Advertising Interviews

Joseph George

Chief Executive Officer | 31 May 2013

As one of the youngest countries on the planet, Indian advertising has no choice but to consider their view on the way we build brands. The post-liberalisation generation is poised to be the biggest consuming class in the country and both mass and class brands will have to stay relevant to them. The other aspect of being young is their natural comfort with technology. We need to be ready to reinvent our approaches to stay relevant to them.

Joseph George is Chief Executive Officer at Lowe Lintas & Partners. With over two decades of experience in the field of advertising, George has had an un-interrupted stint of over 20 years with Lowe Lintas.

After spending the first two of his career on the Proctor laundry business at Leo Burnett, George joined Lowe Lintas in 1991 to manage the Cadbury’s and J&J businesses. In 1995, he moved to the Bangalore office of Lowe Lintas, where he was centrally involved with some of the best and market changing work on Unilever foods, Titan and Tanishq. In 2003, George moved back to Mumbai to head the Unilever business and successfully led its growth until his new role as CEO since January 2011.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Priyanka Mehra, George speaks at length about new business acquisitions, not participating in award shows in India, nurture talent, leveraging digital and more...

Q. Lowe Lintas & Partners India has had a very interesting 2012-13, one can say acquisitions and retention have been the mantra. What are the factors that go behind this?

Over the past three years we have definitely developed a more aggressive attitude towards new business acquisitions. I am glad to see and sense this across levels and functions. I am, however, acutely aware that our current businesses are the most important asset we have. Not just because they pay our bills, but because we have an institutional responsibility towards these brands for having, in most cases, co-created them from scratch. Almost all the brands we manage today – and there are more than 250 of them – are amongst the top 3 in their respective categories. Our endeavour is to add more of our brands to the ‘largest’ or the ‘fastest growing’ list every year. This is perhaps the biggest reason why existing clients stay with us and prospective clients consider us. Like I keep reminding everyone in the agency - Current Business Strategy is the best New Business Strategy.

Q. How do you as CEO of India Operations keep up with the pressure of retaining the benchmark of Lowe Lintas & Partners India and being one of the top three contributors of revenue at the global level?

Firstly, I believe that our DNA is our strongest enabler and motivator. We attract and retain talent and clients who believe in and appreciate the way we conduct business, the way we engage on brands and the type of work we create. So, my key responsibility is to preserve and leverage this DNA. Secondly, I think we have been able to respond to shifts in the environment by continuously re-purposing the key deliverables of each function, be it HR, IT, Finance, Planning, Account Management or Creative. Lastly, it is very crucial to identify key members in the agency across functions and levels who are aligned on and excited about the same goals, and indeed even the manner in which we intend to achieve them.

Q. Lowe Lintas & Partners India has retained its stand of not participating in award shows, while the agency globally is seen participating at Cannes. Is the equation going to change?

No, it is not. Our non-participation is restricted only to award shows who believe in rewarding creativity only for its own sake. Nothing wrong with that, except that it does not float our boat. Our position on this is something that our employees and clients support wholeheartedly. And I must admit, we are very grateful to Lowe WW and IPG too in understanding our position. Having said that, we have always been extremely supportive of award shows that reward the effectiveness of the creative product – be it the Effies, Festival of Asian Marketing Effectiveness, APPIES, WARC and even the Jay Chiat Awards. And Lowe Lintas & Partners India has regularly participated and won at them. In fact, just last year, we won India its first ever Global Effies, bagged for Lifebuoy. We’ve recently started entering at Cannes because it now rewards ‘Creative Effectiveness’. The caveat being that you have to first win at Cannes in Year 1 before being eligible for its Effectiveness category in year 2. We support that as an agency and hence, we’re now beginning to enter campaigns at Cannes where we have significant business results to show.

Q. What are the global best practices brought to India to optimise the functioning of the India operations?

We’ve gained tremendously from the global strategic planning toolkit developed by the network. I personally believe it is one of the most sophisticated yet simple to use tool-kits in the industry today. Its diagnostic and organic nature makes the quality and practicability of the output disproportionate to the effort that goes in, in the running of these toolkits workshops. I am quite obsessive in wanting everyone in Account Management and Planning across levels to be everyday practitioners of these tools. Also, a lot of our successful home grown initiatives on enterprise applications have benefited hugely from inputs from the global IT teams at Lowe as well as at IPG. Our Finance and Business Heads have hugely benefited too; and this has, therefore, enabled our agency to focus on what matters most – our brands.

