‘We have participated in more than 20 pitches in the past 40 days’

In today’s edition of Beating All Odds, Amer Jaleel, Group CCO and Chairman of MullenLowe Lintas Group, speaks to Neeta Nair

e4m by Neeta Nair
Published: May 15, 2020 9:23 AM  | 20 min read
Beating All Odds

In our Beating All Odds segment we are in conversation with Amer Jaleel, Group CCO and Chairman of MullenLowe Lintas Group, someone who is as cool as a cucumber and is known to keep his calm in the toughest of situations as per his team mates.

How are you keeping your cool in such testing times?

I had some early sort of scare, my son was abroad. And then we fly him out in a day’s notice. But, otherwise I adapt, I think very quickly. And I think that’s the reason why I kind of sort of look as if I am calm. Internally there is major, you know always strive going on in my head. I’m carrying the huge responsibility of quite a big agency. But, at the same time I like to show that things are in control, things are cool because somewhere I think, you know my training has been like that. I have frequently been in crisis situations of various clients, and when you are in front of a client, you don’t have a script, it’s actually going to be, you know the question is just about to be popped to you. So, what’s the great answer that you have brought to this huge problem that we have. And you are thinking on your feet, and internally you are just always calculating, and somehow just at the time when you need to talk, something comes up. So, a lot of training I guess.

What has been the biggest shift or change in the creative world post the onslaught of COVID-19?

I think special chemistry. I call it special chemistry. The idea of creative people actually coming together and sitting in the same space, talking to each other, the way, you know creatives used to brainstorm in the same room, 3-4 people sitting in the same room, 2 people sitting in the same room, special chemistry has taken a big hit but special chemistry is something that we learned as creative people. It was natural to learn it at that time. So, that has taken a hit but I see a lot of people from the office completely forgetting about the space. So, I’m also learning that, and in a sense I’m trying to practice that with you in this room where I’m with you and I’m just trying to be natural as if we are sitting across. So, yes that’s one thing that I see in creativity. Second thing I see is the expectations are a lot more and a lot more fine-tuned from client. So, what is happening is a lot of clients have actually de-focused from the larger things, the bigger issues, this, that, all that, and everybody is concentrating on brands, on what is new for the brands, and you will agree that the time is so delicate and so fragile for brands right now that everybody actually wants to contribute, everybody wants to be part of every little thing. So that challenges become huge. So forming of a WhatsApp group, and every 1 minute 30 seconds some part of the client or some part of the agency team, you know being on it active all the time, noticing a little thing, but I think at edit .023, I think that thing there was not right and maybe you could replace it with something else. Those sort of final things have sort of popped up in our work. Everybody knows everything about everything that is happening. So, information overload like never before.

Earlier it was about sales or pushing products out aggressively to some level. Now it appears that most brands are just engaging with the consumers to keep the brand love alive or CSR activity alive. Do you see that changing immediately once the lockdown is lifted?

I think people are going to immediately start focusing on revenues and sales, on market, you know expansion, all of those things immediately. So it's good that right now they are focusing on other things. There are productive products that are really flying off the shelves. So there's no problem, sort of, you know you don't need sales oriented work for them to fly the shelves. And there are products that are not selling at all. So you don't need and you know that they'll sell at the time because they're just not available. So you again don’t need sort of sales oriented messages for them. So in both cases people are focusing more on the engagement, more on what they mean to a consumer, rather than actually trying to be pushy, and I think that's great. At this point, that's what is needed.

How are your agencies approaching the lockdown? Are they looking at it as an adversity or an opportunity?

