India is on its way to becoming the world's fastest-growing digital economy but marketers face the challenge of reaching effective outcomes and maximising the impact of their marketing dollars due to a lack of quality data, says WARC Asia Managing Editor Rica Facundo.

The “Inside” series is a collaboration between WARC and IAB SEA+India to spotlight the power of collective expertise in navigating the region’s diverse landscape. This article is based on exclusive access to IAB SEA+India’s member network, specifically perspectives from the regional board.

All bets are on India as Asia's next economic and digital marketing powerhouse. Between now and 2027, the country is predicted to be the world's fastest-growing digital economy, especially as its 1.4 billion-strong population spends more time online.

This growth story is juxtaposed with a moment in time when the global marketing conversation is about driving more effective outcomes in a climate of uncertainty, shrinking budgets, geopolitics and media fragmentation.

But the reality on the ground, as always, is a lot more nuanced. Local marketers must grapple with factors that exacerbate the challenges of reaching effective outcomes and maximising the impact of their marketing dollars.

However, there are some key factors in India's favour, namely that it's coming of age in a time when global innovation can easily coexist with local innovation. "Marketing in India is like East meets West and vice versa," points out The Trade Desk's Rose Huskey, making the marketing landscape the best of both worlds.

Contrast this with when China was the darling of outbound global brand growth. The cost to play was to build market-specific products and services from the ground up, and innovation felt more insular in an "East meets East" way.

In a way, marketing in India resembles the "Everything, Everywhere, All At Once" effect. IAB board council members remark that a hyper-complex and culturally diverse nation requires a multifaceted approach to effectiveness.

The (unspoken) cost of cultural diversity

Often, the key defining feature of India's marketing landscape is that it consists of "multiple Indias" due to its vast diversity in terms of culture, language, socioeconomic status and cultural background.

At first glance, this begets the importance of localisation as the cost of entry to reach diverse audience segments. However, GroupM's Deepika Nikhilender says it also requires more time and effort for local marketers to "orchestrate" campaigns.

"Firstly, there's pressure to fulfil multiple KPIs, from something as basic as a CPM to cost-per-lead and completed view. Then, you must go beyond the national level to 'regionalise' these goals to fit the local market. So it's like setting up multiple campaigns, which puts massive pressure on the workload, scope and effort needed to set up a particular campaign."

It's an important nuance to consider in a fast-moving market where brands are expected to be agile and efficient while delivering multiple outcomes. A focus on delivering outcomes makes the definition of effectiveness universal, regardless of market differences.

"But what makes it more complex is that marketers are grappling with 'multiple Indias', making measurement a lot more complicated," says Unilever's Chiradeep Gupta.

Understanding data dynamics

The global measurement industry is having a moment with significant changes in how marketers measure effectiveness and new next-generation tools such as MMM at their disposal.

However, the hype must be sobered by the on-the-ground realities of the availability and quality of data in the market, especially as marketers grapple with variations of "multiple Indias" and their diverse consumer segments and distribution channels.

For example, "before proposing measurement solutions, platform providers need to account for how a certain city might be organised based on factors such as their retail footprint", observes Meta's Tawana Murphy Burnett.  

One area where there's a significant data gap is in rural markets, which poses a challenge given that the FMCG sector in India relies on rural demand for 30-50% of its sales.

The Coca-Cola Company's Vidyarth Eluppai Srivatsan notes that "data is generally highly indexed towards the urban markets compared to rural – a problem for our brand when we want to connect the dots in the retail ecosystem."

Another barrier preventing marketers from ensuring compliant, quality and protected data is the inconsistency in defining and implementing data privacy laws. Prevalent behaviours, such as collecting phone numbers, still exist in the market, even though they are officially considered personally identifiable information.

Another barrier is the need to interrogate the quality of data available due to varying standards, which makes effectiveness more time-consuming in India.

"There are a lot of tools or solutions providers out there now but we have to be extremely careful about where our partners are getting the data from. We have to do double the due diligence in the market to ensure that we're onboarding the right data partners because we have to be responsible to the clients we work with," says Nikhilender. 

Keeping up with change

It's clear that data availability is crucial to measuring effectiveness. As we move increasingly to a "platform economy", brands will have access to the rich data they need to be effective. However, will measurement tools like MMM keep pace with the speed of change and innovation in the burgeoning local media ecosystem? 

For example, a minimum two to three-year time frame requirement for MMM solutions may not be able to account for newer platforms entering the market and the time it takes for brands to evaluate whether a new platform in a wild west of innovation is worth investing in.

Instead, Gupta says the way forward is to "unlock the potential of digital as a platform and its ability to get data which is more real-time and effective" – an area where the Indian government has invested a lot of money in democratising digital access across different platforms.

Once known as the "India Stack", the government has built the Digital Public Infrastructure Program (DPI), a collection of public-facing digital platforms for identity, payments and data management. A 2022 report by McKinsey Global Institute estimates that India's DPI could add $1 trillion to its GDP by 2025.

However, from a marketing effectiveness standpoint, the game changer is how it has democratised access to digital across different platforms, effectively allowing companies to build on top of a unified digital infrastructure. This backbone infrastructure allows for consistency in standards and processes across various types of businesses.

"It provides marketers with real-time data so that we don't have to rely on two or three years’ worth of amendments to understand the effectiveness of our marketing investments," says Gupta.