Advertising Interviews

Subhash Kamath

Managing Partner | 26 Nov 2010

It’s not about looking at the whole account and doing the full thing. The way BBH works is that we tend to work on the high end of the brand idea and like to work closely with the client in cracking that big idea. We could well bring in other partners to work on different areas, for instance, in the area of specialist design or direct marketing… It’s more of a collaborative model and I think collaboration is the future mantra.

Subhash Kamath has been in the advertising business for 24 years. He had started his career with Ogilvy, before moving on to Trikaya Grey and then Ambience Publicis as the Chief Operating Officer.

Kamath’s last assignment was as Group CEO of Bates 141, where he led the management team in making Bates a top 10 agency in India. This included overseeing three mergers and acquisitions in just 24 months.

He joined BBH India as Managing Partner in January 2009 and has been busy for the past two years in kick starting the ‘dream agency of the future’.

Over the years, Kamath has been associated with many well-known brands and their subsequent success stories. These include Nokia, Lakme, Saffola, Parachute, Britannia, Arrow, Lee, and Virgin Mobile, among others.

Extremely passionate about brand building, Kamath loves to be closely involved with brand strategies and creative development.

In conversation with Tasneem Limbdiwala of exchange4media, Kamath speaks at length about BBH India’s growth story…

Q. It’s been more than a year since BBH India started its operations. How has the journey been for you as a Managing Partner in terms of business?

The journey has been fantastic. It’s been now 18-19 months since we started and like any start-up, it’s been exciting on various fronts. First and foremost, we’ve been absolutely thrilled by the kind of people we’ve been able to bring on board and that is something that BBH believes in, which is getting the right people doing the right work and then the profits will follow. So, our focus has always been to get the right people, and I think in India, we have been fortunate and happy to create a fabulous team. In such a short period, we are already up to 52 people. So, it’s been a fast growth with outstanding thinkers and great young talent. That’s been our first high at the agency.

Secondly, we have been very fortunate with the trust our clients have placed on us. We have signed on a variety of clients, categories and brands. We are not focused on only one kind of thinking or on a certain category. I think, for us the biggest challenge is to get the right cultural compatibility with our clients and would like to partner with clients who will give us an equal status on the table and clients who are clear on building brands. It’s not just about creating campaigns, but to see where the brand is going…And that’s always been the BBH mantra. It’s about effectiveness and building brands, not just creating ads. As long as you keep doing that well and every year keep adding the right building blocks, that’s when the monument gets created.

There is a huge amount of work that has started to happen now. This year, we will have a lot more of work that is going to be released as opposed to last year, when we were still building the team. Ultimately, it’s going to be about good work coming from BBH India.

Q. However, BBH India has been very quiet in 2010 as compared to the launch year. Any specific reasons…

We consciously decided not to go and talk to the media much. Our launch had been a very high profile one and all the account wins as well, got written about. But honestly for us, we rather let our work talk. This year, we have not done as many pitches as last year either, because we decided to consolidate and focus on the businesses that had come in and getting teams settled, ensuring the senior level involvement on each of the clients does not get diluted. So, we did not go crazy pitching, but focused on building teams and strategy for the agency's brands.

Q. Were all the clients that BBH India has acquired, bagged on the basis of multi-agency pitches?

In some cases it was through multi-agency pitches, while some were not. In some cases it was because of our personal relationships, while in some cases it was based on strategic presentations. We don't usually do speculative creative work at pitches. We try and avoid that and look at the brief from an ideas and solutions perspective.

Q. So, you mean BBH India is not aggressive on pitches?

I think the word ‘aggressive’ is relative. In my previous jobs at other agencies, we have pitched three to four times in a month. That’s not what we would like to do at BBH .We would like to pick and choose few select brands and work with them closely to create success case studies. So, aggressiveness is relative. We are not worried about or wanting to become the biggest; that is not our trip. We certainly want be known as the best in terms of reputation. And that’s going take time to build. Those case studies will happen eventually. So, as far as our plans are concerned, we are very much on track.. We started off with a clear three-year plan and now we are somewhere in the middle of it and we are bang on target.

Q. So, what has been your target growth for 2010?

We don’t talk numbers!

Q. If not in numbers, kindly share with us the percentage growth…

But obviously when one is starting from ground zero, your first few years have to be 50-100 per cent growth. But, like I said, the volume is not as important to us as the quality of that grrowth. Neither are we looking at opening our branches across the country. We are happy to work with clients across the country, but will be based only in Mumbai. That’s the BBH model. The other exciting thing that has happened over the last few months is the setting up of the office. It is a very nice office where people enjoy coming to work and being a part of an open office culture. The investments we made to be in Linking Road and not in Lower Parel is paying off. So, all this is part of creating an atmosphere where the staff enjoys working... it’s a very informal culture with a flat structure. That's working very well for us..

Q. Some of the businesses that BBH India is handling, for instance, TVS Motors or Marico, they are more of roster of agencies. The agency is missing out on big businesses. What is the size of business that BBH India is targeting?

