Advertising Interviews

Prathap Suthan

Managing Partner & Chief Creative Officer | 21 Sep 2012

We are an aberration for a new agency. And I hope the media won’t put us in the same pond as some minnows. We want to be India’s first transcontinental agency that takes Indian clients to global markets, and the first agency that opens the bustling Indian market to unaligned global brands. And we want to be India’s first global agency.

Prathap Suthan got together with some friends to create a new kind of advertising agency, and Bang in the Middle was the result. Within four months of its inception, the agency built a portfolio of nine brands. In the course of his career, Suthan has worked with agencies like Mudra, Grey, Cheil Worldwide, as well as global consumer services brand iYogi. Two of the campaigns he wrote – India Shining, and Incredible India – attained much critical acclaim and accolades.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Shree Lahiri, Suthan speaks at length about how Bang in the Middle came into being, the quality of creative talent today, growing importance of digital and more…

Q. When launching Bang in the Middle, you had said, “Despite an overcrowded communication services market, India needs a new kind of communication agency… There is an increasingly younger nation with global ambitions demanding better communication solutions.” What is the relevance of this thinking?

Of course, India needs a different kind of communication agency. It’s past time. I would say more agencies ought to be looking at re-engineering themselves. In fact, our domestic advertising industry hasn’t really grown to mirror the stature of India in the overall food chain of the world. Look at the way the world is looking at us. Look at how Indian brands are stepping across geographies and establishing in other markets. Look at how technology and quality have given more than industrial strength credibility to what we create and manufacture.

If we say our advertising craft, our ideas and design are world class, shouldn’t we be exporting our abilities as organized corporates? If we truly believe that ideas really have no skin colour, shouldn’t we learn from our tech brethren, start a new trend and sail westward?

As a country, our manufacturing and industrial sectors may have only begun to do what the Cholas did, but they have made a humble beginning. More than that, for us to bloom as a nation, this is the way we will have to grow. Organic growth in the country is one part of the game, but there’s a larger world out there that’s ready to receive the benefits of better thinking, better products, and even better prices. The western aperture is far more open today, and far more appreciative of what we make across categories of products and services.

Q. Entering US was the first step in the direction of the company going global, and it was said that your plans are in place to open offices across geographies. Which are the other markets that you are launching in and, by when?

I am actually more than thrilled that we are already in the US, and with the right team of people in place, just when the big FDI story has become real. At the moment, we are happily close to opening an office in another Indian city. And we are also planning on taking our brand to another country. I don’t think I want to spell the exact trajectory of our agency. Not because I want to keep things hidden. But rather we want to keep our options open and commit to opportunities as they appear.

We may open more offices tomorrow, or we may open in another couple of months. But open we will. We will always be a network of friends rather than a family with senile grandfathers at the helm. And thankfully and gratefully, we have friends across the world who believe in our ability and desire to build a united global network of creativity.

We wanted to be in the US because we have a very strong team, and a clearly defined business model. Saira Mohan is as business savvy as anyone I have met, and she comes from the aesthetic heart of western advertising.

Q. You had bagged many new clients like - Akzo Nobel India, the maker of Dulux Paints as digital communication partner; Knoxx Global Australia as its marketing agency; Veen Waters Finland had given its creative and media mandate for global markets; Reliance BigFlix, Vimal Fabrics, etc. What kind of work are you doing for them?

We offer them an entire spectrum of communication possibilities. Much like we have been saying, we are an agency that can ride any bucking horse in the communication rodeo. It doesn’t matter if we have to go bareback on all forms of regular advertising, or wrestle down one of its digital broncos. We have the skill set, the knowledge, the experience, and the hunger. We also have a point of view made from 26 convincing bones.

For most of our clients, we play multiple roles. From offering a specialised service like UI Design, or going wide and macro as marketing advisory. Perhaps our silver hair allows for lateral strengths. The way we are structured isn’t like a regular creative agency. And we offer far more value than just a boutique. We also have a flourishing Digital Media Department that currently delivers global online marketing impetus to some of our Indian clients.

There’s mainline television, print, outdoor, ambient, online work being executed for the US, Europe and the GCC. Interestingly, some of us are currently traveling to Switzerland on a pure design and branding assignment for one of the world’s most prestigious brands.

Q. How important is digital as a media for brands today? In what ways have digital and social compelled brands to re-think their strategies?

I have two different answers for this. For most domestic clients, anything digital at this moment isn’t very important. Of course, they do make knowledgeable grunts about it. It sort of hovers above something that needs to be thought about, but certainly not critical as the larger Indian audience isn’t part of the online community yet. The hesitancy is also because the CXO suite doesn’t quite get the medium and its possibilities; and therefore, doesn’t give it enough respect and attention.

