Advertising Interviews

Umesh Shrikhande

CEO | 25 Sep 2009

The ‘Indian’ qualification is perhaps not required any more. World over, the builders of business – that is, both clients and their agencies – have tough challenges, mandates and some compulsions. Ideally, both groups need to keep their eye on the ball (read brand) at all times. Engaging and enduring brands get built when both these groups excel at their respective jobs

A graduate in Sociology and Economics from the Elphinstone College Bombay, and an MBA from the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, Umesh Shrikhande has worked at Contract for more than 12 years now. Over these years, he has worked on the planning and implementation of brand strategies for a wide variety of companies and brands like Bajaj Auto, Cadbury, Asian Paints, Onida, Castrol, Heinz, Warner-Lambert, Kotak Mahindra, BBC World, Walt Disney, Aegon-Religare, DNA, HSBC, Shoppers Stop, Dabur and Tata Indicom, among others.

At Contract, Shrikhande’s areas of focus have been the development of sound client relationships, growing the non-traditional areas of communication, developing people, the initiation of HR best practices and helping nurture a creative, humane and value-based organisational culture whilst ensuring overall business growth.

He has been a guest speaker and a visiting faculty at the Jamnalal Bajaj Insitute of Management Studies, the Sydneham Institute of Management and at the Management Development Centre of the AV Birla Group.

In the last five years, Shrikhande has been a Mancom member of the Ad Club of Bombay, and also a member of the juries of Abby and Effie Awards. At present, he is a member of the Executive Committee of AAAI and the Consumer Complaints Council of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI).

In conversation with exchange4media’s Tasneem Limbdiwala, Shrikhande speaks at length about his long tenure at Contract, the state of Indian advertising today, scam ads and more...

Q. You have been with Contract for over a decade now and completed a year as CEO. How has the journey been so far?

Inspiring, educative, and gratifying!

‘Inspiring’ because Contract’s DNA has been about trying out new things and striking our own distinctive path. This has meant a relentless exploration of new initiatives, new processes and new solutions. ‘Educative’ because Contract has always managed to attract talented and good thinking people. Being in their midst and journeying through our exciting business has led to a lot of learning. ‘Gratifying’ because over the years, with a fabulous team to support us, we have managed to create a distinctive position – that of a thinking agency that does persuasive work. We have also managed to create a culture that is humane, value-based and creative.

Q. With these additional responsibilities, how much has your life changed?

To start on a new job on the 1st of September, and then within a fortnight seeing the business landscape go topsy-turvy, has been challenging to say the least. However, this stretched period will have hopefully made all of us sharper and more agile, readying us for a steadier, positive and more interesting time in 2010.

Q. In one of your interviews, you had explained that the paramount importance for you as CEO ‘is the ongoing process of building and growing the brands entrusted to us by our clients’. Adding to that, there have been three priorities set up – a) strengthening relationships with clients; b) providing opportunities to talent at Contract; and c) leverage more capabilities in the area of new-age media. How are these priorities being achieved?

Notwithstanding a challenging 2009, we have been fortunate in having clients who’ve had the resilience and the vision to keep investing in meaningful brand initiatives. As a result, in all our offices we have done a lot of brand building work, not just across TV, print, and outdoor, but also across consulting, design, digital and activation.

For us, the best way to strengthen client relationships is sustained engagement and multi-pronged work that helps build the brand with purpose and energy. Playing to the strengths of our talented people and giving them roles and assignments that are aligned to their skills sets and interests is our constant endeavour. This continued unabated in 2009. And will only get stronger in 2010.

The new media agenda has been driven by appointing new leaders from within, forging preferred partnerships with interesting experts and exploring possibilities across brands. The most recent example has been that of the Great Driving Challenge done for Mitsubishi Cedia. This campaign leveraged the power of online, print and some solid and wonderful activation work.

Q. Please take us through the growth that Contract Advertising has seen on the revenue front in the last three years. What is the growth target for 2009?

Suffice it to say that our average growth in the last three years has been more than the industry average. On the other hand, 2009 has been a tough year for the industry. Not surprisingly, the growth rates this year are likely to be relatively modest.

Q. How much has the current economic slowdown affected the Indian advertising industry? During the slowdown, many advertisers took extreme steps to brave the recession. When things are back to normal, how do you think these steps would have changed the industry?

In every economic downturn, the advertising business is the first one to get affected and the last one to recover. In India, thankfully, it has been more a case of severe belt tightening rather than a disaster of any kind. As stability returns, there is much discussion around the ‘new normal’. But the contours of this new order will become clearer only with time. Meanwhile, the tough times have inevitably pushed both clients and agencies to refocus on the fundamentals. In a sense, it has been a wake up call, urging all businesses to become more prudent, pragmatic and future focussed.

