Are suit-led agencies creatures of the past? And why AAAI must reinvent Goafest…

20 Nov,2012



Just a day after the vicinity was in grief over the Shiv Sena chief’s death, at Central Mumbai’s tony nightspot Blue Frog, friends and well-wishers of senior journalist Anant Rangaswami came in to witness (and celebrate) the release of the book ‘The Elephants in the Room – The Future of Advertising in India, 2016’. It was a simple event – emcee Karthik Iyer of Bengaluru-based Happy Creative Services made us chuckle with his wisecracks, Anant’s kids Rohan and Anya presented the first copy to his former boss and mentor Arun Arora (Chairman, Edvance and formerly President and ED, Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd) and finally a few words from Anant Rangaswami. For the rest of the evening, there were good spirits and food for company. The book surely asks some tough questions, and then puts recent history of the business in perspective. Our sub-140-character review: Unputdownable. If you’re in the biz of advertising, download now!

To get a flavour of the book, we present two passages – one on suit-led agencies and the other on Goafest and why it must reinvent. Enjoy.



The Elephants in the Room

By Anant Rangaswami



The very reason that suits ran most of the agencies in India till the late 1990s was due to a simple fact: the creatives didn’t care about, and didn’t know much about, managing a business and managing money. As a result, however talented and however critical to the business a creative was, he or she reported to a suit. It suited both well, during that time, till clients latched on to who, in the agency system, was the magician – and the answer was, ‘the creative’.


[Creatives who aspire to head agencies must learn that, however painful it may be, they will have to gain more than a rudimentary understanding of accounts, of finance, of administration, of taxation. Currently, a number of agencies have suits as CEOs ONLY because the creatives fail at what are hygiene skill sets for managers].


Ranjan Kapur perhaps saw this trend coming before anyone else. While he was clearly the head of Ogilvy in India, he saw the opportunity in leveraging the growing reputation and charisma of Piyush Pandey. During Kapur’s years, we saw the face and image of the agency change. While JWT (then HTA) had built a redoubtable reputation for their planning, by the late 1990s, Ogilvy was transformed into the most creative agency in the country as far as popular perception was concerned. Not just Ogilvy – it was Piyush Pandey who had become the God of Advertising Things.


While Kapur pushed himself, cleverly, more and more into the shadows and pushed Pandey more into the sunlight, his contemporaries at the two largest competitors of the time, Prem Mehta at Lintas and Mike Khanna (and later Colvyn Harris) at HTA (to become JWT later), failed to notice what Kapur was up to – and why he was up to whatever they were up to. Mehta held on till he sold his stake in Lintas to Lowe; the status quo remains at JWT, and Ogilvy has, without a doubt, occupied the number one creative agency spot in India.


Kapur, I would argue, saw the future and bet on it. It could not have been easy, at that time, to buck the trend and allow and encourage a creative to become the face of the agency. In hindsight, some of the most memorable advertising work in the past two decades have been on brands handled by Ogilvy – Cadbury, Fevicol, all the avatars of what is now Vodafone, and so on. All these resulted in glory for Pandey and a small amount of reflected glory for Kapur.


But that was a small price to pay – the success of the agency, as far as Kapur’s boss Sir Martin Sorrell was concerned, was due to Kapur.


Today, Lowe is run, whether you like it or not, by Balki. JWT is still run by a suit.


It’s important, for many reasons, for the agency to be run by a creative. The foremost is that when it is apparent that a creative runs the agency, and is not just the head of the creative department, it sends a signal that the ‘environment’ will be more creative-friendly. It makes it easier to recruit and retain creative talent for the creative-led agency than for the suit-led one.


It’s not that the only solution is to insist that a creative heads the agency. It could be in the form of the Piyush-Rane partnership (which was defined by Kapur’s formula), where the creative is the face of the agency. In Rane’s case, he has defined his job as one that will ensure that the environment allows Piyush and his team to focus on the creative product, while he looks after the mundane essential tasks such as finance, accounting and general administration.


But make no mistake about it – the suit-led and the suit-as-the-face agency is a creature of the past. For a moment, let me get back to Salt, which is a new agency headed by a suit, Mahesh Chauhan. Why is Salt doing well, defeating my entire premise? Because, while Chauhan calls himself and sees himself as a suit, his clients and his creative colleagues see him as a creative. Chew on that.