All that will happen over a period of time. But like I said, it’s not about looking at the whole account and doing the full thing. The way BBH works is that we tend to work on the high end of the brand idea and like to work closely with the client in cracking that big idea. We could well bring in other partners to work on different aspects: for instance, in the area of specialist design or direct marketing. It’s not like we try and do everything ourselves. That’s not our model, unlike larger agencies. It’s more of a collaborative model and I think collaboration is the future mantra. I think going forward, it’s not going to be about hogging everything yourself, but trying to create an ecosystem of collaboration and partners to work with..

Q. Don’t you see it as a challenge compared to other big agencies, where all these specialist arms come under one roof?

I think the market is big enough for every kind of model to work. If you are small and nimble and focused, one does not have to worry about trying to build size. So, if you are focused on what is right for the brand, then you should be able to go and get the best brand solutions available in the market In the advertising industry, why do agencies not shoot their own films or do their own photography? Why do they go to a specialist outside? Because that talent is the best available. The same thing applies for design or direct marketing or BTL activities. Why do we think we can do it all? We would rather get a specialist to work on our brands who can add much more value than by doing it ourselves. So, at BBH our approach is what is best for the brand first, and then what is best for our agency.

Q. Any new announcements awaited from BBH India, especially from new hires?

Overall, the last 10 months we have hired quite a few people and it’s not just in account management or creative or planning…Recently, we’ve also strengthened our production services with three people. Our studio strength has gone up from three people to six; our finance team has gone up from one person to three. We have also brought in a senior work load manager to look after creative work flow management. So, it’s just not in the core areas of planning and creative, but we also have to make sure that we have created the right amount of operational and production services. .

Q. What has kept BBH India busy in 2010?

We currently have 16-18 projects that should be going on air. Like I said, getting it right is always going to take time rather than looking at it ad by ad. So, there is a lot of work happening. We are also very focused on getting some newer skill sets in the area in digital; we are actively trying to get the right type of digital talent on board as well as engagement planning. We are also looking at partnerships and collaborations as I explained previously. We are also looking into brand consultancy, and we have already done two projects in regards to that and hopefully that is going to become a bigger area of focus for us.

Q. And which were these brands that you worked for as brand consultants?

Our first one was for L&T and then one for WGC…

Q. What are you views on digital in India and where is India headed in terms of digital?

I don’t think India has a choice. It is inevitable. But it is not about 'going digital', but creating solutions for a digital world. Everybody is digital; we are on the phone, Facebook, Twitter and so on all the time. So yes, India may have been slow to come on to that thinking, but now it’s going to move very fast. I think with mobile phone, Internet accessibility is going to go through a complete change, and hopefully the Government will continue to invest in more broadband, and with more broadband you will find that the Internet accessibility experience will change. So, these two things will jumpstart the whole digital revolution.

But digital does not mean that you have to knock the television commercials. In a mass country like India with a large geographic reach, there will always be a large need of television and print medium. So, that’s where engagement planning comes in. It’s not about either or, it’s all about how you are able to use all of these from under the same brand idea. It’s now fashionable to knock traditional media, but you still need that.. In the new world, at least for some years to come, traditional media will continue to flourish. But we'll have to think of newer ways of using television etc. It’s just how you execute the idea that may be very different from just putting a commercial on air.

Q. We have known that you have worked in bigger agencies such as Ogilvy, Publicis Ambience and Bates141. How different is your current Managing Partner role to that of your previous roles, knowing the fact that BBH India is a start-up?

It’s a huge difference. In an established organisation, you can take many things for granted because many things are in place in terms of infrastructure, finance, IT, films department and admin departments. While in a start-up, you realise that you are doing everything yourself in the beginning; it’s quite a challenge, but it’s exciting.

Q. Is there anything else that you would like to address in regards to the advertising industry…

There is always a place for black sheep. A lot of people crib about our advertising industry. I think the best thing to do is not to sit on the sidelines and crib. But the best way to change things is to be the change yourself. That's what we're trying to do at BBH.

Q. When you say cribbing, what issues exactly do you mean by that?

When I say cribbing, I mean everything. They crib about awards, scams, talent crunch etc etc but nothing has been done about it. The amount of creative pitching that the clients are forcing the industry to do, the amount of negotiation and lowering of the agency fee, the margins getting eroded is what the industry is just cribbing about. But what are we doing about it besides cribbing… Nothing!

So, when we started BBH, we were clear that we are a premium brand and we will not work on such conditions. We are happy to walk away from the negotiating table if our level of premium is not met. So, we won’t compromise on our quality. We do not pitch creative work as much as possible because it is very speculative. We believe strongly in the power of strategic solutions. We don’t do scams. We don’t have 25 designations and false sense of achievements; we have just two designations – Managing Partners and Brand Partners. We don’t have departmentalised ways of working. So, in many ways we have tried to break away or change what we felt the rest of the industry was suffering from. So rather than crib about it, we decided to be the change!

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