The first impression you have of Agnello Dias is that of a shy person, who would rather sit and listen to you, with a patient smile on his face, than answer questions about his work, his clients, competition or the industry. Talk to him for a few minutes, and you cannot help but notice the clarity in his thought process, especially about the communication business. Aggi, as he is better known, has been referred to by many names – genius copy writer, excellent creative mind, creative talent of the future but all of Aggi’s recent works accentuate that he is more than just a creative professional. He understands consumers, communication and messaging that will work. No surprise, therefore, that the Indian media, marketing and advertising industry chose him as the IMPACT Person of the Year, 2011. In this conversation, Aggi talks of things closest to his heart. Edited excerpts:
We have to begin with this question – what was your first reaction when you learnt that the industry had voted you IMPACT Person of the Year, 2011?
I was very surprised as to how my name had even made it to the shortlist, particularly after leaving a very large network agency, which arguably would have many connections in media and marketing. At TapRoot, I was not expecting it at all – I was not even expecting to be nominated. It was a hugely pleasant surprise, especially because it is the industry that has voted for this award – it is an honour.
It has been an excellent year for your agency and for you with new clients, some big campaigns and even becoming One Show’s brand ambassador in India. What is your guiding principle?
For me, doing my personal best is probably more important than anything else. I don’t want to go home feeling that I could have done better, and I try to have fewer of those days. If I go back home feeling this is the best I could do, and it is still not good enough for others, I am alright with that. But if everyone loves the work, but I didn’t think it was my best, then I am not very excited about it.
Two big businesses came your way this year – PepsiCo and Airtel. And these are very large advertisers. Was that overwhelming?
Working on all of these brands means the same thing for me. The only added focus in case of Pepsi and Airtel was that they were both new brands. There was focus on these two because as brands, not only were they big wins, but also because the work on these two immediately came into the limelight. The biggest stake in the Pepsi project was that it was the official partner of the Cricket World Cup. The last well remembered association with Pepsi was ‘There is nothing official about it’, which takes a stance against being official. But this time around, they were official. So in a way, the boot was on the other foot. It was also an important World Cup, and became even more important as India kept winning. It may not have been so big if India had not won. I have no idea why Pepsi even decided to look outside... not very sure whether it was something about us, or they were not getting what they had wanted. We did what we could and as time went on, it became more right and more memorable.
What about Airtel?
In Airtel’s case, we started a bit earlier than Pepsi. Pepsi had a very clear requirement - they wanted a World Cup campaign, and they were the official partners. They did not want to be connected with any team winning or losing. With Airtel, we knew where we wanted to go. We evolved the position in the brief that though we talk to the young, it is an idea that resonates across ages.
These were both clients of your former agency. Was it awkward?
Because of the spotlight on the medium, what many do not know is that from the previous agency I worked with, i.e., JWT, the first client we got was neither Pepsi nor Airtel, but a client called DSP Blackrock. We have not done a television ad for them. We are very happy working with them and it came straight from JWT in an open pitch. Pepsi and Airtel got the largest attention because of their presence on television – that is the nature of the beast. I won’t say it was not awkward, especially the second one. While all of us here knew that it was just a coincidence, I was aware that outsiders would see it as some kind of planned, pre-determined pattern on going a certain way with certain accounts. In case of both Pepsi and Airtel, I had not worked with them, so I did not know them at all. In Airtel’s case, the team I had worked with at JWT is not on Airtel anymore. So it was not like there was a past relation to leverage.
Both these clients are Delhi-based and clients these days are finicky about having an office in the city. How did you overcome that as TapRoot is only Mumbai-based right now?
In the traditional sense, this may matter. But you have to work around it. Even if you are sitting here, you interact with clients mostly over the phone, or on email and chat. Then comes physical interaction with clients. If you take out the last one, you’ll probably have to work around a system which makes the other two more efficient. And it’s not that if your client is in Delhi, you don’t meet them at all. The way things are these days, if a client is at SEEPZ in Andheri, it would perhaps require the same travel time as for a client meeting in Delhi!
So let’s go back to the beginning - why turn entrepreneur?
What I realise better in retrospect is that in the span of a few years, I had gone from a medium-sized creative agency, Leo Burnett, to JWT, which was arguably the largest agency in India. I had seen both ends of the spectrum, and wanted to do something different. I was pushing the creative barrier for years at Leo Burnett and with JWT, I had done a turnaround. After that, there was nothing new to do in the conventional agency set-up. So, I thought of building a new agency culture and starting an agency from scratch. It would also allow me to do something over and above just creative work.
Did you ever question whether your move was in the right direction?
Quite a few times, actually. I can’t exactly remember why. Every one or two months, there are days when I question if I am going the right way or whether this is what I want. But that is a normal thing for anyone, in any kind of set-up. I don’t believe in the cliché of ‘no regrets’. You think a lot about things you do. We faced many challenges when we started out, but nothing that we weren’t expecting. That is why we managed to pull through. Entrepreneurship in the creative field is like riding a bicycle where you are never fully balanced.
What was the reaction from your family and friends, when you wanted to start out on your own?
I didn’t ask too many people. Obviously Nandini (Dias) was part of the decision. She was very supportive because it was something I wanted to do. Her simple theory in life is that if you like what you are doing, then the tendency of you doing it well is high.
What is your ambition at this point?
I don’t want TapRoot to become anything that it doesn’t want to become. Paddy’s (Santosh Padhi, co-founder, TapRoot) vision for the agency is similar. We want it to grow. Right from the time we began to this day, we have been asked where TapRoot is headed, and we always reply that let it evolve. If something goes wrong, then we’ll definitely take steps.
Do you have a sense of what you want TapRoot to become?
No. TapRoot will become what it has to become. Personally, I would like to explore and TapRoot also to explore different forms of creativity. The obvious choice would be digital. But I mean getting into developing products and services for our clients or for ourselves and market them to clients – existing or new. I think we should do more than press ads, strategy and TV. Our work should be more than the last three slides in a presentation, which is about 360 degrees.