“I feel that retaining clients is far more important than getting new clients because relationship building and brand building is all about same set of people working on the brand, day in and day out, year after year.”
From humble beginnings as a Bollywood film billboard painter to the National Creative Director of Leo Burnett India, Pops has seen it all and today is widely respected as a creative leader in the Indian Ad-world. Under his creative leadership, Leo Burnett India went on to win agency of the year in the Leo Burnett global network, twice. Continuing the Agency’s superb show at the Cannes the agency has won 12 lions, in the past two years. While over the decade, the Indian office has done splendidly by winning over 328 awards at major award shows including the Cannes, One Show, D&AD and Clio.
In conversation with e4m’s Shubhangi Mehta, Sridhar talks about the creative trail, Bollywood to the Cannes Lions...
Q. What makes a team headed by you different from the teams who have been a part of Leo Burnett?
Between Chaks and me, we headed Leo Burnett so it’s difficult to compare Leo Burnett to any other agency. I can only talk about the people who have worked with me, it’s always been a two way relationship; they learn from me and I learn from them. They keep me contemporary and then I pass on the wisdom to them, whether it was Agnello, Preeti, Nitesh or anyone who has worked with me. Hence I always believe that it is a two way relationship that a team and team leader must always share and this is my approach and I would not compare myself or my team with any other. I can actually talk about people who have been my leaders, Md Khan etc, I shared a similar relationship with them. I never hesitated to stand and tell him where he is wrong and where he is right, what he should do and what he should not do and he used to advice me the same way. We shared an equal relationship and he passed on the wisdom to me and I pass it on to the people in my team.
Q. What is the current creative agenda for Leo Burnett India?
To create best in the world par none, this agenda has not changed since last 65 years and it will never change. What is best and where the world is headed will keep changing. When you say best in the world par none, weather it is strategic thinking, partnership with the client or creating those magical commercials, fantastic 360 degree ideas or it is about creating something new on digital space. Our motto/ mission has always remained the same.
Q. It goes without saying that for the growth of an agency, balancing between existing clients and new ones is necessary. How do you do it?
I feel that retaining clients is far more important than getting new clients because relationship building and brand building is all about same set of people working on the brand, day in and day out, year after year. If you are committed to businesses and brands, which you are as an agency, it is not about an individual, it’s about the whole agency and the same is with the client side, not a single person is capable of calling himself HUL, it’s the whole agency. So it’s about the partnership between the people of two agencies and how they work towards building relationships. I believe when people change, we tend to lose details and then someone else has to come and redo or re-build the brand. So that is the advantage of working on a brand for a long time therefore it is far more important to work with the same set of clients than getting new businesses. A lot of times it’s not the agencies that loose clients but it’s the clients who walk away because of their petty thinking. Most of our new clients work with us seeing our past history and not just on the basis of one pitch. We are a street smart aggressive agency so new clients come in when our ambitions and values match. Like we won Reliance, Uninor etc, the domain knowledge and our passion towards the category helped us get these businesses.
Q. What are some of the industry issues that bother you as a creative entrepreneur?
The industry is not moving as fast as the country is moving which is very sad. Somehow we are like an ostrich as an industry. Instead of accepting new technologies we resist from using them. I think as we are marching into new era, the digital era. We need more mindsets for that and provide new kind of leadership as now we don’t see any difference between the traditional and the non-traditional. We are a very orthodox industry. Just because a particular stream does not fetch enough revenue, we hesitate in telling it to the client. So this mindset, that most big agencies come with, of doing everything orthodox has to change. Today from the client or consumer side young people have a lot to say and if you refuse to listen to them then you have no hope in hell to make your brand successful. I would like to see a couple of under-30 guys in the senior management of every company. The board of most of agencies consists of people of retirement age and this has been the enemy of the advertising agency for a very long time. Look at IT or the marketing sector which is full of young talent. We can look for a balance where the Chairman can be senior and experienced but we need to involve some younger strength as well. This is the frustration that is leading young Priti Nair (Curry Nation) Mahesh Chauhan (Salt) and Agnello (Taproot) to start their own agencies. Look at Rajkurup the way he is growing, he is standing up for innovations and innovative technologies.
Q. It is said that the level of creativity is declining in the industry. Would you agree to that?
No, there is no lack of creativity. In fact creativity is at its peak right now. The reason why I say this is because there are two parameters by which you can see that. Firstly look at all the work that we have been doing, be it Zoozoo, Cadbury, KBC or McDonalds. We are seeing the best work for all global brands. So work creatively is of very high value. All this is very highly crafted not just the idea but the execution is terrific. Give the name of any person in the past who has single handedly created something as big as Vodafone as Rajiv Rao has. If you look at people from previous generations and you see creative people, but today’s generation is blessed with far more creativity. In the past six years Leo Burnett has been the agency of the year thrice. We are afraid to acknowledge the newer ways of creativity. We first want the entire world to stand and applaud and then we applaud for our own work. That’s the reason why most of our work gets more awards internationally than at Goafest. Look at Prasoon Joshi or R Balki, threatening settled people in Bollywood. We should look at advertising people doing non advertising work as well. If creativity was not there then how would this be possible?
Q. What has been the growth rate for the agency over the last two years?
We have been growing at the rate of 30 per cent. Such growth at our size is unimaginable. Only thing that we are fighting very hard to do, apart from finding the physical space for people who come in, is to get in good people. So far we have been blessed and we have attracted good people. We are constantly looked forward to at every management school institutions and even the IITs. We recruit from there (IIT) not only servicing people but also those who are creative. Most of the creative people come from IITs and lots of other domains. That is the only challenge for us right now; to get the right set of people, to train them and retain them, so that they start contributing to our growth. Growth is happening by itself without much of an issue.
Q. What are some of the ideas you have for new business development for the agency?
In new businesses, I feel what our advantage is that we as an agency are constantly developing and evolving. We are an agency which brings in a lot of recognition in Radio, Outdoor, Cyber, Media innovation etcetera. We are very innovative, we push innovation, we push media neutral ideas... Probably, we want to position ourselves as the most progressive new-age-thinking agency. Our ability to really mount a campaign in a non-traditional way is going to grow. That is the reason newer clients will come to us in future. Coke Studio is an example and testimony of such innovativeness. Coke Studio is not a traditional business and we did not approach it in a traditional way. Over the years, we have been involving ourselves very heavily into all the channel partners and creating work which has no television commercial.
Q. Being a veteran in the industry a lot is being expected out of you? How well do you react to expectations?
I don’t think anybody expects anything from me, apart from a nice warm hug and lending my shoulders when they need it. People have given me much more love and respect than I could have ever anticipated or imagined. People also think that I am much older than I actually am (he laughs) which in a way, puts a little more pressure on me. I don’t know if I have been returning anything to the industry but according to me, it has been one-way-traffic where I have received a lot more from the industry than given back. I still learn from the young guys who keep me updated about everything. Without my young friends on Twitter and Facebook, who keep sending me links of what is happening in typography, technology, cyber, digital, gadgets, journalism...without them, I won’t be able to update myself and remain contemporary. Actually, in a way, it’s been the other way around where people have been giving me so much, without really asking me for anything back in return.