Bigger, better and ‘housefull’

20 Mar,2017


It’s that time of the year when the industry folk get set for Goafest and the Abby awards. And some don’t. But despite the demonetisation and a tightening of budgetary belts, this year’s edition has, say Organising Committee chair Ashish Bhasin, Awards Governing Council chair Ramesh Narayan and Ad Club president Raj Nayak, garnered a record amount of sponsorships and number of entries. For the first time, the organisers fear they may have to say no to delegates with a ‘housefull’ board. In a no-holds-barred discussion over lunch last week, Messrs Bhasin, Narayan and Nayak speak to Pradyuman Maheshwari on this year’s edition, the participation (and non-participation) of some agencies in the Abby, and how Goafest and the Abby are now a lot more than just for creative agencies and awards. Excerpts:

Let’s start with you, Mr Ashish Bhasin. Given all the pressures, would you say being Chair of the Organising Committee is a thankless job. Is it really? 

Ashish Bhasin (ABhasin): I wouldn’t say thankless. Actually it’s very gratifying because once the thing is done, you feel good about it. But people often underestimate the logistics of it. It’s like having a ‘baraat’ of 2,500 people come over for three days, and the logistics that go into making that happen — the quality of speakers, the funds that have to be organised and the very organising of the event and the awards — are a task. It’s like [working with] 10,000 moving parts. The thing that you are always aware of is that about 9,999 times you will do right and no one will remember that. But the one or two things that may not go as expected, are the things that throw you off.

And all of this alongside your day job…

ABhasin: Is taxing, but it all comes together. This is the time that it all starts bunching up. This year we started well in time, and because of that, I think we have a much better speaker line-up than we’ve ever had.

So to get straight to the point: What’s special this year?

ABhasin: This year’s Goafest, to my mind, is going to be like never before. We already have a record number of creative entries and a record number of media entries, and therefore a record number of total entries. I also think we will have some of the best speakers that we’ve had in a long, long time…

People whom one hasn’t heard or seen before?

ABhasin: Yes. Some you haven’t seen and heard, and to an extent less incestuous, but because it’s not only going to be advertising people talking to advertising people, there is a lot of learning to be had from related industries and from people who have achieved a lot in other areas, like people from Bollywood or spiritual leaders. The Phogat sisters, for example. I think there is a lot to learn from their story.

We are also going to have Masterclasses which will be ‘By Invitation’ and conducted by a very senior [industry leader from] Israel. There will also be one day on innovation, and one on creativity. This will be for a select group, on a first come-first served basis among those who have applied for it. There are a lot of other things planned. You know about the Champions of Excellence award, which Mr Ramesh Narayan will talk more about. Also, this time Goafest is going green in part because we have to be responsible about the environment. So for the first time, we are taking baby steps in water conservation because when there are 2,500 people, it is sometimes painful to see people take three swigs from a bottle of water and then discard it. If you consider this could happen eight hours a day over three days, you can imagine how much wastage of water actually happens. So we are trying to make [Goafest] a little more sustainable. Also the element of fun..

You aren’t returning to make Goafest 2017 more outdoorsy…

ABhasin: Obviously [moving it indoors] works better in terms of both timing and control, and the new technology we are now using, probably won’t work outdoors. But this year, we’ll have sundowners with the sea as a backdrop.

Okay, let’s move onto the awards, and to you Mr Ramesh Narayan, as Chairman of Awards Governing Council. How have the entries and judging been? Other than the Champions of Excellence category, what’s new this year?

Ramesh Narayan (RNarayan): The Abby Awards are now over 65 years old. They’re a brand that everybody knows and loves. Everyone said that in a year like this, with demonetisation and a slow economy, it’s good even if we get 20% fewer entries. But, as you know, we’ve got more entries than last time, and it’s the highest ever — despite an increase in the rate…

Will you be able to share some details with us?

RNarayan: [It’s more] in terms of numbers. But I see an increase across categories too, especially in digital. Digital and publishers have led — as far as the numbers go. Another thing to note is that when it comes to awards, historically you’ve had the Big Five of print, film, outdoors and such. Today, throughout the world (and here as well) you have broadcasters and publishers, and now there is an all-new category called Mobile. This was not there before…

Last year, the response from publishers was not very good… they had not entered their best work. How has it been this year?

