Expats in Indian advertising: value addition or just a name

Deciphering India is a tough proposition even for Indian creative heads, in such a scenario, what value addition can expat creative heads bring?

e4m by Shubhangi Mehta
Updated: Feb 7, 2011 7:16 AM
Expats in Indian advertising: value addition or just a name

In a vastly diverse country like India with its regional idiosyncrasies and beliefs, it is a challenge for even Indian communicators to get across the message for the right connect. But this diversity has not dissuaded ad agencies in India to bring in advertising personnel from foreign shores to spruce up their creative offering and there has been a gradual increase in the number of expats in the Indian advertising industry.

Dentsu India, for instance, has always had expats from Japan; Junichi Minohara, VP and Executive Director, Strategic Planning, Dentsu Creative Impact, is one of them.

JWT India brought in Adrian Miller as its Chief Creative Officer; Pat Burns joined BMB Madison as Creative Head; then there is John Goodman, who was previously with Ogilvy as Regional President, Ogilvy & Mather South & Southeast Asia – the median of working with expats has gained a lot of alacrity.

Creativeland Asia, too, has people from all over the world in its roll call – there is Maria from the US, Christoph from Austria, and Piero from Italy, who will be joining them shortly.

Following Miller’s appointment in JWT India in July 2010, there have been other expat additions in the agency – Budi Dwisantara Sutisna aka Didi has been brought in as Executive Director, Planning; Nazly Kasim and Devina, both from Kuala Lumpur, have joined as Creative Directors.

When asked about whether expats helped in the creative process or not, Satbir Singh, Chief Creative Officer, Euro RSCG, remarked, “A quick, insecure answer to that would be no. However, I think there is no single answer to that. While advertising is about communicating, its expression must appeal to one’s innermost feeling. More often than not, that can be captured only through local idiom. An expat could not have written some of India’s most iconic work like ‘Kal bhi, aaj bhi’, ‘Dhoondte reh jaoge’, ‘Har ghar kuchh kehta hai’, ‘Bajaate raho’, and many more, because these come from the gut. On the other hand, expats can further enrich our already extremely diverse composition in terms of people who speak various languages and come from different backgrounds. They can add to our design and execution capabilities and generally add that global touch.”

KV ‘Pops’ Sridhar, National Creative Director, Leo Burnett India, commented, “It is difficult for an expat to come and take over in a country where a person from the South is not able to understand the needs of the masses from the North. It is not by accident that Indian advertising had very few expats or even none, given our size and importance of our market post-liberalisation. Compare this with countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines or even Japan, China or Korea – all of them are equally sensitive to their culture and people. Why is it that expat CDs thrive in those countries? Why do global companies push for expats for local markets? I can understand expats doing global jobs, which are different from the local ones.”

Speaking further, Pops, said, “We may argue that good advertising is all about ideas and universal emotions, and indeed they are. The difference I am pointing is the difference between ‘Slumdog’ versus ‘3 Idiots’ versus ‘Dabangg’ versus ‘Enthiran’ versus ‘Shankarabharanam’. The one great thing Indian creative leaders possess in abundance is patience. Apart from universal insights, we patiently dig out local, cultural, regional, social economical, gender, ideological insights to connect with this 1.2 billion disconnected people. My capitulation is simple. India is a complex country even for Indians to understand and it’s unfair to expect an expat to understand and connect with this country in an 18-month window. Even Mark Tully took many years to know this country. It is impossible to replace the likes of a Balki or a Piyush or a Prasoon?”

Agnello Dias, Creative Director, Taproot India noted that getting creative expats did not really mean that there was dearth of talent in the Indian advertising industry. He said, “Even Indians go to other countries and work there. In fact, it is not something that can affect the industry adversely. I myself have worked with Bruce Matchett, JWT, and it has been the best working relationship I have had so far. When we say that someone from a different country cannot understand our culture and values, we forget that here the ‘someone’ is a creative person and the job of a creative is to create. It doesn’t really matter for whom it is to be created. It’s not necessary that we know each and everything about someone we are working on, if so, what will be the difference between a creative and a non-creative guy?”

For Sajan Raj Kurup, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer, Creativeland Asia, getting expats was great. He felt that it added to “cross-pollination” with Indians moving overseas and vice-versa. “In fact, in my opinion, in a want of trying to understand our culture, they end up working harder and better,” he added.

“People are people everywhere, and core principles in any profession remain the same. That’s why good professionals can move around geographies and succeed,” pointed out Arvind Sharma, Chairman & CEO, India Subcontinent, Leo Burnett. He, however, added that creative was not just any profession. “It is the ultimate ability to use a people’s values, aspirations and symbols to move their minds and hearts. This makes movement of creatives across cultures challenging. For expat creatives, succeeding in India is even more difficult because of its complexity. India’s cultural diversity makes Europe seem like a homogenous lot. Twenty-odd languages are merely symbolic of the vast cultural diversity that underlies them. And then there are such vast income disparities that even those born in India have to go through several years of exposure and training to master it.”

Sharma opined that expat creatives could be of some value to Indian agencies. According to him, “They can provide inspiration, guidance and some support to their Indian colleagues. However, for them to actually create work that connects with Indians, they either to be exceptional geniuses or simply exceptionally lucky!”

For Ashish Khazanchi, Vice Chaiman, Publicis Ambience, there were two sides of every coin, similarly this situation had its own pros and cons. “As far as the good component is concerned, there is a fresh new approach and perspective, which an outsider can give, since he has an experience of an outside market. The only drawback being that the deeper understanding which is required to find a solution is lacking. Though, this is definitely not a limitation that one cannot overcome,” he noted.

One might argue that if an Indian could be trailblazers in other countries, why couldn’t expats be successful here? It is a possibility as long as they can successfully decode India’s diversity. And it is not the easiest of things in this world.

For more updates, be socially connected with us on
WhatsApp, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook & Youtube