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“Ideas and creativity are the deities, we want to build a temple and it is all based on the belief called Scarecrow”: Scarecrow M&C Saatchi’s Manish Bhatt - Part 1

He describes his journey and talks his heart out on Scarecrow’s 13th anniversary.

Mumbai: 13 is an unlucky number for many, but not for Manish Bhatt, who is the founder of one of the country’s largest and most successful independent agencies, Scarecrow M&C Saatchi. His baby, his agency, celebrated its 13th anniversary this month, and they couldn’t be any happier! Sharing their happiness is and talking to me, in the first part of this confab, Bhatt elucidates his journey, the federation of entrepreneurship with M&C Saatchi, his challenges and learnings and much more.

A civil engineer turned ad veteran, Manish has 29 years of experience in advertising and has had a strong and undeterred creative bond with co-founder Raghu Bhat (who is a chemical engineer turned ad veteran) for 27 years.

Before setting up Scarecrow, Manish worked at Ogilvy, McCann Erickson, Contract, Ambience Publicis and Bates. Over his career, Raghu had been associated with Contract, Clarion, Ogilvy, McCann and Publicis.

Edited excerpts:

On the journey of Scarecrow

So I think we started Scarecrow in 2010, precisely after working for 15 years in various agencies, with the likes and kinds of Ogilvy, Contract – in Delhi and Mumbai.

Then Ambience Publicis, McCann Erickson and Bates Clarion. And a small stint at Capital, where I worked with. So putting together 15 years, we worked in various places. And then in 2010, we started Scarecrow, which is completing 13 years - eight years as an independent agency and in 2018 we partnered with M&C Saatchi.

So that's more of a chronological journey description. More from a detailed perspective, I think we have been consistent in terms of growth.

We are around 70 people in Scarecrow. We did have Mumbai and Delhi, both offices, at one point of time. For five to six years, we had the Delhi office as well. We closed down because most of the operations were happening from the Mumbai office in terms of creative, and this is in today's time – it is a technology-driven thing. In fact, from the beginning, we had accounts from Delhi and Calcutta to start with. So we had Rupa, Emami and Joy Cosmetics and a couple of others in Calcutta.

And then we also had Religare, Nestle and Bacardi Eristoff and a couple of others in Delhi as well. So we were handling outstation accounts. It was that particular one or two brands wanted us to have a base in Delhi from an operational perspective.

And if you remember, there's a person called Anindya Banerjee. Now he's the creative head of Publicis Health. He showed a lot of interest when he was in Delhi to start a Delhi office. So due to his initiative, we started the Delhi office.

And the Delhi office had some people like Anuj Mehtani and Iraj Fraz - Anuj was from the client servicing side and Iraj Fraz was an ECD from the creative side. So we had a Delhi office, and we ran it for five to six years. But then we felt that it is basically not making business sense to have a Delhi office because we were operating from the headquarters only. So we thought that let's just consolidate everything from the Mumbai office. It was always headquartered in Mumbai, always in the old vintage area of Mumbai, which is you can say old Bombay, largely in Fort and Ballard Estate.

So first till 2017, we had a physical office on DN road, opposite Kitab Mahal and beside Residency Hotel which is called Bilquees Mansion which we had from 2010 to 2017. And around mid-2017, we moved to a larger office, which is in Ballard Estate. A more vintage office, more beautiful office, more like a taller office. It's a 150-year-old building in Ballard Estate. We really care about how the office should look because we thought that the culture starts with the way - where you work and how you work, basically.

So we always believe that Scarecrow is not just another transactional entity which actually served clients’ needs, but it is a culture. It has to have a feeling. It has to have a look and feel. And we always believe that the spirit of Mumbai is old Mumbai.

And then that spirit which we retain with our both offices because both offices were in Mumbai, and have its own character. And so we did build it that way. And we've always been conscious about the way we work and we do new businesses the way we do, the way we are in the office, or the way our initiatives are in our office - are meant to have a culture, and we have our own style, ethics and philosophy to work.

And I think we retained that for 13 years. And I think we always believed in hard work, passion, commitment and talent – the four pillars, and this reflects in our talent hiring to the way we work. So we always have these four things.

We always believe that hard work is the biggest differentiator, which one can build. It all can be comparable, measurable and doable, but the efforts which you put in can be extraordinary and cannot be matched if you really do hard work basically.

On you taking up the challenges that have come your way in these 13 years

I think we always believe that anything you want to build - be it a company, be it a product, be it a service - it has to have an insight, it has to reflect a common truth of the industry. We were aware that we are in a hundred-year-old industry and it has its own pain points. The pain point is basically when we floated our company, we did know that the industry has a lot of senior people, but it's like someone climbed Everest like Edmund Hillary and Tenzing.

So if Edmund Hillary climbs the last step and put the flag and he can see the whole new world there from there. But Tenzing is a successor. And if you don't tell him what is being visible from there, what is that nice, interesting new world and how we achieve that, then what will happen is that the second run or successor is always going to be deprived in terms of legacy, which our senior people would build.

This thing actually reflected in the product which we started creating. I think many of our senior people did not really think that the agencies do need a second order in command. And hence what happened is that the agency scaled up and all clients, whether big or small, would want importance to their activities and brands which automatically because of the lack of empowerment to the second order in command I think was there obviously, there is a latent demand that is there an alternative to these agencies where their brands also get sufficient love, care and affinity. And that's when the emergence of the new people who started their agency, I think along with us a couple of more agencies like Taproot or Creative Land Asia or L&K - all of them started at one point in time.