We're trying to deal with or probably the biggest human crisis ever. We're trying to be humane as much as possible from our side. We're trying to be a great support for our people because, you know that's just our culture, that's just the Lintas culture. We focus on our people. It's always been, you know people ahead of everything else for us. So that's one huge part of our focus. Second focus is our clients. We always are a partner, and a great partner to our clients. So we see ourselves as a reflection of our clients, of the needs of our clients, of the kind of things that our clients need to do. All of those things are all what we kind of, you know have to, we need to be the support at this time. We know it's an opportunity, but we try not to behave like it's an opportunity. We try and not to jump at it, we try and not to, you know gloat (9:15) at the opportunity, but yes, how we are thinking of it is in the back of our heads, we are trying to see the opportunity ahead. And we are trying to plan, we're trying to strategize both as an agency, as an institution and as partners to our clients. So what in the new world is going to change? So we're looking at it that way.

What role did LinProductions have to play? Most production houses were not working and most creative agencies turned to their in-house production units to deliver on video ads. Was it very helpful to have an established production house within the Group?

 We have both things. We have very good connections with advertising filmmakers. So, what has helped us most is that. For example, we know that if we have to shoot something, suppose, you know the other day, Poonam who heads LinProductions  shot an ad for us where we needed 4 different setups to be shot, and we could easily told the client that we could shoot 4 set setups in this. And Poonam said: “Look, I know 4DOPs who will shoot this separately for us in their homes, with their families, and we'll bring it together.”And the kind of deal that we will structure with them will have to be like that, that you're doing just a part of the job, so, you know, and we have the relationship with people like that. So one ad was shot with 4DOPs in four different houses with very good quality result, you know as such, and not any compromise there. So that's one part of LinProductions. Second part is that we ourselves as an agency know so many people in the industry - filmmaker, songwriter, musicians, DOPs, art people, all kinds of people and these are all our friends. So, because of them being our friends, it's lovely to just make that connection that “Oh shit, okay, that person can do this for us without moving out of their house.” That person will be able to do double duty, both as our person, and she has a kid. So we can use the kid like that. So she is able to set up the art and do the, you know you will be able to use the kid as a cast. So all of these friends are now coming off you know great use to us and not just me, it's not just me, like there are about 150 people like me in Lintas spread all over and they all have such relationships.

You spoke about a situation where a person had to multitask and take up a role he/she didn’t otherwise handle. Did it happen to you?

 Let's be honest, times are tough. And I’ll talk about myself. I fancy myself as a creative guide, creative mentor, creative quality controller, all of those things. But, at this time I have to think of my business, I have to finance, I have to think health, I have to think office safety. So I have had to sort of take on and I'm sure more people have also in their way are doing this, but here is me, I'm multitasking. So, now first how to lock down the office, how to make work from home reality, and all the different things involved in it. I was part of that but like I told you my son was, I had to get my son back and quarantined, and stuff like that, at that point, but now that we are going back to office - going back to office is actually a bigger responsibility because all the people who are safe in their homes are now going to come to one space. Not now, not anytime soon, but eventually. So, eventually what is going to happen? How are we going to keep all of them safe? How are you going to deal with the challenges that clients have, that business has gone on and targets have suffered? They're going to be financial implications of that. How to deal with all of that? This is my new reality. And that's the roles, that so many roles that I'm having to fill up.

While agencies are in the process of acing the work from home ads, would you say most ads have begun to look painfully similar, one can replace a paint ad with an FMCG ad and not know who is behind what? How do you move beyond that?

See, unfortunately everybody is referencing the same things that are happening, because it's a very limited world that we are living in. So everybody's trying to, you know pick out little nuances and the little emotions and things like that, but essentially the world is very, very limited. It's like you're living on a TV serial set, you know everything happening of similar kind in every TV serial like that. So, yes, so stuff like that is becoming a challenge. I frankly don't know how we are going to deal with it, but we are trying. So, the things that will help us I think, is the little ways in which the different media are working. So now there are so many new media. For example, you know everybody's fond of saying TikTok. There is a very different approach to TikTok. So, the media itself will dictate a different approach. You will not do a typical ad for TikTok. You will not do a typical ad for Instagram. We did a Mumbai police campaign actually. The idea of the campaign is ‘Main Bhi Mumbai Police’.