RNarayan: It has been very good this year. We made it a point to reach out to all the publishers, and even involved the INS (Indian Newspaper Society). We asked them to circulate our mails in the industry. Everybody has cooperated, and the quality has been good. We’ve got very good jury members too. So the whole experience had been quite gratifying. This time, we also had our annual Town Hall very early, sometime in November, so it gave us the opportunity to listen to all voices from our industry and on-board their ideas and suggestions.

Who were the people who attended it?

RNarayan: Creative people

From across agencies?

RNarayan: Yes.

Including those who were not participating?

RNarayan: Yes, at that time they were not aware that they were not participating. So they did come. I can state, for the record, that as far as processes and systems go, we are now ‘super’. I don’t think anybody can have anything to say about it — and I am willing to debate it out with anyone who does!

There has been a charge that it’s not held at the right time. One of the leading lights of your industry, Bobby Pawar, mentioned this during a panel discussion on ET Now. When asked a question, he said that the meeting with creative folk should be held immediately after Goafest.

RNarayan: That’s too early. November, I think, is the ideal time. If you have it in June or something like that, that would be like giving a brief to your advertising agency six months in advance, and asking them to deliver the campaign and no one will remember it.

Mr Bhasin, as someone associated with both creative agencies and advertising agencies, how do you view Goafest in terms of your agency’s participation? We do know that Taproot participates in a big way. I remember the other Dentsu creative agencies participating in large numbers last year. So how do your folks look at it? You are also an active member of the Ad Club …

ABhasin: I wear two distinctly separate hats, my industry hat and my agency hat. When I am sitting with my agency people, they are least bothered about the fact that I am the chairman of Goafest. They want to see what’s in it for them, as any industry agency would do. But as a group, we view this in two or three ways.

First, we see it as a great learning opportunity for youngsters, so we encourage more youngsters, rather than the seniormost guys, to attend. We have a lot of incentives and a lot of facilitation for some of the youngsters because during these three days, you get to see and hear the best of the best. This year, for example, we are concentrating on digital trends.

What about the participating in the Abbys?

ABhasin: I am separating the two. You said going to Goafest. So we encourage people, particularly the youngsters, to hear from the best of the best speakers which they otherwise won’t get an opportunity to do. As far as the awards are concerned, Dentsu, I have to confess, wasn’t very focused on awards until maybe a year ago. It just wasn’t on our radar, apart from Taproot Dentsu, who have always have been very good at it and done brilliantly. Last year, we tried it as an experiment, and it was very encouraging because as a group, we got the highest number of creative awards, and among the Top 10 agencies, three were ours.

What was it that led you to participate in the Abbys when you weren’t earlier?

ABhasin: It’s not that Dentsu wasn’t participating. It was just that we were not taking it seriously enough. When you go and make your creds presentation, when you go out and talk about your creative reputation and go out to recruit youngsters, there is a big high for campaigns that have done well. In the Indian context, there isn’t a bigger awards show than Goafest. So we just decided to dip our toes in it last year. Not just dip our toes, but go in a more serious way. But when three of our agencies made it to the Top 10, we decided to build on that this year.

Selfie time! From Right: Ramesh Narayan, Raj Nayak, Ashish Bhasin and Pradyuman Maheshwari

ABhasin: Absolutely, and that’s why they continue to participate. This is also a good time of the year because after this comes Cannes and various other international award festivals

Do you participate at Kyoorius?

ABhasin: One or two of our agencies have…

Taproot doesn’t?

ABhasin: It’s not that we don’t participate, but how many awards shows can you focus on? It’s a huge investment as well, so you have to balance it out. Last year, we focussed on Goafest. Besides Taproot, this is a relatively new thing [for our other agencies]. So you’ve got to ace the sysem, start learning to present your work, and learning to encourage your team to come up with good work. Once we do consistently well in the local awards, we will start looking at the international ones.

So we have a plan whereby we hope that at the end of three or four years, we will dominate, not just pan-India, but also the international circuit. But I think we’re still on a learning curve with some of our agencies, so that’s where we are.

