The need for good storytelling is at its highest now: Arjuna Gaur, Leo Burnett

In today's edition of e4m Creative Zone, we speak to Arjuna Gaur, ECD, Leo Burnett India, on creating through constraints, client-spending and more

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Published: Jun 15, 2020 8:46 AM  | 9 min read
In conversation with Arjuna Gaur, Exec Creative Director, Leo Burnett India

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 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 speak to Arjuna Gaur, Executive Creative Director, Leo Burnett India

He has over 14 years of experience across Mumbai, Delhi and Kuala Lumpur. Currently based in New Delhi, Gaur has worked with the likes of Coca-Cola India, Apple, Amazon, P&G (Gillette), PepsiCo, etc. In a conversation with e4m, he speaks about the new disruptions in the field caused by the COVID scenario, creation through constraints, client-spending and more.

Edited excerpts below:

How has been it creating ads in a time like this?

Usually, you just get dependent on having this large team and this collaborative environment. What this situation has done is that it has minimized that because now, all you have is yourself, your ideas and a laptop. And I think personally for me, it's been a challenge but it's also been something that's helped me grow as a creative person. For all these years, you've been dependent on this agency-infrastructure. And suddenly that's taken away. So what can you create when you have nothing? It's been a challenge but it's been something that has immensely added to my own growth. 

Your work for Pampers. What was the client’s brief to you and what were the production-related challenges here?

I mean, this is not a situation where things are working in the way they used to be. It’s not like clients are coming with a brief and we are going back with an answer. This is about approaching this time collaboratively because nobody has an answer. No marketing school or creative school has ever taught us how to deal with this. So, I mean, what happened with Pampers is that Raj, who's the creative head of Leo Burnett and MD, and the client, had a conversation about a mutual friend they have. And one of the things that came up in the conversation was that the lady is expecting and just had a child. And you know her fear and anxiety. That is something that I think that that conversation threw up. 

Then later in my conversations with Raj, we were thinking of what we as a brand can do in these times -- a brand that has to do with babies. It's inherently an optimistic space. And so we said what can we do as a brand at this time, you know, with all this anxiety? What can we say to mothers, new mothers across the country and now across the world that in some way gives them optimism and hope? That’s the best you can do as a brand at this time, if you can alleviate some of that anxiety for a mother, I think you've done more than what you could have ever imagined you could. 

We started thinking about this and how to tell that story. 

And one of the things that this lady shared is that when she had the baby, instead of feeling anxious, she felt extremely optimistic, which was kind of a strange for me. It's something that I could not really understand. We realized is that it makes perfect sense, because what is a baby? A baby is optimistic. It’s really hope for the future in your hands. And a mother feeling optimistic when she is having a baby is really natural. But given the context, it takes on this other dimension. That's the story that we wanted to tell --about what a mother could tell her baby and herself, something that would make her feel optimistic and hopeful and in these dark times.

What was the turnaround time like?

What happens normally is that a client gives you a brief. Then you go back to them with a campaign and script. Then they approve it You start a conversation with the production house and director. You get on a flight and go to shoot.  

And that’s the world we were all coming from.

Now, none of that is available. So it took us about a week to really figure out how to do it and how to tell the story. It was an extremely messy process as you could imagine because we had no clue. 

So we said okay, we inherently want to tell a story. And we want to tell a story through a film so should we do animation. Should we reach out to people out there and ask them for footage? That took some time. And then we realized that you need to be extremely resourceful and clever. If you look at the film, it seems like we shot it. But we just put the footage together in a style and a narrative, using a narrative technique of having a central spine and then cutting it away to other plots. We put that together on this laptop. 

It took us quite a few days to find just the right footage. Raj and I have had these 2 am -3 am calls, about "can we do this, can we do that?" It overall took about two weeks to produce it and about four or five days to even just wrap our heads around the problem, even before we started doing the work.

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 the hiccups still continue. I don’t think that we have found a smooth working pattern because new challenges and problems throw up and you suddenly realise, “Oh my God how do you do this.” But like I said we are going step by step. But I think there's also an interesting, new kind of a workflow that has come up, which we never did. 

We've had Zoom calls at our fingertips. I mean, the average Joe walks around with more computing power in your pocket than the Apollo programme had to land those spacecraft. So we've had it. But I don't think we have ever been forced to really use it, and therefore see its potential.

I find myself increasingly having collaborative campaigns and creative sessions with Leo Burnett teams across the world. So I'm currently working on a team from Chicago, which is something we never did in the past because for some reason, we had to assume that we all must be in the same room to get it done. So I think that the challenges we're all aware of. 

I think what are advantages and the upside of this is that we've become a lot more efficient in using the tools we had for many years but never really used. Like video conferencing brainstorming sessions with online digital whiteboards. It's kind of coming together in that way. I think what we're doing is creating something new, a new way of functioning entirely, which is very exciting. 

How have clients been responding to it all? What is the general mood like? Are they okay with investing in advertising or are they tightening their purse strings in these times?

A lot of our clients are smart people. They have gone to the best universities in the world and you never really got to experience how sharp some of them are until this time. Their training, their education, their ability to adapt with all this is pretty fascinating. They are able to adapt very fast to a situation and a business challenge like this.

In terms of spending, I think they're ramping up. I think when we started off, it was like a shock to the system. Even at a personal level, the moment I found out about this, I decided I'm not going to spend more money until I figure out what's happening, I'm not going to buy anything. People push their purchases, buying your car or whatever. People just stop spending money just to see what this is all about and how it’s going to pan out. I think the same thing has happened to a lot of our clients. First, there was a shock. But then you know all the years of business training kicked in and they kind of analyzed the problem. We did it together.

At Leo Burnett, we have the 0-3-6 model. And we had these long sessions with the client, coming up with the roadmap ahead. Budgets did start increasing because when you don't know what you're spending on, you stop spending. But now, I think clients understand what the plan is. And they're kind of working ahead. So I'm seeing budgets increasing and more money being put into projects.

What would be your message to creatives on creating work that works and how to move on when the going gets tough in these times?

I would say, "Just because your old tools are gone doesn't mean we can't invent." This is a huge change and I think we need to embrace it. I don't think they're going to go back to the old way of functioning anytime soon.  But the need for good storytelling and good creative work is at the highest right now. You know, people are consuming content like they never have in the past, so you have a situation where you're unable to create things the way you used to. But at the same time, you have people who are consuming more content than they ever did.

I mean, it's really a test of our professional acumen, to figure out how are we going to do that in this time and I don't think there are any excuses. I think we still need to do what we do. That's what makes us professionals; that's what makes us who we are, which is creative people working in a professional capacity in the world as it is today

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