CI: What attracted you to advertising?
Kartik Iyer (KI): I grew up in Africa, and our entertainment used to come from recorded VHS tapes from UK. All these programs used to come with ad breaks, and so I grew up watching all these great campaigns in the 1980s from UK. That’s where it started for me. By the time I moved back to India, I knew I wanted to be in advertising.
I went to Rajeev Menon’s office and asked who thinks of the commercials; they said it was the agency. I went to the agency and asked the same question; they said it was the copywriter. I spent six years learning to be a copywriter, until I realised that I actually wanted to be an ad film maker. But there is no turning back now.
Praveen Das (PD): It was just accidental; and now I am loving it. I was on the way to becoming a designer. I met Dayanand Sheelavant at a photoshop and animation class. He was a total stranger. I didn’t have a PC to work on to create my portfolio, and he allowed me to go to his house and work on it. Sheelavant was with JWT at that time, and when an opportunity arose, I approached him and got into advertising.
You weren't exactly 'veterans' when you launched Happy Creative Services. Moreover, both of you hadn't partnered with each other. What prompted you both to get into a partnership?
KI: All through my career I never had an art partner to work with. We met at Ogilvy, where Praveen was around for only four to five months. Though we used to head separate teams, we used to sit next to each other. I felt comfortable sharing my ideas with him and hearing feedback that was not necessarily positive. It was very instinctive. One day, the thought just popped in my head and I asked him. He said yes, and there has been no turning back since then.
PD: Throughout my career I never had a consistent copy partner. At Ogilvy, Iyer came across as a fun, energetic person who was creative with strong leadership skills. On the edge of losing my sanity at my previous job, I was actually toying with the idea of starting a pickle business. Right when I reached a point where I had to push the eject button, Iyer called and said ‘Macha, you wanna start something new?’ I instantly said ‘yes’. Iyer’s wife was pregnant and I was about to get married; it seemed like the wrong time to quit and start something new. But we took the risk and plunged right in. All this with a little bit of magic brought us together.
Your last outing together was at Ogilvy & Mather. How was your experience there?
KI: I have been a fan of Ogilvy even before I joined the industry. It took me eight or nine years in advertising to gain the confidence to show my portfolio at Ogilvy. When I did, I got hired by (late) Mahesh and Rajiv Rao. Creative standards and the role of strategy are the two most important things that I learnt at Ogilvy. Coming to India after a stint with Y&R Dubai, Ogilvy taught me the Indian landscape. I did the Worldspace campaign featuring A R Rahman, where I was the be-all and end-all for that campaign. They let me lead it from the front.
PD: For me, it was a short stint, of only five months. I feel it’s the same drill at all the big agencies.
Getting the account of Lee within six months of launch was not a small task. How did you manage it?
KI: When we were just two weeks old, Lee was looking for fresh creatives. Moreover, they were finding it difficult working between Bangalore and Mumbai. At that time, small agencies didn’t do TVCs for big brands - definitely not a six month-old agency.
PD: Both of us put up our portfolios together, and we went with gut feel and full of confidence. They gave a project to start off, to design one of their outlets in Delhi, for which we came up with the concept called ‘Snobbish’. They were quite impressed with our work, and after a couple of more projects, we got the business.
The campaigns for Flipkart have been quite popular now. How has it been working with them?
KI: Strangely, Flipkart and Myntra are two businesses that we won purely on strategy-led pitches. No creatives were shared, and we are very proud of that. We signed both businesses on the same day. Since Flipkart was clearly the larger player, we had to let go of Myntra. I must confess that there was a little bit of rigidity when the new marketing leadership under Ravi Vora came in, but I think we somewhere understood that we both were trying to achieve the same goals.
Sell outs and JVs are the flavour of the season. Have you been approached, yet? What is the Happy view to being bought out/invested in?
KI: There have been some mentions through common friends, but we haven’t received any direct calls. Our growth has been good, but there have been no spikes. It is also because of the way we have chosen to work with our clients. I think the whole buy out kind of conversations happen when people see a number that we are hitting or they want to recruit you as talent for your group. We have also been vocal that we are not looking to sell out at this point.
PD: We have set a vision and have a long way to go to build Happy. It’s too soon to even think about selling out or JVs.
