2011 is going to be a year where Equus is going to demonstrate to the world all its inadequacies and how it plans to sort out those. The problem with most advertising agencies is that they don’t know what they are bad at, but I am acutely aware of what we are bad at and I am not bothered about what we are good at. These ‘bad’ aspects are going to be fixed in 2011
Swapan Seth is Founder and CEO of Equus Red Cell. He is also Founder and Chairman of ThisContent, a content and conversation management company.
When not involved in communications, Seth collects contemporary global art and manages an art house called Henry S Clark. He also teaches “curiosity” at Vasant Valley School.
He lives in Gurgaon with his wife and two children.
In conversation with exchange4media’s Preeti Hoon, Seth speaks at length about the developments at Equus, creativity, harnessing fresh talent and the road ahead in 2011...
Q. Equus Red Cell has been maintaining a low profile. What are the various developments taking shape in the agency?
I have always been a firm believer in maintaining a low profile, it is important. There are people who announce in the morning that they have won a 500-crore account, for instance, but I stay away from that kind of sensation because what one does is far more important. We have been winning a large number of businesses, but I don’t talk about them often because I believe work should speak for itself. And I think client confidentiality is important, they do make certain changes and some of them are made quietly and some without much fanfare. Increasingly, as I am getting older, I see clients prefer agencies which aren’t that excited about making announcements every morning. I try to keep my mouth shut as far as possible.
The most wonderful thing that has happened in the last year is the organic growth that we have witnessed from our clients and we grew their portfolio from 100 per cent to 300 per cent – that, I think, is a fantastic achievement. Also, our fees across clients and categories has increased, some at our request and some because of their graciousness, which is a wonderful feeling – to be able to command a higher worth in your clients’ offices.
I think I was just too depressed in 2008 and 2009 because of the recession, I just couldn’t understand why it had happened and why advertising agencies were the first ones to show their chest to take the bullet, so to speak. But then I kind of pulled up my socks. So, 2010 was a year of cleansing and investing in a lot in young people, and I see 2011 bear fruit as a result of all that we have done.
Q. How has the journey been for Equus Red Cell so far? Could you share some important milestones of the agency?
I don’t think we can call ourselves a small agency; we are a micro-agency, but I think what is fantastic is we work for the very large brand names in the world of advertising and marketing. The journey has been very interesting for us as Equus has always worked with very large clients – be it ITC, Daewoo, Kingfisher Airlines or Apollo Tyres – we have always worked with the top 3-4 brands in their respective categories.
Milestones for Equus mean the brands we build and the people we work with. We have worked with scores and scores of wonderfully talented people and that, to me, is the biggest milestone. When you get as old as I am, you don’t look back at what you have done, but you look back to see what you have helped others do. We have worked with some fantastic people, or rather some fantastic people have worked with us and we are fortunate to have them over.
Q. Since you have had a stint with JWT and in Hong Kong too, could you tell us where does Indian advertising stand vis-à-vis other Asian or South-east Asian markets in terms of creativity, the output of people and the growth of the industry?
The whole context and definition of the word ‘Creativity’ has evolved so much over time and through scams and awards, etc. I might just not understand that word anymore, but if you ask me if we have far more talented people in India than other parts of Asia, then my submission is perhaps we do. Do we have the same kind of freedom that our counterparts in other parts of Asia have? Perhaps, we don’t. What freaks me out is if you look at any great agency, why do they win an award for three or ten clients out of its 150 clients, if it is truly a great creative agency? Creativity by itself needs to be contextualised, which it is not. People like Prasoon Joshi, who is an advertising person and a lyricist too – we go crazy writing one stupid ad, but imagine the person he may be who can get the entire nation to sing ‘Chand sifarish jo karta tumhari…” – that is greatness.
Q. Do clients prefer to work with the digital arm of an ad agency or do they prefer a digital shop?
I think clients would certainly prefer a digital shop than a digital arm of an ad agency, probably because the expertise is completely different. Digital is all about understanding technology, cursor behaviour, keyboard behaviour and all of that is science, and it is not about placing a banner on a website. People don’t seem to understand that and the fact that as far as social marketing is concerned, it is as important to know how to join a conversation as it is to control a conversation. I am fed up of brands who have Facebook pages on which nothing happens, because if you have a Facebook page, it is very important for you to manoeuver the conversation and create the buzz around that page, but people don’t understand that and, therefore, I have a huge problem. And that is also one of our inadequacies, which we will fix this year. The problem is 360 degree. The worst thing that has happened to advertising world is these three digits. Everyone wants to be 360 (degree agency) and in the process none of them are even 90.
Q. How does the industry measure its success? Do the number of awards give you satisfaction?
Sadly, the industry measures itself with the number of metals it wins, but I am too old to get into that argument now and have spent so many years of my life talking about it. I think people are tired of hearing my perspective and worst still, I am tired of listening to my own perspective on the matter. But, I generally believe that the only measure of success is a face to see in the mirror and it is this face that can tell you what you have done is good or is successful. That is my benchmark in all quarters of life.
Q. People say that the level of creativity is declining in the industry day by day. Would you agree to that?
It is. Time and client compulsions are tough. Pressure is up on the businesses and is very intense. There are times when people don’t end up doing as creative as they should be doing. But creativity is not dead in the business. I still feel there are some wonderful clients that we are fortunate to work for, who still stick. I have just finished writing a long copy campaign for a client in an age where most copy writers don’t wish to write beyond one line. I think you have to try yourself as a person to make sure you are alive. So, once or twice in a year I write these long copies, sell them to the clients, go back and see my face in the mirror and discover that he is alive in me. The important thing is to keep trying; I don’t give up.
Q. What do you think of mobile as a medium? How can this particular medium help a mainline agency?
It is fantastic! Mainline agencies will have to understand it. It is tough, but it is going to be the future, because everything is going to be on the mobile device. Every day, I Google things and I find apps that can aggregate and track consumer activity. Understanding devices – be it touch screen, designer or IPads – is going to be critical, but no one is doing that. No one is conducting research in terms of how they use mobile devices and what all goes on with people and their phones. According to me, there won’t be any mainline agency. The client is going to slice up the agencies and this entire thing of aggregation, which agencies are hoping for and are coming up with division after division, won’t work for long. I can’t do mobile yet, if you want to hire someone else, I am alright with it.
Q. If you were given the choice of making two changes in the advertising industry, what would they be?
I will bring back respect into the business. We have no respect because we have no fresh perspectives, we have no insights and no great efforts. So, I would really want to get back respect for the advertising as a business. The other thing would be – conscious counsel. It is rapidly vanishing as our remuneration is linked to commissions, and it has lost the cleanliness of the counsel. In the good old days, the advertising head was your marketing partner, your friend and from whom you could seek honest, genuine advice and he would give you honest, genuine replies. I don’t think many of our clients see us like that anymore. And also talent – we don’t seem to be attracting fantastic minds anymore, instead we have manipulative minds, which is sad.
Q. Advertising as a career is not as glamorous as it looks from the outside. Is it true? What message would you give to the youngsters who want to pursue their career in it?
I think schools like MICA are trying to do that, but not as successfully as possibly they could have. I think the industry has to get together and go to schools, go to colleges, make the effort, make presentations, take courses free of cost and try and find more minds for this business. Where is that great college of advertising? That great institute that teaches you how to write? Someone like Rohit Srivastava who is an excellent mind of our times, could be called to take workshops... This is actually such a fantastic profession. We need to circulate the knowledge that resides within us.