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Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI)’s recently released draft guidelines on influencer marketing in a bid to enable consumers to easily recognise promotional content on digital platforms has caused quite a stir among stakeholders.

While the Council has sought feedback from the industry on the draft after which it will issue the final guidelines that will have to be followed by brands and influencers, influencer marketing agencies have sought clarity about their role.

The guidelines pretty clearly state that there has to be a clear differentiation in the type of content that influencers make.

Prasiddhi Kapasi

Prasiddhi Kapasi, WIBA India Manager, said, “Clarity is required on the role of the agencies that design campaigns for a brand where they disseminate information and content to various influencers. The guidelines state that the influencer and brand will be held accountable for violation, but if the agency fails to provide a proper brief, it would be wrong to have an influencer held accountable.”

In an interaction with earlier, Manisha Kapoor, Secretary-General, ASCI, had said both influencers as well as advertisers are going to be covered under the guidelines but agencies don’t really have too much of a role to play since the influencer is particularly the one that is creating the content.

“In any case, even for traditional media, we don’t look at the agency because the onus lies on the advertiser. Therefore, they know what the product can deliver,” she said.

Although agencies believe that they will be the intermediaries and the ones getting these guidelines followed by both parties — influencers and brands.

Rajni Daswani

Rajni Daswani, Director, SoCheers, said, “Agencies will help identify what is good to do and what isn’t and will be the devil’s advocate from both ends. Playing it safe or playing on the edge will come from the agencies POV only.”

There are multiple types of agencies that are essential players in India’s digital marketing space. Influencer management agencies and digital marketing agencies become a platform where the brands and influencers connect and equally contribute to the success of the ever-growing influencer marketing space in India.

So Kapasi believes the new guidelines are a huge responsibility for agencies as well and not only influencers and brands.

She said, “The agencies will have to make sure and track that the influencers under their umbrella are aware of these guidelines and abide by them.”

Agencies question mechanism to track a paid or a non-paid association

Neel Gogia

Neel Gogia, Co-founder of Iplix Media, said that while every paid association should not be treated like an ad, as some piece of content can add value to the audience as well.

Secondly, he said there must be clarity on how ASCI will track paid or a non-paid associations and genuine recommendations that need to be identified.

He questioned how ASCI is going to differentiate influencer marketing and advocacy on a bigger scale, which will roughly include 1,000-2,000 posts per month (minimum).

Questions are being raised on how these guidelines will be implemented in an industry that is quite fragmented and transcends myriad geographies.

What makes it trickier is the fact that the sector doesn’t just comprise big, established influencers – they make up perhaps 1% of it. The other 99% comprise young people who built their following simply by sharing their passion and started witnessing brand interest for collaborations. They aren’t publishers – many of them may not even know how to generate invoices for their work. The fact that they account for a major chunk of the influencer community simply cements the idea that compliance will take a lot of time and effort.

Kunal Kishore Sinha

Kunal Kishore Sinha, Co-founder, ClanConnect, believes it will take some years for ASCI to achieve industry-wide implementation.

Kedar Parundekar

Kedar Parundekar, General Manager, Strategy and Business Development, Elephant Design, said there is a genuine issue on how to differentiate between ''advocacy'' and ''influencer marketing'' apart from the mechanism.

“Maybe there could be a different set of guidelines that could help differentiate advocacy posts from pure marketing posts. Advocacy of issues, products and services online are integral parts of building a social media influencer profile and that may not change for some time,” he said.

Multiple influencers are approached to become brand ambassadors in order to exclusively promote a brand. In that scenario, it must be stated what the brand ambassadors are required to do. Also, many influencers turn entrepreneurs and create their own brands. If that particular influencer promotes their own page/products, what do they need to do?

Social media marketing and turning to influencers as a promotional tool has been increasing tremendously. Being an influencer and creating content is a full-time job. An influencer is known for the content they create but collaborations with a few brands add to their page value and give them a boost.

In such scenarios, most of the times an influencer enters into collaboration with a brand for the purpose of promoting a product or service that they really like and the content they create is solely based on their perspective towards the product. In such case, Kapasi said, freedom must be given to the creators to choose how they wish to disclose about the particular collaboration.

While the guidelines haven’t specified the penalties against influencers and advertisers who break the code, Parundekar suggested it would be unfair to straight away move towards penalising influencers for not disclosing that their post is an ad.

Sinha suggested the guidelines should not be too stringent about the placement of a disclaimer at the very beginning of the content.

“Let’s allow influencers to make the disclaimer a prominent yet intrinsic element of their content while letting its placement remain their creative decision,” he said.

Parundekar said tracking of these ads will need to happen over time as there are bound to be many cases which could slip under the ASCI radar. In case influencers do not follow guidelines, penalties could range from financial ones to freezing one's account to having one to issue a retracted statement.

Sinha said self-regulatory guidelines are rarely binding in any court of law and the onus of compliance will lie on both advertisers and influencers. Non-compliance is likely to lead to a warning or notice, but since there is no legislation, penalties may not apply.

The agencies not only sought clarity regarding differentiation between types of influencers, differentiation between genuine content versus promotion, penalties for non-compliance, a grievance redressal system, etc., but also a clear definition about consumer transparency. Although the ASCI draft does mention that the consumer deserves the right to know that the information received is organic and that they aren't misled.

Daswani said the term consumer transparency needs to be defined in detail in the guidelines, otherwise there is likelihood that this ambiguity will be taken advantage of by brands to pass off things through influencer marketing. For example, any tall claims that cannot be scientifically proven.

Gogia said while consumer transparency is important, consumers should not feel that just because it's a paid association, whatever the influencer is saying is scripted from the brand.

Though the guidelines establish transparency and is a good step to prevent misleading communication, agencies firmly believe the key players of the digital ecosystem must be given more time to adapt to the new guidelines and chances in case of any sort of violation.