Change is the only agency model of the future: Russell Barrett, BBH India

In today's edition of e4m Creative Zone, we speak to Russell Barrett, CCO and Managing Partner, BBH India, on remote shoots and creating through constraints

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Updated: Jul 3, 2020 7:48 AM
Creative Zone

The COVID-19 global lockdown has not just confined us to our homes but thrown at us challenges of various dimensions. From the ad industry’s perspective, organising and shooting an advertising campaign in these conditions has proved to be the big test. However, despite these challenges, our creative leaders have continued to conceptualise work that inspires. In our new series – e4m Creative Zone – we get to know how Creative Heads have been surpassing the COVID hurdles.

In today's edition, we have someone who across the course of his career has donned multiple hats - from being a hockey player, to a short journalism stint to shining in the ad-world. We speak to Russell Barrett, CCO and Managing Partner, BBH India, on creating through Covid-19 constraints, capturing team chemistry in the virtual world and why adaptability is a key aspect that agencies need to imbibe.

Edited excerpts below:

How creatively enriching is this experience of creating amidst remote captivity for creatives like yourself?

Before the pandemic hit us, there was no other way of working that any of us knew. Since this was the only life that we knew, therefore we felt that this was the only way to do things. I think the pandemic has taught us a lot of new skills that we didn't realize we had, and it also has shown us the mirror in many ways, in terms of ways in which we can be a lot better. I would never be thankful for what is happening around me but I do feel that it's important to be positive and sort of look to see what we can learn from any situation. So I think that the pandemic has allowed us to do that in a way.

To be sure, especially when you're meeting a client for the first time or you're pitching, the chemistry has always been really important. And it's extremely difficult to capture that chemistry over a Zoom call, Microsoft team meeting or a Google meet.

The way we interact with work has also changed. Personally, I've never been a fan of the brainstorm. I don't think great work comes out of a brainstorm at all. I think good or average work comes out of a brainstorm. I feel that ideas come from an individual, and then others collaborate to make them better. And that can still happen, remotely. An idea will come from an individual - the germ of the idea, the seed of the idea comes from one person. And then the others sort of build on it. And that is still possible online or over a call. But, the banter, the cups of coffee, some of the time that we need to sort of break from the pressure of work is not there.

I think, in a sense, it has made us more mindful about time. And that's a good thing for the world of advertising. I think we've got to learn that and to take that even as we go ahead because I think that that's been a really important thing especially, when you're running an agency or running a creative department. In terms of the working from home aspect, you can’t expect people to have the same amount of hours that they have at an agency because they now have to look at aspects like cooking for their family, cleaning, etc. So it has taught us to be understanding and be mindful of people's time.

The situation has forced us to shoot in a way the ad-world might have never done before as the industry is used to the pre-shoot recce, being at the location and ensuring everything is in check before shooting. So what has come out of this new experience of remote shooting?

So, again, it's not like we've done a lot of it. I don't think anybody has done a lot of it but I have a personal perspective on shoots as well.

It’s something that I've learned over a period of time. Some of the greats in advertising that I have worked with have had this point of view but I've come to accept its wisdom, most over this period of time. You know if you have a really locked down ppm as a creative person, there isn't that much for you to do on the shoot. If your Pre Production Meeting (PPM) is slightly loose and slightly unstructured and there are decisions that need to be taken, then being present should be super important. So I think it puts the pressure on both the production house, the director and the agency to have a lockdown ppm because thinking on the fly at the shoot and being like “Hey, what if we do it this way, etc.,” is not going to be possible. Especially in distribution where you're sometimes in another time zone, sometimes in another city. And even if you're in the same city not being present at that shoot. Having a lockdown PPM, where every element of the film is thought through is super important. It's a good thing to go into a shoot prepared. It's a good thing to go to a shoot knowing exactly what you want out of it.

Sure, you are missing some of the experiments that happen along the way. I think you can still do that to a small extent but it's not as hands-on, as it used to be in the past. But I feel that if you lock down your PPM really tightly, it shouldn't be that much of an issue. We are about to get into a fairly big production now and so I'll be able to give you more learnings, post that.

The lockdown took us all by surprise. What was your immediate reaction and decision in terms of working and what were the initial hiccups adapting?

