THE world over, ad agencies are taking sporadic stabs at transformation as they try to remain relevant in a fast changing world where the old rules of creativity and communication do not apply. Skill-sets are unlearnt and re-learnt as advertising goes through the throes of an existential crisis. At Leo Burnett India too, it’s a time of great metamorphosis. Its Mumbai office seems to be gearing up to showcase this change—its glazed Big Apple office is in the process of transformation and will soon resemble a warm and welcoming coffee shop. The décor signals the new leadership and the fresh wave of thinking that the ad agency is trying to amalgamate. “This is really about the sociability of ideas. An idea is not the prerogative of a single person. An agency’s office should be about a group of people discussing ideas, creating prototypes, destroying them and re-creating them,” says Leo Burnett India’s suave but determined chief executive officer (CEO) Saurabh Varma.
The power of change is tremendous. It frequently transforms companies and reinvents people. Leo Burnett India was caught in such winds of change, when three of its top ranking, long serving executives flew the nest in rapid succession. After a stint of 30 years, chairman and CEO of India sub-continent of Leo Burnett Arvind Sharma quit to turn into an e-commerce entrepreneur. He was tailed by the chief creative officer (CCO) for the Indian sub-continent KV Sridhar who had served the agency for 17 years. Nitesh Tiwari, the CCO for Leo Burnett India, was next. He had worked in the agency for about a decade.
But Leo Burnett soon steadied its feet under the stewardship of its new custodians – CEO Saurabh Varma and its new CCO Rajdeepak Das. While Varma was the regional chief strategy officer for the Asia Pacific operations of Leo Burnett Worldwide, Das was the national creative director at ad agency BBDO India. Both believe in the power of lateral thinking, breaking down of hierarchies and are trying to remodel the agency towards integrated communications. “For Varma, the big challenge has been to boost employee morale, in the wake of a leadership vacuum. It didn’t help that he was hoisted in unceremoniously from an overseas market,” says an ad executive, formerly employed with the agency. He did not want to be named.
But 18 months since Varma took over as CEO, the agency claims to have the fastest track in terms of new businesses, and expects to grow in healthy double digits. Some of its new business wins include Amazon.in, Junglee, Amante, Cain Energy, Fortis, Bajaj Auto, Anchor, Ruchi Soya Industries, Jyothy Laboratories, Apple, PayUMoney, Boro Plus, Fame Digital, Craftsvilla and Vistaprint.
Other plum accounts include McDonald’s and Coca-Cola India. The ad agency is expected to rake in billings of Rs 700-800 crore this year, as per industry estimates.
Varma says that his competition is not any of the Indian agencies. “In year 2013, we were already creative agency of the year nationally. So our benchmark is not India at all,” he states, “Our ambition is to be among the top five creative agencies in the world by 2017. Everything we are doing is to get there. Within the Leo Burnett network, we are the fastest growing agency in the Asia region. We are growing twice as fast as the average growth rate in the Indian advertising industry. In 2014, we had as many as 33 wins.”
In October 2014, Bajaj Auto appointed Leo Burnett to handle the communication duties for its Discover brand. Sumeet Narang, senior vice president, marketing—motorcycles, Bajaj Auto said, “The Leo Burnett team came across as a young, energetic and cohesive bunch of people with infectious enthusiasm. What impressed us was the seamlessness of their strategic and creative thought process. They were able to pick up simple and fresh life insights and weave them into the brand idea and product attributes in a manner that was dramatic yet believable.”
Another advertiser with the agency is HDFC Life. Its senior executive vice president at HDFC Life Sanjay Tripathy says that the leadership change has brought in new vigour and fresh perspective. “This reflects in the work that we have been doing. We hope to continue working together with the same kind of passion on the brand.”
But industry peers believe that the agency has some way to go in terms of being the top national ad agency. Ogilvy & Mather is still perceived to be one of the top agencies in India. When asked if Leo Burnett had in fact piped them in rankings, Piyush Pandey, executive chairman and creative director for Ogilvy & Mather India and South Asia said, “The officials at Leo Burnett should really wake up and smell the coffee.”
The growth levers
Leo Burnett is looking at a combination of organic and inorganic growth. A shopper marketing unit is expected to unfold soon. It is also looking at a lot more play in video content and is contemplating a “re-purposing” of sibling agency Orchard. Varma says, “We are not in the business of acquisitions to get scale. We already have a massive acquisition in the form of interactive agency Indigo Consulting, which is growing massively and delivering well for us. But if there is a strategic direction that we are focusing on, and we find an incredible company that fits as part of the plan, we will go for it. As for our shopper marketing practice, we already have a leader on board and we will make an announcement shortly.”
Varma observes the growing interest of brands in long form videos. “We have great intent in the branded content space. Advertisers are looking for good content across platforms. There is a gap and somebody’s got to fill in that gap. Moving forward, we have a plan to address it. You will hear more as we firm up our plans,” he adds.
On Orchard, Varma says, “After Contract, the only other significant agency within a network is Orchard.” He says,
“We don’t have a Leo Burnett operation in Bangalore, but we have a huge Orchard operation. Orchard is a 100-people agency. The culture of Orchard is boutique-ish. You will see a sharpening of that, going forward. We are asking ourselves how we can best re-purpose it.”