We have seen that while many creative agencies stay away from awards, media agencies participate in large numbers. I’m not referring to digital and outdoor, since they are slightly different, but creative and media are the two traditional players. Why do you think this happens?

RNarayan: First, the fact that media agencies from all the big groups do, in fact, take part, validates the point that none of them has anything against either the Ad Club, Goafest or the Abby judging… Because if they did, they might be split in their decision even within the group, with one arm participating and the other staying away…

Sorry to interrupt, in the case of WPP you have one part agency participating in all its might like JWT as it is not participating so…

RNarayan: True, so all the more reason to say that this one thing is absolutely clear to all people now, and I’m glad that the organisers of the Abbys don’t need to defend themselves anymore. That age is gone now, as we can see with all the networks and all the agencies participating in some way or the other….

Pardon my saying this, but does this mean you are showing the finger to those who don’t participate?

RNarayan: No it’s not, certainly not. I have always said this, and I say this on record that I will be the happiest man if all the agencies participate. However, I can appreciate that each one has some reason [to stay away], and that this has nothing to do with processes or the way this whole thing is organised. Each one has its unique reason. For some it could be budgets; for some it could be [the condition that if they] enter, they have to win big. Sometimes it may not be a very healthy bag of entries they can send in, so they won’t enter at all.

Are you saying that one of the reasons people may not participate is that they don’t have good work?

RNarayan: Adequate good work. All of them will have [to have] some excellent work to show. Or enough numbers to be able to rank among the Top 3 or even the Top 5. It’s a cultural issue where they might feel this is an important thing for them.

There are charges that the judging quality is not right. [Some agencies] don’t think it’s right for people from their own industry to do the judging. And also the fact that the views of the industry are not taken in time…

RNarayan: As to the views of the industry not being taken, we have a Town Hall for this and it was held early this time, in November. Many people attended it. But for those who did not vote, I’d say if you didn’t vote, keep your mouth shut.

ABhasin: I will add to that. This is the first year in which I actually said that we want to crowdsource Goafest. The speakers, the awards, we wanted to crowdsource it all.

Were Ogilvy and Lowe invited for this meeting?

RNarayan: Everybody was invited. All our members were invited from the Ad Club as well as AAAI. May I say two more things which are my like my hobby horses? First, that the Champion of Excellence award is not an Abby. It is an award, and it goes to those advertisers who have nurtured brands or who have taken that leap of faith and ought to be celebrated. So that is a new thing. Second, as Ashish mentioned, the Abbys have gone green this time, but they’ve also gone good. For the first time we have an industry initiative to start a campaign to mitigate violence against women.

Which you kind of introduced last year in a smaller way…

RNarayan: That was an Abby, in gender-sensitive advertising. This is an industry initiative where we have invited entries, and the winning entry will be funded by the industry to turn into a campaign that will then run for a month, across the country and across media. For example, we had FCB creating the call for entries; and we’ll have GroupM running the campaign for us afterwards. We have MullenLowe Lintas’ chairperson judging it… in the chair, so we’ve got the entire industry on board for this, and I think that speaks volumes for today’s leadership of Goafest  — the Ad Club and AAAI– who have been able to pull this off.

Sorry to push on this question: Participation in this proposed campaign is from across agencies, even those who are not participating in the Abbys?

RNarayan: So Goafest has now evolved into a thing that is bigger than the Abbys. We have all these agencies participating to mitigate violence against women, so I don’t want to distinguish between those who are a part of this campaign and those who will participate in the Abbys. Though it is a fact of life that yes, those who have judged an Abby have not judged here. I don’t want to say, but it’s true; Lintas is there, so that makes everybody.

Having discussed the nitty-gritty of Goafest and the Abby with Messrs Bhasin and Narayan, I am going to turn to you, Mr Raj Nayak.

Raj Nayak (RNayak): I won’t go politically correct, so don’t worry.

So does it upset you that you’re still not able to get the growing number who choose to stay away from the Abbys, to participate in the awards?

RNayak: Let me pick it up from where Ashish left off. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but over the last two or three years, there has been a strategic shift in the way we view Goafest, both as an industry body and at AAAI. The Abbys are not just about creative awards anymore. It’s a place for networking, for showcasing work, yes, and it is one place where we bring all parts of the industry under one roof – broadcasters, publishers and even digital. I think you can’t find another award [that has all of this put together].

