Shephali Bhatt
Oct 23, 2012

Close Up - “Focus is not politics or managerial issues, but great work”

Russell Barrett, managing partner, BBH India, on his journey up the advertising ladder so far, and his agenda at the agency. By Shephali Bhatt

Close Up - “Focus is not politics or managerial issues, but great work”

Hockey and writing were an integral part of your formative years. When did you finally decide to take the latter as a profession?

My two elder brothers have had a huge influence on me. One was a dedicated hockey player while the other was a writer. Throughout my time at St. Andrew’s School, Bandra, I was both playing hockey and writing. In fact, I wrote my first short story when I was eight. It was about a young boy who liked to outwit adults.  While I enjoyed writing, as a kid I always wanted to grow up and play for the country. I even played hockey at the state level. But by the time I finished school, I had decided to course correct and shift to writing. Two hard truths had struck me: one, that an injury can ruin your sport career, and two, that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. So, I moved from Khalsa College to St. Xavier’s to pursue literature. My English faculty Eunice de Souza lent a new perspective to books and literature. Moreover, my mother was a linguist and HOD at St. Andrew’s College English department, hence I was absorbing a lot of literature by default.

After graduation, I knew that the only two professions that pay you enough to keep you writing are journalism and copywriting. I chose the former and joined The Asian Age in 1996.  I left the job before I got paid my first month’s salary. I think it didn’t live up to my Ayn Rand-vision of journalism. It was now time to pick the next best option: copywriting. My eldest brother, Gavin Barrett (co-founder of Barrett and Welsh, Toronto) introduced me to Alvin Saldanha who put me in touch with Adrian Mendonza at Rediffusion DY&R. I took a copy test and Jeffrey Almeida, their servicing guy, got me on-board for a project on Clariant even before I was officially hired. My starting salary at Rediffusion DY&R was Rs 5000.

What was your brother’s advice to you before you entered advertising?

My brother had told me that advertising doesn’t have a place for uncut gems. If you aren’t teaching yourself, you won’t get better at your work. His advice held me in good stead during my three year long stint at Rediffusion. I would observe the work of Robby Mathew, R Sridhar and Parag Tendulkar.

How did you leverage Ogilvy’s work culture in the four years you worked there?

When Parag moved to Ogilvy, he asked me to join the agency. I was hired by Bobby (Pawar) to work under Ramanuj Shastry (1999). Three months later, I was moved to Sumanto Chattopadhyay’s group. Under him, I worked on brands like Onida, MTDC, HUL, World Gold Council and Samsonite.

Ogilvy made you learn what part of the idea to build on. You need to be producing great work to survive at Ogilvy with all the hot creative guys doing exceptional work around you. I was far junior to Bobby, (Anil) Bathwal, Prasoon Joshi, Rajiv Rao, Mahesh V, Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar and Ramanuj Shastry. But I aspired to do better work than these hot creatives. Ogilvy taught you leadership through action. Everyone was cracking ideas at Ogilvy. And it’s not like we had no fun. I remember this one time when I was playing cricket with Pushpi (Pushpinder Singh) and Sagar and suddenly I heard Piyush’s voice. I thought we would be rebuked but he actually joined us and started playing. At each of these points, we never lost focus of the work that was to be done and that it had to be superb. My years at Ogilvy were the most impressionable after which KV Sridhar hired me for Leo Burnett, as a part of his nine young creative directors’ team (2003).

How did you manage the shift from a senior copywriter to a creative director?

I think we were more like trainee creative directors thrown into the thick of handling businesses. At Ogilvy, there were always more than two people accountable for one brand, whereas at LB (Leo Burnett), you were solely responsible for the brand you were assigned. The agency had healthy competition and a bunch of like-minded people to work with and learn from. You learnt from Aggi’s (Agnello Dias) ability of visualising scripts; the homage Paddy (Santosh Padhi) paid to craft; or the knack with which Nitesh (Tiwari) put his finger on the pulse of an idea. AT LB, I was handling IOC (Servo Engine Oil), Bajaj Electricals, Principal Mutual Fund, Johnny Walker and AMFI. LB had an enthusiastic culture of winning awards on good work and it worked for the agency as much as for the creative guy who got to build a great portfolio.

Since we are at awards, how was the experience of working on the Luxor Highlighter campaign, one of your most awarded?

Luxor taught me discipline in craft. When Paddy cracked the idea and came to me, he scribbled a thumbnail and asked me if it was possible. And I saw nights flying away. I told him it’s broadly possible and we took it from there. Then we were thinking of characters that could be good stories. I enjoyed working on Che Guevara the most because it taught me a lot. By the time I started working on Hitler, I had started showing off but no one would have noticed it because they might not have read the entire copy. I remember I had written something connected with the eye when I came close to Hitler’s eye in the image.

