'Indian advertising is 80 per cent mediocre, 15 per cent competent and 5 per cent brilliant' : Ravi Deshpande - Lemon CEO and NCD

His dream agency is now well in place. Following the motto of ideas being indispensable to brands and where no job is ever referred to as 'it's only advertising', the man continues to reek of passion.

After truly surviving the toughest phase in advertising barely three months after Lemon opened its gates, with the world reeling under the effect of September 11, this man stuck to his guns and stood by his conviction of Lemon evolving to be an advertising agency with a future focus.

This former national creative director of Contract Advertising led Contract to the position of the number one creative agency in India. The man's touch definitely seems to grow with time. Bagging some very strategic accounts, he has managed to steer his 'Lemon' ship to some steady shores. The future holds some big dreams for the man and like they say, "No guts, no glory."

The man himself - Lemon's CEO and national creative director Ravi Deshpande in an in-depth free-wheeling conversation with's Sonali Krishna reflecting on the past and beaming about the future.


It's been three years since Lemon debuted, tell me how was name Lemon coined and what significance does it hold to the philosophy of the agency?

Well, we were going through the process of hunting for names, a friend of mine suggested a name that actually emerges from the headline of a legendary ad. The famous Volkswagen ad with the one word headline 'Lemon'. I instantly liked it. Seemed like a wonderful idea to be called 'Lemon' - the ad written by the brilliant Bill Bernbach who has contributed so significantly to the business of advertising, inspired so many people, so many agencies.

But on the other hand, 'Lemon' did have a negative connotation. What it really meant was - "We pick the lemons so you get the plums." So yes, we might be the underdogs and that's fair enough. On the other hand when people usually think of 'Lemon' as the citrus fruit or freshly squeezed ideas, that suits me fine too.

It's a name that I hope someday gets associated with the brand of advertising that most people find responsible and exciting.

In the last three years, what has been the turning point for the agency and also what has been the single most key learning for you in capacity of CEO?

There has been more than one turning point. The acquisition of Cadbury was one. The acquisition of Onida was another.

I believe that a business so intense, so challenging, so demanding and so creative needs far greater respectability than what it commands today. In an environment where clients typically question the agency's effort and its value for money, we have been able to gain our clients' respect by sheer hard work and delivery. So, that's primarily my key learning.

Put in tremendous effort with a clear conscience. And even if the world is going some other way, it will turn to look at your point of view. So while the business is losing respectability at a macro level, I think we at Lemon have done our best to earn our clients' respect by working the Lemon way.

You have recently bagged the BBC and Zoom creative accounts? How did you manage that? What does your client profile look like now?

There was a pitch involved in both cases. What went right for us in the BBC World pitch was that the creative team and the strategy team were fans of the channel. They still are. So they had a good understanding of the personality of BBC World from the very beginning which naturally came handy during the pitch and after it, of course. Our advertising reflected our knowledge on how a brand like BBC World should communicate to its consumer. We got the tone of voice right. Insightful and witty without being funny or outrageous.

In a television channel such as Zoom, you had to paint the picture of a channel that is full of glamour, high life and support that with pretty imagery. The client was aware that there are people in Lemon who could deliver that to the identity and advertising of the channel. That's how they approached us. And we have managed to give them some fresh work in this category.

In terms of our current client profile, this is what it looks like: Cadbury's - working with four brands currently - Temptation, Delite, Milk treat and two developmental brands that are yet to take off.

Onida - we are handling the business of washing machines, air conditioners and their most basic brand of televisions - Igo TV.

Then there is Birla Viscose, Morphy Richards, Gili Jewelry, Inox Multiplex, Oxemberg among others.

"Put in tremendous effort with a clear conscience. And even if the world is going some other way, it will turn to look at your point of view"

According to you, it is crucial to generate ideas that are indispensable to brands. Could you give me a snapshot of the work Lemon has done which holds true to the above statement?

The work done on Cadbury Delite where we positioned the product as a facilitator to make milk taste good through its chocolate base, was seamless with the brand. So, we thought that instead of creating another statement why don't we just say 'it makes milk fun.' And no mom in her right mind would find that objectionable. The moment you make it easier for moms to get their kids to drink milk, you make them happy. Also, where kids' beverage is concerned, the communication has to be acutely responsible.

You couldn't possibly be saying something absolutely incredible. So all we are saying is that it makes your milk tasty, which is very responsible and a real benefit being provided. The idea 'Doodh se dosti kar lo' is fairly inseparable from the brand, because it originates from the truth about the brand.

When it comes to Inox Multiplex, which is the first national chain of movie multiplexes… you can actually have a lifelike movie experience there. Thanks to its impeccable technology and ambience, Inox is probably the best place to watch a movie exactly the way the artists created it. So we crafted our communication around 'Live the movie'.

Then there is Gili. Gili is essentially small and delicate jewelry you could wear everyday. It is obviously meant to enhance the way a woman looks and feels. Our observation and research pointed to the fact that jewelry is one category that's not just high involvement but also involves frequent transactions. People buy jewelry after a lot of thinking, either for themselves or as a gift. All jewelry ads ultimately have the picture of a pretty woman with a somewhat nice neckpiece, usually with her hand on her cheek to display the ring, with an incredible sounding statement next to her. There is an enormous parity in the category itself.