Q. How does Lowe Lintas & Partners India nurture talent in light of the constant drain of creative talent in the industry today?

What we have done in this area is a classic example of what I was mentioning earlier – about being able to respond to shifts in the environment.

We launched the Lowe Lintas Apprenticeship Programme (LLAP) last year, a programme initiated with the intent to unlock the potential of non-metro cities. Colleges from Aligarh, Chandigarh, Guwahati, Jakhama, Mangalore, Ranchi, and Shillong were invited to participate, and we received more than 3,000 applications from graduates and post-graduates; with backgrounds as varied as computer science, engineering, journalism and even dentistry. The selection procedure involved written tests, group interviews, in-depth personal interviews and panel interviews with our business and creative heads. 25 students were finally chosen, who are now into their 10th month of apprenticeship with us, and who, besides receiving training on the job, have also been attending frequent classroom sessions. When this programme comes to a close in another eight months, the output will represent extreme diversity – different academic and socio-economic backgrounds, varied personalities and interests, all held together with only two aspects in common – a desire to achieve and a willingness to give it their all. And going by how this bunch is shaping up, planning for LLAP-2 should soon get underway.

Q. What are the focus areas for 2013?

It’s a motley mix - some focus areas driven by what keeps our clients awake at night, some driven by our desire to enable and equip our employees to manage their brands better, some driven by wanting to keep my CFO’s blood pressure under control and some driven by what IPG and Lowe WW look to us to deliver for their shareholders. But all of them working towards a singular aim – to deliver profitably, outstandingly entertaining and effective work on all the brands we handle.

Q. How does the agency leverage digital media as part of the creative process?

What seems to be clear now is that digital and mobile mediums, hitherto considered niche and fringe, are not so anymore. And that is precisely the premise of our way forward - our submission to the fact that digital is today mainstream. They are now as mainstream as any other; and indicative of this are the increasingly larger allocations of client budgets to digital and the fact that almost all our clients are increasingly asking us to have a consolidated POV for the brand that includes, and at times be led by, digital. Therefore, it is but obvious that the teams that deliver ideas and communication in mainstream media must take the responsibility of the same for the digital medium as well. The longer we treat digital as ‘specialised’ and see it as the responsibility of a specialised digital unit, the longer we will take to accept digital deliveries on brands as a mainstream responsibility and activity. And given the fact that all of us in our personal lives are consumers of the digital medium, I don’t see any reason why we can’t think of how our brands can engagingly play an active role on these very digital channels/ platforms that all of us are increasingly seeing as part of our own everyday lives.

It is in this context that we were on the lookout for a partner who could complement our brand teams and enhance our execution and delivery capabilities on the digital medium. And we found Interactive Avenues perfectly placed to do so. I am also aware of the fact that clients are getting increasingly frustrated about having to deal with multiple partners who are operating at varying levels of brand familiarity and brand management skills to optimally manage their brands’ various engagement needs. The brand planners, brand creatives and digital/social media planners within Lowe Lintas & Partners will work closely with the specialist teams at Interactive Avenues to provide creative strategy, content, SEO, SEM, social media management, mobile, technical development, and online media planning and buying to their clients. From our clients’ perspective, the biggest advantage that this partnership brings to bear for them is a completely integrated offering that their primary brand custodian, their creative agency, takes responsibility for, to hold together, manage and deliver.

Q. What are the trends in advertising to watch out for?

This question perhaps merits a complete discussion on its own. But let me share one crucial reality that will probably dictate most trends in our business over the next few years. As one of the youngest countries on the planet, Indian advertising has no choice but to consider their view on the way we build brands. The post-liberalisation generation is poised to be the biggest consuming class in the country and both mass and class brands will have to stay relevant to them. The other aspect of being young is their natural comfort with technology; growing up in an environment where technology is not ‘amazing’, but an ‘everyday’ way of life. This is the generation growing up seeing Flipboard as a smart magazine, and a paper magazine its ‘dumb’ version. We need to be ready to reinvent our approaches to stay relevant to them.

And there is of course the trip back from Mars. We are headed back to full service aggregation, and clients will play a crucial role in determining the speed of this return trip. And so as I see it, there will co-exist two clusters of full service agencies – one with a media agency at its nucleus and the other, with a creative agency at its nucleus.

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