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"We define work in terms of the impact that the advertising has on the lives of people" : McCann Erickson India president Santosh Desai

The 'Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola' campaign is testimony of what McCann Erickson firmly believes in! The agency strives hard to produce work that is rooted in a deep understanding of the consumer; work that impacts the lives of consumers. The Coca Cola campaign has resulted in a rich haul of awards - both from local and global advertising fraternity.

But, McCann Erickson India's president Santosh Desai feels this recognition wasn't expected to come so soon.

"The endeavour is to build an organisation which engages in meaningful activities. We have made substantial progress in this direction. It has helped that we have been able to demonstrate what we mean by our kind of work. The Coca Cola campaign is a great example of that," says Desai, who has been trying to work on such belief system over the last year and a half.

Desai spoke to Indiantelevision.com's Ritesh Gupta about his plans for the agency, the recent rumours of retrenchment in Delhi office and his views on the quality of work being produced of late. Excerpts:

 

   

Recently there were reports of retrenchment in McCann, Delhi. How has this agency actually performed in the recent past?

The rumours were just that - rumours! Today, it is apparent that all that was reported was false.



The agency is doing well. We did lose a significant chunk of business in Delhi 18 months ago, but we have made up for it. The last six months have been terrific.

We have won Onida, Dabur (Chyawanprash), Balsara, Fortune Lotto, Pears and much more. It's been a good year of us as far as new business is concerned. In terms of creative work, it's been a fantastic year. Not just Coke, but, today we have a healthy share of noticeable and quality creative work on television. A huge progress has been made in terms of sustaining the quality of the output.

 

 

When you took over as president, McCann had lost some major business. How have operations shaped up during your tenure?

International re-alignments on Reckitts and Gillette did hit us, but that was before my time. This year our focus has been to showcase our work; and business has followed automatically. The real challenge is to align the organisation behind a belief system - a shared desire to produce not just good work; but consistent work of a particular kind. Work that is rooted in deep understanding and impacts the lives of consumers.

To me the biggest problem is that there are no specialists in advertising. The endeavour is to build an organisation which engages in meaningful activity. We have made substantial progress in this direction.

It has helped that we have been able to demonstrate what we mean by 'our' kind of work. Coke is a great example of that. What is important is that everybody in the agency has to be excited and inspired; and work harder to make it happen. As an organisation, we aspire to produce quality naturally and one that doesn't have to work hard to reach that stage again and again. So that's the core competency that we have been trying to build upon. Yes, it is an on-going process and will continue.

 

 

"A gold in Cannes is pretty rare. It happened on a piece of work that we are really proud of"

 

 

So how have you communicated this philosophy within the organisation?

Internally, we have done lot of work on making sure that everyone internalises and imbibes the core philosophy. We have conducted several workshops. We have clearly defined our agenda in the following terms - the kind of work, inputs and intellectual energy that we want - and not in business terms. We have worked extensively on our recruitments because eventually it all boils down to people who share similar mindset and same set of desires. Even within the organisation, there is this sense of excitement about this kind of an approach.

The biggest inspiration is finally, the work, that we put out. I think people within and outside can clearly see the difference this approach makes. Nothing is more infectious than delivered success.

 

 

McCann has performed fairly well in India and abroad in terms of recognition gained through awards. What do you have to say on this?

It's terrific. Perhaps, a little unexpectedly early for us. A gold in Cannes is pretty rare. It happened on a piece of work that we are really proud of. And it's something which we want to reflect in our future work too. The big thing is that it is a heartland campaign and it is really comes from the core of what we want advertising to be. And therefore it is gratifying.

At the same time - while recognition is important and it certainly builds momentum - but in reality that is not the real objective. Recognition is a by-product of the objective. The objective is to produce work that connects the brand to the people in India. Work that excites them and makes an impact in their lives.

We do not define our objective in terms of salience of the advertising and also not necessarily in terms of sales. We define work in terms of the impact that the advertising has on the lives of people.

 

 

"The current methodology to understand the vocabulary and process to evoke the desired emotional responses is pathetic."

 

 

The creative vocabulary in advertising has undergone a change. Earlier, you mentioned that advertising seems to be superficial. How have we progressed?

Even now, most of the advertising is caught up in very simple structures of communication. I think we glorify single-mindedness needlessly. Perhaps it's possible to be single-minded but it's never possible to be single-hearted.

Communication always evokes a complex set of emotional responses and that's what it is meant to do. It doesn't mean that we should merely deliver messages; it's all about delivering responses.

I think we are too caught up in what we have to say. What you are eventually going to say doesn't really matter. What matters is the kind of emotional response you evoke. The current methodology to understand the vocabulary and process to evoke the desired emotional responses is pathetic. It is pitiful as we don't really understand the process. So we simplify advertising by talking about just one thing - something similar to the concept of the unique selling proposition. And then we find a way of saying it. To my mind, that is not communication at all.

You have to bear responsibility of what is being received rather than what you are emitting. So how does one understand what is being received? You have to understand the filters from which somebody receives things. There has to be an effort to grasp culture and lots of other things. If you don't have a general understanding of how communication works with people; then you are really not into advertising.

 

 

So is this the reason behind the focus on developing a distinct work culture?

I think so. It's very clear that the problem with advertising here is that references used are very narrow. India is one such market where 70 per cent of population is not even represented in advertising. It's as if that portion of India doesn't exist as far as advertising is concerned. We shut them (the rural areas) out.

We also shut out aspects of our lives, the way we have grown up.

Anybody in a commercial is likely to be called 'Rahul', nobody is called `Pappu'. Also, I don't mean that it should be stereotyped any other way. But simply, there is a living, flesh and blood reality which is being ignored and advertising should consider this aspect.

 

 

The usage of celebrity has been criticised in the recent times. What do you think is the key in using celebrity in a campaign?

I can understand the argument against the usage of celebrity in advertisements. It is deemed by many as the lazy way of getting attention. That is true. However, to ignore the whole notion of celebrity-ness and the power of celebrityhood would be foolish as well.

A celebrity attracts public attention quite naturally. But if you have a great idea and a celebrity, it multiplies and magnifies the impact on people's lives. For instance, Aamir Khan in Coke is a separate Aamir from anywhere else. The 'Aamir Coke' brand of performance has a 100 per cent tie-in with Coke. It's almost as if you see Aamir and Coke gets evoked. And that is not because Aamir has endorsed the product; because he has been used intelligently.

So the usage of celebrity has to be done in an intelligent manner. If you use them as props, it's of no use.

 

 

" As long as people in advertising want to represent reality - which actually is their own aspirational reality and not of the people they are talking to - the work will continue to suffer"

 

 

Why there is sudden stress on usage of Hindi idiom? How come we were missing out on this earlier in a big way?

This can be attributed to people who represent the advertising fraternity. As long as people in advertising want to represent reality - which actually is their own aspirational reality and not of the people they are talking to - the work will continue to suffer. Hindi is just shorthand for representing our natural selves. The issue is not Hindi or English but naturalness and being comfortable with who we really are.

 

 

You had categorically stated that McCann's planning has always been sound but creative has been rarely brilliant. Do you think there is more synergy between the two?

If we continue to do well in the long run, it will be due to the fact that there is a process, an alignment and agreement that is working. It also allows us to convert planning into a creative expression. To me, that is something we have been searching for a long time. And it is happening, we need to take it forward and push it. But it is there. And that is something really big which we got have right in recent times.

 

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