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When creative entrepreneurship saw a renaissance: Leo Burnett India national creative director KV Sridhar

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As an industry, 2011 has seen a creative resurgence last year. Big brands and big agencies did a lot of creative work on big campaigns. There was good work from Vodafone, Airtel, Docomo, Reliance, Cadbury, McDonald‘s, Cole and Pepsi.

The other thing that has happened in the past year is the emergence of the independent creative agencies. We have not seen creative entrepreneurship thriving since the last 30 years. The last renaissance of creative entrepreneurship was with Enterprise, Contract and Ambience; this can be called the golden era in that aspect. Ravi Gupta set up Trikaya around that time while Gopi Kukde and his Onida campaign also happened simultaneously.

After that though, the creative entrepreneurship in the country died down. All the Indian creative agencies were sold out to international agencies with Chaitra becoming Leo Burnett, Sistas becoming Saatchi and Saatchi, etc. All these agencies merged with international companies working with global brands, therefore creating a vacuum for creative entrepreneurship.

If you see, all new creative agencies are doing very well. Whether it is Aggi and Padhi or it is Raj Kurup or Priti Nair or Prashant Godbole, all of them have started something in their own capacity. It is very heartening to see that they are doing campaigns which have actually changed the perception of the people and may actually challenge the work of the top three agencies. I just hope that this time around the Indian entrepreneurship is not sold out to multinationals in a hurry. I only wish that these guys hold on to the Indian flag for a little more time and then buy out the foreign guys as the future is India.

What has been disappointing and has been consistently so over the past couple of years is the growth of digital media. It is a medium that holds lots of promise and it should become big, but it did not become so big.

Effective Creativity

You need creativity to be more effective. If you have a solution, it maybe very effective on paper, but in the market it may not be as good if you need more money for people to see it. So you need creative work which not only does the job with lesser money but also in a much more emphatic manner. Therefore creativity and effectiveness go hand in hand. In recognition of that, even Cannes introduced the Effective Awards, the pre-requisite for which is that you should have won a creative award first and then put up the case for the Effective category.

The clients are becoming increasingly demanding. Large clients are doing good creative work. Today, the big guys have understood that creative is the only way to be effective and it also helps you spend less money.

You need a creative person when you need to make a rupee work like a hundred bucks. To make a rupee work like a rupee, you need a CA not a creative agency. Therefore creativity is the biggest currency which clients are cashing on and it is the biggest currency that all agencies possess today.

There are two things here. One is that humanity and the insights have become much more valuable. Moreover, the transparency of communication and the way you do business is becoming more important. The values brand posses is far more important than the technological superiority because tech itself is becoming a commodity.

The World A Global Village

In this day and age with social media and borderless communication, you can’t pretend to be what you are not. It will take a nanosecond to get exposed. It takes one tweet to expose someone’s misdeeds. See what happened to Dow chemicals. An agitation in a small town of India in Bhopal actually catapulted and became a global thing and then put pressure on the company. So today, brands are trying to understand how humanity is connected with each other and how this information travels without loosing absolutely any time and how to deal with this borderless, timeless communication.

People with a Premium

Everything is becoming a commodity now. Nothing is patented, everything is commoditized. The only thing which you have and own is the emotional equity with your consumer. The emotional bond that the brand has actually created is far more superior to the patent of the technology that it has. All the patents can be copied, but my affinity for Apple cannot be copied or replicated because of the joy I get using an Apple phone and the emotional equity I share with the brand.

Today, marketing, advertising, and entrepreneurship itself has changed. The way you manufacture things, the way you sell things, everything starts with people and ends with people. Therefore, the people who understand people are at a premium.

You need people who understand how human beings behave. What motivates them to do what they do? And finally what is it that you need to do to make them do what you require them to do? So understanding human behaviour is becoming very important to business. All these new values are coming in and they have given a new lease of life to people like us who know nothing apart from how to communicate with people. No amount of internet or new media is going to take that away from us. At the end of the day every medium or every business deals only with human beings. No McKenzie’s of this world, no digital companies can ever take our jobs away because we understand human beings.

