Where Don Draper Has Been Reincarnated — as a Millennial

Where Don Draper Has Been Reincarnated — as a Millennial

By Sanjena Sathian


Because the sexiest stuff may be blooming in an unlikely locale.

By Sanjena Sathian

Whether you’re driving down a pothole-riddled highway or channel surfing between late-night political news programs and Hindi serials, you can’t escape advertising in India. There’s advertising in big, bombastic form, and advertising invoking India’s twin gods — cricket and Bollywood. On TV, actor Shah Rukh Khan pushes a skin-lightening cream. A consumer electronic shop window shows another heartthrob, Salman Khan, advising on what sort of batteries will work best for you.

Advertising in India is booming. Between 2013 and 2018, India’s ad market is forecasted to grow nearly 11 percent annually — second only to China within Asia, according to market research data from Statista. You can chalk it up to the rise of the good old middle class and its affinity for Western brands peddling luxury products and the stuff that experts call “aspirational” — goods that set the pulse of the masses racing and are fast becoming more affordable. For global companies, India’s English-speaking population has also eased the entry into a new market. Such was the case, experts say, with Twitter’s successful foray into India.

Over here, there are still many platforms for getting the word out — billboards preach at commuters stuck in traffic in one of India’s several congested cities, while TVs are ubiquitous and, according to the latest census data, can be found in four times the number of houses than those with a toilet connected to a sewer. Print media hasn’t receded; on the salmon-pink pages of the stately Economic Times, you won’t find a cover story but a full-page ad on A1. And never forget the phone craze: 400 million Indians will be online by the end of the year, greater than the population of the U.S., says the Internet and Mobile Association of India. In all of those categories, research firm Euromonitor notes, the ad market has nearly doubled between 2009 and 2014. As ad companies zoom into India, some snap up local agencies for contracts. Other bigwigs, like Ogilvy & Mather, have their own operations here, says Nimisha Kalipurayath, who works on L’Oréal and Pantene campaigns at the Mumbai office of McCann Erickson. 

Though you might not find Don Draper swirling scotch in India’s advertising offices, you will find floors full of lively, well-dressed (in Western attire!) millennials.

Behind the numbers come the fun, new chances for creativity for those in the industry. And though you might not find Don Draper swirling scotch in India’s advertising offices, you will find floors full of lively, well-dressed (in Western attire!) millennials. Or, you’ll find artistes pulling double duty as Bollywood composers and ad impresarios or indie filmmakers and shooters-for-hire. Nimisha Mishra, creative supervisor at the midsize firm Tonic Media, recites a list of foreign companies making splashy entrances: Taco Bell, which created a huge buzz last year, she says; Oreo, which displaced old favorite Britannia, a British biscuit cookie. “We’re growing,” Mishra says simply of the Indian consumer. “India is an adopter sort of country.” She contrasts desis with their Southeast Asian counterparts, which are “less open” markets.

The march from the West into India requires some smart maneuvering, however. Abhishek (that’s his full name), a professor of advertising at the Indian Institutes of Management, Ahmedabad, says the key is Bollywood. Take the Swiss luxury watch brand Omega, which originally relied on George Clooney as its public face. Today, that role belongs to actor Abhishek Bachchan, whose image everyone knows as well as their mothers’. And it’s especially the case for women’s beauty brands, says Kalipurayath — L’Oréal, for example, pulled in Bollywood star and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai. 

That can create a bit of a mess, though. It gets “slightly difficult” when celebrities will lend their face to just about anything; Shah Rukh Khan is everywhere, from grocery delivery app BigBasket to a mango-flavored drink to a clothing line on Yepme.com. How is one supposed to remember the full list of actor-approved products? And then there’s the flip side of the language advantage: Only around 10 percent of India’s population speaks English; fewer consider it their primary language — and while that’s still in the hundred millions, a huge swath of the country is left out. Each state is a very different market, Abhishek says, citing the distinct behavior of, say, a Gujarati versus a Punjabi. 

Plus, there’s the challenge every company faces as things go digital: the question of where to meet your consumers. Social media? TV? In person? Kalipurayath thinks the Mad Men age may have passed, as companies today expect distributed campaigns popping up everywhere like insistent Whac-A-Moles. Some brands, though, have still created hugely memorable campaigns through the years. Coca-Cola, for one, took on the local vibe full force a decade ago, casting Aamir Khan (yep, another Bollywood star) as a Punjabi farmer offering the drink to a few ladies. Campy as hell, and locally perfect.

And don’t forget rival Pepsi, Abhishek notes, which was “one of the first to use Hinglish” — arguably the real national language, a mix of Hindi and English — with its slogan “Yeh hai right choice, baby!” (This is the right choice, baby!) Today, on billboards you’ll find “Hungry kya?” (Are you hungry?) or even a mix of English and Devanagari script. “We’re still pre–Mad Men,” Mishra says. Sure, but in the next decade? Look out for India’s Draper, swigging a mango martini — no dry gin.