And the thing is that it's always happened in our industry like there was an era where Ambience, Enterprise, Trikaya, Contract and Rediffusion started and then they scaled up and they got either acquired or merged with international entities.

Similarly, there was an emergence of a new set of agencies. I think we were one of the few new agencies that sprung up at the start of the emergence. The only thing is that over a period of time, few agencies did not survive, unfortunately, and fewer survived.

It always worked on a common truth. We reflected certain things which were pain points, paying ample and due importance to the brand and activities which clients feel important. We have always been mindful of the fact that I think for clients, whether smaller or bigger, work is always a very, very important thing. And I think we worked harder to solve the problem. We do understand that the bigger agencies also have a set of people whom they will put on the brand. But of course, there's a comparison between ‘A’ size of an account versus ‘B’ size of an account.

And I think there was a need gap. There's an agency that probably reflects and treats its brands and accounts with a similar amount of love and importance. I think we worked harder on that aspect.

We reflected and balanced our reputation, with our relationships, with our resources, external and internal, to solve the problem in the best possible manner. And I think that is reflected in the body of work which we put in.

And we sustained that by early investment in senior talent. We did not really be calculative in terms of hiring very senior people at a very young age. So we've been investing back in people.

We understood that it's a people's industry and people are important. So we did that also at the right time. And then as a result, we have some of the people who are here, in our 13 years journey - some of them are here for 12 years with us, some of them are here for 10 years with us.

And I think all these people put together created a culture. For numerological reasons, we put 13 of them on the list, but of course, there are more than that number of people also who have put in a lot of effort to create the culture which we built and I think that's the result.

We also concentrated, and it was initially by default and then we did it by design that we must have a long relationship with our brands. So instead of doing projects, we insisted that we work on a retainer and we had a long relationship with a lot of brands.

Sometimes they are challenger brands, sometimes they are leaders. But we definitely continued working with them, like for example, Nickelodeon or Nick Sonic - basically they're working with us for almost 12 years and 13 years.

We have had a long, long stint with a lot of clients and that also, you know, gave a lot of results in that sense.

On your lessons and learnings for Scarecrow throughout these 13 years

I think we need to see there's a generic of entrepreneurship that no work is small work.

We have to respect all the work which is important for our brand and client. Be it Scarecrow as a brand or be it a brand which we work for. We don't really judge the opportunity. Be it a very mass rural brand, or a very niche, luxury brand. We never judged the opportunity neither in our career of 28 or 30 years nor in Scarecrow we have judged the opportunities. I think we always believe that problems make the solutions richer.

I think the opportunities should be organic and we must embrace all the opportunities and try to find solutions. That way our experience will be richer. We'll have a variety of categories and brands; we didn't see it as a staunch business model.

We've always tried to build culture because culture sustains, the brand sustains - the business is always going to come and go, and second, the people are also going to come and go. But we must create a belief.

It's like that ideas and creativity are the deities and we want to build a temple and it is all based on the belief called Scarecrow, and then automatically otherwise without belief, everything, every entity will become a ruin.

But we thought that the belief makes the entity a temple. And I think it's a temple of ideas. It's a temple of creativity. Where we put creativity or ideas in the centre. For example, when the world is running after moment marketing, we didn't shy away to create campaigns which take six months. What we did and we do for Reliance Jewels. The series of cultural communication is on the variety of history and culture and art - those campaigns, each and every campaign takes four to six months to create because we do a very religious research behind it. We go, we do a cultural recce. We understand, we don't see things as a small seasonal opportunity and campaign. We always see that when we have an opportunity to do branding, we just don't make an identity of four or five letters of the alphabet. We create the whole typeface for each collection which we entice. So we also try to build something long-lasting for the brand. We don't really see the opportunity that this is the season, so let's just do it for that.

We always do and go by our beliefs. So let's say everything is like an overnight glory, and everything is about running after, we think that our work will definitely speak for itself - even after the campaign is over. When we create music for our film, like, for example, let's say we create a music for collection based on the Rann of Kutch, we always create music not only for the communication which we create, but it would be also for someone who's going to search for or need inspirational music or a song for the Rann of Kutch.

I think the song which we may have created for the ad would come up in the search. For example, if you see Michaelangelo built the Sistine Chapel, it was just a painting on a ceiling. But it becomes relevant even after centuries to people to get inspired. I think we believe in that long term-ness, we build cultural elements which actually go longer than the seasons of the campaign.

We always build things like even before Scarecrow, when we did a campaign for the insurance brand Aegon Religare, we built the nomenclature called KILB campaign. I think even after almost 15 years, people would still recall that campaign, in the financial category - the Irfan Khan campaign. I think we believed genuinely like that. And I think we try to build as many things possible which go beyond the hygiene of the campaign.

And I think that will pay in some form to our industry, to the people who are creating along with us and to the brands who are actually giving us this opportunity. I think they all will gain over a period of time, for sure.

On the way Scarecrow changed with its partnership with M&C Saatchi

It's actually not changed at all. When we partnered, it was on a simple principle and I think M&C Saatchi clearly stated and even Maurice Saatchi at that time stated that it's a federation of entrepreneurs, it's a federation of like-minded entrepreneurship. It's not really a staunch network which actually tried to inject Western philosophy into our Eastern world. It’s nothing like that.

What operates in South Africa, may not operate in Australia and may not work in Indonesia and may not work in India. So I think the idea is not to put the philosophy of running the business across the world. It is more about creating a business together to help each other and work with unity and diversity at the same time. So I think it was that and hence I think we don't feel that we are becoming now bound with the network. We are as independent as we were in our journey, basically.

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