Tough & wanting to be in the Top 5

26 Jun,2015


Saurabh Varma, CEO, Leo Burnett, was considered an ‘outsider’ when he took charge of the network of agencies 18 months ago. But that didn’t stop him from taking some bold steps in acquiring talent, setting goals, and generally shaking up an organisation that was doing well. But, as Varma tells Pradyuman Maheshwari, just being among the best in India is not enough. He wants Leo Burnett’s India operations to be counted among the Top 5 in the world in two years. And he doesn’t mind being the tough taskmaster boss as long as achieves results.


It’s been a year-and-a-half since you came in. How has been the journey so far, between Leo Burnett then and now?

It’s been 18-odd months but it seems like a lifetime. For us, the journey always starts with a shared belief and common purpose for collaboration. If you ask any of the leaders or youngsters who have joined us, in the last 18 months, we’ve managed to make sure everybody understands what our shared belief is. As an organisation, we want to become among the Top 5 creative agencies in the world by 2017. Once you have that overall vision, it’s about having a clear strategic roadmap to get there. And that is a function of structures, systems, people, the talent you hire, how you brand yourself in the marketplace and the kind of product you create. In the last 18 months, we’ve been very focused on our growth strategy, which is around integration and specialisation. Integration is not equal to generalisation; it’s not an idea that travels across different media. True integration is when you have a bunch of specialists working together to create magic. We’ve been focused on building our specialist pillars one by one, making sure they have the ability to work with each other. Every client wants integration, but not at the cost of not having specialisation.


Burnett wasn’t doing badly when you took charge. So why the need to reinvent and fix things?

In 2013, we were already the Creative Agency of the Year, but our benchmark was India. We were not looking to become the best in the world. Now we are. If you don’t refocus on a new strategic mission, on a new ambition, you will become complacent and not move forward. That’s why the need to reinvent.


For us, this journey is a function of three things — people, product and profits. Profits are critical in the overall scheme of things, because our belief is, great creativity across centuries has only happened when you have prosperity. On the people front, we’ve made some significant changes. When I joined, everybody wanted a sense of comfort as far as creative leadership was concerned. There were some standard names floating around in the market, and everybody advised us to go for them.


But you opted for a rank outsider…

Yes, and it was driven by strategy. We operated without fear, because when the agency is already going through a big change in the leadership at that point, to make one more significant change and change everything, is risky.


Did you have the full support of your international offices on that?

Absolutely. I’ve had the blessing to do what is required to create a model organisation. For us to hire a 35-year-old Chief Creative Officer was a bold move, but it was a function of our ambition to be among the Top 5 in the world.


Were your clients okay with it? You’ve had some pedigreed, long-standing clients. Did they require any convincing?

I think the question is not whether they were fine then. The question is whether they are fine now. Obviously, we needed to have conversations with clients and share the reason we were making such a big shift. We needed to convince them about our strategic direction, and why it would benefit them in both the short and long term.


People, product and profits are the mainstay of any business. How have you performed on these?

I’ve already mentioned one part on the people front. The other part is, if we look at our teams across the board – the business directors, strategic planners or creative leadership team –. there’s a new team in Bengaluru, and a new leadership in Delhi. All of this is a function of knowing we need people who are digital by blood and understand modern paradigms. The industry is full of prima donnas, especially in India, but we’ve steered clear of them. One of the keys to driving integration is a focus on people who can collaborate with each other. So we’ve hired what we call the ‘Positive A’ types – those who have the ability and guts to deliver, and also have a positive spirit about them.


Was it easy bringing this about? Or was it tough getting the old-timers to believe in this whole new philosophy?

When you have a clear strategic roadmap, and you share your vision continuously with the teams, they start getting a sense of confidence that you genuinely believe in that vision yourself. They look at the leader to see whether he has the confidence to deliver against that vision. When they start seeing results, it creates more momentum.


We’ve heard stories that Saurabh is a very tough guy, a taskmaster and all of that. Is all of that true?

I would think that would be absolutely true. I think we have ruthlessly pursued a single agenda to be the best creative agency in the world.


So what comes first, the carrot or the stick?

No it’s not about the carrot or the stick, it’s about decision-making, it’s about making sure that everybody is aligned to a single vision, and I think if you look at what’s happened with us, most of the people have stayed back because they believed in that vision.


All of us, on the outside, were closely following the many changes taking place [at the agency]…

Most people have stayed back because they believed in the vision. People who did not are the ones we felt were not going to add to the energy and the momentum that we wanted, and are not with us anymore.


Was it easy getting a few of the older guys to exit?

A lot of what you call the ‘old guys’ are still in our system and they’re thriving and succeeding. I think what people want to see is a shared belief and a shared destiny, and everybody who exists here, believes in that.


What about profits? How are you doing in terms of your bottomlines?

Right now, we are the fastest-growing Leo Burnett agency in Asia. We are growing twice as fast as the industry average, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we are the fastest-growing agency in the country at the moment. We have huge momentum as an agency and this happened because of focussing on our clients, solving their problems and doing great work, that’s all.


