge.

For you personally, what have been the key lessons from the pandemic? What kind of changes has it brought about in your thinking, way of looking at things and devising brand communication for your clients?

I have been always digitally inclined, unlike most advertising folks. I set up a huge content business for mobiles way back in 2006…we were the biggest producers in India of momics – mobile comics – way back then. I started a fantasy league in 2008…years ahead of Dream 11. I got into ed-tech in 2008 with Diginatives, way before Byju’s was even ideated. Maybe I was too ahead of times.

So, for me the pandemic is a sure indicator that Digital First is the way forward across domains. Within that, too, Mobile First. And soon 5G First. Technology will be the engine that will propel the brand train on all touchpoints. Brands that understand that, and try to pivot, will survive. Those that don’t, will perish.

Advertising is currently in laggard mode. The guys who run the businesses don’t really think digital. So, clients are turning to consultants for a lot of stuff ad agencies should have been doing. So, advertising is in real danger of death by obsolescence.


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