THINK start-ups and you think of tech nerds. But there’s a new set of start-ups and these are in the creative world, and they are inspired by technology. The spirit of entrepreneurship and risk-taking is back in Indian advertising and a set of innovative, rebel agencies and platforms are up for launch, led by maverick advertising professionals. Most of these eclectic independents have an accent on multi-disciplinary solutions, though at the heart of it all is the all encompassing digital.
The latest to join this revolution is Pratap Bose, former chief operating officer of ad network DDB Mudra. Bose has launched “Social Street” with partners Mandeep Malhotra, Arjun Reddy and Pradeep Uppalapati. Malhotra was earlier employed with DDB Mudra, while Reddy has always been an entrepreneur, running a diversified portfolio of businesses mainly in real estate, retail and hospitality. Uppalapati, who has a background in corporate finance, comes from Accenture.
Social Street will be a digitally driven company, straddling branded content and entertainment, shopper marketing, media, out of home, retail, sports marketing, events and promotions, rural marketing and youth marketing with operations in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Bose says that stories start on the street. “They are inspired by the lives of consumers and the interesting mind-spaces where they intersect with brands,” says Bose. Hence the unusual name.
Founder and former chairman of Dentsu India and current promoter of Mogae Group, Sandeep Goyal is set to launch Tango Media, which aims to be an interactive platform that delivers on mobile branded content. Tango will be integrated with all phone operators that will allow brands to connect directly with their target audience and is not dependent on the availability of the internet.
Another agency which has got started is “The Mob.” Started by Rediffusion’s former national creative director Chraneeta Mann and Dentsu’s former national creative director Nitin Suri, it claims to be India’s first “mobile first” company. Mogae’s Goyal is a strategic investor in the firm and this agency is likely to be amalgamated under Tango Media.
After 17 years of working in ad agency Ogilvy & Mather India, on plum brands such as Cadburys, Fevicol and Perfetti, its national creative director Abhijit Avasthi decided to call it a day, and launch an experimental multi-disciplinary creative solutions company called “Sideways” last month.
Former national creative director at ad agency FCB Ulka, KS Chakravarthy (Chax) is also expected to launch his own venture which will have an accent on digital content. Chakravarthy declined to comment on the same.
Meanwhile, Social Street will add advertising, digital and social to the offerings by the end of the financial year with more offices spread across the country. Bose’s Social Street, which has 40 people on board currently, will employ 150 people in the first year and expand to a 400-people operation in four years’ time.
Big ambitions and big chunks of business
Many of these men and women have broken free of legacy ad networks in search of creative freedom. Independent agencies that are devoid of family ties with multinational ad networks can afford to be nimble and agile and can function with precision. Lintas veteran and chief advertising advisor to the Emami Group Alyque Padamsee said that the situation was not unlike the time when Amul Girl creator Sylvester da Cunha left ad agency Advertising and Sales Promotion (ASP) to start off his own venture DaCunha Communications. “Amul followed him to the agency that he founded,” said Padamsee, “Because any ad agency is only as good as the creative people who make it and brands know it.”
Padamsee gives another example—Agnello Dias. “Dias was the running motor—the dynamo—at multinational ad agency J Walther Thompson. He started his own agency, and Airtel followed him. He then sold 50% of his agency Taproot to the Japanese—the Denstu Group and made R200 crore on that deal. His earnings at J Walther Thompson would not have been more than R5 lakh a month,” he remembers, “I see more creative ad men turning entrepreneurs for these reasons. In the words of Mao Tse Tung —let a thousand flowers bloom.”
Bose says that his agency gives a “well rounded perspective” on businesses. Specialised communications is more than a check list here, in comparison with some of the existing companies. The scale allows them to compete with the bigger agencies. “We are looking to build our niche expertise and are open to equity partnerships and buyouts, wherever there is a suitable opportunity,” he says.
Maharashtra aims to be “drought free” by 2019 and Abhijit Avasthi’s Sideways has already been roped in by Aamir Khan for the Jalyukta Shivar Abhiyan, an irrigation scheme launched by the BJP-Shiv Sena government there.
Avasthi says, “Aamir and I did a few projects on Tata Sky together. But our association deepened when we started working together extensively on Satyamev Jayate a few years before. Aamir and the government of Maharashtra were in talks to spread awareness about this rather important project. Aamir was aware of the multi-disciplinary problem-solving approach of Sideways and hence he called me to work along with him on this project.”
Avasthi speaks of other businesses as well that could make their way to Sideways. “There are a range of businesses interested in us, whether it is fast moving consumer goods, consumer durables or e-commerce,” he says, “We have an e-commerce company that is figuring out how it can differentiate itself in the face of increasing competition. Then there is a company with an HR problem—the gentleman who is the owner wants to communicate better with his fairly large outfit. Again, there is a multinational that wants to Indianise its products.”
