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Is the West the gold standard?
Madhukar Sabnavis
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October 07, 2005

While watching the best of television advertising from the Cannes Advertising Festival, I often wonder how many of those commercials I could release, as is, with limited changes in cast and language, to Indian audiences. My answer is "very few".

Even to an involved advertising person like me, I find many of the winning commercials too subtle, understated and at times "intelligent" for my sensibilities.

Interestingly, little "Eastern" work often finds its way into that reel. Indian advertising doesn't win too many metals at these functions. Is this a reflection of Indian creative being less talented than their Western counterparts or just a question of judging sensibilities?

When I compare the best Cannes work with the best from India, the difference is stark. The best Indian work tends to be more "explicit", in fact "kind of loud" and more significantly with "stronger" product legs than the Cannes work.

Is this a case of advertising being at different stages of evolution in the two parts of the world or is it a reflection of the cultural differences in the approaches towards creativity?

This is not to discount the importance of being seen and heard at international forums. It is critical if we are to gain acceptance in the developed world. But it is also important to understand the difference between art and craft of life.

It is a fact that by all economic and lifestyle indicators, the West has far more progressed and developed than much of the East. The systems developed for what I call the "craft" side -- execution and production -- are helpful and worth emulating and adapting to our culture to work more productively. However, on the "art" side, it may be better to work within our framework rather than ape the West.

Over the past 20 years, one sees a quantum jump in the quality of ideas and advertising in India. Since the Indianisation of advertising in the 1990s, we can confidently say Indian advertising has developed an identity of its own. There are further creative boundaries to be pushed�and there are enough talented creative people doing it all the time.

Richard Nisbett in his book The Geography of Thought says that Eastern and Western mindsets are fundamentally different. The Westerner, driven by Aristotle's thinking, believes the world "is a line", is unchanging, so is controllable, and hence can be defined by rules and systems.

He believes in absolute truths -- blacks and whites -- in the power of the individual and his capacity to influence the environment. He is typically "object-focused", thinks sequentially, and believes in the concept of debate because finally logic will prevail. By mindset, he is inclined to scientific theory and investigation. For the Westerner, "life is a problem to be solved".

By contrast, the Easterner is influenced by Confucian thinking. He believes the world "is a circle", is constantly changing, so is not controllable and hence the challenge is how to manage life within it. He believes there is no absolute truth and is constantly trying to find a path to the truth.

For him, the collective is more important than the individual and it's important to exercise self-control so as to minimise friction within the group to maintain harmony. He is typically "relationship-focused" rather than object-focused, thinks "circularly" and believes in the concept of discussion, from which emerges a harmonious solution acceptable to all. By mindset, he is more inclined to the arts. For the Easterner, "life is mystery to be unraveled".

Cultural differences can impact how people do business and business transactions. Mark Lam and John Graham, in the October 2003 issue of Harvard Business Review, highlighted the differences between the American and Chinese approaches to negotiation.

An American's key objective is to forge a good deal. He tends to break a deal into components and discuss them point-by-point independent of each other. He is fundamentally trusting ("you are honest till proven guilty") and seeks quick meetings to settle the issue.

The Chinese, in contrast, seeks to forge a long-term relationship. He looks at elements in totality and hence more holistically and so tends to get more circular in negotiation (much to the American's irritation!). He is fundamentally distrusting ("you are dishonest till proved otherwise"), so tends to approach the process in a more questioning manner, ready for a long courting process.

When Japan adopted capitalist models, it modified them to cohere to its social values. Company loyalty and team spirit, consultative management and cooperativeness across industries, all arose from Japanese social values -- which have been held by many as largely responsible for the "Japanese miracle" of economic development in the post World War II period.

If culture can influence business models and the way people do business, it's not unnatural to expect that the process of idea generation, creation and judgment is influenced by the mindsets created by social culture. The subtlety and understatedness that much of the best Western advertising is hinged upon are alien to the average Indian.

Our houses use dark shades and ornate designs lavishly (the Western mindset will find it garish), we dress in bright colours (that will seem loud and flashy) and we are very expressive in the way we talk and display enjoyment (which the average Westerner will find very intrusive). Much of Indian advertising emerges from this cultural ethos -- which is very difficult for the average Westerner judge to empathise and vibe with.

Interestingly, a few years ago, the TV campaign "Thanda Matlab Coca Cola" won creative awards here in India but came a cropper at Cannes. However, the print version (very Western in its rendition) created for a select audience with a limited run in this country won a metal at Cannes.

This is a clear case of "powerful indigenous" stuff not cutting ice with international juries but a campaign with Western sensibilities (which the Coke print campaign was) winning accolades.

The challenge for Indian creative minds is to create new paradigms within our cultural values rather than consciously seek out Western styles. Using a film analogy, while both Black and Iqbal are well-made films, Black is India trying to ape the West, while Iqbal is pure Indian creativity.

We need to strive for more Iqbals. We should draw inspiration from national award-winning filmstar Pankaj Kapur, who recently said in an interview, "If we continuously look Westwards, we will not see the sun rise". Something worth thinking about.

The author is Board Partner,Discovery and Strategy, Ogilvy and Mather, India. The views here are his own and do not reflect that of the company he works for.

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