Thursday, January 22, 2009

Humane Capitalism Conclave

This is the text of the keynote address I delivered at the first Humane Capitalism Conclave today - the other speakers on this panel were Anu Aga of Thermax, and Rob Dhoble of Omnicom. Will try to get hold of their deliveries too and paste them here.

"Most of you must have watched President Barack Obama deliver his rhetorical inaugural address two nights ago. Among the many things he said, I was struck several times by his reference to responsibility – that of the citizens of today to the future citizens of this planet, that of his country to the world, that of a government to its people, and that of leaders to the led.

In a much less dramatic but equally sincere speech, our own Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh called out, in no uncertain terms, to the corporate leaders of our country last Saturday at the Economic Times Business Leader Awards – to conduct their businesses with integrity, and not to betray the trust imposed on them by all the stake holders of the corporate world, employees, shareholders and customers. Yet another call to take heart, be good and act responsibly.

Doing good while doing well was the original theme of this conclave. Today when everyone is not doing nearly as well as they would have liked, doing good, playing fair, and being kind, have taken on a real and felt importance across the corporate world. Adversity can bring out either the best or the worst in people, and it’s heartening to note that so far we are seeing a great deal of the best.

This is a welcome trend especially for the civil society movement, since paying lip service to CSR has long been a characteristic of Indian industry. There are genuine practitioners ofcourse but these are few and far between. For most companies and individuals, the easiest response to a request for help is to loosen one’s purse strings with a quick tax deductible cheque.

However social causes need time, effort, attitude and commitment much more than they need funds. (I work for the cause of animals which is the single most unpopular cause of all in India. It requires a great deal of courage and commitment to fight for the plight of creatures who cannot communicate with us). All causes need people to feel the pain and the deprivation, to really empathise with the beneficiaries of their ‘handouts’, and not just sympathise with them.

At times like this when people at all levels have begun to feel the pinch themselves, it’s getting difficult to loosen the purse strings for charity. The good news therefore is that people have instead begun to open their heart strings, and this could lead to real social change. More people ran for Mumbai in the recent marathon than ever before.

This leads me to the role of communication in furthering the practice of humane capitalism. We live in the age of communication. The modes of relaying messages from one to many have never been so quick, so easy and so cheap. More than one lakh people gathered outside the Gateway of India on 26/12 without any kind of paid advertising – just word of mouth and word of mouse through all the social networking sites. As Herod sang in Superstar telling Christ that if he’d come today he would have reached a whole nation – that was still thirty years ago, today he would have reached the whole world. Early estimates suggest that Obama’s address was watched live by more than 300 million people around the world (the opening games of the Olympics by 90 million).

To all the NGO’s therefore who struggle to find funds for awareness generation, you don’t need to. Use the power of citizen driven, community driven, messages instead – they are more powerful, and they are free.

The marketing head of the Taj addressed a digital roundtable organized by us last week along with IAMAI, in which she described the impact of the groundswell of citizen driven communication on the Taj brand. Always seen as a hospitable and efficient brand, in the aftermath of the attacks, people writing in blogs and facebook etc ignored the inadequate security at the hotel (a negative) and dwelt instead on the heroism of its employees (a major positive). I dare say employees of any hotel would have acted similarly in a similar situation – it was the good fortune (for want of a better word) amid the misfortune of the Taj that the event happened there thus generating heaps of free and quick goodwill for the Taj brand that years of pr and advertising put out by the company itself would not have been able to.

What is the point that I am getting at? Two points really. One is that you don’t need money from grudging and motivated corporates to communicate a social message.

The other and more important one is that it's finally all about selflessness. Really humane capitalism is selfless and sincere. It is not wired by the need to sell more goods and services by appealing to the good side of customers, the way most cause marketing intiatives of companies are structured. ‘One rupee of every packet sold goes to xyz ngo’. It doesn’t measure what it gets back by way of sales, but by way of goodwill. It looks at CSR as a way of giving back to society, not getting back in 80G.

Between 2006 and 2008, there was an 80% increase in the amount of television time given to social advertising – most of it probono – 1.2 million seconds worth. All these ads were for NGO’s or government agencies. The comparative growth figure for print was however 253% - almost all of it on account of the universally acclaimed and awarded Lead India and Teach India campaigns of the Times of India that all of you are familiar with. Sales generation and fund raising were not the primary objectives of these campaigns, getting people to feel and act and give, was.

I would now like to share with you examples of work done by our agency Lintas that reflect this thought. You will not see an overt association with any specific cause or NGO in any of these commercials. No budget has been laid aside for ‘CSR’. No tax deductible cheques written. Real social change is sought to be achieved by the very nature of the communication itself. All of them have used the power of the advertiser’s entire spend to strive for real social change. These are examples of work conceived and driven by people in companies who know that they have the strongest power in their hands – not the power of money though they have that too, but the power to ideate and to communicate life changing messsages. And are willing to use this for the overall betterment of society as much as for the betterment of their brands."

(Play Jaago Re, all What an idea, Sirji films, Surf Excel do bucket, and Lifebuoy puppy)

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