Real power is in moving the consumer to do what you want them to do: Ajay Gahlaut

In a chat with exchange4media, Ajay Gahlaut, CCO & MD Publicis Worldwide India, and Srija Chatterjee, MD, Publicis Worldwide India, talk about winning new accounts and re-entering the awards game

e4m by Neeta Nair
Updated: Apr 10, 2019 8:15 AM
Ajay Srija Publicis

Why did Ajay Gahlaut (CCO & MD Publicis Worldwide India) not start his own agency after quitting Ogilvy and what convinced Srija Chatterjee (MD, Publicis Worldwide India) in the very first meeting that Gahlaut would be the right bet for Publicis? The two top leaders of the agency in a no-holds barred interview with exchange4media discuss Bobby Pawar’s exit, impact of losing some key clients, winning new accounts and re-entering the awards game.  


Bobby Pawar during his four-year stint has shaped the culture of Publicis, how has his departure affected the agency?

Srija: It’s a change that one needs to manage in any part of an organisation. Bobby has been pivotal to where Publicis is today. In fact my last two years have been fantastic with him around. Bobby was there when I joined Publicis, he was my partner and we have been through a lot together. When he told me about his decision of quitting Publicis, my first reaction was ‘How can you do this to me?’ I honestly couldn’t think of Publicis without Bobby. He probably wanted a different challenge. For the organisation, it’s always good to have some fresh thinking, which is why Ajay is here to take the creative product to the next level. Bobby has done a great job in the last few years. Initially, it came as a shock, but now it’s all fine. 

Why did you choose Ajay Gahlaut to lead Publicis Worldwide India?

Srija: We met for the first time at ITC Grand Central over some Chinese food. While we did meet a couple of times later to seal the deal, I was sure in the first meeting itself that he is the leader we want. After all, Ajay is a master storyteller, has won loads of awards, and is a great name in the industry. Our only worry was whether he would move to Bombay. When we asked Ajay, his reply was, ‘I want to come to Bombay.’ He was very clear that in his next move he wanted to move to Bombay, so the stars matched.

Ajay, after working for some of the most fabulous brands at Ogilvy Delhi, why did you want to move to Mumbai?

Ajay: At the end of the day this is where the industry is headquartered. This is where all the action is and this is where all the talent is. This is where all the big brands are. So, I thought why not. And if you need to be a real heavy hitter in the business, you need to be in Mumbai. In Delhi, you are swimming against the tide. 


But why not move to Ogilvy Mumbai then?
At my level, there was no vacancy in Ogilvy Mumbai.


You had clearly become a brand at Ogilvy, so why didn’t you start your own agency when you quit, like some of your peers?

Ajay: I just wanted a longish break. But this opportunity came up and I decided why not. I really wasn’t interested in starting an agency of my own. It is too much work for too little money. When so many creative people started their agencies, logic told me that they are getting paid more than standard ad agencies. Simply because the USP here is that the client gets to talk to a very senior creative guy for his campaign as he will be involved in every bit of the work himself unlike in a big agency. One has to pay a premium for a senior talent. But that’s not the case. They in fact get paid less. So, my hypothesis is that somewhere the client realises that there is huge value that a large network agency with great planning, tools with strategic thinking, philosophy and culture can bring to the table. So, that makes me feel, there is still hope.

How is Publicis different from Ogilvy where you spent more than a decade?

Ajay: Each place has its different DNA. For me, it’s not about the agency, it’s about the people always. And the first meeting was good enough for me to make up my mind because I vibed with the people. And if the people are good and likeminded, that’s all you need. Culture can easily be created. Of course, I loved working at Ogilvy and I admire the agency and all that it has accomplished, but there is no reason why, the same thing and even better can’t happen here. 


Publicis created Marcel to push creativity in their staff worldwide, but they did away, even if temporarily, what creative people cared about the most—Awards. Throughout your career, you were known as an award-winning Creative Head. What is your take on Publicis’ policy?

Ajay: Now, I am an insider but only for a couple of months. But I feel it is perfectly okay. Publicis wasn’t going to enter awards for one year because they needed those funds to do something which would be great for our clients. Not that they banned it forever. Having said that, I have never favoured awards just for the sake of it. They are great for the first five years into the business, when you are a youngster you want that recognition, all you want to do is win awards. But, later you realise that the real power of our business is in moving the consumer to do what you want them to do, and doing it cleverly and elegantly. And if that wins an award, that’s fine. But first, it’s about doing the big work, the visible work. If you tell a person on the street you made that ad and they respond with “Oh wow, you did that!” That would be most rewarding. Of course, winning those metals and Lions is great fun too.

Srija: It was a decision that Publicis Group took for a period of time. It’s not binding forever. Now that Ajay is here, there are conversations on how do we up the game in the awards, going forward. So, we are not going to enter each and every award but definitely the big ones.


Are you participating in Cannes Lions this year?

Srija: Not this year. I guess we will attend it but won’t participate from an awards point of view, because we don’t have any work to enter at the moment.

Ajay: No point in entering ads for the sake of it, I would prefer to send an entry when I feel something has truly got a chance of winning. But you never know, we can pull off something in the next month or so; definitely next year.


Which are the ads by Publicis that you have admired before you took over as CCO?

Ajay: I really like the Khali commercial, it was brilliant. MakeMyTrip work with Alia and Ranveer also really stood out and people remembered it for the simple scripts, beautiful acting and direction. That was some memorable work that was created, and I hope more happens very soon. 

While Publicis won accounts like MX Player, Oven Story,, Balaji Wafers, NBA, Zee TV, etc last year, you have also lost big ones like MakeMyTrip and Nestle Maggi?

Srija: That’s what’s happening across. You win some, you lose some. Our objective has been to just keep the target in mind, and not get upset over the losses. Yes, the losses affect us. Nestle has been more dear than MakeMyTrip, and it is a relationship that stays as we continue to handle a couple of their other brands and the attempt will always be to keep investing in the Nestle relationship. On MakeMyTrip, all I can say is that since they moved to MagicCircle the creativity has only gone down. I was a little underwhelmed seeing the new work. But I guess it must be working which is why they are doing it.

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