Advertising Interviews

Thomas Xavier

Chairman & National Creative Director | 12 Jan 2012

If your advertising makes your target to fantasise about life with your brand, there is a much bigger chance of him trying it out. Great advertising makes your target consumers ‘lust’ for your brand. In fact, I think great advertising is ‘brand-porn’… Great advertising is a lasting investment and not an expense. Great advertising makes the product more valuable that it tangibly is. By this I mean, thanks to great advertising consumers are willing to pay more for a product because they see more value in it.

Thomas Xavier is an engineer and a graduate of IIM Bangalore. He spent his early years in advertising at Mudra and McCann Erickson, before he moved to the Leo Burnett group. In 1999, he helped found Orchard Advertising. Orchard has, over the last decade, been the creative force behind several landmark entrepreneurial brands. Currently, Thomas Xavier is Chairman and National Creative Director of Orchard Advertising, an agency of The Leo Group in India, part of the Publicis Groupe Worldwide.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Sai Prasanna, Xavier speaks at length about Orchard’s growth path, what makes for great advertising, the benefits of seamless cross-pollination and more.

Q. How has Orchard grown in the years since its inception?

Orchard has matured into an agency with a strong team. Kaushik Mitra and Hemant Kumar in Mumbai are examples of formidable talents who have become trusted partners of clients. That’s their focus. They lead from the front.

I am trying to come to grips with the new challenges of this profession. Lots of things we do seem obsolete. On the other hand, there are some important things we seem to have forgotten. I am trying to get my head around all this! So, do excuse me if I sound too conceptual in my replies.

Q. What were some of the highlights of 2011 for the agency?

About the year that’s gone by, I think a lot of people will be happy to have just survived it, right? As an industry, advertising has managed to give out signals that we are still a thriving industry. Some creative executions in mass media have caught the nation by storm. Agency heads are still opinion leaders on issues relating to marketing. Clients seek creative people.

For Orchard, the Mumbai office has been the star performer. New business, some fresh creative on Blackberry, new talent influx... these are the things that spring to mind. Then again, in advertising, as in most creative professions, the future is where we draw inspiration from. Your next assignment, it is what drives you.

Q. Which brings me to the larger question, where do you think the future of the advertising business lies? In better advertising?

I have always maintained that the future of advertising is not in better advertising. The future of advertising is in advertising for better products.

There was a time when we thrived on parity products, seeking to establish differences in the perceptual space. It worked when media was largely monolithic and brands could control the information channels the consumer had access to. So what you showed the consumer, was what he or she saw.

But now the consumer has direct access to all information. So his impression of the brand is his own gestalt. All your “image” work can come to naught. Unless, it is in line with the truth of the brand! For example, if you are an oil company that decides to showcase eco-conservation in its advertising, it had better be real. Else the consumer will find the truth and reject you and your advertising.

My view is that we advertising people have bragged so much about our ability to generate advertising based brand difference that in various categories, real product innovation has slowed. Often a token differentiating ingredient is added to the product, which we in advertising are prepared to magnify. To the informed consumer, this doesn’t work anymore. That’s why this kind of advertising doesn’t work well anymore.

Q. So, what, according to you, is the way forward?

I feel advertising works best when it magnifies the truth. And by that I mean something that is real. If it is not there in the product, go back to the lab and add it. Let the truth extend all over, from the advertising, through to the product, its distribution, factories and corporate ethos. A lot of successful young entrepreneurs think this way. Their marketing edge is hardwired into their entire value chain. So when you magnify it, it not only rings true but also explodes in consumer consciousness.

Sadly, there are others too. These people just cobble together a business plan. They want advertising so they can increase their valuation. Usually, these are easy targets for ad agencies because the money to be made in the short term is huge. But it undermines the real long-term contribution the advertising industry can make to the economy.

So what am I saying? Illusory marketing is over. The future of advertising depends on real, long-term entrepreneurship, where real product innovations are launched. As an industry, we must make this point in client boardrooms.

Q. How will the concept of ‘Brand Image’ evolve in the years ahead?

As a result of these cluttered times, image is useless if it isn’t real. In fact, at Leo Burnett, the whole vocabulary has changed. We don’t use the term “consumers” any more. We have gone back to word “Human”. And fundamentally, humans care about one thing about a brand – they want to know what difference you are going to bring into their lives. That is why a brand needs to have a compelling human purpose – something that determines its reason for existence. This purpose should drive product development, company culture, distribution and communication. In Leo Burnett’s ‘Humankind’ approach, the new 4 Ps of brand management are people, purpose, participation, populism.

Q. As a creative guy, what is your view on creative work out in media these days?

Airtel’s ‘Har friend zaroori hota hai’ has the set the bar really high. It is not only fresh as a concept; it has also been an absolute hit with the Indian public. To me, it is great advertising because it does two things – It inspires in the audience a sensorial flash-forward into the unique benefit world of the brand; and it invests an emotional/ non-rational attribute in the brand that it can call its own. This increases its value far beyond tangibles.

Point No.1 above is what differentiates advertising that works, from advertising that doesn’t. If your advertising makes your target to fantasise about life with your brand, there is a much bigger chance of him trying it out. Great advertising makes your target consumers ‘lust’ for your brand. In fact, I think great advertising is ‘brand-porn’. When youngsters saw this Airtel ad, they didn’t just intellectualise what the ad was trying say. They actually imagined themselves in the company of the brand.

