Disappointed at not winning the Grand Prix: Agnello Dias

 

By Anil Thakraney

 

Taproot’s Agnello Dias and Santosh Padhi ‘changed the game’ for Pepsi. And they’ve done ditto with the Indian ad world. Their huge, rapid success has prompted many creative directors to sit up and seriously consider starting their own little shops. Some have already branched out.

 

Creative hotshops aren’t a new phenomenon in this country. Ravi Gupta, elsie Nanji and Mohammed Khan opened their boutiques many years ago. What’s different with Taproot is that they have been doing stunning work for large clients. Like Pepsi, TOI and Airtel.

 

This makes the agency path breaking and special. In just three years they have won more Abbies than the number of people in their office. Including peons.

 

I meet Agnello Dias for some steaming Southie fare at King Circle’s Mysore Cafe. As India’s most happening creative director shares his mantras and his plans for the future. Aggie is that rare advertising individual who listens more than he speaks. And that perhaps is one of the key reasons behind his enviable success.

 

The last time we met was three years ago. You were running around buying computers and aircons for your new agency which had still to be named. How’s the journey been?

It’s been like mounting a tiger you can’t get off because things have moved so fast in so many different ways. In terms of the actual structure of the agency and in terms of the actual advertising work.

 

Did you expect to scale such heights?

No. I had an idea where I would be and it was much lower than this. I thought we’d be a little quieter and much less in the spotlight. But things have happened and not in the way I thought they would.

 

Runner-up agency at Goafest. That is something you would never have imagined three years ago.

(Smiles). No! We knew we’d do well, we knew we had a couple of good campaigns. But statistical superiority was something we never expected.

 

You must be a proud man.

(Thinks.) Yeah. It was quite a pleasant surprise. I am proud but it’s also slightly unnerving because I wouldn’t like us to be measured against this every year. Though we are cognizant of the fact that it’s any given Sunday, and that the same jury judging the same work again today may have a different result.

 

Disappointed that your ‘Har ek Friend’ work (Airtel) didn’t win the Grand Prix?

Yes. It would be a lie to say that we weren’t disappointed. Because one was always given to believe that a Grand Prix isn’t just about good work, but also about work that has serious impact. And we felt it did have that impact, but the jury thought otherwise. (Shrugs.)

 

Any major improvement needed in the Goafest judging process?

I think we, as an industry, stretch ourselves too thin to find hundred judges. And so we end up having, to a certain extent, judges who are not yet ready for judging. One way to solve that would be to have two categories entirely judged by one set of judges. That itself would bring down the number of judges to fifty. That way we will have a far more concentrated, mature bunch of judges. I judged at the ‘One Show’ and it is the exact opposite out there. One jury judges everything. It’s a nightmare but it can be done.

 

Don’t you at times miss the comfort of a large agency?

I am not sure comfort is the right word, but definitely the conveniences. Figuring out your own airline tickets, talking to directors and producers about edit commissions, rates, etc because we don’t have a secretary and a films department. But one doesn’t really miss the conveniences because one is so engrossed in what one’s doing.

 

Do you have a client servicing team and account planners? Are you following the structural format of traditional agencies?

We don’t have pure strategic planners. We have servicing guys but the ratio would be the opposite of a large agency. It is 5:1 in favour of creative people. We have a managing partner, his name is Manan Mehta. He’s just about 28 years old and he’s the senior most servicing guy we have.

 

Are you looking to expand into other cities?

The only option we talk about is Delhi. We are looking at it, though it may not happen.

 

How many clients do you have?

Maximum ten.

 

Want more or are you happy with that?

If we have to do more than this we will have to hire more staff.

 

When you started out you said to me that you guys don’t want to be a large agency. That the day you feel you aren’t able to give personal attention to clients you’ll shut down. Has that view changed?

(Thinks.) It may be on the cusp of changing. Because so far we have been giving personal attention and therefore we aren’t taking on more clients. We are putting them on to other agencies. We are currently contemplating within the office on where we want to be. If we take on more people, they will be one step removed from Paddy (Santosh Padhi) and me. But we haven’t decided that as yet.

 

What does your own heart say?

I think one level removed is still fine. But no further than that. We don’t want a large reporting structure.

 

Does money spoil?

