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Colvyn comes clean

09-September-2005
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Colvyn comes clean

It's almost a year since Mike Khanna handed over the reins of J. Walter Thompson (JWT) to Colvyn Harris. In a conversation with Impact immediately after the announcement, Harris had stated: "Taking over from Mike is a huge task, but I am delighted to head India's best agency."

Taking over from Mike Khanna could never be an easy task. Every move that Harris made from this point on would be scrutinised with a microscope, and comparisons instantly made.

As can be expected with an event as epochal as the retirement of a Mike Khanna and the annoinment of a successor, senior level resignations took place, and rumblings were heard, immediately. The reputation of Mike Khanna looming large, a nervous and unsure workforce, and it came as no surprise that Harris chose to minimise his profile.

It’s been a year and Harris has emerged from the shadows that he chose to stay — not hide — in. He’s nudged the agency in the directions that he believed was a better place for JWT to be; a better place from which to protect the leadership status of the agency he inherited. A better place from which to retain clients, to grow the business, to win awards.

Much water has flowed under the bridge in these nearly 365 days — the agency has seen a number of changes at the top, and struggled to find the right people to head the national creative functions. The empty corner rooms have been filled recently, and now, it seems, the boardroom is full.

When Harris took charge, the behemoth was still smarting under the loss of Close-Up, a milestone Harris defines as 'History'. For him, and for JWT, there's no looking back, only looking forward. The mood is summed up best when he says, "the agency is far from being asleep. JWT is ready to rock."

For Harris, the completion of one year underlines the fact that he IS a performer, and his previous successes (at JWT Chennai, in Sri Lanka, in his stint at Contract) are no flukes. They are the results of a thinking man’s planning, and of the perfect execution of such blueprints.

Harris had a long, freewheeling chat with Impact's Deepti Khanna Bose. In what is arguably the most voluble Harris the media has seen: he shares his vision for the company; he talks of the successes; he dismisses the non-creative agency label that we tried to tag him with… He also, for good measure, gets (slightly) up close and personal. In short, Harris talks and talks. And makes an impact.

It's been nearly a year since you assumed office as the CEO of JWT. There has been a lot of movement and churn since then... people leaving, new people joining… Do you think things have settled now?

Things have been very good. What we did was identify certain areas that we thought we needed to improve. There are two aspects to that: One is the perception aspect, which we need to address differently; and the other was the reality aspect, which required some correction as well. If you look at JWT, we have what is 'mainstream advertising' (which is JWT) and then, we have a specialist finalist agency called 'Fortune'. We've got our one-to-one company, which is called RMG Connect, and we've got IPAN, the public relations (PR) agency.

Now in each business, there were certain requirements, which require to be looked at from a slightly different perspective. I'll briefly tell you about it. At IPAN, there was a change in leadership after Rajiv Desai left. Vivek Sengupta (who had been with IPAN for about 15 years and left to spend the last year and a half with STAR India) took charge as the head of the company.

RMG Connect went through a rebranding; globally. JWT has bought — or let's say consolidated — its three one-to-one marketing services agencies: Wunderman, Ogilvy One and JWT. And we bought over the RMG company too, which was really the relationship marketing group. So we've rebranded Thompson Connect to RMG Connect. I think if you look at it from a client perspective, or a communications solution perspective, I think we have a better offering now. This is so because we have access to all the global tools, which RMG had worldwide. So clients, therefore, now get a higher resource level and a higher capability.

Along the way, I think there's greater emphasis on our ECRM platform; we've made some sizeable investments in the ECRM domain. I think we're the only agency in India which is technology led.

Then I come to the big one, which is JWT. Firstly, JWT (as you know) is a giant. We are large, and wherever we are, we've believed in a full-service office. As far as we are concerned, full-service means that we duplicate every resource so that our clients (in any of our markets) get full agency capabilities. Having said that, most of our clients are global leaders; brands, which in most parts of the world, are number one, or number two. And most of our brands are number one in India. Secondly, we work with India's most admired brands: for example, Hero Honda… all of which are market leaders.

So if you really look at JWT, we partner global and India's most admired clients completely to ensure that they have an objective ambition. Now these brands/companies are all businesses that target very aggressive growth — and when I say aggressive I mean 50 per cent plus growth year on year. So we need to match that with skill and capability. And I think that's what we're trying to do. We've done a lot; we've achieved a lot; we've I think, put in place, a very clear perspective amongst our own team; as to how they should meet (what we believe are) the challenges that their clients face. So it's going well, and we're very happy so far.

JWT's always been known for its 'hard working' advertising. Do you think, perhaps, that's where the creativity got lost?

See, you know I don't want get into a controversy, but when people don't know, then, you need to clarify. A lot of people evaluate creativity from a fairly ignorant perspective. Now I've never used this in an interview before, but it's definitely a very ignorant perspective. If you look at our brands — and you name any of our brands, our India brands — they operate across India. If Pepsi's number 1, and Mirinda outsells Coke, why do you believe that the creative is not good enough? If Hero Honda's number 1, why do you believe that the creative is not good enough? So you really observe it, the work we develop is based on an India market-place, right? The India market-place has two ends to it. I would say that there is the Mumbai end — where we judge our creative work — and that's just two or three buildings in Mumbai, I would say; and then there is India. Now, at JWT, we address the India market-place.

Now, creativity for creativity's sake is not the most important thing. I know that every time you get an entire creative department oriented to, lets say, creativity and awards; then, you lose sight of what we're there for, and that is helping out clients being business and market leaders. So, I believe that our work is of a very high standard. Having said that, yes, we do want our work to improve.

Now firstly, we look at it on a global benchmark basis and then, we look at it from an India benchmark basis. Awards are very important, but that's not the end of it.

So I think in all that, we've tried to find ourselves and say, 'Yes, the work needs to be improved', which we are now addressing in a big way.

We want our work to lead the Indian market place, which I think, we've already begun to see the results, and we'll never lose sight of where the client is.

To read the entire article, buy a copy of Impact Advertising and Marketing magazine dated September 12-19

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