So, how does one jewelry brand differ from the other. That's when it struck us that it is not just a plain simple transaction but an emotional one. Whether you buy it for someone or for yourself, there is a strong emotion and a very strong reason at least six out of 10 times, to buy it. So we thought of, 'Every Gili has a story. What's yours?' Now the brand has taken a bigger shape and as Gili starts to grow in the market along with this advertising proposition, it will automatically get the stature it deserves.

So these are some of the ideas that I think are inseparable from the brand.

What is more important - effective advertising or creative advertising?

Let me put it this way. For your advertising to be effective, you have to say something interesting and relevant about the brand to your consumer. So he gets hooked. And you have to say it well. So he stays hooked.

It's hard to do effective advertising without some creativity in it. Nobody's looking forward to switch on the TV and then get bored. So the best way to ensure effective advertising is to make it interesting, entertaining and involving all within the given strategy. Which has got to be interesting too, if not always path-breaking.

Path breaking strategies are rare. You have to be creative to come up with one. Effectiveness and creativity are not and never were mutually exclusive.

"Most commercials who have tried their hand at humour have failed"

But isn't 'It makes milk fun' more effective advertising than creative?

I think it is very creative because, when you come in with chocolate in a bottle, your temptations to say 20 other things before you actually say something so simple, is very high. There's a good chance that it may not occur to you. Because you have not made that product keeping that in mind. You just have a formula available to make normal milk taste like chocolate milk. We are telling kids to "make friends with milk".

Now, one can stretch that argument where the expression can be very creative. Because it is the 'how' part that typically makes the communication creative.

Volvo says, 'I am a safe car'. Now, you can turn around and say, "How is that creative?" All they are saying is that it is a safe car. Isn't that expected? But then you see this extraordinary safety pin ad on Volvo. That's when you realise how creative it really is.

So, sometimes your proposition can be a simple sounding statement, but the execution of that statement can be out of the box, never seen before… which makes the whole package creative.

On the other hand, there are times you can find a proposition which is never though of before. Like in the case of Haagen-Dazs. For instance, Haagen-Dazs used sex explicitly in its ice cream advertising. The headline was 'Melt together' and the picture was ice cream dripping on someone's body and the woman licking it off. So, it was a very different way of looking at ice cream.

So, we keep searching for both. And at the time when we are making our final decision, we go either this way or that way. Sometimes, it actually helps in a country like ours to stick with a simple proposition and make the 'how' part exciting so that the fundamental message is understood.

You had once said that a larger portion of Indian advertising is highly mediocre and only a handful can compete with the best from all over the world. Why should Indian advertising compete with the world, when our market and culture is so uniquely different and classical?

See, excellence is a genetic need. We want to be as powerful as America and if that were not the case, why would we build missiles which are as good as America's. Why are we now saying that we are the best when it comes to IT?

There is this inherent urge to be the best regardless of the field you are operating in. Why should advertising and marketing be any different? There is this phenomenal population available for selling products and there is a challenge in selling those products in the most imaginative way.

I continue to say Indian advertising is 80 per cent mediocre, 15 per cent competent and 5 per cent brilliant. (It's probably the same in every other business). Look at the big Indian brands today, all that they do is come up with a jingle, some image clichés from different parts of the country and they feel their job is done. The job is not done; it's undone with that activity. One wonders why these brands want to spend big money by putting some clichéd imagery with a jingle. Does it really work? I'm not so sure and even if it does, is there something that can work better? Have they looked hard enough? These seem like quick fixes. And they feel that showing people from different parts of the country and weaving it together through a song and keep blasting it through a cricket match is the way you drive your brand message home.

How many commercials have tried their hand at humour and have failed? Because what is funny for you may not be funny to me and a million others. Look at commercials that give you an information overload in those 30 seconds through supers, multi-layered visuals, too many people. This is a true wastage of funds. Because, if you track advertising and I have, you will realise that maximum advertising falls into this cluster. Most advertisers spend their money creating messages that are lost. They can definitely get better creative for the money they invest. This is an opportunity lost.

India is a very diverse country. Every region has different food habits and different way of looking at life, languages, dialects within them. So the thing that can be called Indian is probably our value systems which is respecting parents, studying hard for exams, finding a great job and celebration of certain festivals.

So, the only thing that will tie in together is an idea that is universally appealing.

Well, when Levi's says you will look cool and sexy in our 501's, whether it's New York, Paris, Mumbai or Nasik, that emotion that 'I will look cool and sexy', transcends all the barriers, cuts across all the languages. So that's the key.

"Permanently relying on just programming in order to garner better TRP's and better attention from viewers, is wrong"

Tell me about Lemon's work culture and how it aids the agency's creative productivity? And also about 'Lemon Extract'.

Well, we start by telling out client something we truly believe in. That we are their 'Brand conscience'. We are usually fearless in expressing our ideas and point of view. We have people from intense strategic planning disciplines, trying very hard to analyse the data, market and the consumer's mind.