Yes, it does.

 

Rumours have it that Aggie and Paddy are looking for investors to sell the agency and cash in.

When the multinational networks come to town, they do meet us. We do meet them and talk about exactly this. But in this industry you can’t just sell and go away because no one will buy that. So even after an equity sale we will have to be around for at least five years.

 

But you will still make a killing. Find that tempting?

Yes, it is tempting. We have been talking to various people but it’s not worked out inside our heads.

 

Basically they aren’t making offers you can’t refuse.

Yeah, possibly.

 

Okay, enough corporate talk. Let’s move to more interesting stuff. Like creativity. How do you go about creating an ad? Any mantras up your sleeve?

The process is the same. But within that process there are a few quirks I personally have. We try to push a little more even after we’ve cracked it. We try not to go home early. It’s good old fashioned hard work.

 

One campaign you’ve done at Taproot that you are most proud of.

The ‘TeachIndia’ campaign (Times ofIndia). It was good creative and it’s also something I identify with.

 

With ‘Har ek Friend’ I felt you guys have a good understanding of Young India. Did you hang out with the kids, or was that gut feel work? Do you research before starting out?

Yes, I do. I try to walk the streets, I walk from Matunga (home) to Mahim (office) many times. I stop at all kinds of shops and observe. I once ordered from the teleshopping network just to see how the packet arrives. And I do these things even when there’s no brief. Also, what’s worked for me is that I get fascinated by people who disagree with me. I like to spend more time with them. I think it’s important for all young people in advertising, or anywhere else, to create a persona where people feel comfortable enough to give them negative feedback.

 

When you hire, what is the one thing you look for in a young creative person?

First, I look for resilience. Creative stamina. Because unless you come back as equally strongly as the last time, you will not have a long, successful career. Another thing is keen observation. People who notice things in a room which others don’t. And they should be good listeners.

 

The biggest challenge facing the creative director of today.

I think most national creative directors in large agencies are good. But the structure has turned on itself in such a horrible manner that they have no choice but to be so thinly spread that they are not able to do justice to a particular brand. And the reason for that is the accumulation of overheads by large agencies. So instead of one, you have to focus on eight other accounts because there are eighty other guys sponging off that account. See the number of designations going around. So the agencies should free their creative directors from having to do so much.

 

What will the ad agency look like ten years from now?

I can’t say ten or fifteen years, but the business will become craft agnostic. For example, there are some people who are creative thinkers or planners. And there are some who are not thinkers but craftsmen. Now these guys, because of their high level of craft, become indispensable. And they are given designations or titles which is actually a function of creative thinking. So good art directors become creative directors and attend research briefings though that’s not their core competency. In the future I see press ad shops, where you can get a press ad made. Or film scripting shops. And the ad agency would be a bunch of free thinkers. I think the unbundling of advertising will move to the unbundling of creative.

 

Having said all this, is there one senior creative director you do admire?

(Thinks for a long time.) I like Rajiv Rao (O&M). I think he has a naturally keen eye for aesthetics. He has the ability to boil complex problems down and come up with simplest solutions. And that’s visible in the Vodafone work.

 

Didn’t you admire the way The Hindu hit back at your campaign for TOI, Chennai? even though it’s a rival brand.

Yes, their response was very good. It’s a good contest. They could have done the crafting a little better, but otherwise it was very good.

 

Was there any self-doubt when you started out? During the beginning period?

Yes, there was a lot of self doubt. In fact, apart from The Times, for some time we had very little business. So we just decided to lie low and consolidate. We were open to the fact that we may have to find jobs again. even now if it doesn’t work out we’ll go and apply for jobs in creative agencies.

 

One thing about the ad world you don’t like.

The irrational level of competitiveness. I think it’s great to want to do better, but I wouldn’t applaud somebody else’s mistakes. For example, take the case of hard boiled sweets. Now every client wants to do wacky work in this category because someone started doing it. That’s great news for the whole category. The same thing is happening with electricals. Because of Havells we can’t do a normal ad anymore. We should applaud the people who started it, those who belled the cat. So what I am talking about is the difference between healthy and ruthless competition. The ruthlessness is what I don’t like. The attitude that ‘I didn’t do better so I will pull the other guy down’.

 

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