How hard was it to attract talent in the early days? How has that changed now?
PD: Initially it was tough, because nobody wanted to join two guys who had set up a shop called Happy. Nobody was willing to take a risk with us. Sure, we did try but we gave a rat’s ass. It's like this philosophy that Iyer and I believe in – ‘Build a better mouse trap, and the world will beat a path to your door.’ It has changed so much since then. We have drawn people to us only because of our work.
What’s your stance on the two extremes – agencies that stress only on winning awards and agencies that don’t believe in awards at all?
KI: We don’t believe in scams. We don’t believe in creating a campaign and finding a client to put the logo. Yes, we believe in doing award-winning work for existing clients that actually help their business. Of course awards are important. If Happy hadn’t won at the awards, our creative people would not have joined us.
Is there anything that you felt must change about people management - especially creative - in an agency, that you have implemented at Happy?
KI: We are a pretty people-friendly agency, and we have done it all ourselves. We devised our own HR policies. Little by little, we are doing small things for our employees. At the end of the day, we are also people. We also get frustrated and pissed off sometimes. There is no ego, and there are no fights. I am very proud that we have a culture like that. Whoever tries to be political, the system automatically throws them out.
PD: We believe in having good people, with good values. Show some love. Inspire. Don’t treat people like work horses and hire people with good character.
What has been the highest point in your careers, and the lowest?
KI: Personally, the Lee film - I think it is one of the best films. The Incredible India film - firstly for getting the opportunity to work on it, and secondly for winning the World’s best tourism commercial for 2009. Flipkart - I waited for sixteen years for Flipkart to happen. Everybody wants to do a campaign that gets left behind in the timeline of a country’s advertising industry. Flipkart has already found its place. I really can’t pick any low points. The first six months when I was with Y&R Dubai and getting f***ed, seemed a low point then. But when I look back, that’s actually a high point.
One of the things that I am really proud of is my stint in running the business - we run a clean agency, we don’t cheat or do kickbacks, and we are debt-free.
Name the three people you've learnt most from, in advertising, and what have you imbibed from each of them?
KI: When I was working with Y&R Dubai, I met Shahir Zag. He is like a mentor to me. He made me unlearn everything that I had learnt till the time I met him. He broke me down and made me learn it all over again.
V Mahesh and Rajiv Rao. Mahesh influenced me in many ways. He was a great friend, and his dying was a huge loss for the industry. They both influenced me with their calm and cool way of working.
Piyush Pandey of course.
PD: Honestly, I never had a mentor and can’t pick three specific people in the industry. I had some really good friends/colleagues with whom I discussed ideas, learnt from and they inspired me.
You have been on an expansion spree, with a Mumbai office and new senior recruits. What’s the immediate growth agenda?
KI: I learnt business in the last five years. I think the laws of business dictate the growth. We have grown purely because we are getting more business. We are very judicious of whom we work with. We have turned down 85 percent of the calls we get. It is not just about the brand; if we don’t find it comfortable, we run. If we are not sure we can do a great job, we don’t accept. 2011-‘12 was when we doubled and we now have 45 people on board, a design cell and a Mumbai office.
PD: We have something in mind. We want to take it to the next level, and build a few more brands like Flipkart. We are working on a few plans.
Flipkart Cafe (most popular film of the series) First of the 'No kidding. No worries.' campaign that went on to become 'a classic'.
Lee Lee's first commercial India and Happy's first film when we were six months old.
Lee - Sheep Campaign to promote special washes by Lee.
The Good Chain Identity and store design created for a farmer friendly fruits and vegetable store.
Flipkart - Father's Day Created for Flipkart's facebook page created on Father's Day which got 850 shares in one day.
Diesel - Knee J A fake product created as a give away for Diesel's Launch party in India which was themed the Fake Party
Incredible India We developed the script and concept for Nirvana Films (who commissioned us), the film went on to win many international awards and was adjudged the best tourism film in 2009.
Lee - Never Wasted A bag design that allows you to create 29 diff products from a single bag. It became a huge sucess online and went on to win many national and international awards.
Amante Created to educate women about the real problems they face with their inner wear, a strategic departure from showing scantily clad women.
Basic - Airline Brand campaign for Basics 029 apparel