Take a look around you – at all the agencies headed by suits – and at all the agencies headed by creatives. Look at who is winning. Look at who is struggling.


It’s not a surprise. As Sir Hegarty said, I’ll repeat, “How can we not have a creative person at the top of a creative business?”


It’s time for the suits to actively push their creative heads forward and actively recede into the backgrounds. The creatives must be the faces of the agencies – otherwise the creatives will begin leaving.


So will the businesses, as many have sadly learned.


It’s not going to be easy, but it has to be dealt with, sooner rather than later. I told you, it’s an elephant in the room.


A few days ago, my brother, JP Rangaswami, wrote in his blog: “Business is personal. It’s about relationships. It has always been so. Until we tried to forget it and concentrated on making money, not shoes. [As Peter Drucker said, people make shoes, not money]. Then, for a short while, business became not-personal.”


In India, the entire advertising industry is about relationships. It’s personal. And, to paraphrase Drucker, in this business, you create communication, not money.




The AAAI, in the current form, has become an elephant – a white elephant. Unless they change, there is no reason for them to exist.


Which brings me to another elephant. The AAAI has given birth to it and, by some accident and aided and abetted by some office bearers (almost all heads of large creative and media agencies who convince their friends in media houses to sponsor it) it is still alive. The elephant is called Goafest.


Speak to any event manager and tell him you want to do a major event in Goa in April – and he’ll tell you that you’re nuts. It is, verifiably, the hottest month of the year in Goa, with the average temperature being around 33 degrees C (high) and 27 degrees C (low). I’ve checked historic data to save you the time.


Yet, from the time that Goafest was created, it’s been held in the first fortnight of April. Never earlier, never later.


If you live in Mumbai, you’re tempted, every month, to run away to Goa and get away from the pressures of living in the megapolis. Every month except April – because not only is it hot, it doesn’t rain. March is alright, because it is cooler. May is alright, because it begins raining. April is a bummer, because it’s hot and humid.


Yet Goafest is held every goddamned year in April.


Why? Why? Why? When I first thought of the question, I was reminded of a lecture I attended when The Times of India, my then employer, sent me to a course at IIM Ahmedabad. The lecture was on the Toyota system, where ‘Seven whys’ would help Toyota employees on the assembly line arrive at the root cause of problems.


Hazel Rogers from Australia makes the 7 Whys easy to understand.


“The 7 whys is a technique that I believe was developed as part of the Toyota factory quality push, back in the mists of time. It’s since been taken from the manufacturing paradigm and used in IT quality theories. It’s a great method for getting to the root cause or at least one of the root causes of any problem. So it’s a great tool to use with EFT!


What is it? Start with a problem. Keep asking “why?”, until you’ve gotten to where you can’t go any further, or you’ve found some interesting “hidden” thinking! You don’t HAVE to ask why 7 times precisely.


For example:

I’m procrastinating…


Q Why do I procrastinate?

Because I’m stuck on using the tools I have here (on the computer)


Q Why am I stuck, when there people available to help me?

Because I haven’t asked for help


Q Why haven’t I asked for help?

Because they will think I’m stupid, I should be able to figure it out.”


I’m not going to the 7th question, as much as I didn’t need to when trying to figure out the answer to why Goafest is held in April.


It’s held in April because the planning is appalling, so there’s little time to raise the money to afford Goa hotels in months with better weather.


To give you an idea of what can be done with better planning, you need to look no further than another event held annually in Goa, Kyoorius Designyatra. Their 2012 edition was held in September; they’ve already announced that their 2013 edition will be held in August.


As I write this, I’m certain that speakers are being spoken to, that hotel room prices are being negotiated and sponsors being contacted.


Compare this with Goafest. Going by the history of Goafest that I can claim to be associated with (which is from the 2008 edition), it’ll be sometime in January 2013 before the AAAI management committee discusses the April 2013 event. Once they meet, and they decide on possible dates, they need to talk to The Advertising Club, the owners of the Abbys, the awards which are held at Goafest. Once The Advertising Club agrees, they will begin the process of contacting possible speakers – for whom, unlike Designyatra, they have no budget for. (They do pay for airfares when requested and for the accommodation within India). Ideally, they look for speakers who are happy to come to India at their cost – and that shrinks the pool of prospective speakers dramatically.


It doesn’t help that speakers get notice of less than two months from the day the request is made.