Q. How is Contract tackling the problem of talent crunch in the industry and retaining skilled people? With the slowdown, there was a sudden hiring freeze. Now with some signs of recovery, there is again a buzz of hiring across levels. Is it a good sign? What are the criteria for these hirings?

Regardless of the economic climate, hiring and retaining good talent is never easy or straight-lined. A downturn certainly makes it more challenging, because your real organisational worth comes to the fore. Creating a culture or building faith, trust and commitment cannot be done overnight. Either you have it and it holds you in good stead or you don't. We are deeply fortunate in that most of our people have kept the faith and have stayed the course.

Meanwhile, choosing to hire or not to hire are clearly business decisions. And they will always be so. It is just that adverse climes make people more careful and that's what has happened. There is nothing more to it.

Q. What are the two things that you would like to change about Indian clients? What are the weak points of the Indian advertising industry today that you feel need to be addressed?

The 'Indian' qualification is perhaps not required any more. World over, the builders of business – that is, both clients and their agencies – have tough challenges, mandates and some compulsions. Ideally, both groups need to keep their eye on the ball (read brand) at all times. Engaging and enduring brands get built when both these groups excel at their respective jobs.

For clients, this must mean: clear briefs, an open mind, adequate time given for work, clear expectations and a non-intimidating and energising relationship with the agency. And for agencies, this must mean: a deep and nuanced understanding of the consumer, educating the client on what persuades best, creating ideas that help in de-risking the brand situation, raising the bar at all times and staying true to the agreed course.

Q. What are the areas that Indian advertising practitioners need to focus on to create a wider global impact?

It is useful to remember that effective global ideas have scale, an ability to cast a long shadow, an appeal that is universal and impeccable production values that cue excellence of the highest order.

Q. Please share your views on the new media and digital landscape and what role advertising agencies can play to harness the potential of these mediums.

While the footprint of new/digital media is on an ascendant, they do not necessarily offer a market making potential for all categories and customer segments. Not surprising then, the import and impact of traditional broadcast media continues to be significant for some more time to come.

However, as harbingers of a new era, the importance of new media is beyond doubt. They represent a new world and also a whole new attitude. They have a life of their own with their unique idioms and symbolism. And finally, Gen Y – our future – is inextricably linked with the heart of the new media territory, which is social networking.

And yet, none of this reduces the primacy of the brand idea as the driving force, something that agencies understand very well. So, without getting unduly overwhelmed and blown by the winds of new media, agencies must continue to nourish and nurture brand truths and brand ideas. Additionally, and with equal energy, they must invest in the process of learning the new idiom, innovate to stay ahead of the curve and get comfortable with the art of story-telling in a world that is getting increasingly shaped by the Web, the mobile and a host of other digital platforms and technologies.

Q. Do you think the pursuit of awards through scam ads is becoming a deterrent to creativity in mainstream advertising?

Awards won for real work done on real brands will always be the way to go. Principally, there is nothing wrong with doing work that is proactive and ‘one-off’. It is the overdoing of it, which has led to the ‘scam’ label, giving the entire endeavour a bad name. Without meaning to condone scam ads, I do feel that they are symptomatic of the outlet that a creative person seeks in an environment that is over-engineered at times to get safe and sure work.

Equally, and in the same breath, it is important for scam enthusiasts to believe that responsible/ effective work can and should be extremely creative too. The good news in this context is that there are many, many iconic examples to seek inspiration from.

But more than worrying about scam ads, what the interested parties, that is, mature clients and agencies, must do is to introspect regularly so as to ensure a conducive atmosphere/ process that allows good ideas to breathe easy and see the light of day. Something that all brands need very badly, all the time.

Q. Do you see an increase in mergers and acquisitions by international networks of Indian advertising agencies? Does this mean that the stranglehold of foreign agencies will increase further?

Most Indian agencies are either partially or substantially owned by international networks and holding companies. Almost all agencies, big and small, seem to have a foreign association of some kind. Selling stakes to global networks has been a conscious choice made by Indian agencies, as an exit clause or as a way of participating effectively in a networked world with global brands. To that extent, calling it a stranglehold is inappropriate.

Moreover, it is not a peculiarity that is restricted to the advertising business alone. In a globalised economy, it has been so for many other industries too. It may be interesting to note that even in companies that are considered to be strongly ‘Indian’, the foreign holding is now significant. For example, for HDFC, it is more than 75 per cent and for Infosys, it is more than 55 per cent.

In the coming years, however, as India becomes a stronger economy, the global power equations in the advertising and media business may shift too, the way it has begun happening with many Indian companies in other industries.

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