And, of course, the speakers. Year on year, we have over 3,000 or 4,000 people come together for a three-day festival. First, there is no entity or body that brings all this together for three days in one place. More importantly, the way to look at this is there is no agency which has not participated. You say my right hand has participated or my left leg has not participated, but the fact is that taken collectively, there is no agency that has not participated.

Can you elaborate?

RNayak: You name an agency.

Lowe Lintas?

RNayak: Yes, but their media has participated.

I’m talking about the creative agencies

RNayak: My friends will be politically correct. But I have spoken to a lot of media people and a lot of agency heads I don’t wish to name, and they’ve clearly told me this is about one or two people not participating, though nobody wants to assign any reasons for it. But I think sometimes when you take a stand, it becomes difficult for you to do a U-turn from that stand without a valid reason. Then there are those who don’t want to lose if don’t have enough good work. One person told me that they did not have enough good work this year, and didn’t want to send an entry just for the sake of it. If I don’t participate, it doesn’t matter if I don’t win. But if I do participate, and I don’t win — or don’t make it to the Top 5 at least – that makes me look bad. It’s like the countries who stay away from the Olympics.

All these agencies who tell you that we don’t listen to the industry and we don’t take feedback from them [are not being entirely honest]. Last year, I personally invited them to the Town Hall, where you were also present. We had a media meet last year where we said ‘forget about feedback, we welcome you to come, and be part of the event.’ But you have no right to be an armchair critic and say this is bad or that is bad, if you don’t involve yourself. Why are Ashish, who runs his full-fledged agency, and Ramesh Narayan, who’s got his own business, giving up their time for this? Why am I, with my full-time job, doing it? It’s not for personal benefit, it’s for the industry.

Does it worry or anger you when people from your own business — as you might have seen on a recent TV show – and just stop short of damning the awards?

RNayak: I don’t know which show this is, but I’m sure that there was no representation from AAAI or Ad Clubthere.

The anchor, Sonali Krishna , said she reached out [to you’ll]. She didn’t quite use the word boycott, but she almost said that.

RNayak: Of course. I will go on record to tell you that we chose not go on that show.


RNayak: Because this has been going on for the last five years, and it’s time to move on. Goafest has become bigger, is getting more entries and more delegates. Goafest is getting better. So you have to move on. As an industry body, you can’t pander to one or two individuals.

Why do you think some in the A&M media are being unfair? Because you have chosen not to participate in one event, in one panel discussion now, another anchor of another show has been openly critical of Goafest and the Abby? Do you think it matters?

RNayak: It doesn’t matter. You have to do what you believe is in the best interests of the industry. We are all practising professionals. We have full-time jobs to do and yet everybody is giving their time, pro bono, for the sake of the industry and that is something that must be recognised and appreciated.

The happening thing is, of course, that all of them — including the Big 2 or the Big 5 – do participate in the Effies. So it’s not that they have something against the Ad Club…

RNayak: Let me tell you that it’s the same process that we follow for Effies and the Emvies. We have 150 or 200 jury members even for the Goafest Abbys in different phases. Everything is online. It is transparent and we even upload the shortlist. How much more transparent can one get? Be upfront. I have no hesitation if you to say: ‘listen, I don’t want to participate’. This is the first time — and I’m saying this on record – that we did not reach out to anybody asking them to participate. We said Goafest will continue, irrespective of someone’s participation (or not). You can’t be saying the same thing every year. You have to move on, and that’s what I am saying.

Given the fact that people are saying they don’t have enough good work — and some of these are big agencies — do you think there’s a way out where you can still attract some really good work? I know you don’t have a ranking system, but whatever it is, one does to look at ranking eventually… 

RNayak: But even if you have one good work, and if you believe it to be good, you can get you an award. You don’t necessarily have to get the Grand Prix. I mean, if India were to participate in the Olympics only if we are to get all the medals, that won’t work. You may be good in shooting or you may be good in wrestling, but you are still bringing honour for your country. You are still bringing honour for your agency.

ABhasin: And even the sad part is, most of the guys who are part of the non-participating agencies, have built their careers on the Abbys.