Sandeep Goyal, founder of Tango, says that there is a huge gap in the market, which is why a firm like this will always be in business. “The existing ad agencies have no technological competence. They are still on the TV screen while the consumer moved first to the laptop screen, and then to the mobile screen. This tiny five-inch mobile screen requires a completely different skill-set. From messaging to interactivity, the mobile screen demands completely different hot buttons in thinking.”
Tango Media attempts to tango with creativity and technology. It will deploy patented technologies and has just recruited a large contingent of IIT and IIM graduates. “The response is very encouraging so far,” says Goyal, “A very large broadcast network and a much respected bank are already on board. We hope to have 100 clients by the time we launch. This is not the traditional agency build up of getting clients in a slow and steady way. We will co-exist and grow the brand franchise alongside other communication partners of the client.”
Mann hopes to leverage on the convergence of digital and interactive communication on the ‘personal screen’. “The personal screen is our window to the way the world lives, buys, chats, works and networks and entertains itself today,” says Mann, “The nuance of the mobile is very interactivity driven and weaves in exceptional design and ease of interaction. We see a big opportunity in crafting content particularly for this space and hope to lead the way in creating mobile solutions that enhance the relevance and impact of mainline communication.” The Mob already claims to have begun work on a couple of big brands, which includes Yes Bank.
Following the pioneers
Many of the creative independents launched earlier have had a decent run. Priti Nair who was the managing partner at BBH India launched Curry-Nation in January 2011. Prathap Suthan and Naresh Gupta went independent with Bang in the Middle in May 2012. Meera Sharath Chandra, former executive creative director of Momentum Worldwide, UK and former MD of WPP company Syzygy UK launched Tigress Tigress, a digital-centric integrated communication agency in 2013.
The same year, Ashish Khazanchi, former vice chairman and national creative director of Publicis Ambience, and Ajay Verma, former chief growth officer of FCB Ulka joined hands to set up creative agency ‘Enormous’, along with Vivek Suchanti, the managing director of Concept Communications. Khazanchi says that he wouldn’t change branching out on his own for anything in the world. There is a new ecosystem being built here, and there are some very exciting entrepreneurial models, he says. “I am not running a boutique here. This is a well oiled agency with a lot of research and strategic planning resources.”
Former Contract Advertising chairman Ravi Deshpande launched Whyness, an integrated communications agency where he is the founder, chairman and chief creative officer. He says Whyness offers an integrated package of advertising, design and technology to the brands. “We have worked on blue-chip clients such as Cadbury, VIP (Carlton Luggage), Zee Classic, Moët Chandon, Network 18 (Moneycontrol, FirstPost) and Oberoi Realty,” he says.
Deshpande explains his reasons for starting out on his own. “I am fascinated with the idea of solutions made possible by the power of creativity, technology and design. There isn’t an agency in India with the ability to build brands which have technology integrated into the same structure. Around the table, I saw four people: a strategist, a storyteller, a designer and a technologist. I was clear that implementing such a combination within the confines of a traditional agency would have been impossible.” He is a big admirer of Droga5, an independent ad network that is creatively led, strategically driven and technology friendly. He is also impressed with R/GA, a full service interactive company.
Khazanchi points out that a lot of big brands are aligning themselves to the smaller ad agencies. “Brands often ask themselves this question —do I need a crack team that only surfaces at the time of the pitch? The top creative resource in a big multinational outfit is not able to give his personal time to most of the clients. He only comes in at the pitch stage. In smaller agencies, the top brass is hands on,” he says. Enormous has worked on brands such as Shopcues.com, Lenkart.com, SBI General and Meru.
Anil Nair, chief executive and managing partner at L&K Saatchi & Saatchi India says that many of the multinational ad agency networks are unrelenting in their quest for profitability. In this context, a lot of the creative ad men feel stifled. “Advertising is still an art, and not an exact science. It is the art of persuasion and a lot of it is non-quantifiable. In a creative field, it is literally impossible to deliver results on a quarter on quarter basis. We have tied ourselves up as large networks. A lot of the freedom and will to do breakthrough stuff has disappeared. There is a complete aversion to anything that cannot be measured,” said Nair.
In Padamsee’s opinion, big agencies are unwieldy and bureaucratic and are limiting for creative people.
“Multinational networks are known to clamp down on creative ideas. Hence HTA was a lot more creative than J Walther Thompson. Lintas was a lot more creative than Lowe,” he says.
The road ahead for many of these entrepreneurs is not easy, Nair says. Many of them at the onset manage to attract big businesses, but down the road, figure out that it is not possible to service these businesses adequately. “This winning streak—when you strike out on your own—I would call it beginner’s luck. But reality soon catches up. Your capabilities are so much more limited, now that you don’t have a powerful network backing you,” says Nair.