Advertising Interviews

Swapan Seth

CEO | 23 Jul 2010

“We all took salary haircuts. The entire team rallied behind me. It was a collective chest that took the bullet. I am eternally grateful to them for that.”

“We are a punctuation mark in many stellar corporate statements. That is such a blessing.”

Swapan Seth began his career in 1987 with HTA (now JWT) in Kolkata at the age of 20, and scripted the 'Iispat bhi hum banate hain' campaign for Tata Steel. Within a year, he was transferred to JWT, Hong Kong, where he worked on brands such as Citibank, Warner Lambert, Mateus and The Yellow Pages and won awards at Cannes, Clio and the Montreux Awards. At 22, he became Creative Director and moved to Clarion, Bangalore, where he worked on HMT, Nutrine and the Congress campaign. At 26, he became General Manager and Creative Director at Trikaya Grey, where his work on Bata, Hush Puppies and Kaaleen Carpets was awarded at the Bombay Ad Club Awards.

At 28, along with his brother Suhel, Swapan started Equus in 1995. In 1996, WPP bought a 30 per cent stake in Equus. The agency kickstarted its operations with work on Cielo, including the famous 'Liar' commercial and 'Dhadke Yeh Sadke' for Apollo.

In this conversation with exhange4media's Shikha, Seth talks about the journey of Equus Red Cell, the slowdown and the trends in advertising.

Q. Do you think that the vision you started Equus with 15 years ago is in tandem with what it is today?

No it’s not. Purely because the vision that I started Equus with was dramatically different from the business realities that confronted Equus. I had envisioned this as an extremely creative place, much like a boutique and it didn’t turn out quite that way. But yes, in terms of being able to work for some rather huge clients inspite of being a very small agency- that entire vision came into play. For me it’s not been the size of the hammer as much as it has been the sharpness of the nail. That still rings true.

Q. This year, what are the 3 targets that you have set for the company?

Great growth, great work, great people.

Q. Do you think the uncertainty due to the slowdown is over? How is the industry looking now and what is the approach that you have taken?

I was devastated during the recession. I don’t know whether people like to talk about it and all that, but the fact of the matter is it was a very tough time- there were rollbacks and cuts across categories and across clients, but I think it is behind us and we learnt some fantastic lessons. We never got rid of a single colleague. We all took salary haircuts. The entire team rallied behind me. It was a collective chest that took the bullet. I am eternally grateful to them for that. We cut costs dramatically, which clearly indicates that there were fluffy costs that lay in the system and weren’t ever looked at. As a company, we increased efficiency, we cut costs, we did all of that. I think all that has led us to learn a few lessons We are glad to have survived and I see a wonderful time ahead, but there also is a great deal of caution in my own approach towards that ‘wonderful time’ ahead, as and when by the grace of God that happens. But I think it has taught us to be careful and to not be greedy.

Q. Have you started hiring people?

Yes. But we never stopped.

Q. How does Equus Red Cell differentiate itself from other agencies?

I say that in the presentations I make- I am basically telling clients that advertising is the last solution that we provide. We don’t see ourselves as an advertising company at all. We see ourselves as providing advertising as the last service in a ladder of services. I think the ability to minimize the significance of advertising is what is refreshing for clients here, because they need an agency to say that let’s not talk about advertising, we will get there later, there are 45 other things which you need to do besides and before advertising, and I think that’s what distinguishes us.

Q. There has been a spate of wins for Equus in the recent past. What is your winning formula?

I think we are quick off the block. It is the quality of work and agility of response that gives us the edge and we have been competing with some rather big boys as well, so that is fun. And I think we mine insights imaginatively.

Q. Please tell us some of the clients that you are working with today.

We have had a very interesting array of clients that we have worked for. We work for the Tatas, we work for the Birlas, we work for the Ambanis and we work for the Mittals of Ispat. So, we are involved with four of the largest and most respected names in the country. And then there are brands that we have walked with through their journey. We are terribly proud of the kind of brand that Harvest Gold has become, ecstatic about the scale of Tulip IT, humbled by the great growth of Matrix. We are a punctuation mark in many stellar corporate statements. That is such a blessing.

Q. How important do you think are awards for an advertising agency?

Not my favourite question and, therefore, not my favourite answer. I think this is my rule, not just for awards, but in life in general, to think that you are the best judge of your own work. I am the first person to point that out and I do that in client pitches, I tell them- ‘Now see this commercial it is a piece of trash’. So I am not so much guided by what other people think of our work as much as what I think of our work. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is shoddy. I am happy to admit that, but there are many people who subscribe to awards as the only reason for existing in advertising, they don’t have the courage to look at their work squarely in the eye and say I have done this and it is crap. The best benchmarks are the ones that you set yourself and the biggest indication of your success and of your work is you looking at yourself in the mirror and then judging whether what you have done is indeed successful.

Q. What are the big challenges for you this calendar year?

I think we need to get some wonderful people on board and that has really just started. I am just going crazy with the youngsters who are coming in, they are so fantastic. I was extremely depressed and demotivated over the past one and a half years. But over the past few months I am just so excited about the kind of people that one is getting to work with, and I think it is a great learning experience for me and for rest of the agency. I am just energized by my colleagues all over again

Q. How has the advertising changed over the years since the time you started working?

It is no longer advertising, I don’t know what it is, but it has completely changed. I am trying to put together three of the finest commercials that I have seen in a long time and I am having acute difficulty in being able to get hold of it because I don’t know what this profession is now actually. It is certainly not the advertising that I got into and grew up in.

Q. What are future key growth areas for you?

I am not one of those fancy ones who will say that it is the digital space where the future lies, those are the sound bites that are expected out of any human being who comments on the future. I think sectorial efficiency and specializations are great opportunities. I think very acute consumer understanding and habits is going to be interesting. The entire social networking space, and how brands are going to operate in that space and how consumers are going to operate in that space, is what is going to become important. A free consumer voice and one that has repercussions on brand promises and brands are the interesting areas one should learn from.

Q. What is the stance of Equus on digital media and what is your offering in that area to your clients?

We understand digital as a space, but we don’t have the resources that a typical digital agency is expected to offer. But that is not our core competency. The wonderful thing is that Equus is magically mindful of its incapabilities and incompetence. When you know what you are horrible at, it is a wonderful state of being.

Q. Could you tell us about Equus’ presence in the country in cities besides Delhi?

Equus is present in Mumbai. We opened our Bangalore office and then we shut it because we had opened it for UB, and once we lost the UB business, I didn’t even relook at Bangalore. I think it is all about consolidating your strengths rather than spreading your resources and time. I am quite happy with the Delhi-Mumbai presence.

Q. With changing times the way communication is being done is changing too? Does that make you rethink the way Equus is structured today?

Equus is extremely amoebic in terms of its shape and structure. It is very good at adapting itself to situations. It is very easy to reconfigure ourselves to suit certain situations and client demands. There is ample adaptability within the DNA of the agency.

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