The core of problem is simple. They aren’t involved users or consumers of the medium, and their unfamiliarity knots up the shoelaces of their judgment. I see them as analog aliens stranded on a digital planet. Aliens who sadly believe that their younger colleagues waste too much of time on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

For some of our enlightened clients, who market and sell their products and services to the Western world, digital is the very blood of their being. iYogi, for instance, is India’s first global consumer services brand, and as the premier global brand in their category, they spend formidable advertising dollars on Google, Bing, etc. As their agency, and as their brand evangelists, we engage with millions of customers and possible customers across North America, UK and Europe on a daily basis through a variety of web mechanisms. All conceptualised, designed and executed by us. For our clients like iYogi and many others, online work isn’t just a business amplifier. These are brands being built with digital steel and concrete. For them, digital and all things social are life-sustaining systems.

Q. You had said in an interview that “ad agencies lacked creative talent”. How do you think talent can be boosted?

Yes I have said that, and I completely believe in that. Just that the right context needs to be set for that comment.

One: With media commission gone out of the window, pure creative agencies have narrower sources of revenue coming in. With less and less of money to support the innards of the business, genuine talent within agencies is getting thinner and thinner. In the business of creating ideas, you do need to invest, train, and thicken the creative layer. Not with quantity, but with quality. You can always keep hiring hordes of juniors, but you really can’t throw them into the deep-end and expect all of them to swim. Most will perish. Ours is an unforgiving business.

Two: Unlike the general business environment, where huge numbers of companies and brands have boomed in synch with India’s growth, our industry has stagnated. We haven’t exploded to match that growth. We haven’t multiplied our leaders within our agencies. Leadership hasn’t grown laterally. We still remain scant at the top. Check the papers ten years ago and chances are you will still see the same names.

Three: Independent agencies will continue to rise and grow. And seniors will jump ship and get on to their personal submarines and explorations. Clients who want exclusive high quality work are willing to fund more mavericks. There will be a continuing erosion of talent at multiple agencies, and much like what’s happening around the world, networks will be compelled to set up dedicated new agencies to cluster around brands.

Four: As long as creative options outside of advertising are growing, compelling, and far more lucrative, the fire of agencies will attract lesser moths. Besides, agencies offer lesser latitude for really fertile minds. They need an openness that doesn’t come within four corporate walls – regardless of all the wild graffiti you allow them.

Five: There are two new monsters out there gobbling up more creative people and planners than we can see or sense – tech companies and media agencies. Their wallets have all kinds of currency and fatter wads of cash. And boy, aren’t they in a hurry to send advertising agencies to the taxidermist. The media agency will be the new advertising agency.

Q. You state in your website that you “ran away from an international network”. But, in the light of recent developments in the industry, like the Dentsu-Taproot equation, are you open to acquisition by a bigger agency if you get the right offer?

I am not the only one who ran away from a global network. All of us in our agency are global network products. And all of us are sort of convinced that networks don’t make people, people make networks. It isn’t as though large networks are put together and run by cigar chewing high IQ three-legged goats from Themisto and Euporie. They are just people like you and us. So if they can do it, why can’t we at least aspire to create something for ourselves? Ideas, honesty, transparency, and integrity don’t need zillions of dollars to build.

At the moment we aren’t open to anything or anyone. We have a fair bit to achieve, and more things to do. But yes, we have had people calling us. On Monday, we have breakfast with an American network. The truth is that we aren’t newcomers. We have led large national agencies and teams successfully. We have created campaigns for large clients. We have delivered work that powered the fortunes of many brands. And we are still hands on.

Without exaggeration, our team that includes Viral Pandya, Manoj Deb, Sabu Paul, Naresh Gupta, and Awadhesh Singh would be as competent and contemporary as the best and the biggest MNC agency in Delhi – traditional or digital or anything in between. Until today, we really don’t have cousins who have given us all the businesses we have won. They have been won on pure merit, and against the top agencies in the city. This is also why we are getting invited to pitches across the country. I believe we have a very different and differentiated idea working for us, and all of us in the agency would love to see us redefine the spirit of our business. Working for us versus working for someone else charges a very different battery.

Q. Your journey has just started as Bang in the Middle; how would you rate your progress so far?

We are pretty much on course. We wanted to be global in 100 days. We wanted to have at least 10 clients. And we wanted to work with at least one marquee global client. We have two. Actually we are an aberration for a new agency. And I hope the media won’t put us in the same pond as some minnows.

Q. What is the road ahead for Bang in the Middle?

Our way ahead is pretty simple. Much like our philosophy – to be beautifully brilliant. We want to be a breath and a gasp at the same time. We are open to all kinds of opportunities. Our business pitch is very different. We just need half an hour. We want to be India’s first comprehensive creative media agency. We want to be a mutant agency that straddles traditional and digital streams of advertising, marketing and communication. We want to be India’s first transcontinental agency that takes Indian clients to global markets, and the first agency that opens the bustling Indian market to unaligned global brands. And we want to be India’s first global agency.

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