As long as we get new talent which has passion, zest for life and can understand how people behave, we have a bright future. We don’t need to go with a microscope; we only need to relive our past experiences, how our mother used to behave in different situations and understand that and then try and use it to connect with many mothers in the world to sell your products.

Those with a passion for advertising come to advertising, despite getting high paying jobs at other places. Because they believe they can use their creative talent to entertain people and engage them. People who lasted long in advertising, they are the ones who know nothing apart from liking and studying human beings and discovering insights to connect with consumers.

Also, today life itself has become much richer. I believe that the first standard years of life, that is the first 16 years, whatever you see observe and learn stays with you. What I have experienced in the first 16 years of my life is very little when compared to this generation’s 16-year-olds. This generation’s 16-year-olds have got a much wider world view and they have more experiences and knowledge and more understanding and, thus, are more mature. Also, till the age of sixteen, they have no selfish motives.

Therefore, I am very confident that the next generations of people who come into the field are much richer and better than us. They would have had much better and richer experiences to draw from and connect back to people. So I am very optimistic that everything about our profession is going to be better tomorrow.

We were quite scared in the 80’s and 90’s because foreign companies were coming here. There was uncertainty regarding what will happen. People thought that computers will come and take over and there will be no jobs and foreign companies will come here and suck our blood dry and export it to other countries. We did not know about the world economy and, therefore, have no clue how to get integrated into this new bold new world.

But through liberalization we understood the benefits of it. We realised that machines can’t do everything. So, we had actually not seen the threat and what happened subsequently in 2007 and 2008, changed our view of world economy.

In 2007-08 we were growing at around 15 to 20 per cent, our business and economy was good. Our banks were not exposed and our real estate was doing well and still is. But we have understood the impact of being in a global economy and with global customers. Despite doing a 20 per cent and contributing to profit, we have understood that if our cousins in the UK or US don’t do well, you have to finance them. So we have taken salary cuts so that people in the US and in Europe don’t loose their jobs.

The Indian companies eyed the opportunity, paid more money and took the talent away from MNCs. Also, the client started to cut fee. So apart from the 15 per cent commission thing, the second shocker to the industry was the task of retaining talent without paying more, or at lower pay. Also, how do you work with the same client at 20 per cent or 30 per cent less fees? Those two things have really taught us that we need to run faster and faster to stay in the same place.

I feel we are better prepared this time around. Most of the things that we do in the bad times are actually things we should do in the good times so that bad times never occur. If you think that travelling business class is a waste, and in bad times we travel by economy. Now, it has become a norm.

We know how to retain the talent, we know how to command premium in hard times. We know how to sell products in a time of bad sentiment. We know that we need to make our customers prioritise. It all depends on how you argue with your customer and make him prioritise. If people prioritise and find you/your product/service as a necessity, they will buy it.

Lessons learnt

The marketing people have learnt a lot of lessons. So, this one is not going to be as bad as the previous one. The Indian exposure to world economy has increased many folds in the past three to four years, but this time around, we are much more prepared. Even people are planned, so they know what it means to be in a multinational company. They know what kind of risk is involved and what the upside is and what is the downside. They know that if anything happens in France or Germany, this company will be affected.

This time around the companies are prepared, so are the people and clients as well. So we know how to handle it. People have also understood that during the slow down, the companies which invested in branding have benefitted. In hard times, it is not the discounts that you give, but the assurance and trust you give to your customers. If you withdraw the discount, people don’t buy it and you fall into a trap and then each time you give a discount, it is eating into your pocket. On the other hand, investing 50 per cent of that discount into advertising will help build brand affinity. Then the chances of even in bad times people buying you are much higher. So people are putting back into advertising.

I am super optimistic as a person. I think we have learnt some good lessons and we will sail through even if we have to go through hard times. Actually, what is hitting us very badly is our domestic issues like not having a majority government, the government not functioning properly, lack of new and contemporary policies, lack of encouragement to the economy and the continuing indecisiveness is stalling the entire mechanism. The confidence is very low as we have hardly made any progress in the past three years.

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