We’ve bn inconsistent in r work: Sonal Dabral

29 Nov,2011


By Anil Thakraney


Sonal Dabral’s career has been nothing short of fantastic. In the nineties he partnered Piyush Pandey and together they turned around the fortunes of O&M. He later flew to Malaysia and then Singapore, and did ditto with O&M’s offices there. A few years ago he took on another challenge: To recreate the magic at Bates, where he is Regional Creative Director, Asia Pacific & Chairman for their Indian operations. While he has been over-seeing India, Sonal physically moved here only a few months ago. And though a few cartons still remain to be unpacked, the man is very clear about the way forward for his agency.


In a rare, frank and a very insightful interview, the 49-year-old reveals his ideologies, his plans for India and his opinions on the ad industry. We also take a trip down his memorable career journey.


What struck me most is how clued in Sonal is about the key challenges that face brands in contemporary times. I don’t always find that in Indian ad agency leaders.


Q: There’s a buzz about you joining Mudra.
No truth in it at all. But I can understand why the rumours must have started. Balki is the face of Lowe, Prasoon is the face of McCann and Piyush, of course, is the face of O&M. So for somebody of stature to walk into a big agency like Mudra… that just leaves me.


Q: But if they approached you, you would talk to them?
I won’t be interested. Lots of things to be done out here at Bates.


Q: What motivated you to shift to India after all these years?
When I joined Bates about three years ago, the agenda as the regional creative head was to improve the creative health of the agency through the right kind of hiring, inspiration and hands-on involvement. Bates, historically, has had some big clients and pockets of excellence with sporadic good stuff coming out. But overall the network’s creative health has not been good. My additional role is that of Chairman, Bates India, and it was the duality of the role that attracted me to this job. Which is to get back in touch with India and yet have a bigger role than what I was doing at O&M Singapore. So my first job was to ensure that we had the right kind of creative leadership in every place. Once that got done in the last three years, we started looking at India as a very important market for us. And India is a place where I can make a visible difference because of my equity out here, because of all the years I have spent here. And that’s why I decided to locate here.


Q: Cut to the past. Why did you leave India in the first place? You were Piyush’s blue-eyed boy at O&M. Doing phenomenally well in the agency.
In the latter part of the nineties, Neil French had taken over as the regional creative director for Asia. On his first trip to India he saw some print work I had done for Cadbury Perk and he was pretty impressed. He cancelled a lunch meet with Ranjan Kapur and Piyush Pandey and took me out for lunch instead! (Smiles.) And he asked that I move to O&M Malaysia. The agency was going down, and they desperately needed a creative head to come and build the place.


Q: Am sure Piyush must have been upset with your decision to move.
Neil spoke to Piyush and Ranjan about this. And they called me for a morning cup of tea on a Sunday. They said Neil sees this as a good opportunity for me. They said they wouldn’t like me to go, but wouldn’t stand in the way either. I thought about it for a long time because I was heading O&M Bombay which was 50 percent of the agency’s business, we were riding high. Anyway, I did a recce trip to Malaysia, and the O&M office turned out to be a small one, though they gave me a red carpet welcome. I came back and thought I would never join such a small place. Then they started writing to me, saying they wanted me out there. You know Anil, I believe in destiny, I believe things happen for a reason. Also, the charm of the unknown has always enticed and fascinated me. The discomfort of going to a new place, that too to a place that has nothing to offer, appealed to me. The same thing happened when I left Lintas to join Ogilvy in 1991. Ogilvy was nothing at that time and the only remarkable thing they had done was the ‘Mile Sur’ film.


Q: But then you eventually left Ogilvy and joined Bates.
Again, for the same reasons. Helping a place to shape up has always excited me. Maybe it’s to do with a big creative ego, though otherwise I don’t have an ego at all.


Q: The key difference between working in an international market and working in India…
In India we work a lot on the individual, friendship level. It’s like if I know Thakraney really well, and he is the agency and I am Unilever, then Thakraney and Dabral will work together and create a campaign. Things happen on a very personal level here. In the international markets… and you can call it professionalism or stuck-up-ness… there are still a lot of procedures and processes that get followed. I prefer a combination of the two methods. We are a very chaotic, free-for-all nation and at times that free-for-all-ness helps creativity. But it also brings with it a sense of indiscipline. And this affects the execution of work, that’s where we fall flat. Obviously, in the last 12 years, I have learnt something that’s different from India. And I am trying to get some systems in place in the way we work out here at Bates.


Q: When you first came to Bates India, the good and the bad things you noticed…
(Thinks carefully.) Creatively we have not been consistent. There is potential but the realisation is not happening. We need to correct that so that our number of hits increases.