RNayak: Very true. Did you see the campaign ‘Made of Abbys’? Did you see agency after agency, some of whom are not participating, featured in our campaign?

Yes, I saw one with Piyush Pandey or Ogilvy

Let me tell you something very interesting. We released a set of eight agencies and obviously we would want to show every agency who has won in the Abbys, but it’s not possible because we don’t have the campaign or the resources to do that. So we decided we will pick out eight agencies and we will put it in order. We chose strategically to showcase first those agencies who are participating. The head of an agency which is not participating – I will not name the agency – asked: ‘How come we are not featured in your campaign?’ And I said: ‘You are being featured, my friend. It’s just that we will put you later’. We actually included their campaign after the entries were closed, and it was a strategic decision to demonstrate that we are not canvassing for entries. And also to demonstrate that as an industry body, we will always continue to be inclusive. It’s not a mom-and-pop show.

After attending various Goafests and Abbys, I can say that last year’s was a stupendous show. Does it really upset all of you, having spent so much time and pro-bono effort, that people who should be participating in the event, are not participating?

RNayak: It used to upset me – I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t — probably next year, I may not be there. Ramesh may not be there. Ashish may be there for a year or two. We will pass the baton to somebody else. But I believe that Goafest, given the way it’s going, will only get bigger and better. [So as an agency] you may choose to stay away today, but there will come a stage when you will want to be a part of it.

You do, however, also recognise people who are not participating, like Balki or Piyush….

RNayak: Of course. We are an industry body and we have no personal agenda. We will always be inclusive, no matter who participates or doesn’t. It is a stated rule for AAAI and the Ad Club that as an industry body, irrespective of participation, we will be continue to be inclusive. If there are good suggestions, we will always welcome them. We may make a mistake, but you should look at the intent behind everything that we do. As president of the Ad Club and on behalf of president of AAAI and my colleagues, the intent is to give it our best. Let’s put on a great show, and let’s do it for the industry.

I’m going to ask you a question, you can choose not to answer it…

RNayak: No, I will answer it.

As the CEO of Colors, you are also associated with the Kyoorius Awards. What is your experience with that? Even that doesn’t get the participation of all.

RNayak: See, I could have been petty and not sponsored Kyoorius, right? But for us, every awards event is mutually exclusive. That’s a private show. Some other media publication may host another one. We are a part of everything. We are a part of the Ad Club as well, and continue to be. For me as Colors CEO, if I see value in an event — whether or not it is an industry event, though there must be some RoI because I am answerable to my organisation — we may decide to either sponsor it or be associated with it. But there is a big difference between an event for profit and an industry event. Made in India…

Let me ask you a naughty question. Which gives better RoI?

RNayak: Definitely Goafest, for the simple reason that there is no other event that brings all the different constituents under one roof for three days. If there was something that you could compare it with, maybe it would have been difficult for me to say. But right now, every other event is a smaller one.

RNarayan: I would like to add that I’d also like everybody to keep in mind that Goafest and the Abbys are probably the only industry-organised awards show in the world may be. So it’s in our interest to get together and to cherish it.

There is a feeling that privately managed shows are better…

ABhasin: What is your opinion?

Two or three years ago, I felt the same. But since the tenure of Shashi Sinha, the Abbys have been very well-organised.

RNarayan: Without naming any shows abroad, it’s true you don’t have any kind of right to appeal there. Here you can pick up the phone and speak to Ramesh Narayan, and ask, ‘What the hell is going on, guys?’ That happens only in India. So, in fact, we must celebrate it.

Any last word from the Goafest chairman?

ABhasin: I think this might be the first year when we may have to say no to delegates. When we started off, we did so with trepidation. We started marketing Goafest from the morning of November 8 and you know what happened that day. and I’m happy to go on record to say that we’ve received record sponsorships than ever before.

Then we feared that we might get 20-35% fewer entries this year, because everyone was on a tight budget. But we got a record number of entries and now it’s looking like I might have physical, space constraints because the hall only has a certain capacity. Already, it looks like it may be over-packed. So much as we would not like to, this might be the first year when we have to close the delegates list on the date we say we will. This year, we might have to put up a ‘housefull’ board.


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