Thursday, April 24, 2008

NCDs become CEOs!

It’s myth- exploding time, guys! Suddenly cash and creativity are no longer crass, weird, warring or strange bedfellows anymore, but pro-active, hi- profile, compatible entities, merged into one being, in some of the biggest marquee shake-outs , blitzing Indian adscape in recent times. monojit lahiri does a checkout and investigates whether there is a contradiction in this new shuffle or, is it – finally – an idea who’s time has come!

Okay, first things first. Did you ever imagine that a day would come, when a guy juggling creative briefs and providing cutting-edge, insightful solutions would be the same guy bogeying with projections, business targets and business development strategies?! Excuse me, aren’t these diabolically different and separate jobs, demanding specialised expertise and skill-sets? If the cataclysmic goings-on in the highest echelon of adbiz are any indication, the answer has to be a firm and categorical NO. In recent times, at least three hi-profile National Creative Directors have joined the exalted status of Piyush Pandey and Prasoon Joshi, by donning the hat of Executive Chairman as well. They are R. Balki (Lowe Lintas India Pvt. Ltd.) Josy Paul (Omnicom Group, BBDO) and Sonal Dabral (Bates David Enterprise). Hey, wassup? Are the lines blurring or what? Are we really entering a whole new era where cash and creativity will rock together?

“Yes we are, and it’s only natural that such a thing should happen”! That’s Leo Burnett’s hi-profile NCD, Sridhar, aka Pops take on it. He believes it’s a logical extension and progression of how advertising has evolved over the last decade in this country. “Never before have clients been so anxious to engage with the consumer (the more up-close and personal, the better!), enter his/her mindscape and imprint his footprints. This is light miles away from the strategic brand positioning route, championed furiously, in earlier times. Today, we live in a commodities age, where unique positioning is a very tough call because every product has everything that the other product has. In this complex scenario, where is that ‘critical differential’ that separates one brand from another? That’s when brand personality came centre-stage. The moment this happened, smart clients began to look for ‘the’ guys who had the sensitivity, vision, insight, ability and craft to understand the nuances that drove the creator of this brand personality and deliver it, meaningfully,” he shares.

This was indeed a watershed, marking a paradigm shift from (the earlier) ‘product benefits’ to ‘persona’, across categories. Number-crunchers gave way to people who could crack and track the shifting contours of consumer psyche. Also, speed was of essence with Annual Reviews giving way to Quarterly Reviews and brand managers being accountable for the bottomlines. Hence, since the creative guys seemed to understand the intricacies of the game and know-how to score, clients thought it would be a better idea to go to them directly. Another transformational leap was the ‘kind’ of creative people who are making waves today. Adds Sridhar, “Unlike earlier times, when the ultimate joy came from writing a memorable line or drawing a killer visual (and nothing more), today’s creative people are pro-active, involved and want to be a part of the brand-building experience. They want to know everything and believe it’s their job to see the big picture – not just write an ad or do a visual and go home. They are interested in the advertising business and entrepreneurship and want to create wealth for the clients. They speak with pride of monetising creativity in a responsible manner. That transition has definitely happened – more power to the movement!”
The un-putdownable Alyque Padamsee (adland’s evergreen Dev Anand, the hi-profile Lintas adman who headed the organistaion between the early eighties and nineties with great flamboyance, innovation and success) insists that he struck target only because he knew the ‘hisaab’ game very well! As a reputed & established theatre Director-Producer it was his job to not only provide quality plays to his audience, but also get involved in the ‘dirty work’ – locate & identify sponsors, arrange funds, check out auditoriums & hall rates, et al. “Hence, along with creative brilliance, sound, pragmatic executive ability is of critical importance.” Creative super-stars of yesteryears who headed agencies – Kersey Katrak, Frank Simoes, even Mohammed Khan – Padamsee believes, inevitably ran into heavy weather because of this lapse. He admits that its too early to write off the new, exciting creative guys heading agencies, but confesses (tongue firmly in cheek) it pains him to see Piyush furiously tearing his trade-mark moustache after long & hassled sessions with the union or deciding how much increment to give to whom, or which new car should the office assign to which category of personnel. “It’s tough to wear two hats & still look cool!

Mohammed Khan slings this argument out of the window instantly and emphasises that equitable distribution of expertise is the name of the game. “The greatest example & role model is Saatchi & Saatchi, where one brother navigated the business-side, while the other looked after creative.” Khan can’t figure out why this big song & dance is being made about something that is an accepted norm worldwide and India “is probably 50 or maybe even 100 years too late!” He speaks of his own example where, every time he opened a new shop, he had the right partners. “At Rediffusion, I had Ajit Balakrishna. At Contract, there was Sam Balsara. At Enterprise, there was Rajeev Agarwal. The ad business is ultimately a creative-led one, & no big agency anywhere, ever, has ignored the name of the creative guy who started it. Check it out.”

