Breaking rules for break-out creativity

23 Sep,2015


Years of doing the same thing becomes like a muscle memory. It becomes so ingrained, you forget to be innovative and different. But Jon Wilkins, Chairman of Karmarama, and one of the founders of the iconic Naked Communications, tells Pradyuman Maheshwari on the sidelines of the recently-held Kyoorius Designyatra that one needs to get off the beaten path and break old habits to create advertising everyone’s talking about


In your presentation at Designyatra, you spoke about breaking rules. While it’s good to talk about it, is it practically possible?

A lot of our members deconstruct the way things are traditionally being done and create new ways of thinking. So breaking a rule is like breaking a muscle memory, and recreating new ways of solving problems. In advertising and marketing, muscle memory often takes you into doing what you’ve always done, rather than reconfiguring the way you think to actually solve the problem. That’s breaking a rule. You’re breaking a habit.


Can clients seeking major results through advertising and communication, afford to break rules and, often, err?

You need to show them there’s a more effective way to solving a problem. You need to win their trust. Most marketers are quite a long way away from ‘channel thinking’. They rely on agency partners to help them to re-design communication. You can them you need this mobile application to drive people to this website and will advertise the response. The communication’s design is breaking the rules without them really knowing why you’re doing it.


Can one break rules in communication with response-driven advertising? For instance, a Walmart or Tesco or Big Bazaar here might want immediate results for their festive sales. Is it possible for them to experiment and break rules?

At Karmarama, we talk about dealing with clients’ challenges for now, and later. In the example you mentioned, the retailers have a focused period that they’re looking at. But you’ve got to keep them thinking about changing the game because their market is competitive. We work in two streams: [We tell them] this is what we’re doing for you now, and this is what we think you should do next, which keeps them open to new ways of communicating.


A lot of young and older talent want to do something different. But often, their creativity gets stifled by their own network, agency or client. What do you say to people grappling with this predicament?

I’ve worked in very good agencies but found it frustrating because of the reasons you just described. You either deal with that frustration or go with what you feel and do something different. If you work in an independent or an entrepreneurial structure, you can create your own ways of working, which you can’t do it in a network. What I would say to people who are frustrated is this: It depends on how frustrated you are and it also depends on your attitude and aptitude for risk. Because doing your own thing can be successful; but it can also be a terrible failure.


The big network agencies across the world speak about breaking the rules and innovation, but they’re not able to do it.

I think they are distinctly silo-ed organisations. Given the skills and talent you’ve got within the big coding companies, it’s possible to be disruptive. But the chances of those people meeting on the same day at the same time with the same problem are so remote, it’s almost like they are inefficiently-run businesses. The reason for that is they have only one servant, which is the stock exchange. So if you’re Omnicom or WPP, you report in verticals and that’s how you report in cities. It’s the way you acquire businesses. You’re actually serving the shareholder; you’re not built to serve the customer, who wants the right blend of skills against the right problem. You can only do that if you’re an independent. I strongly believe independent agencies are better built to serve customers and big companies are built to serve shareholders.


But when you increase scale and manpower, you do have to look at the bottomline, don’t you?

You do, if you build into your DNA something that’s precious to you. At Karmarama, we talk about one floor, one P&L, one team. That’s the essence of the way we serve our clients. If that’s your DNA, every new skill you bring in has to adhere to that way of working. Whereas, if you are WPP and you see a new skill, mobile technology and you buy an independent mobile technology company, that’s your silo! They report numbers. You don’t get cross-pollination. If you build collaboration in the heart of it, anything is possible.


It’s often said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and hence a lot of our agencies don’t change things.

It’s just the funny thing with the big, legacy agencies. They’re all broken. When things are down, they bring in a new CEO or a new Creative Director. They win you some businesses. But it’s like a forced adjustment. If you talk to the guys who run these holding companies, they would candidly tell you that that’s why they buy new agencies. They buy new technologies to keep an overall upswing on the share price.


You’ve attended various advertising awards events. How much do awards matter to you?

It depends. We’re always into effectiveness awards because we think if you’re judging yourself by craft, you haven’t done the right thing and doing the right thing is pretty central to the way we work. Personally, I think some awards shows are really good because from a practitioner point of view, I want to benchmark myself among the best in the world. Sometimes when you work in isolation with clients, you don’t know. If you talk to the big, holding companies, their share price is affected by the number of awards they’ve got. If you’re an Omnicom agency, you have to enter as many awards as you can. Because ultimately, when the numbers are reported, the only differential between the EBDITA and the value, is awards. That’s the way you’re evaluated.


You’ve worked with a large media network, heading PHD. Increasingly, media agencies are also getting into creative. Are you happy with the kind of work they’re doing?

There aren’t many media agencies that are producing unique ideas that are selling globally. I think media agencies are incredibly creative, but I don’t think they will become the new creatives. Because they don’t have the strategic principles to solve client problems.


We have a lot of startups in India. To people who are looking at campaigns which could turn their fortune, what would you say?

When you want to start something, you need to look at the marketplace. The Indian market is oversupplied with mediocre, big companies. The one thing we did successfully is that we said, we’re not going to be there for everyone. We’re going to be edgy and produce work that everybody talks about. So we didn’t go to middle-of-the-road, conservative clients; we went to the most edgy, determined, risk-taking clients and said: ‘Can we help you as your riskiest partner?’ and that determined our point of view on advertising and we got more business in that space. Don’t try and be for everyone. You don’t do what everybody is doing. Find your point of difference, hold your position and then just stay in that position until you naturally grow and then make the change over time.


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