So, the challenge was that the police are facing flak, so many videos going on, we could see you everywhere of people dealing, what people thought that police were dealing harshly with people and stuff like that. And you know, while the police needs to do a lot of work, police also needs some kind of, you know imagery, there is a kind of projection that the police also needs to get cooperation from people. And I'm happy to say that that campaign depended very, very little actually on film. So it was completely social media. There is a video there, but the campaign is completely social media. It's gone out everywhere. It's become a national campaign. Many police departments from different states have adapted the campaign for their needs. And in fact, the biggest and nicest thing that happened out of that was that when it was that incident of Harjeet Singh, the policeman who had that unfortunate incident of the arm, you know somebody attacked him, attacked his arm, the Punjab police, because they were also doing our campaign wanted us to sort of have a solidarity campaign. And we thought of a very simple thing that came at that time and it's nothing to do with a film. It's just the circumstances that, you know gave rise to that and which was that like every policeman in the Punjab police force and, you know general people across the country, other police people, other bureaucrats sported batches, saying ‘Main Bhi Harjeet Singh’. So, they expressed solidarity and the police could express the fact that they will not back off from their duty, even such an incident happened. So those things, you know specific things allow us a different kind of creativity. And that flowers and that is, you know quite rewarding for us.

Do you feel this is that period where agencies need to move beyond video ads and focus maybe more on providing business solutions to clients because the focus after the lockdown is going to be on ‘selling’ a brand, not exactly just brand building?

See, we don't have to specifically focus on this because many of our clients, with many of our clients we've been working in this very way. I'll give you an example. I, myself was and I am involved in Lifebuoy, the brand which is actually a health brand. In the entire history of Lifebuoy, because it's a health brand, it's got a different kind of creativity, you know FMCG sort of thing, it's to do with health, doctors, this, that. We've had a very narrow sort of creative way in which we could exploit it. But we've always had very, very interesting and important value addition best strategies. The strategy, how we did strategy for Lifebuoy, and this was some time ago. And it has to do with the current situation because, you know Lifebuoy deals with germs and viruses and things like that. So at one point, Lifebuoy was expanding all over the world. It used to be, you know not such a premium brand and very simple bar of soap and all but ambition at Unilever, some of the great client partners that have had really helped make that brand into something quite different today. So when they gave us the challenge of how to, you know market Lifebuoy in many countries, we realized, and it was an agency at that point that the other health brands that were in operation at that point had been health brands for longer, and they were older health brands, whereas Lifebuoy, which has also been in operation for very long, but was coming out with new products and in a new way with new protection, as a benefit actually could talk about the fact that, see old brands and old remedies are for old things. What everybody knew that germs and viruses, one of the things that happens in the new world is they evolve. And because viruses evolve, you need new protection, new kinds of protection. So that strategic input that carried the brand all across the world at that point was actually given by the agency, the idea that germs and viruses are evolving and that's why you need newer and newer protection.

So we are used to dealing, we're used to contributing on businesses, on marketing, and there are many instances, many of these will be under celebrate. For example, on Lifebuoy, the most celebrated thing is wound up, you know help a child reach 5, but this input which probably has benefited the brand equally or much more across the world, you never see it, we don't advertise it. We don't talk about it ever, but we always are contributing like that. So that's one part of it. The second going forward, so I have a pet theory here. I don't know whether it will come true or not. But my theory is that, you know everybody has been talking about digital for a very long time. And everybody believes that going forward, just like, you know coming from this crisis that we are going to emerge out of, digital we'll explore, a lot of digital marketing will happen, a lot of digital products will come across. I feel that out of digital, virtual will take center stage. And what I mean by virtual is that experiences that we used to have in the physical world earlier, we will now be okay to have those experiences in the virtual world. So just as an example, if you're shopping for luxury goods of some kind, there are two ways to shop, either you go to a shop, you actually pick up the leather bag, you feel it, you look around… this, that, and you buy it. Otherwise you go to a website and you just see the leather bag like that. And you magnify it a little bit, see the grain on the leather, this, that, and you say ‘I’ll buy’.

