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"MullenLowe Lintas doesn't need me": R. Balki

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MUMBAI: Within the creative industry, there are very few people who are fiercely protective of their art and at the same time put no airs on about it.  R. Balakrishnan is one such person. Be it as the outstanding filmmaker that he is often referred as, or as one of the brightest minds in the creative business, or as the chairman of one of the fastest growing creative agencies in the country -- Balakrishnan, or R. Balki as he is called, has not only walked the untrodden road, he has created his own way, thereby making it easier for others to walk down the path that he first walked upon.

Time and again, the industry has been taken aback by his bold stances -- be it his raising an eyebrow at advertising industry awards event or taking chances at the box office with extremely unconventional stories. As a director, filmmaker, writer and creative genius, R. Balki refuses to be judged by others. However, as the chairman and CCO of Mullen Lowe Lintas Group, he feels happy when his team is more capable than him.

In a candid chat with Indiantelevison.com’s Papri Das, Balki discusses what is keeping young talent from excelling in the industry, his goals for Mullen Lintas in five years and the question that is uppermost in most minds in the industry - Will Mullen Lowe Lintas return to Goafest next year? Excerpts of the interaction:

Q1. Between being a director and a chairman of an advertising agency, you have donned many roles. Which role do you identify yourself the most with?

A: I always call myself a writer first, and not any of these.

Q2. How do you manage to juggle between these multiple roles and do justice to all of them?

Luckily, I don't have to balance as much these days, especially when it comes to Mullen Lowe Lintas. It used to be difficult when I did my first couple of movies, because I was shuttling back and forth. Then I took a long break from movies and actually focussed on making sure that the agency could run without me. It took about four or five years to really plan for the next generation; to build the next team with people who can make you irrelevant and dispensable. Today I am the happiest person in the world to say that I am not really needed.  It takes a lot of time to build a team of that calibre, that's what I have done. I guess I am reaping the benefits of that now (chuckles).

Q 3 What qualities did you look for in your next generation team before handing them the baton?

A: You need people who want to do things differently. You need resilient people to match the kind of resilient business we are in. It is not about just getting an idea, but to get an idea day after day, especially when they are being scrapped and rejected. It is indeed a task.

Secondly I think it is such a people business. You can't do everything on your own. You have to add value to people’s lives so that they can add value to the relationship. I think anybody who doesn't understand the sensitivity to deal with creative people will find it difficult to lead and be part of the team.

Q 4: How hands-on are you now when it comes to decision making within the agency?

I am part of the meetings, but not as frequently as before. I don't need to be there 24x7 every day. There are lot of people doing brainstorming and our clients respect their vision and are running with that.

Q5 How did the team react to the company’s decision to not participate in awards?

A: Firstly, I got one thing clearly straight: As an agency what do we stand for? What do we believe in? Are we going to be worried about what the world says, are we going to be judged by the world’s parameters? Are we going to enter Cannes and all other awards? We took a stance which was contrary to most of the agencies. We told ourselves ‘No we are not doing any of that stuff. Our work will speak for itself.’ Which it did, though it took some time! We didn't have media support. We didn't do a lot of PR and definitely didn't get coverage for things like award shows etc. We were never in the news. But our work was speaking louder than ever, and the business was growing phenomenally because clients were happy with the work. But to have a stance like that as an agency and to make sure that the team buys that stance wasn't easy. Most youngsters who come in the industry say we want fame and acknowledgement. So it was a tough stance to take as an agency and have the team believe and support that stance.

Q6. Retaining talent seems to be an issue of concern within agencies currently. How do you think the industry should address that?

A: I think every creative agency should strive to empower its next generation. Things can’t stop with the who’s who of this generation. There is no merit in holding the knowledge and keeping the command. We need to create a system where more and more people need to benefit from it. For that you need leaders who have vision to ensure that the system works.

Q7. When it comes to new business, do you focus on new account wins or is retaining old clients more important?

A: You have to retain clients’, there is no question of priority. Normally you do that by doing good work for them, doing the correct work for any brand that you get. And the same logic applies to the new businesses. If you can do efficient and relevant work for a brand, it will definitely work with you. Gone are the days when you could get business without doing work. There was a time when people used to think that good work was ‘one’ of the things that an agency needs to do, apart from big talk on relationships. Not anymore! You can have a great relationship and maybe talk a little more about the work because of the relationship, but it can't survive long on that without work.

Q8 Mullen Lowe Lintas has been presented as a competitive agency? Where do you derive that competition from, if not through awards?

When I say Mullen Lowe Lintas is competitive, we are talking about doing better work. I don't believe I need a jury to tell me if I am good enough. If I know that my work is better than most, I am happy. People often tell me that that distances and alienates creatives and puts them in a bubble, but let me tell you, there is no bubble in advertising. You take criticism all the time because you criticise yourself the most.  99 percent of the time you are criticising yourself. It is the one percent of praise that you seek from yourself is the toughest thing to do.

Q9. After the restructuring last year, how well is the two agency structure working for the group? How well is Mullen Lintas doing?

A: Yes the restructuring has worked for us. We had the talent pool to sustain a two agency structure and it was the right decision as well. Unlike most restructuring, we actually shifted some of our businesses from Lowe Lintas to Mullen Lintas. I am happy with the performance it has shown in less than a year. I hope it will be as big as Lowe Lintas in about 5 years.

Q10. Since your presence at the Goafest 2016, the industry is speculating about the chance that Mullen Lowe Lintas will participate in the festival next year. Is that true?

A: No. I don't think so, whether I am part of Mullen or not, the agency will not participate.

Q11. What is your goal within Mullen Lowe Lintas Group?

A: I believe every person’s goal should be to leave a place better than what they walked into. I feel I have done the same with Mullen Lowe Lintas. That's my earnest wish, to leave the company a better place for young creatives and advertising geniuses.

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