Brands shouldn't be mindlessly global or needlessly local: Subhash Kamath, BBH

Kamath believes that 80 per cent of the business is coming from retainer clients

MUMBAI: Born British but adapted to India. That’s the way full service global creative agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) functions. You may not know the name but you’ve definitely caught sight of the latest ads of Tinder or Behrouz Biryani.

The agency's first ad was for Levi's and it showed a black sheep going against the herd. It became the agency icon and coined the phrase, "When the world zigs, zag". It was a challenge to get this ad out, because all jeans ads of the time had people and here you had Levi’s showing off a sheep! But the bet paid off.

Founded in 1982 by British ad men John Bartle, Nigel Bogle, and John Hegarty, BBH today has offices in London, New York City, Singapore, Shanghai, Mumbai, Stockholm and Los Angeles and employs more than 1000 staff worldwide.

When BBH took the mandate for Johnnie Walker, the campaign "Keep Walking" boosted brand sales from 13 per cent of the global market when the campaign broke in 2000, to over 20 per cent at the end of 2013 according to IWSR.

When BBH decided to open its India office in 2008, one of the first hires for the agency was former Bates group CEO Subhash Kamath. He joined the agency with a vision to get rid of hierarchies and corporate silos. Kamath juggles between being an advertising professional and entertaining audiences with his guitar playing skills. BBH recently completed 10 years in the Indian market. In a free flowing conversation with, BBH India CEO and managing partner Subhash Kamath talks about the agency’s journey, his views on creativity in advertising, his passion and much more.

You’ve been with BBH for a decade now. Do these ten years seem like a lifetime or the beginning of the journey?

When BBH started its India business in 2008, India was the only country where BBH didn't bring the expat management and rather wanted a local management. You can’t treat the Indian audience the same way you would treat any other country as there is so much cultural influence here. All of us here have come from bigger agencies and networks and we had the opportunity to work in a different organisation here. We all knew the good and bad about larger networks and would always complain about too much structure and hierarchy. We at BBH wanted to create an organisation without any of that. Despite being a decade old, I still think of BBH as a startup. We like to think of ourselves as a small-big agency where we have big agency thinking in a small agency of nimble size. I honestly don't ever want to change that and I hope we never grow far too much that we have to change this structure.

How do you choose your clients?

We are very choosy about whom we want to work with. While we want to grow, we are very clear that we don't want to work with every kind of client. We do a lot of soul searching before we decide on a client. It is not out of arrogance but just out of humility because if you decide to work with a wrong client, it may spoil the agency culture.

So what is great creativity for you?

Traditional pure creative awards are more about the craft. BBH has been known for the impact that the creative has on business. For me, great creative comes when a client is genuinely interested in building a brand and not just looking out for tactical outcome in the short term.

Is that why BBH stays away from awards?

It is not that we stay away from awards but, yes, if you look at the creative awards in India, 90 per cent of the print and OOH work is scam. As a culture, we don't do scam. We do not believe in putting out work only for awards.

What’s your ratio between project base v/s retainer clients?

In recent times, we have seen more work coming in on project basis. But we still have 80 per cent of the business coming in from retainers. We have also diversified our business into design, agile production, content and animation in the recent years and these businesses have more project-based work.

What’s your male to female ratio in the agency?

When we started off BBH in India, the male to female ratio was 90:10 but it has come up to a 50:50 ratio now. Our biggest client today is Marico which has over five types of hair oil. We need a female creative person in such a team and can’t have only men making ads for a beauty care product.

Do you think your clients have changed or evolved over the years?

I don't think that clients have changed a lot but there is one disturbing trend at client’s end is that there are too many structural changes in companies on the marketing end. The CMOs, brand managers keep changing every two to three years. These brand managers and CMOs then want to change the agency or campaign thinking that, “We must do something new”. I find this a little disturbing as at the end of it, the brand gets affected because everyone questions what the past person has done. That’s why in India, we don't see a lot of long running campaigns.

How do you ensure BBH always comes up with out-of-the-box creatives?

It is a constant pressure that we take upon us as to how we come up with new innovative campaign ideas and question everything.

Looking at a larger picture, what do you think about the advertising scenario in India right now? Everyone is always talking about how international concepts and campaigns don't work here.

It's not that international campaigns don't work here. We launched the international Lee jeans campaign in India, the jeans that built America, and it worked because the consumer wanted to buy American products. When it comes to international brands, I think the globalism of the brands works well in India. Do you buy an Audi or a BMW because of its Indian connection? No! But there are categories when you can’t just borrow an international campaign. McDonald’s and Amazon are great examples for that where they have had to Indianise their brands. Brands need to Indianise the creative whenever necessary but they should neither be mindlessly global nor needlessly local. Brands need to find the right balance.

How would you explain digital advertising in one sentence?

An ex-colleague of mine once told me that, “You don't need digital ideas, you only need ideas for a digital world”.

You are credited to be one of the few CEOs who are passionate about advertising. So what keeps Subhash Kamath going every day?

I realised fairly early in life that work isn’t everything. In the initial years of my career, I was too focused on climbing the corporate ladder but realised later that there are other things in life which are equally important. My family is extremely important to me. I am very interested in movies, books, music, travel and food and I make sure I create enough time for these things. You shouldn’t take yourself so seriously in life. People have made it a virtue to work till late in the evening, which is so not right. I used to stay back in the office till late, but not anymore. I encourage people not to come to office on weekends unless there’s an important pitch. I believe if you have other interests in life, it helps you to write better and be a better creative person.

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