A story of Gurgaon through its billboards
Hi, Hot Chips gang!
So long story short, this story was supposed to make it to you last month. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of approaching advertising professionals right when festive season had begun. And I had quite the hard time trying to tackle this narrative from a secondary research angle. That being said, I loved writing this.
I will be apologizing to any readers based out of Mumbai for chimping off of DIVINE for a backing track for a piece on a city that’s not Mumbai, but couldn’t be more relevant to the piece. Happy reading!
Gurgaon will take you to the extremes of loving and hating.
The city is a concrete jungle, but unlike New York, it doesn’t have a massive park in the middle. It is possibly the most divisive city I’ve ever visited, or lived in, or will probably ever see.
Divisive, because it’s full of consultants serving their clients at 2 am in the night. Gurgaon was always meant to serve as a corporate hub, which is why it’s not uncommon to notice that loneliness is a common theme among its inhabitants. There is little to expect in terms of natural greenery, except for the inseams of its posh neighborhoods. The weather here knows no balance. At any given time of the year in Gurgaon, you’ll either need a heater or an AC, and spring only lasts for a month. Sector 42 is 6 km away from Sector 43, and rainy season exposes the glaring lack of a good drainage system. The city is not kind to its poor, and it’s as if its slums were wiped. Car accidents are accepted as a norm of living here.
If you feel like you’ve read this before, you’re not wrong. These happen to be the first words of Alcoholics Autonomous. In a lot of ways, I’ve realized that embarking to write a piece on Gurgaon will entail certain acceptances beforehand, especially as a tale of being a consumerist city. This one doesn’t happen to be all that different.
Sorry, I did forget the air pollution.
Pity On A Whim
When you enter Gurgaon, you are bound to have a chicken-or-egg question of your own. What came first, the ads or the buildings?
Most people enter the city through its famous 6-way lane that is a part of NH-8. And the moment you enter the city, you encounter a mall. And a hotel right adjacent to it. Ambience Mall and The Leela, more specifically. And a massive billboard.
Gurgaon is constantly expanding. There is no way to tell where its borders lie, or if it has any. It’s quite telling of a city that did not have organic origins and is primarily a result of private developers buying rural land for cheap — primarily a firm named Delhi Land & Finance (DLF), that’s plastered all over the city today.
While the actual answer to the chicken-egg question is neither, it’s still an important question. Gurgaon was built with a purpose to become a hub for industry. In 1982, Maruti and Suzuki had a joint venture that resulted in a car plant in the proposed new city. Later, another set of Indian and Japanese companies — Hero and Honda — set up their factory here. In the 1990s, right after liberalization, Gurgaon became a hub for IT and BPO work. Multinationals such as American Express (that has two huge setups near Sector 43), and General Electric set up shop here.
Lots of SEZs and business parks were created, all by the hand of DLF leasing space to them. Most MNCs had little to do with acquiring land because private developers had done that job for them — they still pay massive rent to whatever private developer owns their buildings. Even though the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon exists, there seemingly has been little role that the state has played in this market. This, from a paper on the development of the city, only confirms that:
“On paper, once HUDA or private developers build roads, public infrastructure, drainage systems, and so on, they need to hand these developments over to the MCG for maintenance. However, there is neither any timeframe nor any agreement between the two bodies on how to account for the civil works undertaken so far and the extent of the tasks still pending. It is still unclear where the responsibility lies for maintenance of public utilities and infrastructure in Gurgaon.”
The MCG does play the role of collector. It generates upwards of 16000 crores worth of tax revenue. In 2015, that was nearly half of all of Haryana’s receipts, an impressive testament to the growth the city has seen since its inception. But the cost of it was borne in other ways. Gurgaon has never had a master plan for sewage treatment. Residents mostly blame the MCG, but it’s hard to put them entirely on the stand when the demarcation between what constituted private and public was always unclear.
Electricity is a constant issue. It’s split between what a public organization (such as the Dakshin Haryana Bijli Vitran Nigam) provides, and how private players make up for the shortfall by the public firm. Commercial parks account for a large chunk of the consumption. Water supply, fire emergency and security services are similarly lopsided. There’s nearly no presence of public transport.
And it’s a city marked by inequality. It may not be by deliberate design, but it might certainly be because of the sheer lack of it. You can see fascinating oval buildings and luxury properties crowding out rundown housing developments and slum areas. As with any other urban area, Gurgaon is facing a supply shortage of residences. It is also a city where, as this paper notes, the under-utilization of owned properties exists right alongside high demand for more moderate-income housing. Nowhere better is the phenomenon of treating land as a source of wealth portrayed than here.
