Rebuilding Leo Burnett India

04 Jun,2014

 

By Ravi Balakrishnan

 

The only reason I am here is to disrupt the market and change the game,” is quite literally the first thing that Saurabh Varma, the recently appointed CEO of Leo Burnett India tells us. Over the last year and a half, several global operations struck by similar epiphanies have disrupted their agencies, “trying to change the game” as seen in the management makeovers at Saatchi & Saatchi and TBWA.

 

The exit of Leo Burnett’s former chairman and CEO, Arvind Sharma and his chief creative officer, KV Sridhar six months later is believed to be the same phenomenon playing out. Mr Varma quickly points out: “Leo Burnett is in great shape blessed with incredible talent and clients. And it’s still had the courage to make this bold move. We?ve done this at our best rather than at a time when we are coerced to do it.”

 

Indian advertising is apparently a business that needs fixing even if it’s not visibly broken. Mr Varma represents a discontinuity and not just in terms of age and his background in strategic planning. Through seven years in India and eight overseas, he’s examined the desi ad business from up close and afar. And unlike the perfunctory noises made by many of his corner office contemporaries, he’s clear that he doesn’t like it one bit.

 

He sees an industry stuck in a time warp where the 30-second TV spot is still lionised. An industry that relies on copy-art partnerships. A market at least five years behind comparable countries in its approach to problems and solutions. Asked if there’s any Indian agency that’s been able to navigate the change better than others, he replies “None.”

 

Mention industry growth figures and he says, “Size cannot be equal to performance. For me, it is whether people engage with or share the content we create. And whether it ultimately leads to brands winning in the marketplace.” He has a clear idea on how he’s going to take Leo Burnett (and maybe even Indian advertising kicking and screaming) into the future.

 

Instead of film, marketing content could be an act or an experience. He argues, “When there are opportunities to connect through mobile and Bollywood or create content which works on the shop floor, why limit ourselves to 30 seconds? Why not launch a TV channel for a brand? You have to create something that touches lives.”

 

It starts with a change in team composition and roles. Ad shops typically boast about acquiring digital agencies. Instead, Mr Varma would like a digital producer, technology lead or user experience specialist working as part of the team as opposed to being brought in as last-minute window dressing. Singapore solved this eight years ago. “If you walk in, you can’t figure who the digital guy is since it is everyone,” he says, speaking excitedly of a near future where integration specialists are part of traditional account management.

 

And if these people can’t be found here, the agency will get them from Australia, South East Asia, Scandinavia or America. The other fatal flaw in India is too much focus on solutions and too little on the problem. He explains, “The client brief carries the marketing problem but not the behavioural issue which needs to be defined in a clear and succinct manner.” It would sound like typical planner rhetoric that creatives in India roll their eyes at, if Mr Varma didn’t have examples he’s personally been involved with.

 

For instance, ‘Beautifully Imperfect’ from Leo Burnett Singapore. The client defined the problem as young people not getting married. Mr Varma says, “The first instinct would be to create a dating website.” However the real problem was young men and women looking for perfection. This was found not via consumer research but after speaking to dating agencies and local love gurus.

 

He says, “They were waiting for Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt to come along and make the first move.” Instead, Yasmin Ahmad of Leo Burnett Malaysia came up with ‘Beautifully Imperfect’ which celebrated imperfections and a platform on Facebook where people discussed real stories.

 

He’s taking this approach to Indian advertising too: trying to crack a problem where clients pass over “new age” solutions for the comfort of working with a creative legend. Says Mr Varma, “Marketers need someone to trust since they are trying to mitigate risk. When a personality says “this is the right thing?” because of his experience and wisdom, they go ahead.”

 

He hopes marketers will realise risk can be mitigated in other ways: teams creating experiential content with a direct link to ROI for instance. Which sounds suspiciously similar to something we heard recently; except it was from KV Sridhar shortly after taking over as chief creative officer, Sapient Nitro.

 

This apparent ideological alignment could not translate into a working relationship. Mr Sridhar claims it’s because the pace of change at agencies is glacial. For his part, Mr Varma smiles and recommends we meet his new chief creative officer Rajdeepak Das (executive creative director at BBDO), who is scheduled to join the agency this month. Mr Das was not available for comment at the time of going to print. But Mr Varma says, “His work on Gillette is remarkable and refreshing.

 

It’s on a large brand and not for a small irrelevant client who buys things easily. Speaking of his close associate, Josy Paul, chief creative officer, BBDO says, “He has an unhinged sort of mind and is like a blotting paper for the new world.”

 

He agrees that the time for change is long overdue in Indian advertising: “If you look at Cannes, only 20% to 30% of the show is talking to ad agencies. The rest speaks to media houses, designers, inventors, hobbyists, branded content creators? Advertising is shrinking not just in Cannes but in the total budget map.”

 

Industry opinion is however sharply divided on Leo Burnett: its past and future. A former associate of Mr Varma argues, “It was never a good creative agency but the award rank was high since they won a lot of scams and managed the media very well. Where we came from, we’d look at them and say “but where is the real work?”  before using some strong language to describe its flagship campaigns for Thums Up and Maaza.

 

A gentler evaluation comes from Anil Nair, CEO and managing partner, L&K Saatchi & Saatchi, “With minimum noise and only one or two recognisable faces, they consistently did good work. They had some controversies in the last few years but if you came up against them, they’d pack an awesome punch.”

 

As for the future, while swelling numbers on the digital end are impressive, Mr Nair believes, “We are still a country where digital is important but it’s a supplement and not the absolute. Activation is something you have to fight the client for since they can do it cheaper and more effectively. That would be the twin task that Saurabh will have.”

 

And since we are thick in the middle of award season, it’s only natural the sword raises its head often in every conversation. Some of his associates are glad that it seems Mr Varma has a strict no-scam policy.

 

Says his former associate, “They have to rebuild the agency with real work which will take them time: two or three years. My fear is in the quest of being different it shouldn’t become another avatar of scam. You have to do a few good films in India. How else will you sell a Rs 3 product available in 500,000 outlets?”

 

So the only question that remains is will the cooks at Leo Burnett India make an apple pie or crumble?

 

Source:The Economic Times

Copyright © 2014, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All Rights Reserved

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