I think it's fairly interesting because you know my son completed his 10th and was getting admission into the 11th grade. The high school that he was going to had a meeting with the parents. They asked us what do you think is the most important skill that your child should have for the future. This is even before the pandemic, shutdown etc. And then, all of the parents were like hard work and perseverance, etc. They said that sure that's all good but what do you think is the most important skill? My son’s answer was something I kept thinking about through the pandemic, through the different reveals and different stages of the pandemic. His answer was that the biggest skill we need for the world going forward is adaptability.

His point is you know from the point of view of education, you might study to be an engineer or a computer engineer but by the time you graduate, suddenly the world has changed again. So being adaptable, is key. Having adaptability, both as an agency and as an individual in advertising, especially in the creative business being adaptable, is both far more important than it was before.

So to answer your question, back in the day when you know when lockdowns were announced and extensions happened and then, you know, different things happened around being adaptable and being adapting to that and say this is the new reality, how do we move from here, how do we react to this, how do we change some things that we were doing earlier into another thing. Having that mindset is going to be extremely critical going forward. And if you're going to be kicking and screaming against the changes, you're going to find it a lot tougher. Because change is the only constant. It's the only agency model of the future, one that's continuously changing. And if you're not willing to accept, you're going to be battered by the changes that life and the world are going to throw at you.

While we see a spate of UGC format work and shot from phone films, don’t you think that there will be saturation or fatigue soon? What are clients saying? Are you seeing it already?

Absolutely. I think for the first brand and agency that did it, great, fantastic, they did something that people had not done before, but subsequent to that, I'm not impressed with another. And I don't think the audience is. Now, you're not that impressed anymore. It's not new and there are a lot of people doing it. You come back to the heart of the matter which is how compelling is the idea, how touching is that piece of filmmaking, and whether or not it's been shot at home becomes less relevant. The hype about “oh we did this at home and therefore we should get a medal'' is not the place that people come from anymore.

Again, you’re being asked to look at the basic fundamentals of what's the idea, and how well it is being told. Sure, you're doing it from home but you can still do it really well and can still have a sparkling idea. And I think that that initial first-mover advantage is now done. It's about what's the idea, how well it is being told.

COVID-19 is a humanitarian crisis. Award shows the world over are talking about not factoring work created for these times. It's also tricky for brands these days to understand what to say and how much to say in such a scenario. What would be your message to brands and creatives on how do you not be very exploitative or opportunistic and still make a conversation on the pandemic?

Firstly, ignoring the fact that we've been in lockdown for over 100 days and the fact that this horrible crisis has put humanity across the world through is doing disservice to yourself as a marketer, and as an advertising person. No, you cannot ignore this because it is part of the culture. It is part of the life that the audience is living. So to ignore it would be a travesty of sorts, because you're just imagining that this never happened. I don't think ignoring it is the right answer.

An important question for each individual to answer is - how do you say stuff without being exploitative. My message would be: Be honest about whatever you’re doing. If something feels like it's dishonest, don't do it. I think it's really, really, really simple. Just don’t say stuff that's untrue. Don't say stuff that does not have some element of honesty in it. I think it's important to talk about it and consider the world that we are, we have been left with, because of this pandemic. So, you can't ignore it.

People aren't forgiving of brands that try to attempt to fool them. And especially if you're paying lip service to the world, or trying to be exploitative, it's visible from everybody's perspective, so it will probably do more damage to the brand than good. Be honest about what it is that you want to do, be honest about what it is that you hope to see, be mindful of the fact that people have had a really, really tough life. And create messaging that keeps that in mind. I feel it's extremely important to carry that forward, as opposed to, either ignoring that this has ever happened and carrying on like, nothing has changed. Everything has changed. You have to accept it. Don’t pretend to do things that are not doing.

The good thing is a lot of brands have stepped up and done amazing stuff during this time, from contributions to actual initiatives. A lot of brands have actually done things. It’s something that has affected every single person from, from the CEO of the company down to the distributors, everyone has been affected by it. I think a lot of brands have genuinely been moved to act in really positive ways. It’s important to go out there and talk about issues that actually affect people, and what you might be doing about it. The positive that has come out of it all is that many sensitive marketers and sensitive brands have taken it upon themselves to make a difference in some way or the other, to the world out there and I think the audience recognizes that and that’s great.

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