In May this year when advertising agency JWT India walked away with the maximum number of metals 40 at the Goafest a Grand Prix, five golds, 13 silvers and 21 bronzesthere were many who said it was of no consequence. Purportedly, it was no big deal winning 40 metals when the biggies of the Indian advertising industry Lowe Lintas, O&M, Creativeland Asia, McCann Worldgroup, BBDO, Grey and Leo Burnetthad decided not to participate in the seventh edition of this creative celebration. But when in June, JWT did an encore at Cannes the worlds biggest ad fest where it was pitted against the best creative works from around the world picking up as many as eight Lions, seven of which it got for its Making every yard count campaign for sports footwear and accessories maker Nike, it had proved its creative credentials. Its creative prowess could no longer be denied. As Kiran Khalap, co-founder, Chlorophyll, a Mumbai-based brand and communications consultancy, noted, the agency had understood the marketing needs of its clients.
For a long time, creativity and effectiveness appeared to be parallel lifelines for different ad agencies, even though some agencies like BBH in the UK topped both charts, explains Khalap. Then, the Cannes awards owners did something clever: They tracked the share prices of the winners of Cannes awards. Apparently, the share price of the winner clients of the year at Cannes for the past 10 years has been the highest when the clients have been producing their most creative work. In simple words it means when advertising is meant to contribute to business, creative advertising contributes more! This means that if JWT has won awards, it has understood its clients marketing needs far better than other agencies, he says.
The wins at Goafest and Cannes are all the more important when juxtaposed against the storms that JWT had battled the year before. Early last year JWT had been pilloried in the international media for creating a series of sexist ads for Ford Figo which it had entered for the annual Ad Club awards. Consequently, Bobby Pawar, JWT Indias then chief creative officer and managing partner, took responsibility for the incident and quit; what got left behind, nationally and otherwise, was a controversy-ridden agency that immediately needed to clean its house and resurrect. That seems to have happened. But what is it that pushed this agency so hard to return home with renewed recognition, at least globally
While Harris argues that nothing much has changed at JWT India, which handles some of the top advertisers of this country, he does agree that the anxiety of a slowing economy transformed the work behaviour of the agency. When markets and client categories such as auto, real estate, banking and finance started feeling the heat their toplines shrank, profit margins fell under pressure and inflation hit a new high. Result The agency fell under the spell of a huge and uneasy fearfulness but decided that it was also the right time to take appropriate measures to ensure client leadership. You must understand, if advertising is not a clients biggest ingredient for future brand success, then sometimes it can be seen as a bit of a luxury and can be pulled out or at least, reduced. This would have impacted us. The sense of anxiety therefore within the company was a matter of concern, says Harris. The times were an area of concern that galvanised many of us into worrying a lot more than we would have normally in any given year.
But did the Ford Figo fiascoperceived to be a scam adalso add to this pressure No! What happened then for us, is only an aberration. It was an unfortunate event that we have put behind us. We do not want to do anything that will either embarrass us or our clients. We are the custodians of their brands and that should stay intact as our primary purpose because infamy is not what we are looking for; we do seek glory and fame but not at the cost of the values of a company that has institutionalised advertising in the country, says Harris.
Now, if it was some bit of a forced drive that let JWT India to fly higher than usual, it was also some bit of talent churn that catalysed this spin. JWT Indias managing partner Tarun Chauhan quit in September 2013 followed by vice-president and senior creative director Vistasp Hodiwala and vice-president, creative, Sachin Das Burma. The agency brought in Greys Amit Shankar, Wieden & Kennedys Sundar Iyer, Lowes Keshav Naidu and DDB Mudras Hanoz Mogrelia as executive creative directors (ECD) while Anitha Krishnan joined as executive business director (EBD) from Contract. At the helm are the three national creative directors (NCDs)Swati Bhattacharya, NCDDelhi; Tista Sen, NCDMumbai, and Senthil Kumar, NCDSouth (Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad) and Kolkata.
In 2013, our talent acquisition strategy was very robust.In order to deliver greater business efficiencies and bring on board new skills and capabilities to help our clients, we created a triumvirate structure led by an EBD in close partnership with an ECD and executive planning director, says Harris. This core team is responsible and accountable for the ambitions and expectations the clients set for their brands and ensure it is cohesively delivered. We achieved better clarity and focus when we created these vertical units, each of which is the size of a mid-sized agency.