How has the change in strategy impacted your other arms like Orchard and Indigo?

So like I said, first, we’re united by that single ambition, which is to be among the Top 5 creative agencies in the world. Second is the function of deciding what the unique purpose of each company is: What is the leadership we need in that country and how we’re going to grow. If you look at Indigo, we are blessed that it’s a build agency. About 18 months ago, we were only a Mumbai agency. Today, we are one of the best holistic digital agencies in the country. For us, Indigo has been a unique growth story, but that’s only one part of it. The second part is integrating it with Leo Burnett as a network. Till18 months ago, there were hardly any shared clients; Indigo and Leo Burnett had their own sets of clients. Today, we have integrated across the board on clients for whom we do multiple things, from search, social and retail to activation and ATL. There are teams from Indigo, from our park shopper unit, from activation unit all working together seamlessly to create solutions.


Wouldn’t it have been better if you had to integrate Indigo within Leo Burnett to make it fully forward-looking?

It already is integrated incredibly well at the moment. When you say integration, it is merged; we have one P/L, that’s the great part about Leo Burnett at the moment. We don’t have the same silos you see in some large organisations. Our ability, therefore, to create a systemic solution for clients, is far more dynamic than other agencies. The way we work on these solutions is that we have one integration manager, rather than an account manager, who runs everything and understands search, social, e-commerce, retail, and that requires a very different kind of training as far as the individual is concerned.


In the last 18 months, while you have possibly been putting your house in order, you’ve been away from most industry events. Was that deliberate?

It’s deliberate for two reasons. First, the only thing that really matters is our clients’ work. When you spend too much energy on extra-curricular activities, it defocuses you from your true objective. Second, we don’t think there is enough maturity as far as the awards in India go, to participate. There are too many factions, and we don’t want to be a part of any of them.


But some amount of collaboration with other agencies always helps, right?

We have been collaborating. The Publicis group has 13,000 people, and that’s where we want to collaborate. We have access to one of the best PR agencies, MSL, and some of the best media agencies with huge digital capabilities, like Starcom and Zenith, and that’s where we’re collaborating. We have lots of shared exercises and shared programmes.


And awards?

Every agency loves awards. We participate in Spikes, Adfest, we have a huge battalion going to Cannes – the biggest you can possibly imagine, right from youngsters to account people, HR people etc. We do believe in awards; in seminars and listening to the best people in the world really matters. It tells us what the benchmarks in the world are. What we do not want to be a part of, is what’s happening at the moment.


You have the D&AD-backed Kyoorius Awards, but you didn’t participate in that either…

I think the whole industry has not come together. I’ve been pretty vocal about my sentiments on this. Until the time awards are driven by a sense of maturity and not agendas, we will not participate.


One of the things said about you not participating is because there’s not enough work that you think can win awards. Is that true?

I am certain that if you put our best work alongside the best work of any other agency, we will be among the Top # in India any time. So that’s not the problem. The issue is what kind of awards do you believe in? We’re not an agency which believes in doing a poster for or press campaign for an award. If you see some of our work you will see what we believe in, is great work.


Are you looking at any acquisitions, any more organic growth, to achieve becoming among the top five agencies of the world?

We are continuously looking at building our specialist functions but we’re not looking at acquiring agencies for scale. That’s never been part of our strategy. For us it is very strategic; if there is an agency or a specialist function which is in line with our strategic intent, we will go for that acquisition.


Coming back to your start at Leo Burnett, there were questions being asked about whether you can do it. You were not from an Indian scenario; you were put into a system which was doing fairly well, but had to reinvent. Do you think those disadvantages actually proved to be your strengths?

I never thought of it as a disadvantage. For us it was a strategic decision. We started discussing this move four years ago. We planned for this move for the last three years. So it wasn’t done all of a sudden. The industry will say what it will; we’ve never really bothered about that. For us it’s about following through all our strategy and delivering on what we believe is the right thing to do for ourselves and for our clients.


The fact that your predecessor Arvind Sharma and Co put in some great work would’ve helped?

Yes, we’ve always focused on great work. Work for our clients and solving their problems. That’s the strength of Leo Burnett and that’s an advantage we continue to build on.


And great work is possible even through a non-star creative head?

No I think we have the biggest rock star in the making. And mark my words on that. Raj Deepak Das will be the biggest star, I’m not talking about India, but globally. I’m only betting on my belief in that, and my ability to partner with him in making that happen. So for us all, what we’ve done is we’ve strategically decided what we need to do, we believe we have the talent, we’ve identified the talent to take us into that trajectory.


Are you looking at hiring more talent?

All the time. With our growth we need to continuously find new talent to join us, and like I keep saying, talent is what we call the ‘Positive A’ types.


On a lighter note, now that you’ve reached close to where you are, do you think you would be less tough on everybody, or is that something that you need to be?

See I don’t think I’m tough, I’m single-minded. I’m single-minded in my ambition, and single-minded in my focus. That’s what I’m doing and I think some of those decisions, might not seem the right decisions at a certain point of time, and I can live with that.


This interview first appeared in dna on brands on June 15, 2015


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