A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And who would know that better than Sonal Dabral, the mercurial and highly temperamental chairman and chief creative officer of DDB Mudra Group who hauled himself out of small town India, migrated to New Delhi and then joined the National Institute of Design (NID), finally joining Lintas Delhi, thus teeing off a highly successful career in advertising.
In his two decades in advertising, Dabral has made several award-winning campaigns for brands such as Volkswagen, Audi, Fiat, Tata Safari, Dove, Le Sancy, Unilever Foods, Ponds and Virgin Mobile. Apart from being feted at regional and international award shows such as Cannes, Clio, D & AD, One Show, LIA, Andy Awards, AdFest, Spikes, etc., Dabral has served on most of their juries too. As chairman and executive creative director of Ogilvy Singapore, he helped the agency become one of the hottest agencies in the region and the number one creative office of the WPP global network. In 2007 he led the agency to be the third highest awarded agency in the world at Cannes Lions. Dabral joined DDB Mudra as chairman and chief creative officer in year 2012 and has been at the agency since then. Dabral has also dabbled with being a television host and a Bollywood scriptwriter and has channeled his passion for films into directing ad-films. In this conversation with FE Brandwagon’s Anushree Chandran, Dabral talks about consolidating the creative division of DDB Mudra Group, and transforming the agency into “the most creative agency in India” as he puts it. Edited excerpts:
What are your immediate goals in DDB Mudra?
In the next five years, we would like to be the number one in both billings and creative. Today, we are one of the top five agencies in billings. But our aim is to be the “most creative agency in India.” There are very few agencies that do good work consistently. Among my peers, I respect the work that comes out from Lowe and Ogilvy. Taproot also does some great work. We have been steadily consolidating our creative division. DDB Mudra has appointed Sambit Mohanty as the creative head for the northern region. Rahul Mathew has come in as the creative head for the western region. Vipul Thakkar has come in as the head for the southern region. With Tribal 22 Feet joining the family, its managing director Vineet Gupta and joint managing director Brijesh Jacob bring in their own unique perspective.
We are also winning a lot of businesses. We have brought in ICICI Lombard, Shri Lal Mahal Group and Sony Max recently. We are also hoping to bag more of DDB globally aligned business. We already handle Volkswagen, Johnson & Johnson and Lipton, businesses aligned to DDB globally. Obviously, being a creative person and responsible for the creative health of the group, the ultimate goal is that every piece of work that goes out should solve an advertiser’s problem. But it should do so in a way that surprises and evokes recall. I think that within the team, there should be great enthusiasm for the creative product. Else, it’s not worth it.
How was year 2014 for you?
The year 2014 has been all about good work. It has been emotionally fulfilling. For Big Bazaar – a brand under the Future Group, we did ‘a commercial a week’ ad campaign where we featured insightful stories around the products that Big Bazaar has brought in. The campaign had a tagline that said “Beautiful ban raha hain India”. We also did significant work for Bata. Bata has not advertised—at least on mainstream mediums—in over a decade. DDB Mudra created a commercial that was breezy and talked to a pan-India audience. The commercial spoke in such a way that it made Bata look like a refreshed brand. The whole story was narrated by the shoes themselves. The tagline went, “Where life meets style”. For United Spirits (USL), we did an anthem for McDowell’s called ‘Number One Yaari’ which went viral on the internet. I am particularly proud of this one because it’s an endearing story of three friends who visit a place from the past. I have written the lyrics myself and it’s the first time, I have penned the lyrics for a full song. There was also a TTK Prestige campaign starring Aishwarya Rai and Amitabh Bachchan. It’s wonderful when you get a cast that contributes, as is the case with the Bachchans who had their own view on how the ad could be made better. We did a project for McDonalds with the song, “There’s a kind of hush all over the room” in the background. We also did Enjoy the engineering campaign for Volkswagen.
You are part of the DDB Regional Creative Council. How does being part of a creative council help?
The DDB regional creative council meets three or four times a year. At times, we work on projects together. These sessions are called “bull’s eye sessions.” We freely comment on each other’s work and things are sharp and on target. For example, there is a creative project here and I need Singapore’s help on it. I just pick up the phone and speak to DDB Group Singapore’s group executive creative director Joji Jacob. Similarly, Joji Jacob has written to us on a project for which we will be providing backend support from India. I may be the chief creative officer of DDB Mudra, but I know that I have got seven-eight associates across Asia Pacific. It gives me access to global resources. The Singapore office is hiring a lot of creative technologists — people who can code and who are really good at Flash. Singapore has limited content —it is a “small content” place and a lot of experiments can be done in terms of new technology.
Are you looking to hire such creative technologists in India as well?
We have introduced an interactive design course in various institutes, so that we can harness new media talent. We have a programme called ‘launch pad’ where we take on fresh graduates from a technology background. They are integrated in the creative team. There are youngsters that we are hiring who may be from traditional agencies but they also think new media. We need people who specialise in all forms of communication—the good story tellers, the film makers, people who write beautiful long copy as well as people comfortable with tech. We require a department of mavericks who together can create a symphony.
Facebook has its own internal agency “Creative Shop” that deals with advertisers and tells them how to harness the platform. With more tech savvy agencies coming into play, will the traditional ad agency model survive?
Well, you can have people who write code and the best of scientists and planners to crunch that data but you still need someone to take that data and turn it into poetry. Facebook’s internal agency will work with agencies as well as advertisers and help them turn out work that is best suited to that platform. The mode of advertising may change with the kind of technology that comes in. We may have hundreds of gadgets, but the fundamentals of human behaviour and thinking don’t change. Emotions will continue to guide us. There will always be people who are best equipped to understand human behaviour. They know how to make people laugh or cry. Those kind of people will always be needed.
What role does research have in the creative process? Do you think neuroscience can help in interpreting consumer behaviour?
I am a big believer of research, but that should be done before the release of the campaign. But I am not too convinced about neuroscience labs. If I am looking at a piece of work, my reaction depends on a lot of things. Are we watching the content alone or with family or friends? At what time is the programme scheduled? If you put wires on my head, my reaction to a piece of work will change because it is a constrained environment. You cannot get all the answers from researching a story board. Ad creativity is creativity which has to serve a function. It is quite unlike fine arts. But even in fine arts, my reaction could be a combination of things — my choice in music, the kind of people that are cast, the kind of lighting that’s there and the mood that is created.
You have been part of many international juries. Creatively, where do we stand?
There are years we do really well and years that we go down. But certainly, our performance today at international ad award shows is better than it was some ten years back. I expect that as the market develops further, we should be able to produce work that truly stands out. In the domestic market, we now have two awards ceremonies. Last year we participated in both. But this year, we plan to go with just one. We haven’t decided which one though.
We see so many longer version commercials running. Is this the beginning of a new trend?
In India, television is still the medium of choice which means that the 30-second ad is here to stay. The television ad is important, but there are other ways of building affinity with the consumer and it will increasingly be so because the usage patterns are changing. People are consuming videos on the net so much, that brands get a chance to tell longer stories. This was earlier not possible without an exorbitant cost. People will move from the desktop to the laptop and then to some other device, perhaps, wearable tech. But, at the heart of it, will be a story around human insight. That will not change.