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'India is one of the few markets where making positive impact is possible' : Wolff Olins MD Charles Wright

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Q. Why has Wolff Olins not set up shop in the rapidly growing market of India when it has caught the attention of every big global agency?

We have no such plans to enter India soon as Mumbai is a very expensive real estate city. We do work for a lot of clients in India. But we have created Dubai as a hub from where we serve a much wider region. We service India from Dubai as a base.

 

Q. So how do you get a feel of the local needs of the Indian clients?

In our Dubai office, we have Westerners, Indians and Arabs working together. The mix is very important. If we only have an American or European team, there would have been huge cultural misunderstandings. So what we are offering clients is the best of both worlds. The benefit from this is that clients can be assured that while we are adding an international flavour, we are also taking into account the local needs.

Q. Isn’t India a difficult market from a brand perspective as it is very price sensitive?

I think we have now figured out a model for working in India. You have to, if you are to do business here. Everyone here likes to negotiate. People will bargain even if they don’t need to. I have seen people haggle when you think “why are you even bothering?” But I guess it’s a cultural thing.

Q. So how do you deal with this?

Initially, it was irritating but now I enjoy it. That is, perhaps, because Indian businesses do not have the luxury of money. The idea of everything being done frugally is something I have learnt from here. If you were working for a big corporation in America, you would be accustomed to spending large amounts of money. So you could do all sorts of things which here would be considered to be frivolous. It’s something like an athelete that has trained hard and we have now become fitter at running the race the Indian way.

‘We have no such plans to enter India soon as Mumbai is a very expensive real estate city. We have created Dubai as a hub from where we serve a much wider region‘

Q. What other lessons have you learnt from here?

Having Indians on the team have helped because people are direct even with me and say, “Don’t do that!” What I have learnt working here is that while in Europe modesty is a virtue, here modesty is a weakness. We have to be more forceful. As a foreigner, one might mistake forcefulness for rudeness, but it’s not so! It’s being just honest. I am still learning to be much more direct. There is a big positivity that comes from working in India.

Q. What about growth?

There are a number of clients that are super ambitious. Here more than most of the countries I have worked in, making positive impact is possible. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.

Q. Do Indians value brands as much as the matured consumer markets?

The word brand identity has been devalued today to mean logo - not just in India but everywhere. Having said that, I find there is a lot of interest in branding in India. You have special supplements and shows about advertising and branding. In the US, which is the most developed market, there are no TV shows on this topic. There are columns in the newspapers and trade magazines like Advertising Age, etc. Perhaps the reason behind this is that the stuff is fairly new here following liberalisation. More people can afford more things, so there is that interest in the topic. There is a curiosity about lots of things. India is like a sponge soaking up stuff not just about branding but a lot of things.

Q. Isn’t that good news for a branding company?

Being a branding company, we create or refresh brands. What makes us special is that first of all we try to work for companies that are ambitious and want to do something important. From our point of view, we also want that the work has a big impact. Our internal line is that we are optimistic and ambitious for our clients. So we are looking for clients that are looking at doing good for the world rather than just making money.

Q. Are Indian brands receptive to this? 

Hero is a company we have worked with and if you see the ads, they all tell a story or sing a song about how each of us is a hero. I think where we got to our work is that the motor bike isn’t the point. The point is what the two-wheeler or the bike can do for the guy. This ad is a dramatic example of what I am talking about; it reflects the optimism and the ‘doing good for the world’ concept. When you give a young guy or a young couple a bike when they get married, their life takes a different shape. And that, in a small way, is about celebrating the common man as opposed to the high fancy stuff, which to my mind is brilliant.

In a similar way but in a different segment, Tata Docomo talks about enabling ordinary people to do stuff that they couldn’t do before. The common thread in these two brands is the positive impact we are trying to create.

I would love to do work in the healthcare sector and financial services. Why is there no big financial group from India like in America and Europe? How come so many families do not have access to clean water? We would love to work with companies that are addressing the big issues of our times. We want to do stuff which has positive impact.

Q. How do you select brands?

We want to work with ambitious Indian clients. It could be a small company of designers or it could be companies that know about digital stuff. But they should allow us to do interesting stuff in tune with our philosophy.

Q. Doesn’t this sound like you were born in a different age and era?

The company is a child of the 60s. It was the decade of the Beatles in England. In fact, they were one of the first clients of the company. That was the time when the mood was for optimism, equality and freedom. One of the characteristics of the 60s was a desire to do good. There is a sense that the culture from back then has still lived on. These kind of things get us excited - and the good news is that there is lots of such work to do in India.

Q. With such independent thinking, wouldn’t you have been better off staying separate rather than selling to Omnicom?

A small group of us actually bought out the company in the mid 90s from the founders. We had an office in London and were active in Europe. We had another office in Spain and one in Portugal. But we had the dream of going fully international. We, thus, set shop in New York and started doing business in Japan because we thought that Asia would be the future.

America, however, was a very tough market. So we approached Omnicom and told them that we needed their help to go international. We were willing to be acquired but wouldn’t want to be bulldozed because it’s the way that we work that makes us successful and not the size of what we do. So if we get acquired, it is on the understanding that the culture is what makes us successful and Omnicom has to trust us on this one.

Omnicom agreed to our terms. The way it works is that at the start of the year we tell them what we are going to achieve and as long as you do that, they leave you alone. It is a very fertile environment for us.

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