Profile: ‘I really think we are paid out of whack’

Lowe Lintas’ Joseph George opens up to Arati Rao on agency remuneration, talent, accountability, and digital

Profile: ‘I really think we are paid out of whack’

Joseph George, chief executive officer of Lowe Lintas & Partners, remembers doing his fair share of running around with artworks and getting bullied by the studio guys in the early days of his career. However, there’s more to a servicing or account management person’s job than just ‘ops’, and George says he was lucky to experience that in his long career at Lowe Lintas, thanks to ‘fantastic’ clients. “The clients we usually end up having are the type who involve you in everything; for account management, the more the client involves you in the business, the more you give for the brand - it’s as simple as that,” he explains.

George has been in account management for most of his career, save for a year or so right at the beginning. He was recruited in 1991 for planning or CIBS (consumer-based insight strategy as it’s called in Leo Burnett) by Arvind Sharma. He then got his break at Lintas (as Lowe Lintas was then known) in servicing, and started off on the Cadbury and Johnson & Johnson business.

In 1995, George moved to Bangalore, to work on Lever Foods, Titan and Tanishq. In fact, he was part of the team that launched Tanishq (it’s still one of his favourite clients to date). Asked about some of the memorable campaigns he worked on for the brand, George recalls fondly, “Tanishq launched as an 18 karat brand and there was only so much traction. I remember this prolonged discussion we all had on how to break this hold that family jewellers had. If Tanishq had to be in the consideration set, somewhere the consumer had to think twice about the family jeweller.

Tanishq being Tata, purity was taken for granted. What we figured from the market was this huge under-karatage - jewellers used to sell 16k as 18k, 18 as 22 and so on. Tanishq managed to get what they called ‘karat meters’, where you can check the karatage. We put some of them in our showrooms and asked people to come check their jewellery. It was crazy, because people were frustrated to have been cheated about gold that was given to them during auspicious moments. I remember the first campaign we did was a press ad that said ‘Beware, there’s a thief in your family’. Then we followed that up with a TV ad. I thought the whole proposition of making the consumer doubt their blind faith in their family jeweller was quite path breaking and gutsy.”
Another memorable piece of communication was for Kissan Jam. “Jam communication at that time was very ‘kiddy’, and fun. We actually hit upon an insight (obvious now, in hindsight), that mothers used to have huge trouble getting their kids to have breakfast. In one of our umpteen researches, there was one mother who said, ‘Bachche ke peeche bhaagna padta hai.’ That was the communication, a film about a mother with a plate chasing a kid for breakfast. It was norm-breaking because jams weren’t advertised that way,” reminisces George.

George returned to Lowe Lintas Mumbai in 2003. “An ex-client, Vivek Rampal, who used to head Kwality Walls, moved to Mumbai a couple of years earlier and asked for me. So the move was initiated by him; but at the same time, I also thought I was plateauing in Bangalore after eight years,” he says. George came back to manage part of Levers, and after three to four years was handling the entire business.

Levers is undoubtedly one of the ‘fantastic’ clients for George, and not just because Lowe Lintas handles around 20 of the goliath’s brands (close to 65 to 70 per cent of the company’s portfolio, he estimates). “I think every account management person in advertising should and must have a Levers stint,” he states. “They genuinely believe in the difference advertising can make to the future of their brands. There’s no discussion on a brand that agency folks aren’t a part of; therefore what they manage to get is complete commitment.”

One has heard of some people who get frustrated with the long research process, but George believes it helps. He says, “The account management executive needs to believe in why they’re doing research. If you know what you’re looking for and why you’re doing it, then you don’t feel the frustration.”

Then in 2011, with the departure of Charles Cadell, the role of chief executive officer came to George; he was deputy chief executive officer at that time. Asked whether he felt daunted by it or was ready for it, he replies, “A mix of the two. I was in the system for so long that I felt that I knew everything about the agency. Levers was and is our biggest client, so scale didn’t bother me. But Delhi is a big office, and Kolkata and Chennai and the entire non-Lever part of Mumbai were new to me. Also, what helped is that the people I worked with – especially Balki, Fali (Vakeel), Amer (Jaleel) and Arun (Iyer), were people who I had worked with for many years.”

There were a few things that George wanted to focus on in the new role. First was the aggression of the agency when it came to new business. “I thought that our size isn’t as big as the equity we command. I felt that to be a bit unfair and a bit frustrating. One of the things I really wanted to change and quickly at that, was to scale up. That’s why over the last two years, we’ve gone berserk. We’ve won close to a hundred new businesses,” says George. He feels that that aggression is part of the agency’s DNA now. Asked what the agency’s pitch approach is, he responds, “Our pitch style is heavily loaded on strategy; we try and demonstrate to the client our process. What we don’t want clients to buy into is a script, we want them to buy into a process and the culture.”

The second thing that George wanted to change was attitude. “I don’t think enough people were contributing to the end product; in a large agency or organisation, we always tend to believe somebody will be taking care of things,” he explains. “I’ve tried to make every person in every function at every level be that much more accountable for what they deliver.”

To that end, George is also making an effort to bring some value back to the role of the younger account management people in the system. “Making them more accountable, making them more involved in the client’s business, making them more sensitive to what they need to do on brands, their partnership with planning and creative,” George enlists. This is being implemented through regular brand sessions, besides another interesting measure: the agency doesn’t hire junior planners anymore.

“One of the things that was happening was that junior planners were making junior servicing people’s function redundant, and therefore you were ending up with junior servicing guys doing just ops,” he says. “So I thought of knocking off junior planners and forcing junior servicing guys to think on brand. So now we hire planners with at least seven to eight years of experience.”

George admits that right now, Lowe Lintas has very little digital business and that’s something that has to change, given the number of clients it has. “I’m of the firm opinion that brand teams need to take on the onus and deliver on digital. It is not a specialised unit’s responsibility. The tech bit is the only thing where I will invest separately. So mainlining digital is on the agenda, and I’m glad both my national creative directors are just as passionate about it,” he firmly states. He gives one year for that as a deadline.

Asked about challenges the agency faces, George says he prefers to call them things on his agenda; they’re really situations the entire industry is facing, but he intends to do something about it.

“One is people who call pitches just to shop for strategy and creative. I have started to introduce an  NDA at the time of pitches, so that just in case we don’t work together because of remuneration or some such thing, they don’t take my idea and give it to someone else,” he reveals. The second point of frustration is remuneration. “I really think we are paid out of whack. Brands are growing, but we aren’t growing; how fair is that?” he questions.

No agency head’s agenda can be complete without talent. George explains a new HR play at the agency, initiated six months ago: “We went to small towns and hired 24 people – from places like Aligarh, Ranchi and Shillong. We’ve inducted them into the Lowe Lintas Apprenticeship programme, which is of 18 months. We’re putting them up and training them for 18 months, and there are some absolute rockstars. If it works out, I’ll want to do it every 18 months.”

The Flip Side

Age: 45

Home: Worli Seaface

Hobbies: I just became a certified scuba diver, I plan to dive a lot more often. I’m an indiscriminate movie watcher, and of TV series as well – right  now it’s the Boardwalk Empire. I’m also a YouTube sucker.

Gadget obsession: I have an iPhone, an iPad, and I can’t do without my BlackBerry.

Always in the fridge: Blackcurrant ice-cream

Mantra that’s worked: I don’t lose my temper easily, and it works wonders for the environment

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3 October 2014