There are no actual Gurgaon natives, it’s all migrants who come here to try and make a better life. Many of them struggle to make a living here, and the city (often its people) doesn’t do them any favors. If the last few months were any indication, it goes beyond making a living wage for migrant colonies.
What’s perplexing that these were all choices. Many of these problems that Gurgaon faces today could have been its strengths. Instead, we’re now between a rock and a hard place, where things don’t seem to get much better rather than cheap booze. To quote ex-Genpact executive Pramod Bhasin,
“There was a chance to build world class infrastructure and it wasn’t that difficult either. We could have built Singapore. But we didn’t.”
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Gurgaon barely has any parallel roads. The stretch of tarmac entering Gurgaon through the expressway winds down and around with no U-turn in sight. While it leads into the core city, it feels like it was built to circle Gurgaon’s premier business hub, CyberCity.
Call it deliberate or call it a happy accident, but the path that goes through CyberCity is also some of its prime virtual estate.
I speak to Gurjot Singh, an ex-Executive VP at Dentsu Webchutney with years of helming large-scale executions of media planning. He alerts me to this insight about Gurgaon’s lack of parallel roads simultaneously making it valuable for brands. This also ensures that traffic is always an issue at 10AM and 6PM. There is high demand by companies for what are naturally limited hoardings on this road.
You could be earning 5LPA or 5 crores every year, but it’s very likely that your work route is the same. What this implies is that you could be looking at a vast variety of brands advertising themselves along the same route. A product worth 100 rupees might be right next to a premium German automaker with a slick tagline. More importantly, the clogging of traffic has also led brands to create longer taglines and messages on their ads. You’ll be stuck in your vehicle moving at a snail’s pace while glaring that one ad.
Gurjot says that this is also proliferated by blurry demarcations between where different demographics live. For example, DLF Camellias, a massive luxury enclosure with 2 golf courses, doesn’t really have a separate road of its own that leads to it. It remains mish-mashed with other properties and rentals that aren’t as high-end. In Mumbai, or even Delhi, there is still a much clearer line, crossing which one can say that they’re in the Upper East Side equivalent of the city. There is no South Gurgaon that way. It’s entirely possible to have a luxury enclave right next to more median-income housing.
“The probability of someone living in societies being exposed to ads is much higher than in co-op housing or independent establishments”, says Niharika Ghoshal, Strategy Lead at Havas Media. Apps like MyGate and NoBroker have also allowed brands to advertise themselves on their interfaces. Niharika points me to the parking lots of high-rises and the cars they contain, which also parallels what Gurjot says in a way. Such a lot can possibly have both a relic like the Hyundai Santro and the Audi R8. Even though their spending powers are different, some things are common, like going to a Decathlon store for sporting goods. Some are not, like eating at a high-flying restaurant such as threesixtyone.
“This is the sequence of ads from the beginning of Gurgaon at Ambience Mall: Trident bedsheets and towels, Vistara direct to Bali, Spinny with Sachin, Spotify, and Apple”, Gurjot tells me as of the 3rd week of November. It’s the sheer diversity of brands that amazes — from lavish tech product that high-income earners buy a new variant of every year, to a platform selling used cars that could very well be someone’s first vehicle. It’s also the various industries in reflection at any given time. Unlike smartphones, both the Apple and the Vivo types, Spotify doesn’t do ads all year round. Tickets to Bali or Vietnam — as are the new vacation hubs for upper-class Indians — don’t make sense to be advertised in the off-season.
Since Gurgaon was designed as with CyberCity in the focus, it made sense to also have all the post-work entertainment for white collars there. Behold CyberHub —Gurgaon’s premier open-air space that consists of innumerable offices, restaurants, fashion stores, and some of the city’s most happening party places. The center of the center, inspired by Singapore’s Clarke Quay area.
It’s also by far the best place to advertise your goods. “It’s our Bermuda Triangle”, quips Gurjot. It has the ability to suck anybody and everybody into its vortex. And CyberHub doesn’t just do billboards. Below is the inside of India’s first Google Chromebook townhouse in CyberHub. . It’s a beautiful, petite setup. Hyundai once had a 3D anamorphic activation for its model, the Venue. Companies like JBL and Yes Bank have stalls of their own in CyberHub. Similarly, Galleria is a huge footfall area. It is replete with cafes and restaurants, and a pretty large hoarding smack dab in the center.
“10 years ago, all that CyberHub had was just a Modern Bazaar, Chumbak, Dayal Opticals and Archies”, says Niharika. Only 2 of those establishments remain (Dayal Opticals has a slick pop-up now). But CyberHub has multiple multinational coffee brands, Indian chains, East Asian exports, a massive 2-floor Nike store, a Social, multiple cafes, and a huge Uniqlo store.
