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John Hunt

Worldwide Creative Director | 30 Oct 2009

It is impossible to give a figure like we will grow by 15 per cent, or we will win seven awards at Cannes next year from India. But we have very high expectations that in the next year or two. Creatively, India would be in the top five because we now have a very good team there. The agency has been gaining critical mass that we did not have before, and many other roadblocks are out of the way. Even as TBWA\Worldwide, we are focussing and supporting the offices in India in a much stronger way and it is needed. Today, clients want good teams in India and we cannot let anyone down. So, you can rest assured that you would seeing and hearing a lot from India in the days to come.

Born in Zambia and educated in South Africa, John Hunt, the Worldwide Creative Director, TBWA\Worldwide, leads TBWA’s global creative team. Hunt’s career graph begins right from being the creative founder partner of TBWA Hunt Lascaris, which is widely recognised as one of the leading advertising agencies in the world, to being involved in Nelson Mandela’s first ANC election campaign in 1993.

In April 2003, Hunt moved to TBWA’s New York headquarters to assume the role of Worldwide Creative Director. His task was to redirect the agency’s reputation by fundamentally becoming a creative compass for the network. Under his watch, Hunt has helped reshape the network to think less about ads and more about ideas and make TBWA the vanguard of setting the standard of innovations in the industry.

In the last few years, TBWA has been voted Creative Network of the Year, both at Cannes and in numerous publications, including Ad Age. Most recently, TBWA won 39 Lions at Cannes, and its Paris agency was Agency of the Year for a record fourth time. Recently, Hunt returned to South Africa to continue his Worldwide role from Johannesburg.

In this interview with Noor Fathima Warsia, Hunt speaks on creativity in India, India as a market, and his expectations from the TBWA offices in India.

Q. Let’s begin with what do you think about the manner in which TBWA\India is developing from a creative standpoint?

I think that India will in the next 3-4 years help set the pace for the way advertising is developing. It has a very strong film culture, and you would see that it is one of the strongest categories for India in international festivals. But besides that, the refreshing bit is that India understands humour, so a lot of work makes you smile and makes you feel good, while it sells to you. With the exception of Thailand, which often does a lot of humorous commercials, I do think that kind of work would be associated with Indian creativity.

We could see that at international creative festivals, people say ‘I want to watch the Indian stuff, because it’s got humour and it is got humanity, it is not cold’.

Q. Why is it that we are not seeing more of disruption work in India like we see in the other markets from TBWA? Do you feel the Indian audience is ready?

I think the consumers there are about to be ready. Also, TBWA came in India later than what we would have liked it to have been. We are busy putting down our roots and explaining in a more clear way what TBWA disruption means, and our culture. I think you can expect a lot of change or a lot more expression of disruption in the next two or three years.

Q. Do you think Indian culture is getting embedded in the kind of work that is coming from the agencies there?

I think so. What will happen is like many years ago, there was Australian humour, which was very brash and it took a while for the global advertising community to go ‘Oh is that rude… Oh that is Australian humour’. Now people are beginning to understand Indian humour. I am not saying it is strange and exotic, but more and more over the next few years, also because of the size of India, the country would have much more influence, not just in APAC but in the world.

Q. Do the Indian creative teams of TBWA work closely with the international teams to understand this disruption culture better?

We will be doing more of that, but for the moment, for example, Rahul (Sengupta) was there with us in our global creative director meeting in Singapore last month, and if you speak to him, he would also tell you, at least that is what I would say, that he was very motivated in the end. He is a very smart guy, and understanding a culture is really a process. He now understands more of TBWA. He has seen more of our work and the kind of culture that there is; ours is an infectious culture. But you have to be a part of it to become a part of it; it is not like he has got a manual of how to go about it now.

Q. Would you like to tell us more about this global creative meeting?

APAC was in focus; truth is, that is where the growth comes from. America and Europe would give you 3-4 per cent growth, but India can be huge, so the emphasis from TBWA has moved to APAC emerging markets. It is more dynamic, more structured, where the media gives you more room to do great work. This, among other things, was discussed and deliberated on at the meeting.

Q. Some of the best ideas that we have seen are largely media agnostic, and we have been hearing of such ideas for years, but not seen much of them. Why is it that so many creative directors across the world still do not understand, or get into doing media agnostic work?

You are very high bound, particularly in India, to television. There are some people who would say that in some rural markets you get the TV, and for them, it is like the magic box, it is wow and this and that. There is an element of truth to that, but India is so technologically savvy; my prediction is that you would see much more use of mobile phones, computers, online and so on. Many people think that TV works anyway, so why change it, and to a degree, that is true. But the media landscape is changing so quickly, you would be forced to become media agnostic within five years anyway.

Q. TBWA is one of the fewer agencies that have a global creative team. Does the concept of a global creative team help any one particular market?

We are a little different there. I don’t think it helps in ‘I am from country X, let me show you how to do it’. But where it does help is like we have a big global launch for a brand and we would have all the country heads sitting on a table as equals coming up with a global idea. That is a different and smarter way of working. The days of someone arriving imperially from some land, and saying ‘let me pass on my deep wisdom’, are long gone. What we can say is that alright, we are a global village and let us all learn from each other as equals and you can get global campaigns that are smart, because it is now bulletproof in terms of its universality.

Q. Every time people talk about emerging markets, they say India and China, but the difference between the two markets is enormous in terms of size. Is this gap between the two top markets in Asia a concern of any kind?

It is great that so many Indians are well educated and speak English; India has a legal system that works and there are a lot of people who are more comfortable and more culturally connected to India. I am not saying either is right or wrong, but there still is a sense that in the next 10 years there would be more global brands from India than there would be from China. China must have the big growth numbers, but they are not that savvy in terms of building brands. India wants to sell Tata, and not something that doesn’t have a brand and is made very cheaply, so India is way ahead of the game there.

Q. Coming back to TBWA\India, is the agency among the top five for TBWA?

I don’t think it is in the top five, but it is getting close.

Q. Final question, what are your expectations from TBWA\India? Rahul is a relatively new appointment. TBWA\India has never embodied the creative legacy of TBWA\Worldwide and it is only now that we see Shiv Sethuraman taking the steps to put these things in place. Now that the ball is rolling in that direction, and you are very clearly involved in India, what are the expectations from TBWA\India in terms of its size and creativity by say 2010?

It is impossible to give a figure like we will grow by 15 per cent, or we will win seven awards at Cannes next year from India – you can’t do that and put targets in that manner. But we have very high expectations that in the next year or two. Creatively, India would be in the top five because we now have a very good team there. The agency has been gaining critical mass that we did not have before, and many other roadblocks are out of the way. Even as TBWA\Worldwide, we are focussing and supporting the offices in India in a much stronger way and it is needed. Today, clients want good teams in India and we cannot let anyone down. So, you can rest assured that you would seeing and hearing a lot from India in the days to come.

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