Now, actually think about something in the center of it, which is that there is a virtual assistant somewhere. And you as a shopper actually are interacting with that virtual assistant, so it could either be a computer generated virtual assistant, or it could be an actual person who's sitting across in a great atmosphere where you can interact with that person, the person actually displays everything to you, you have a look at it. So that's virtual shopping, and a great experience. You get to interact with the person, you know the person holds the product up, you get to ask a question about it, where is it made, this and that, and it's a rich experience, you know not just reading about it, or not just hearing about it, but really a real virtual experience. So that's an example of a virtual experience. And I feel that all of these experiences of various kinds, not just this, but they could be similar sort of thing in the sports industry, a similar kind of thing in the media industry, many such experiences I think of a virtual nature will evolve and an agency like ours who understands basically consumer behavior. We like to contribute actually to these virtual experiences. So, what happens from our side is knowledge is today the easiest thing to source we can source from anywhere for these virtual experience, but the consumer side of this, the understanding of when a virtual assistant talks in this way to the person, the person will react that way or if the virtual assistant appears like this, and the background is in a certain way, and this script of how it needs to be done, those creative inputs are of very different nature of what will be required from us. So in my opinion these are the new inputs, and I've just scratched the surface, and I myself am not capable of imagining all the things that we’ll be asked to do, but just as an example. I believe virtual is going to be huge in future.

MullenLowe Lintas Group has had some long lasting relationships with clients be it Lifebuoy, Tata Tea or Havells. Have you seen the same clients behave differently with you during the lockdown, are they more accommodating?

A: See, any experience that you share, you go through in a shared manner with anybody always builds your bond - whether you're sitting at home and interacting with your family.  Whether you are facing the same challenge, such a huge challenge come from the marketplace, from the way that it's come, you know because of this crisis that has happened, everybody, we and our clients are facing the same challenge. And we are having in a sense a shared understanding, together of this, shared anything will always be beautiful. It will always have, you know it'll always bring you closer, it’ll can give you empathy for each other. It will always create the bond and a greater partnership than ever before. I really liked that idea that we are facing a common enemy, and that common enemy will bring us closer together always.

While you're trying to build on existing relationships, I'm hearing that pitches are back in full swing. Do you personally feel that it's a good idea for clients to jump boats right now?

I think there were already some relationships that were at the point of collapse, or, you know they didn't see eye to eye for some reason or anything like that. And I think those are the reasons that the crisis has kind of enhanced those situations. They have made those sort of breaks in the relationship more apparent. And I think that's the reason why these pitches are getting announced. I have not faced any issue in the agency at this point from any of our clients saying we would like to go on pitch right now. We have not, fortunately that's not happened to us. But yes, we have participated in a lot of pitches in 40 days, more than 20.

Lastly let’s hear about your favourite work from both your agencies - Lowe Lintas and Mullen Lintas - during the lockdown period.

My favorite work is the one I already told you. It's the Mumbai police campaign that we’ve done. We felt really one with the police when we did this campaign, and we are extremely lucky. It's pro bono work. Of course, it’ll be pro bono, we're not going to, you know do this work for Mumbai Police, you know during this time, it's not a commercial arrangement at all. On the Mullen side we just put up a piece which is actually, you know I don't know whether it is in creative terms great, not great about that, but in terms of working alongside a client, understanding what they are about, it was great for me. And that was a small simple piece on Saffola where the whole idea of the piece was that the insight came from the fact that people who are locked down at home tend to eat a lot and Saffola as a health brand would like to sort of get behind more healthy habits in eating. So, the whole thing was called ‘#Snackathon’ and idea was that people, there is a snackathon at home during this time and how to sort of get over make tasty and good food without risking your health. So, this piece from Mullen was really enjoyable.

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