As a brand, the boldest message that you can give to a city is to literally set up shop in that city.
Nestle’s India head office is located in Phase 2, and they have an entire, elaborate building all to themselves that they call Nestle House. Which probably means that they own the establishment, and probably even had DLF specifically build it for them. Even though DSLRs are not as popular any longer (primarily because unlike phones, the cost of making a DSLR hasn’t gone down over time), Canon continues to have an office in Phase 2 as well. Of course, both Zomato and Blinkit have their head offices in the city.
The most popular brands in Gurgaon today seem to be tech. Apple loves the city, both because it has lots of Android-to-iOS switchers, and people who want the next iPhone. Samsung’s Galaxy Flip can be seen in multiple spots in the city at the moment. More budget phones like Vivo and Oppo are plastered all over the city. And this has seen an evolution over time. When Gurgaon was still developing, cars and residential properties were pretty much the most dominant ads.
When it comes to billboards, brands of different statures, ahem, flex differently. “Apple never takes digital signage, it’s always a plaster on an entire building wall”, says Niharika. Similarly, Nike doesn’t either. Their solution to billboards is sticking the Swoosh logo with a very poignant quote (their videos do better). A Spinny or a Manyavar will resort to programmatic billboards, where they’re not the exclusive offering. They may also do advertisements behind autos. The game is a little different with digital-first brands, though. A Myntra will primarily resort to geotargeting — using a person’s latitude-longitude coordinates for brand messaging on their devices. It’s also much cheaper.
But speaking of actual brand messaging, advertising in Gurgaon can often be costly for brands, especially since the OOH market is controlled by few players. Advisably, brands do not occupy billboards for months at a time, since they’re charged highly enough for just 2 weeks. This has made brands a lot more careful about what and how much they say. Programmatic OOH is more efficient and dynamic that way. If it rains, Chaayos advertises pakodas for you. If it doesn’t, it’s papdi chaat day. AQI high? Get a Dyson! And as mentioned earlier, brands love traffic.
The idea of convenience is in-built in the high-income residents of this city, and brands understand this. Niharika tells me of how she was trying to settle the age-old debate of “iPhone or Android”, where her friends were advocating for the former. What she tells me that when she eventually purchased an iPhone, she did not make a conscious choice at all. She didn’t think it through when she went to a physical store to buy one and didn’t even carry a card to make the payment. “The fact that luxury residents buy Jimmy Choo with no prior thought to whether they need the purchase only points to how accustomed they are to this”, she continues.
Gurgaon has an evident lack of street food stalls, like the kind that exist in Delhi, or Singapore. This is not unrelated to the fact that the only kind of food stalls here are branded ones. This was pointed out to me by Niharika. “Even something like the galauti kebab — that you can find in many local spots in Delhi — has to be branded in Gurgaon under a franchise.”
And she’s not wrong. Al Kauser and Al Bake, two popular chains in Delhi-NCR that serve Mughlai, have their instalments here as well. Many Gurgaon residents are people who originally hail from Delhi but moved here because of work and comparatively cheaper real estate. If you’ve stayed in Delhi for a while, chances are you’ve been to the original Al Kauser at RK Puram. It’s nearly as if you’re being served a slice of your hometown in Gurgaon, which probably adds to the high levels of convenience that residents in Gurgaon’s high-rises aspire to. One branch of Al Kauser is literally in the middle of multiple apartment complexes located in DLF Phase 4. I mean, we don’t have chai tapris here, it’s all Chai Point and Chaayos.
All of this is significantly different from a naturally occurring tier-1 city like Delhi or Mumbai. While much like Gurgaon, people are constantly on the go in these regions, local availability is very high in the former 2. You always have local substitutes, be it Sarojini Market for clothing, or Chandni Chowk for jewelry and food. There are very few flea markets in Gurgaon for non-branded, inexpensive consumables, like Sadar Bazar (not the Delhi one) and Banjara Market.
In Gurgaon, advertising is one heck of an expensive business.
13 years ago, hoardings in Gurgaon were haphazardly arranged, with no formal market mechanism underlying it. And then the erstwhile government of Haryana decided to institute the Haryana Municipalities’ Outdoor Advertising Policy. Today, the OOH market is regulated by the MCG. They collected a whopping 6.5CR in tax on installations in September this year. They earned 27CR in the 6 months leading up to September — which is the total of the 2022 fiscal year. It maintains a fairly tight leash on illegal unipole construction, cracking down often on media in malls and the few metro stations Gurgaon has.
