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Monday, June 14, 2010


Early 2009 was a watershed of sorts for India’s ad-land. Over the last few months, six honchos of leading agencies – JWT, Leo Burnett, DDB Mudra and Grey – had quit their cushy jobs and dived into their respective entrepreneurial journeys to stake their claims to fame. many scoffed, some sniggered and a few even laughed-out-loud. But no one’s laughing now. the renegades, with their nimbler set-ups have snatched away some big clients from their muscled counterparts and are dreaming of more... new paradigms are being set in India’s ad-world. Catch them first with 4ps B&M’s Surbhi Chawla & Neha Saraiya...

Having meandered through life, trying to sell everything – from Carrier ACs to his soul – Calcutta-born and bred Malayalee Brijesh Jacob decided to settle for a career in advertising. The pay wasn’t good, but he took the decision more to escape Calcutta’s merciless heat, which any ‘selling’ job invariably involved. Jacob was lucky. A few years later – during which he ran through many agencies, a Mass Comm. diploma and a shift to Mumbai – Jacob landed the top creative job at Grey Worldwide. For most, it would have been a time to rejoice, let their hair down and lose themselves in the bliss of a cushy life! Not for Jacob. He gave up his snug job in August last year with the intent to start his own restaurant chain. But life had other plans. It January 2009, Brijesh met Deepak Nair and Vinod Moolacherry and now partners with them in not one but two ad agencies of their own – 22 Feet (digital agency) and White Canvas (full-service agency). While the foundations for White Canvas were laid three years ago, 22 Feet is the new infant in his arms. “We felt that there was no ‘creative’ online agency in India, at least one that went beyond virals,” shares Jacob.

Jagdish Acharya is another advertising stalwart who recently embarked on his entrepreneurial journey, leaving a 15-year stint as creative head at Mudra DDB. Although he launched his agency in January this year, the groundwork started sometime ago. K. D. Singh, Chairman, Alchemist Group, had invited him for a ‘friendly’ second opinion on the creative strategy for his brand, Republic of Chicken. “At the meeting I was intensely speaking my mind and suddenly he said ‘why don’t you start your own agency. Take my account for starter and I need the New Year campaign coming from you,” says Acharya. That was end-November. The next thing Acharya knew was launching that agency and bagging Republic of Chicken as his first account. His small outfit has no office. The team is encouraged to work from home whenever they are at their creative peak. A virtual office, he feels, cuts out the formality and hence the name Cut The Crap for his agency.

Unlike Brijesh and Jagdish, not everyone goes for a swim without testing waters first. And that’s was Sukumar Menon’s approach when he floated Black Swan. He first thought of his own independent agency in January 2008, but he simply let it drift. “I was uncomfortable about leaving my comfort zone. There comes a stage in most careers where people either buy into the system or develop a new belief system. Though I was sure that I didn’t want to choose the former, it was difficult to cut the umbilical chord,” he explains. Then one day, Sukumar got an offer from an old friend, and that’s when he made up his mind to go on his own.

Despite being small fish in an ocean filled with multinational sharks; despite the (still) strong trend of clients choosing the muscled multinats over small, independent agencies; and despite starting their ventures in so-called troubled times (remember the slowdown?), Acharya, Jacob, Menon and others of their ilk are not worried. In fact, they are virtually gloating over how some big clients have already started favouring their relatively small ‘outfits’ over tried, tested and fancy agencies like O&M, McCann, JWT and other big guys. Cut The Crap already handles accounts of Jyothi Laboratories, Redbricks Junior, Xcellon Institute, Hills Cement and is on the verge of signing up a renewable energy account and another real estate brand; Jacob’s kitty is plush with names like NDTV Imagine, GM Modular, Geodesic and Fox Star Studios; while Menon’s Black Swan has recently landed a part of Domino’s account. Explains Menon, “We created mailers for them keeping buying behavior in mind. We also created Pizza Signs (like Sun Signs).”

Sure, display of such entrepreneurial spirit in the ad industry is not new. After all, there was a Sam Balsara in the 80s who left Mudra to start his own Madison with three spill over clients; or even Kunal Lalani who launched Crayons as an independent agency in 1986 and has built it into one of India’s largest independent agencies. But what’s new this time round is the veritable flood of independent small agencies that are suddenly coming out of the woodwork and bagging big-ticket accounts with swift speed. The list of renegades has been growing over the last few years. On Communications, Cartwheel Creative, Saints and Warriors, Creativeland Asia, Taproot, among more are all new independent set-ups, boosted by veterans of India’s ad-land and drawing the attention of the entire industry because of some great trend setting works in this short time. Agrees D. Ramakrishna (Ramki), Founder, Cartwheel Creative, “This time is no different from others. There have been people who have broken away in the past too to start their own outfits. But yes, last few years have seen more corporates coming in than individuals. This flood is different because individuals have broken away and launched agencies with different work. That’s why its the talk of the town.”

Beyond the hype and the hoopla however, cynics rule. An industry veteran, on conditions of anonymity says that it would take a long time for these new kids on the block to get their act in place. “There are three growth stages for every independent agency and they will also have to go through the same grind before they can challenge the established agencies,” he says, adding that the first stage is the roll out where their bread & butter comes from boutique work (print campaigns of real estate companies or the regional ads for big clients); the second phase is when they start getting inquiries from home grown brands and the third phase happens when even the multinats take the trouble of seeking them out. “These guys have only just touched first base,” he sniggers derisively.

