Raising the bar with HUL, baar-baar

20 Jul,2016


PHD India has been on a roll ever since it kickstarted operations  in 2013. Some big and small metals in the awards circuit – including a Bronze at the recent Cannes Lions – have ensured that it keeps winning new clients. Jyoti Bansal, Managing Director, PHD India, speaks with Pradyuman Maheshwari about awards, the company’s association with Hindustan Unilever and about being digital-focused


You have won [awards] for your work for HUL in the past, and again this year. The work that you do for HUL has been acknowledged both as work and reaffirms their continuing faith in PHD. Which of these is more important?

Everything is inter-connected. Once the client trusts and partners with us, then the work happens, and then the awards happen. It is a two-way street; they have to believe in us and we have to have the ability to push ourselves to the best that we can do for them.


Does HUL as client nurture advertising work, or does it just happen?

It does not [just] happen (laughs). It happens with a lot of thinking and planning which obviously the outside world does not see. A lot of it has to do with the mindset, the scale and the fact that there is this belief that we can make it work. With us, the biggest factor has been that they push the bar and we push the bar, and that works. It is always a shifting thing. You reach there, and immediately you ask — what next?


And, it happens baar-baar?

Yes, it happens baar-baar which I think is great (smiles). That is how we have won awards so many times for them.


It is an unfair question to ask given you have many clients, But what is that makes working with HUL different from the others?

The scale is different. It’s not like we don’t do good work with other clients, but the scale at which things are done by and for Unilever are different. It is seen more, so it pushes [us] more. It’s not like another client would not get the same kind of input from us. But the scale pushes everything to a different level.


By scale you mean the monies spent?

By scale I mean the size of their operations in India. It is also about the scale of money spent but everything is not about the money. The money helps, but it also the faith that they put in their partners and the way they listen and agree to do things, makes a difference. They have not won awards only with us; they have won it with other agencies as well.


Creativity and innovation are fine, but eventually people look at ROI…

Nobody will put in the kind of money that is needed for things like this if it was not delivering results. Clients are not sitting there just to fund nice ideas. For both [the previous, award-winning campaign] Kan Khajura Tesan (KKT) and now this, there were well-defined success metrics put in place. If there is nothing by way of readily-available metrics, we try and see if we can customise results, which they did for KKT.


You are obviously aware of the kind of spends HUL makes on other media, including digital. Do you think spends on digital by large FMCG companies is commensurate with the kind of digital activity happening in the country?

A lot of it depends on the audience they are trying to reach out to. If you were to include mobile within digital, I would say no. The reach of mobile today is as much as television. But the usage of mobile as a medium has not reached a level where we spend that kind of money on it yet. It is an interactive medium but at the end of the day, a lot of control is in the hands of the user. With television, apart from switching the channel, you cannot do much to avoid the advertisement. With mobiles, or in the digital space, that is much easier. The control lies more with the consumer than with us.


Do you think spends on digital are appropriate, or could they have been more?

At an industry level, yes, we can definitely go higher. But there is wide variation by sector. It depends on who they are trying to talk, and what they are trying to achieve with the money they are spending. For Unilever, we do only digital, but we have a lot of clients for whom we do integrated work, and the principles are similar. If I was trying to design a campaign for an FMCG brand versus a travel hospitality brand, obviously I would do different things. They will never have the same kind of split across channels and platforms.


Do you see mobile overtaking television at all?

It is an interesting question. I would say it is a little simplistic in the way it is looking at where our world is going. I do not think anything ever replaces another completely in that sense. The form and the character of it changes and the way things are going, television, itself, will evolve. We actually coined this term called video audio text planning some three four years back that instead of doing television, print, radio, cinema, we will start looking at it as video, audio and text. Are we delivering an audio visual message or just a video or just an audio or text? I mean you get a lot of new on this (iPad) device you are holding. You still get the newspaper in your home. You time spent may have gone down. The important bit is the news not the paper and not the tab. So, that is all text.


You are known for your digital expertise. What is your play on digital versus other media?

We do not look at it as digital versus traditional. We look at what is right for the brand and the task at hand. We have done different things for different campaigns of the same client. We are actively trying to move away from this television versus print versus whatever, to ask if video is the format by which I am delivering my message, what are the best platforms for me to do it? Is it the TV, the mobile or desktop?


Clients, unfortunately, are not looking at it with an Indian approach.

I don’t agree. Clients get it when we talk to them about this. As an industry, we have not yet managed to understand that we are still relying on levels of assumptions and two different databases which give us our television and web viewership measurement. We are hoping that with BARC’s new web measurement, things will change. You will see a change in the structure and form of video advertising being deployed by advertisers. Eventually it will come to a common metric.


Does it worry you that it will impact the way agencies are hired? For instance, someone like HUL may not look at a separate digital agency but at a combined thing instead.

Right now, it is a hypothetical question. Eventually, each client will look at it differently. I do not think it worries me. The way I look at it is this: Why does everybody think that if there is a common agency, it has to be a television agency? For all I know, interactivity is only going to increase.


What do you think of the traditional media agencies’ big brotherly attitude towards digital? The best creative talent in the country, for instance, does not work in digital.

Anybody who continues to do that for very long, will have to change. What is the reason to exist for a creative or a media agency? It is to help clients reach their message to consumers, and consumers are seamless in their consumption of media. The way technology is going, I believe it will shape the way this industry will be over the next few years. A lot of fusion and merger of all of these are going to happen leading to a seamless storytelling across devices and screens.


If you had to do a self- assessment, how would you say you have done?

For a two-year-old agency, we have done pretty well. When we walk into a pitch room, people look at us with respect and other agencies worry about our pitch which, to me, is a good place to be in. We have been appreciated for our work, won clients and ticked all the boxes that denote success pretty quickly. The Cannes win was a defining moment for us. It reaffirmed every belief we had to set up an agency in India. Globally, PHD is all about creativity and innovation, but they are also about doing path-breaking work for clients. Clients have commented, at various forums, that PHD is one agency which has a very differentiated positioning among the media.


You mentioned the Cannes win

After that, we have gone on to win more clients and more awards. I think the other big milestone is how we continue to be at the edge of forward thinking. After the first win, everybody wondered what we would come up with next. We have proven that it was not just a flash in the pan and we can do good work consistently.


PHD meant to be a digitally focused agency when it was set up, right?

Not really. The digital focus came from the fact that, we are a younger agency in the network; we had the Unilever business to push digital positioning forward, and that we found that digital was where both our industry and consumers are evolving. It helped to be skewed towards digital. We are more digitally-skewed than other agencies, with an 80-20 kind of split.


And this is in terms of revenues?

Everything. The teams, the size, and the kind of work we do. Even though a lot of our clients are only digital, we have a fairly balanced mix of the so-called traditional and new-age digital work. Frankly, in our minds, we do not even see that much of a divide [between the two].


Big Data is the buzzword in India today. Your comments?

I don’t know whether to call Big Data — which is a much-used but misunderstood phrase – or just say data and technology, which is empowering creativity today. You will see a very different shape and form of our industry in 10 years from now. As PHD, we are betting on Artificial Intelligence changing how things work — and sooner than any of us think. Our hiring is also future-focused, in that sense.


Where do you see PHD India a year from now?

I think we will continue to be the agency that advertisers will choose when they really want to transform themselves, from a digital perspective. We have a good handle on what it takes to do that.


This interview first appeared in dna of brands on July 18


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