Point No. 2 above is about how great advertising is a lasting investment and not an expense. Great advertising makes the product more valuable that it tangibly is. By this I mean, thanks to great advertising consumers are willing to pay more for a product because they see more value in it. The Airtel brand marks out the ‘young world’ territory and gives it back to the new generation that wants a space of their own. This is advertising that has created for Airtel the most valuable asset for a brand, viz. mental real estate.

Our own ‘features’ campaign for Blackberry Phones scores well on these two criteria. That’s why it not only helped the brand acquire a cooler image, but young people actually picked it up.

Leo Burnett’s work for KBC is a stellar example of advertising that walks you though the fantasyland of the brand and makes you yearn for it.

A lot of other work out on TV is creative, but my feeling is they are just delivering on the communication brief. Is that enough? Is the advertising actually moving the needle on sales and long term preference? I have in my career encountered briefs for impulse products where the brief asks for ‘salience’. Somehow, mere salience has never really worked for me if the final execution does meet the ‘sensorial flash-forward’ criteria. If you are a soft drink brand, don’t let your communication stop at telling me you have attitude. Your communication must also make me thirsty and then have me fantasising about quenching it with your brand! Here’s my free advice for clients. Apply my two criteria to your next campaign and watch sales and long-term preference go up.

Q. Many independent ad agencies and creative ‘hot shops’ are being launched. What is your take on them?

I think agencies launched by creative people are doing well because clients find that they cut to the chase. Most of these agencies are headed by veteran creative leaders who can get cracking on the client problem right away. They bring experience and speed. Fast and correct is the need of the hour, in that order.

By the way, Orchard, too, was born with the same ethic. Only, we have been doing it since 1999. That’s the refreshing change we bring to the way big brands are handled. We are fast, but we have proved ourselves in the long term. That’s why you should not write off the established agencies. They bring stability and long-term value to clients. This is something that we at Orchard respect the big agencies for. Leo Burnett, O&M, JWT, Lowe… they have done a far better job of building brands. When marketing is distilled down to economics, you will realise these agencies have created genuine value. Not just headlines in trade papers.

Fact is, advertising is not just about doing visible work that gets chatter. Advertising is about using ideas to make your marketing strategy the subject of social conversation. Thereafter, it must be good enough to be sustained to keep the marketing cycle going - helping convert goods into cash repeatedly. Until you have done that, you are just a one off.

So, even if you are good for clients today, the important question is how long you can be around being good. Godrej, Wipro, Piramal, Essilor are some of our clients who have been with us for more than a decade. Maybe it’s because we can be good, again and again.

Q. There seems to be a talent crunch in the industry. Is there an essential problem with the way the advertising industry has managed its talent base?

This is a question we must answer honestly. I think the advertising industry has dropped the baton. Time was when we had a long queue outside, desperate to get in. Now the queue isn’t as long. That’s because there other cooler destinations like animation, gaming, television content, etc., for these kids now. Still, advertising has its pluses. As long as business needs to market its products to the masses, advertising as it exists now will thrive. So it is, relatively speaking, a secure profession.

However, I feel we could all do a lot more in how we nurture talent within the agency. As of now, awards and its associated activities are the only occasion when the industry gets together. I wish the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) declares 2012 as the Year of Talent and focuses all its efforts. They could begin by doing a talent census. They could project what the talent needs are going to be in the next five years and come up with a strategy to meet it. They could institutionalise the talent pipeline across the country. The last big idea was MICA. But see what has happened, the graduates prefer to join the client side. Not that this is wrong in anyway. But, first it was IIM graduates who stopped joining ad agencies. Now even MICA graduates go elsewhere. How do you get a bit of the cream? My suggestion is that AAAI must appoint a Special Officer for talent with a time bound mandate.

Q. Social Media is the new buzzword for many brands nowadays who want to increase engagement and consumer involvement. What is your view on the impact of social media on the advertising business?

To be frank, I am clueless. I don’t even know if social media is an adequate descriptor. In no other field have I found knowledge becoming obsolete this fast. Just when you thought you had websites figured out, you had mobile. Then when you caught up with that, there’s Facebook. And now there is viral again. Meanwhile, you get e-papers, but you still want your morning paper on the porch. I can download any movie off the net, but I want to possess the ones I love on Blu Ray. I have a smartphone, iPad, iPod, laptop and a TV. I order books from Amazon and download some from Kindle store. It’s like I’m just filling my plate at the buffet, and you are asking me how the food is! Too many things to talk about and I’ve not made up my mind.

My general feeling is that technology is leading everything, driving behaviour. That is why the industry prefers the term ‘Digital’. But I have a strong view about how as an industry we have set up separate entities and labeled them as ‘digital agency’. We did this with media and now we are doing it again with new media. We are missing the benefits of seamless cross-pollination. In fact, we are setting ourselves up for duplication and internecine initiatives.

I have a suggestion. Back in the 60s, Doyle Dane & Bernbach was the first advertising agency to put the Copywriter and the Art Director in the same room. We all know the revolutionary consequences of this move. In the late 90s, Leo Burnett put the Strategy guy in the same room with the Copywriter and the Art Director. Everyone knows how account planning became so much more result oriented as a result. Now, I have my idea for our times. (Insert drum roll here!) Bring the Technical guy in. So you have Strategy, Copy, Art and Technical in the same room. The SCAT team, I call it. There you have it – the guy who knows the consumer, the guy who knows the power of words, the guy who can think images and the guy who knows the latest in technology, all in the same room, feeding off each other. Digital will no longer be an appendix to your presentation. It will weave itself into the core of everything you do, depending on the problem on hand. Our campaigns will be cohesive because the teams that created it are. SCAT teams can ensure that old and new media are integrated creatively. And, if we can present ourselves as one to the client, we will be powerful, once again.

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