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?

I think any extreme policy cannot work in the creative realm.  More often than not, the work that wins international awards, if it were released, it could change the client’s business positively. An agency needs to convince the client that a super creative ad is not an indulgence; it’s what the client pays its agency for. We refer to a divide in great work on the brand and then the other work, which is termed as creative glory or points or December. But work that wins has managed to impress people across the globe, why would it not impact people in your market? Yes, there are exceptions. But has someone examined that the award winning print and outdoor ads haven’t worked with the consumer? I think there can be only one divide, that between great creative work and mediocrity.

Tell us about the Bates experience. 

After I moved on from LB (in 2009) to join Bates as an ECD, I was managing a team of 20 odd people under me. I was thrilled with the idea of working with Sonal Dabral (who had quit Ogilvy a week before I joined the agency) and Sandeep Pathak who I knew from LB. Work on Virgin Mobile was extremely hectic. The good part was that I got to mentor youngsters at work. I realised that the role of a senior creative is not just to throw and reject stuff but help the juniors. You need to build on people’s ideas, not just accept or reject them. You need to value their time and give them constructive feedback.  The hellish working hours at Bates, on the other hand, taught me that you need to maintain a balance between work and personal life. You can’t be at work all the time and here I was, leaving office at 3 am almost every other day. Around this time (2010), Priti Nair called me to join BBH India and I took the opportunity right away.

Two major creative exits post your joining the agency, and then your elevation to the post of managing partner. How has it all panned out so far?

I think Priti wanted different things and that’s why she decided to move on. It came as a shock to me because it was liberating to work with her since she allowed you to fail and succeed. I also admired Raj Kamble’s energy. We lost a very good art director with his exit. None of this was planned. I didn’t anticipate my elevation as well. In fact, Sir John Hegarty had a heartening conversation with me wherein he convinced me to take up the role. After that, it was time to get back to doing what we like talking about the most – the work. Not politics or managerial issues but great work.

How often do you get to interact with Sir John Hegarty?

He is thoroughly involved and positive about BBH India. I have been lucky to have interacted with him over the years. BBH has a fluid structure which allows you to interface with the senior-most people at any time. I actually send him scripts for his feedback. This once I had sent him a print ad and he said that it was a great concept but the ad has to be big to be able to have the right impact on people. He makes you think that you should have thought about these things before sending him the work but then, there is hardly anyone who can teach you the visual impact of advertising better than him. He’s planning a visit to BBH India this month and I am earnestly looking forward to meeting him again.

You’ve recently lost the TVS Wego account. Was there an evaluation of what went wrong there?
We were quite shocked to hear the news. The entire team was emotionally involved with the brand and we thought we had done some great work on it. Everybody had invested a part of them in the brand so it felt like a personal loss as well. But with the disappointment, there’s a renewed vigour to get more accounts and do exceptional work.

Is BBH India forever pitching?

We are a start-up. We have to pitch. We pitch some, then we consolidate and then we pitch some more. We intend to grow organically. We are being invited for far more pitches than ever before.

What’s the immediate agenda on the growth plan?

Setting up digital, getting new businesses and then hiring more creative talent is on the cards. All of this will happen naturally on the back of great work. That’s the focal point for the moment.

Amidst all the action, have you ever thought of quitting advertising altogether?

I think about it every day. But I don’t really know what else I am good at. And I am not brave enough to write my book as yet. What keeps me glued to advertising? The fact that I haven’t devised a more fun way of making money that’s legal in India!


Luxor Highlighter, Leo Burnett, 2008 “It taught me the discipline of craft and proved that nothing worthwhile comes easy.”


Bajaj Electricals – Marriage Counselor, Leo Burnett, 2006  “Learnt how to minimise. How to make a single picture tell the whole story.”


World Gold Council, BBH India, 2011 “It was an interesting experiment of mixing Indian advertising with Thai.”


VAT 69, BBH India, 2012 “An opportunity for writers to write.”

Dinodia Picture Library, Leo Burnett, 2006 “My first long copy ad. The only ad of the campaign of three that was sent for awards and had won.”


TVS Wego, BBH India, 2011 “An ad that has had extremely polar points of view from people.”

MTDC - Tick-mark , Ogilvy & Mather, 2001 “Travelled with Ajay Salvi (the photographer) and my art partner at the time - Sandeep Bomble - through the length and breadth Maharashtra. At one point I was cracking ads because the place demanded it.”


Virgin Indian Panga League, Bates, 2009 “Had a great time creative directing these films, though I must have written only four to five of all the films.”


Virgin Mobile – Aunty, Bates, 2009 “The first time in my career I was working with a client who was asking us to make more edgy work.”


Google Chrome – Tanjore, BBH India, 2011 “The riskiest ad I have done that reaped the best results.”


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