Meanwhile, the company continued to focus on talent development through different programmes. For instance, JWT has a programme called Entrez Vousan initiative which takes in about 50-60 people and teaches them what it means to build a brand and the process and protocol they follow. It also has the Global Creative Challenge (GCC) process, wherein the work is showcased to a body of senior creatives brought together from different parts of the world, from within the network. The work, then is ranked by this panel to help them understand where they stand globally and raise the bar of creativity. Locally, they have a programme called Mojo which pushes creatives to first share their work and then to jointly agree as to how to raise the standards. This takes place every quarter and is a continuous process. The process helps us discover what needs to be supported better, where talent needs to be developed and what are the new skills that we should hire, says Harris.
Clearly, these strategies have worked. Recalls KV Sridhar, chief creative officer at SapientNitro India: When Aggy (Agnello Dias) created the Nike cricket commercial at JWT years ago, it was very well-received. He treated the brand extremely well. Hence, when he left the agency, people thought that now the Nike work would fall in standard. However, JWT has been very very consistent on the brand and has kept the flag high for the brand.
With an estimated annual revenue of R1000 crore-plus and over 300 people in creative, JWT India has created a proposition in its value chain in the interest of its clients, the agency claims. At a strategic level, the agency still invests a lot in account planning, which is headed by its chief strategy officer, Bindu Sethi. Our clients have aggressive market ambitions and our role is to deliver on that ambition. Therefore, if the market crashes or slows down, we try and ensure that their slowdown is a little less than somebody elses in that same category. This is exactly what we focused on in 2013-14, exactly the adage created by us -Why waste a good recession, when every client and business category was under threat, informs Harris.
To compete for any given client at a strategic level, apart from activating its creative output, JWT India built and capitalised on its various strategic capabilities such as Hungama Digital (the digital and promotions marketing division of Hungama Media Entertainment), Encompass (the event management firm) and of course, the recently acquired Social Wavelength.
If you look at the new world of communication, it is the digital and social world that is attracting and engaging attention. The acquisitions are not growth for growths sake; they are about growth in categories or capabilities which can help our clients achieve their ambitions. While we are already focusing aggressively on Hungama, Encompass and Social Wavelength, we are also looking at building on rural and design with different degrees of scale and size, Harris says.
Now, while JWTs eight-metal win at Cannes has surely manifested a patriotic pride in the Indian advertising marketplace, the agencys local contemporaries feel that, given the kind of client calibre it has, JWT needs to perform far better across categories. Remarks a top creative executive from another WPP agency, who did not want to be named: JWT India has an enviable set of clients and yet, it was only the Nike campaign that was strongly visible at Cannes. They need to reinforce more variety across their client categories. If you take the Nike work away, there is not much of an impact that JWT has created.
Reacting to this, Harris notes that if one looks across agencies and award shows, both national and international, it can be seen that there is always one piece of work that really stands out and picks up the most honours as compared to others. Last year everyone at Cannes, including the jury, was humming Dumb ways to die; am sure there was other work from the agency that was entered, but this was the one that stood out, he says. In JWTs case, while its work for Godrej Securities also picked up a Bronze, what really cranked up the numbers was Nikes Make every yard count. It wasnt a coincidence as it has won across so many categories, testimony of its brilliance, he says.
At the same time it cannot be ignored that though JWT has clients such as Airtel and Pepsi, much of the work coming out for these two brands in recent days has been from Taproots drawing board. Take, for example, Airtels latest unlimited calling television commercial series in addition to its hit campaign Har ek friend zaroori hota hai proposition and the I feel Up thought for Pepsis 7Up which involved some quirky dance and music combinations. Santosh Padhi, co-founder and chief creative officer, Taproot India, says, We all know that the agency has been going through difficult times. At some point, most agencies do go through such as phase. I am sure the agency will eventually exhibit a good comeback. The Cannes wins should be a motivation and encouragement for them.
Industry consensus has it that JWT India still isnt in a position where it can claim creative leadership. For, while there are agencies such as Lowe Lintas and O&M which have only grown in stature and popularity for clients across different genres, JWT is still to exhibit that variety. JWTs potential is huge but where it falls short is creative leadership. Look at agencies such as Lowe and O&M. There are enough creative personalities there but then you have a Piyush (Piyush Pandey) and a Balki (R. Balakrishnan) up there too. JWT needs to get somebody at the top, a strong personality. It needs to scale up its performance across client categories in India and once it does, it should be a world class agency in India, says Sridhar.
Harris reacts, Given JWTs scale and expanse of business, the three NCD structure works very well for us, as each of them head different offices and lead their own sets of clients. I think they are doing a great job of that and we dont need a divine hand to come and help us. Its an everyday role and responsibility and requires hands-on teams, hence our full service structure and individual independence.