As this happens, creatives and strategic planners are working together right from the word go. The area where we differ from the others, is the way we look at ideas first and rules later.

This whole process called 'Lemon Extract' is essentially about mining for ideas. It's about getting as many solutions as possible. After ideation, comes the process of filtration. And since all of us have worked in larger agencies, we successfully throw away the stuff that has never helped us. And retain what's most fresh and potent.

What are Lemon's long term goals and would you say Lemon has arrived or is that yet to happen?

Lemon is on its way to being a great agency. A very good option for large businesses since most of us are experienced and have worked on almost all categories. Everyone here has contributed to building good brands.

The last three years have been some of the hardest that this planet has seen for the advertising industry as a whole. And we stood that test. I think we have done very well in these three years. There's a good distance traveled and there is a lot more to be done in terms of exploring different markets.

As far as our long term goal is concerned - I think Lemon should be an agency that is a force to reckon with, that receives global acceptance, that gets spoken of in the same breath as some of the world hottest agencies. That will be nice. So, that's my vision. An unconventional agency that creates big brands.

Channel branding; is that going to be a growing category in advertising? Also what other new categories do you see entering the advertising gamut?

I think so. Permanently relying on just programming in order to garner better TRP's and better attention from viewers, is wrong. It's difficult to provide absolutely original software not seen on any other channel, all the time. But while channels are busy creating software, what is also important is the creation of a relationship with the viewer. And that can only be done through advertising. Something that Fox Sports does all the time. It just makes Fox Sports look very cool.

So, even if something as boring as billiards is happening, the channel will still look cool, thanks to its image.

What new categories do you see coming into advertising?

I think retail in terms of malls have been mushrooming. Sooner than later the number of malls will get saturated within a certain area. That certainly is going to need branding. Or else the consumer will choose the mall depending on what's closer.

So retail in this country, is at a point from where it will only grow. And this will necessitate a sharp differentiation. Another category I see is largely in the entertainment arena is movie multiplexes. Inox has come in, PVR is around, Fame Adlabs is another major player. Although, I don't see them spending a lot of money in advertising yet, it is an emerging category with a lot of promise.

Considering the fact that the advertising industry is not growing at a very high rate, how do you think smaller agencies like yourself are going to survive?

It has been three years of a rocky road, but we have grown and grown with heavy-duty margins. So, obviously there is a definite need for such agencies. We are very selective about the businesses we pick up. And so we are in a better position to give attention to our clients. Also, our agency has eliminated things like too many offices, and other areas like media and the rest where one's attention is diluted. And therefore, agencies like us will not only survive but grow and give clients better value for money.

Is the Indian market evolutionary or revolutionary?

Evolutionary. Obviously. The revolution was over by 1947.

Hence would you agree that advertising in India also has to be evolutionary and not revolutionary?

Interesting question. Naturally even in advertising there is going to be a process of evolution. But it might not be such a bad idea to bring in a little bit of revolution because the advertising produced most of the time is so boring. And even an evolutionary market has a right to good music, a funny movie, a joke or a good ad. If we take that away, we would be going further back in evolution.

Coming to media trends today, it is no small generalisation to state that the market's negotiability has driven our industry to become buying-led; both agencies and advertisers are pushing media owners for even greater rate reductions. Is this a progression or regression?

We are not pushing media agencies. Everything is being decided by advertisers. In most cases, clients appoint media agencies independently.

I think we need to go back to the basics. Firstly, if there is going to be more and more product parity and furious competition in the market place, the only thing that will help sell and create a fantastic image for one's brand, is advertising.

Considering advertising is so crucial to give that impetus to a brand, why are you taking money away from that particular area? You need to be giving money to creative agencies as well as media agencies that carry out the enormous job of finding the relevant media to ensure maximum mileage for a brand. The current stringent cost negotiation and cutting it down to bone is not going to be good for the brand. Because brands need good advertising. Good advertising needs good people. And good people have to be given good money.

As the saying goes, "if you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys".

Why is there a constant war between creative and servicing?

I'm glad you asked. That was one of the very strong reasons I started Lemon. It probably starts with the divided responsibility. Typically client servicing has the responsibility of managing accounts, setting targets in terms of billing and achieving them in isolation and creative is expected to provide the right creative solution. And when there's no sync between the two, when they are two divided departments, I felt typically the time taken for the client servicing to write a brief would be very long or would not have adequate meat in it for the creative people to feel inspired. That has always been a shortcoming in what is called 'the brief' in our business. Sometimes the brief was truly to blame. And at other times it was the creative hiding behind the excuse of a bad brief, for lack of a good idea.

So, that was the kind of nonsense I use to see for years where creative felt that account managers did not do their job well and account managers constantly felt that creative is irresponsible. Both wasted a fair amount of time.

It seemed to me, the solution was a model that does not allow them to see their functions differently. And if one could work out this joint responsibility in this wall-less structure it could be a better model to work.

At Lemon, the creative and servicing are connected at all times internally and even at client meetings. And this friendship is working for us.

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