So this, then, is the product that is Goafest:

1. On the Thursday, a meaningless Conclave ( I use the capital C to emphasise how AAAI views it), where the entry is by invitation only to CXOs and to the handful of marketers who are bullied into attending by their agency partners


2. On Friday, the event is open to the public, and the bar is open as well. Kids loll around drinking and flirting (as I would if I was their age), while speakers like Dan Wieden, Sir Martin Sorrell, Sir John Hegarty, to name a few, are besieged by trade media for interviews in the burning April Goa sun.


3. Speaker sessions start by around 4. Most of the kids are too drunk to attend; some have success with their flirting. It’s difficult to fill the seminar hall. All kinds of devices have been attempted, including a chance to win an iPod if you attend. So Scott Goodson of StrawberryFrog has an audience of less than 300, of the 3000 who are attending the fest.


4. Friday evening sees the Media Abbys. Those from the creative agencies don’t care and they’re off to Martin’s for a piss up. The youngsters from the creative agencies continue to flirt. The media agencies win and lose, and there’s a piss up as soon as the bars open (inexplicably, they close during the awards presentation ceremony).


5. Saturday morning sees most of the media agency executives leave. The bar is open, those who remain do the same as described in points 2 and 3 above.


6. Saturday evening sees the Creative Abbys (during the presentation of which the bar is still closed).


7. Losers bitch about the judging (admittedly, it was the least in 2012) but head for the bars once they’re opened.


8. Some of the lucky delegates have sex with partners they’ve met for the first time in Goa.


9. International visitors tell Indian trade media that they’re very happy with how their Indian offices are doing, even if their Indian offices are doing terribly.


10. Sunday morning, all fall down.


This is absolute rubbish. What the AAAI demonstrates, first by scheduling the event in April, and then by the content they create, is an absolute contempt for the intelligence of the average advertising professional in India. They have the temerity and the arrogance to call it the “Cannes of India”, much in the same spirit that Maharashtra’s chief ministers compare Mumbai to Shanghai.


Unless the AAAI reinvents Goafest, it’s a downhill ride from here.


The AAAI needs to re-focus on the premise of Goafest. To begin with, they’re trapped, by the very name of the festival, to hold the event in Goa. Goa has become, over the years, a very expensive destination – except if you live in Mumbai or Pune. To someone from Kolkata , Singapore and Bangkok are cheaper. At short notice, even in April, it could cost you a small fortune to fly to or from Goa at short notice. Ask Lodestar’s Shashi Sinha, who had to make a last minute change a few years ago and ended up spending Rs.18000 on a one-way ticket from Goa to Delhi on the Sunday after Goafest.


Forcing the event to stay at Goa makes the festival exclusive and not inclusive. It is slowly becoming an annual ritual for the industry from Mumbai to take a few days off. We see a few hundred each from Delhi and Bangalore; from the rest of India, the number will be in the low double digits. Perhaps 10-15 from Kolkata, and another 10-15 from Chennai.


It’s time to become truly inclusive, and start moving the festival around the country. That’s why Goafest traps you. For God’s sake, if the entire advertising industry cannot come up with a new name for an advertising festival, it’s a little sad.


(In the short term, you can be sure that next year’s attendance will take a beating, thanks to the sluggish market and the pressure on margins).


Learn from Designyatra that content is King, not the entertainment. I’ve attended two editions of Designyatra in Goa and one in Mumbai – and all three have had superlative content. Content that keeps you riveted to your seats and taking notes. Speakers you want to walk up to and hug once they’ve finished. Conference halls that are packed to the rafters.


And there’s no free alcohol, no parasailing, no tattoos. Designyatra is serious business – and the delegates seem to profit from it – there are more attending every year. There are no major costs in event management, as all the sessions are held in hotel banquet halls. Sponsors are happy to support the event, because they’ve seen, over the years, the quality of the delegates and the level of involvement.


The old adage goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other hand, if it is broke, fix it. Goafest is broke. Fix it.


Extracted with permission of the author Anant Rangaswami

from The Elephants in The Room – The Future of Advertising, 2016.

Pages 152, self-published.

The book is also available as a free download from

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One response to “Are suit-led agencies creatures of the past? And why AAAI must reinvent Goafest…”

  1. Sweta says:

    The book seems to be a must-read and very aptly titled. It’s great that finally, someone decided to get up and say all these things, and say them so well. i’m really looking forward to reading it.