“That’s old hat,” Ramki waves away the argument. “Big clients are already dropping into the laps of independent agencies.” One only needs to look at the list of who’s who clients that these small agencies have eating out of their hands, to realise how well entrenched they’ve become in client mindscape. A case in point is the Ramki promoted Cartwheel Creative itself. Ramki, who gave up a job as JWT’s creative head at Mumbai to set up Cartwheel, got invited for the Reliance Communications (RCOM) bid through a wild card (he had worked with Sanjay Behl, brand head, RCOM while at Lintas and Lowe). “Initially we were brought on board to do the RWorld portion while the major chunk of the account went to Leo Burnett and Mudra. During that time, my car got washed away in Mumbai’s 26/7 floods. Besides, I was my own one man army who had to be office boy, peon, creative and client servicing and I did not even have a car,” Ramki reminisces. Though certainly not the best of times, Ramki still cherishes those bitter sweet memories and has no regrets in going his own way. “The sheer excitement to be finally able to do things my way was enough to get me going and with time even the size of RCOM’s account with us has grown significantly,” he adds.

Even multinationals are recognising the benefit of smaller, nimbler and local agencies. Fox Studios (22 Feet), JP Morgan (On), Domino’s (Black Swan) have already landed into their net. Forget India, in fact, globally there is a trend for multinational marketers to not use multinational agencies. The growing argument is that MNC agencies tend to be more rigid and less responsive to client needs. In contrast, local, entrepreneurial and independent agencies tend to be highly creative with their international accounts.

In as much, 21st century clients recognise that their brands need more diversity, flexibility, local flavour and therefore individual attention that is not possible in a big set-up with a mammoth array of clients needing constant attention. Result is that are increasingly abandoning their inhibitions in approaching individual agencies. “Clients are always seeking fresh ideas and perspective that would work for their brand and they don’t care if they come from an agency that is 20 years old or 2 years old. I think with the way things are going you would see more breakthrough work coming from newer agencies,” avers Ramki. Times of India (ToI), which recently shifted its entire creative account from JWT to start-up Taproot (promoted by Agnello Dias & Santosh Padhi) is one that firmly believes in that logic. Says Rahul Kansal, Brand Director, ToI, “There was no risk in shifting our account to an independent agency. Since we were using only the creative services of Agnello at JWT, it was a natural shift for us.”

Industry insiders believe that getting clients for start-ups run by renowned admen is hardly ever a problem. “Clients connect more with the names than agencies anyway,” they say. As ToI moved with Agnello, the Appy Fizz account moved from Grey to Creativeland Asia with Sajan Raj Kurup. Unlike media agencies, where negotiations and bulk business deals matter more, the creative part of the business is usually personality driven. Consciously or not, most guys who go independent are aware that their intellectual capital is their biggest investment into a new venture and clients will follow, whether or not they flaunt a plush office in a swank business area. In a marked departure from existing trends, Acharya (Cut The Crap) in fact totally did away with the regular office routine for his agency. “We don’t have a brick & mortar office. So the only investment that I have put up is the money for our weekly meetings at the best of places and partying wherever we felt like,” he grins, explaining that the only bit of serious money he invested was on technology (so his team could work from home easily) and membership to relevant archives on the web.

Interestingly, ask these independent creative shops and they are quick to say that the biggest challenge they faced was in swaying big ticket account from established agency (that was up for grabs, they aver), neither was raising funds a problem. The tough nut for them (hilariously) was the routine stuff like finding office space, hiring right talent, et al. As Agnello puts it, “Dealing with things that are not our forte, produced some hiccups. We were bemused with things like legalities, registrations, putting admin in place and all that.”

It is their agility, flexibility, quick reaction time and out-of-box creative thinking that is prompting multinats and large domestic clients to fall hook, line and sinker for independent agencies. But the end results were never pre-mediated. So what prompted these guys to give up their fat salary cheques and take the risk in the first place? Jacob answers that with his usual devil-may-care view: “There’s a risk in everything we do, isn’t there? Even standing under a tree has its own share of risks. The desire to create, build and more importantly, the excitement and challenges that go into building an agency overrides any perceived risk,” he points out.

Agnello is more accommodating. “Our only apprehension was whether we were too spoilt by success and looking a gift horse in the eye by chasing this idealistic notion (of going it alone) that perhaps did not exist in real world. But as we came closer to due date, we felt it was perhaps working in more or less the way we thought it would,” says Agnello. Given that ToI, Mid-Day and more followed suit, bet Agnello still feels spoilt for choice. Not just him, so far, most newly-formed independent agencies are having a dream run at the ad box office. The slowdown induced pressure on marketers to cut costs is also playing a role. While none of the independent guys admit it, fact is that start-up fees are at least 15% lesser than those with an established agency. And with that does not have marketer’s salivating in these troubled times, wonder what will...

Surbhi Chawla & Neha Saraiya

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Source : IIPM Editorial, 2010.

An Initiative of IIPM, Malay Chaudhuri and Arindam chaudhuri (Renowned Management Guru and Economist).

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