Das says that that Leo Burnett’s campaigns in recent months have been drastically different and far more closely aligned to Leo Burnett’s global premise, the ‘Humankind approach’. The Humankind approach believes in creating acts and not ads.
“Creativity has the power to influence and change human behaviour.” says Das, “Whether it is HDFC Life’s Apno Ko Apne Dam Pe Jeena Sikhao ad campaign that highlights the bond between father and daughter, or the Bajaj Discover Zingzong ride campaign which aims at rekindling romance for married couples, the work has been very different and well-received. They are all human stories. The North East particularly is a very sensitive subject for the country, and I thought that we handled it really well with the Kohima Kaun Banega Crorepati ad.”
Tripathy from HDFC Life agrees that the ad film has done well for them and generated great feedback on social media. “The film warmed many hearts. The brand consideration (recall) scores rose significantly, touching new heights,” he said.
Das believes that the new “coffee shop culture” at Burnett will break down hierarchies and boundaries, and will foster discussions. “The best ideas emerge from coffee shops. After all, where do the venture capitalists meet the ideators?” he queries.
Das adds that it is important to weave in the purpose of the brand seamlessly into people’s lives. “When I met Varma initially, I found that we spoke the same language and that was instrumental in me taking up the job. We are living at a time, when everything from a social media site to an e-commerce site is a medium. The lines are fast blurring and that is the beauty of integration,” he says.
He stresses on an open work culture and in bringing in an eclectic mix of people. “The average age has gone down drastically. We have everyone from a chef to a DJ to a medical dropout employed with us. We want to encourage lateral thinking,” says Das.
The integrated communications model
Varma is concerned about straddling integrated communications and specialisation. The two are contradictory, he admits. “Our entire strategy of growth is to focus on integration and specialisation at the same time. When you have too much specialisation, you create silos. How do you get them to work together in harmony? That is an art in itself.
Our starting point is hiring people who are digital by blood. People who understand the power of a narrative and its ability to carry across mediums. We have an integration manager today. The era of account managers is over and done with,” he says. The next thing to disappear will be the copy-art director teams, Varma notes. “In every creative team, we need people who can write on the fly, shoot, edit videos and then upload them.” he says.
A lot of Varma’s frustrations are with legacy systems and old styles of thinking in Indian advertising. He believes that the ad industry here is averse to change. “Our combined age (Rajdeepak and mine) is far less than some of the people in this industry,” says Varma, “The Indian ad industry has not created any form of systemic change. But at Leo Burnett, we have been incredibly successful at pitches, because our strategy and creative is closely aligned. And that is because we are personally involved in the client’s business. I am not a part of any of the industry bodies and their boards — be it the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) or the Ad Club or the Media Research Users Council (MRUC). We are not interested in extra-curricular activities. We are interested in solving our client’s problem.”
McDonald’s has been a long-standing client of Leo Burnett, not only in India but globally. Says Kedar Teny, director, marketing and digital- McDonald’s India- West & South, “Leo Burnett has acted as a key stake holder in shaping our marketing strategy. Today, they are an integral part of the system.”
KV Sridhar, chief creative officer at Sapient Nitro and former chief at Leo Burnett India sub-continent said that integrated communications was always part of Leo Burnett India’s fabric. “Whether it was bringing in shopper brand Arc, or acquiring Indigo Consulting, Leo Burnett India was readying itself for the future. The new management will obviously look to scale it up further and increase focus in these areas. They have no other option, but to adapt to changed market conditions and step up the gas on integrated communications,” Sridhar said.
Leo Burnett India is not the only agency concerned with integrated communications, even as specialists proliferate.
The advent of digital is changing the complexion of the ad business at a rapid pace —will advertising in the future be about specialism or about integrated communications?
Prathap Suthan, managing partner and chief creative officer of Bang in the Middle says that all agencies need to be conversant in all forms of media, if they want to survive. “Every brand has to have one voice across multiple touch points. Inevitably, integrated communications is the way forward,” he said.
Anil Nair, chief executive and managing partner at L&K Saatchi & Saatchi says that the advertiser does not want to deal with too many people (specialists). “Whose brand is it anyway? By virtue of it being everyone’s brand, it becomes no one’s brand,” Nair says. As a part of their own experiment in integrated communications, L&K Saatchi & Saatchi puts one small but concise team for the client. The advertiser needn’t deal with many heads and there is clarity. Specialists need only be drawn in when there is an unusual situation at hand,” Nair explains.
Kiran Khalap, co-founder at brand consultancy Chlorophyll says that it takes a “new kind of species” to come up with one integrated idea, that can be executed across platforms. This makes a lot more sense that hoarding a whole lot of specialists together and trying to make them think “integrated” he said.way? By virtue of it being everyone’s brand, it becomes no one’s brand,” Nair says. As a part of their own experiment in integrated communications, L&K Saatchi & Saatchi puts one small but concise team for the client. The advertiser needn’t deal with many heads and there is clarity. Specialists need only be drawn in when there is an unusual situation at hand,” Nair explains.
Kiran Khalap, co-founder at brand consultancy Chlorophyll says that it takes a “new kind of species” to come up with one integrated idea, that can be executed across platforms. This makes a lot more sense that hoarding a whole lot of specialists together and trying to make them think “integrated” he said.