Priti Nair is up next. The sexily tattooed NCD of Grey Worldwide instantly goes slam-bang into the subject. “Boss it’s very simple. The end-creative product today totally defines the focus and strength of an agency. It’s not really a new phenomenon but the palpable, tangible and real difference is that creative today showcases the personality of an agency as never before. Every single department functions towards facilitating this prime objective because on it lays the agency’s flight towards the stars.” Nair believes that this creative dominance has happened because of the media boom, Internet, multi-national invasion & various communication avenues opening up, making the cutting-edge creative product the true-blue reflection of an agency’s persona.

“At the end of the day what drives a brand, or what consumers see, read, hear & react to is ‘not’ strategy, planning or research... It is the creative. If that is so, then this transition of NCD to CEO is perfect because then, (formally), every single function will work clearly towards realising this pre-determined objective. Hence, collectively, the direction & energy is totally one-dimensional.” Further, Nair emphasises, with technology access available to one & all, there is zero product difference, no USP, drastic time reduction in launch dates… all this only puts more pressure on making creative the ‘only real’ criteria between a product’s success or failure. “Nobody understands this better than a creative animal. No wonder most sophisticated clients today want to deal directly with the creative guys, because they know it is they who will translate their vision into a compelling value-proposition designed to seduce the consumer’s mindspace into delivering the right results.”

Nikhil Nehru (the reputed & hugely successful VP of JWT, North, during the eighties & nineties) does not quite tango with the ‘Priti’ woman’s drift. While he un-hesitatingly salutes the creative talents of this new breed of CEO’s, he wonders whether there has not been a disturbing seismic shift in the blueprint. “The more I look around the agency scene, the more I tend to believe that the focus seems trained much more on ‘personalities than organisations.’ This is unprecedented. Sure you had superstars in earlier times too, but the organisation always came first. I am not sure that prevails today. It’s about names towering above everything else, aided and abetted by a pathetically dumbed-down media, that is perpetually looking for sensationalising everything. It’s about Brand Piyush, Prasoon, Balki… and whoever else… although Piyush has consciously striven to carry the organisation and team with him, playing out his role as an inspirational leader with passion and purpose. Whether others have – or can follow – is to be seen.” Nehru is also not quite sure whether (in this scheme of things) everyone works in a collective, unified way towards realising the same corporate agenda. “I sometimes get the distinct feeling that one-upmanship and who’s-pipping-whom to-the-post precedes everything else. After all, creative guys have huge egos, insecurities and competitive natures, which could blur their vision of the big picture. When celebrating the individual becomes the signature tune, leadership takes a huge hit, as does the basic premise of man-management. What is likely to happen is that except the charmed inner circle of the boss-man, others will be made to feel as orphans, leading them to look elsewhere… Leadership is as much about bonding across the board as inspiring everyone by example. It has to be inclusive and pluralistic – not Page 3, standalone razzle-dazzle.”
Strong words indeed, but Balki deflects these uncomfortable apprehensions to the back-burner, while airing his own views… and the new Executive Chairman of Lowe certainly has very definite views on the subject. “Frankly, I don’t think I am doing anything drastically different than what I did earlier. I head the advertising part of the business, which means I look after the ideas that drive the growth of my clients’ business and remain responsible for creating products that deliver the goods. And what is the end-product? Interesting solutions to client’s problems.” The affable bearded head honcho brilliantly projects the changing profile of the new clients. “As clients get more and more aware of an agency’s business they get lesser and lesser worried about how they (agency) manage their own business… and more interested in how they manage their (clients) business interest. In this scheme of things, the conventional, water-tight, pecking-order and hierarchy of yesteryears has no place. Clients don’t give a damn about whom they are interfacing with – creative, planning, client servicing – as long as they are confident about the person making a difference.” He believes too much is being made out of this role playing and the fact that – presently – the creative guys are at the helm of the affairs is a coincidence. “Clients are looking for people who can produce results. Right now, it’s some of the creative guys. Tomorrow it could well be a planner, management, whatever. Clients are in a hurry to break through artificial barriers and via media obstacles and go straight to the ‘chef’, the person who deals single-mindedly with the business of ideas that will impact his business. Regarding other stuff – as Mohammed pointed out earlier – there will always be a solid Business Head whose core competency lies in managing that area. As always, clients understood and recognised all this much before the agencies did, hence for them, it’s not a big deal. It’s the agencies – forever more reactive than proactive – who are yelling from rooftops!”

So at the end of the day, what’s the conclusion? It’s this. The entire advertising process (read: delivery mode) today has changed dramatically, with the creative product (what you see is what you get) being the most significant aspect. In this kind of a scenario – powered relentlessly by an insatiable media and awards syndrome forever plonking it centre-stage as major glitterati events – the NCD is projected as the hero, the glamorous mover ‘n’ shaker, the guy who makes things happen! Wasn’t it only a question of time before the formal coronation took place?


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