Supply of OOH billboards is very limited. While the regulations are not the strictest when it comes to the supply of unipoles, only a few major players control the market. Limited supply and high demand means high prices, and higher for areas with incredible footfall. For example, CyberHub would probably command 3-4 lakhs for a static billboard for a period of 2 weeks.
“CoVID and high fees shut down many OOH installations in Gurgaon and washed away the smaller players”, says Gurjot. Notable players include NS Publicity, Adgrowth, Havas Media, Selvel and Pioneer. CoVID also forced them to not only adapt to digital ads, but also make them a core part of their business.
A city like Gurgaon is constantly trying to build more housing — trying, because it meets tons of roadblocks. Demand is far outstripping supply at the moment. But where there is a streamline of new residences, there is bound to be more out-of-home advertising. The irony of out-of-home advertising being called so is that more often than not, OOH tends to want to be much closer to one’s place of residence. Even elevators in apartment complexes are used as advertising spaces.
A lot of new housing is being built by players in the real estate market, such as Vatika Collections, Ashiana Builders, and M3M. They’re looking to make an entry in the newer, expanded version of Gurgaon, that covers Golf Course Extension Road, Sohna Road, and the Dwarka Expressway. And they’ve hit the jackpot, with the government now building highways next to land they own.
Below is the under-construction M3M Capital Walk in Sector 113, next to the Dwarka Expressway. It intends to be a next-gen residential-cum-commercial space. This is one of many properties that M3M has under construction in a spot that’s stipulated to be called “Smart City Delhi Airport”. Similarly, Vatika is building high-rises and independent floors in the area that lies after the toll plaza that crosses from Gurgaon into Manesar. Much of this area falls under the title of “New Gurgaon”. The government of Haryana also announced the Gurgaon-Sohna Master Plan, and realty players ranging from local ones to giants like Godrej and Tata have begun their land grabs.
All of this new construction might help ease the market for brands looking to capture new audiences. Part of why out-of-home billboards are this expensive is also because of the real estate builder whose turf they use to advertise their own stuff. For CyberHub, media planners have to pay up rental and electricity costs to DLF. High footfall in the area means that DLF can control what they can charge.
While you may not get to see this anymore, the Rapid Metro in Gurgaon used to auction its stations off to corporate bidders to pay the bills. Until 2019, the naming rights to the station next to DLF’s famous Belvedere Towers belonged to Vodafone. Why Vodafone — and companies in general — likely backed off from this is because the Rapid Metro hardly encompasses even half of Gurgaon, which is also why the usage of the metro by the citizens is very low. Of course, we continue to see sponsored metro stations in Delhi.
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A fun exercise in YouTube is to search “Gurgaon” and see the videos that turn up.
Foreigners who come here and have a certain perception of India are awe-inspired by blue-tinted structures at CyberCity. They go to CyberHub and try sushi, coffee, boba tea, and try pronouncing Guru Dronacharya hilariously. They call it the side of India they’ve never seen before. Maybe, they have a point. Gurgaon has India’s third-highest per capita income among cities and has become a major driver of development for the state of Haryana.
But there’s a funny feeling to it all. “You don’t have needs in Gurgaon. You buy things you don’t need”, says Niharika. An advertising professional by living who is upfront about sounding like Tyler Durden. And you’re buying things in a city that’s trying to stay its course longer only by getting more land under its name. A Greater/New Gurgaon, much like a Greater Noida, or a Navi Mumbai. Much of what remains of the original cityscape seems to be crumbling under the dire lack of basic necessities. It’s a little insane that you’re watching an entire infrastructure struggle from the convenience of your posh residence. Almost like the end of Fight Club, where the narrator and Marla just look at the buildings that his alter ego destroyed.
I distinctly remember a Zomato ad on milk (that made a tagline out of an active conflict zone in India) that made the rounds. I realized that the unipole the ad was on is in Gurgaon’s Sector 43, that sees a lot of traffic and has a number of residences surrounding it. Gurgaon really only comes to the fore in social media for any one of these four things: the discovery of cheap alcohol, the road rage incidents, the brashness of its people, and an ad that riled up controversy.
Between chickens and eggs trying to come first here, it’ll likely always be brands.
Special thanks to: Ishtaarth Saxena, Tanmay Mehra for helping me connect with the two interviewees in this piece!
Gurjot Singh and Niharika Ghoshal for being lovely interviewees.
Sunaina Bose, Molina Singh for helping with the proofread, as always :)
I will be ending this year with one small note that I will be sending out later!
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