Q: The significant changes you’ve made in the last few months.
I want to make this an agency of people who are not just creative but are intelligent, aware and knowledgeable creative people. True creativity needs you to be curious. The curiosity bit I want to feed as much as possible. Last weekend I invited a film chief from the National Institute of Design to conduct a film appreciation workshop. And it had nothing to do with advertising. Sometime later we’ll have another kind of workshop. Basically, I want to tell people that advertising is the only profession where you don’t learn things from the inside, it will all come from the outside.


Q: What do you look for when you hire creative people?
Besides obviously the work, I look for a certain amount of authenticity. It might be difficult to get that in a meeting, but you do get a sense of it. It’s very important for any creative person to let his or her guard down.


Q: As a client, why should I choose Bates?
We are the ‘change’ agency. It’s about making strategies that are based on the shifts that are happening within the product category or within the target audiences. And based on the cultural shifts that are happening within the society. We call that positioning ‘Change Engage’. It means a changed thinking which leads to work that has a two-way communication with the consumers. For example, you saw what happened during the Anna Hazare movement. It was about the power of people coming together really fast and having an opinion about something. Or for example what happened with the Kolaveri video. It’s the power of tech that consumers now have. This means advertising has to change in the way we approach things. We need to make an impact on a consumer for him to start conversing or debating about our brands. The other thing is we are an Asia-only network, so we are still small when compared to a JWT or an Ogilvy. So there’s a certain amount of nimbleness and spontaneity that we have. Also, on a personal front, the wealth of experience I bring with my Indian and global experience.


Q: Why hasn’t Bates really taken off in India?
It’s to do with the fast changes that have taken place. It’s been only about four years since it has emerged as Bates. Before that all the mergers were taking place. First it was Enterprise, then came David. Also there have been personnel changes. Subhash Kamath left for BBH, I have come now, Sandeep Pathak has taken over as CEO. It’s been going through a churn. It’s only now that we have begun to feel settled.


Q: What’s all this about Smashing Pumpkins and Cabbage Curry?
Smashing Pumpkins is something I coined for our annual creative conference. We would smash pumpkins at the event. Bates’s earlier colour was pumpkin yellow. And I said we need to be doing smashing work, so that’s how it got coined. Cabbage Curry Fridays I had started in Malaysia and Singapore. Every Friday we would have a chat session or a presentation which had to do with the culture of curiosity I was talking about earlier. I want to tell people that if you don’t have a passion beyond advertising, then your mind will become like a cabbage. (Laughs.)


Q: What’s happening on your movie script?
There are a couple of ideas in my head. I have started working on it but it’s been going very slowly. I have a story in mind that’s solid and substantial. It will not be a time-pass flick.


Q: I last met you in the late nineties when you were a young, happy creative director. I have a feeling you have become a tough guy since.
I have changed over the years to an extent which is required to run a place. But otherwise I am not as tough as I should be. Laughter to me is the biggest asset an ad agency can have.


Q: I think in India you’ll have to kick ass at times.
I totally agree with you.


Q: Would it be right to call Piyush Pandey your mentor?
He is one of the people. There would be others too like Neil French.


Q: Do you at times feel you should never have left India? Bates is a small player, and had you stuck on, you could have been the captain of a very large ship.
Not at all. I am extremely happy and I feel very lucky. That I did go and work in Malaysia and Singapore. The exposure that gave me towards communications, advertising, work, etc, couldn’t have happened in India. Also when I was abroad there were offers to head a large organisation here, and those offers won’t run away anywhere. I totally believe in destiny, I wasn’t meant to be here for those 12 years.


Q: One creative chief of a large Indian agency you most admire.
(Thinks for a long time.) I like the way Aggie (Agnello Dias) and Padhi (Santosh Padhi) have gone about their work. The way they have approached business, the kind of work they are doing. Their small size has not held them back. In terms of the large agency Chairmen, is there anyone I envy or admire? Well, no, not really.

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3 responses to “We’ve bn inconsistent in r work: Sonal Dabral”

  1. Dhishum says:

    “Balki is the face of Lowe, Prasoon is the face of McCann and Piyush, of course, is the face of O&M. So for somebody of stature to walk into a big agency like Mudra… that just leaves me.”

    The hubris of this guy is stunning. A virtual lifetime devoted to scam and he now fancies himself. At Ogilvy he was surrounded by a few notables but at Bates where he alone ran the show all by himself, he turned up a big zero. Somebody of stature…Gimme a break.

  2. Danesh says:

    i would never trust a guy with furtive eyes like that.

  3. تسنیم says:

    i had and have always admired Sonal Dabral…. but Bates is going nowhere…. Knowing Sonal he can def do magic… but this time magic isnt happening….and the magic can only happen if the agency has some good clients. watever good clients they had, they’ve lost it to some other agency…

    Pls Pls Mr Dabral, bring out ur magic wand.

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