The office of Cartwheel Creative Consultancy gives little indication of the creative spirit that it nurtures, at first glance. One needs to venture a little further inside, and have a chat with founder D Ramakrishna, to understand it better. To start with, in the conference room is green Table Tennis equipment; net in place, racquets on it. In place of the conference table one would expect. Someone seems to have just finished an afternoon game to unwind. “This is where we sometimes have meetings,” muses Ramakrishna, as we settle down for a chat on the 2006-born independent, and himself, the creative at its helm.
The admittedly reclusive Ramakrishna is clearly happy speaking about the agency now, than he would have been two years ago when the agency lost a big account, that of Reliance Communications (mobile services). Since then, it has been about ‘building things back piece by piece’. Growing business from the likes of Kotak Mahindra Bank, for which the agency started with the ‘25 years’ communication, has helped. Circa nine months back, the agency helped re-launch refined oils from Dalda. A few more brands from the stable followed into the agency’s portfolio. ICICI Lombard started working with the agency about two years ago. While all of this has helped the agency greatly, Ramakrishna acknowledges that the telecom void was felt – until recently, when the agency handled a campaign for Airtel’s 56789 service.
“We were missing telecom. We spent the early years building telecom brands. It was like handling five accounts – a music brand, a corporate brand, an FMCG brand, everything. The best thing about it is that it tests you at all levels. And it gives you visibility. A sense of scale is always good,” he explains.
When Mohit Beotra from Bharti Airtel asked Cartwheel if they could work on a VAS brief, Ramakrishna recalls that the agency ‘fortunately cracked it at the first attempt’.
When Ramakrishna quit JWT India, he only had a vague idea that he wanted to be independent. It was around this time that Sanjay Bahl, a former client at Levers, had joined Reliance (now with Raymond’s). It was again a VAS brief that started it all. The ‘Bas Button Dabao’ campaign for RWorld followed. Another project followed. The one-client agency saw another ex-client of Ramakrishna’s come on board – Henkel, with a film for Fa deos. Ramakrishna, who had been working ‘almost like a freelancer’ until then, took up office space in 2007. Another highpoint on Reliance ensured that there was no turning back – in a pitch that involved other Reliance agencies, Cartwheel bagged the job of creating the ‘India’s No.1 Network’ film.
The agency now has 40 people, with 15 of them in digital. Looking back, Ramakrishna cites the key events from his three long stints at agencies Mudra (where he started off), Lintas and then JWT. Besides which, he had a stint at Chennai-based Fifth Estate, where he was a partner alongside Ganesh Baliga. And one at Forefront in Mumbai, alongside another friend. It all started on the campus of IIM Ahmedabad.
“I realised I was not going to be a corporate guy with a management job. I realised I wanted to be in a creative field, and therefore, advertising. But I didn’t know what I would do within advertising,” recalls Ramakrishna. That’s when he met ‘Naga’ or Naganand, who was doing a fellowship programme. Naga was at the time helping AG Krishnamurthy redefine Mudra. Armed with the vision that one could create creative people in a lab, if you give them the value systems, atmosphere and opportunities, he went about ‘putting together a team of dreamers’. A fully integrated six-month, intensive copy training programme was what this translated into. In his final year then, Ramakrishna applied for the programme and got selected. He took the plunge. Alongside him were five others, R Balki, Pankaj Mridul, Ajit Kuriakose, Sunil Gautam and Dhruva Borkotoky. Pratap Suthan, recalls Ramakrishna, was an ‘Honorary Member’ of the gang – he joined as a writer, but did attend classes.
The rules were stringent. They were not allowed to step inside an agency for six months. “It was pretty weird, but intense and amazing,” is how the Cartwheel founder describes the programme. After the programme, the six were sent to six different branches of Mudra. Ramakrishna went to the Chennai office, before moving to Mumbai. While in Chennai, he worked on campaigns like the one for TI Cycles’ BSA brand (Zip Zap Zoom). On his first day in Mumbai, there was a meeting with Reliance that he was part of. He saw Anil Ambani. And was tasked with editing some annual reports of the group. Other work, for brands like Godrej (soaps), followed.
The five-year itch
Ramakrishna explains the exit from Mudra, into a start up in Chennai: “It was a tough call, but I had a vague five-year plan. I thought five years was a long time to learn. That’s when Ganesh Baliga called me. I thought it was providential, as my folks were in Chennai at the time, alone. We had a good start, doing work on brands like Sumeet Mixers and Dalmia Cement.”
He got married to a girl from Mumbai thereafter. And after three years in Chennai, he got a bit restless as well, he confesses. “Chennai wasn’t happening,” he reflects.
He moved to Mumbai to join Forefront, which was being run by Pankaj Mridul, his classmate under ‘Naga’. Work on Mother’s Recipe, Kala Niketan, Roop Milan, among others, kept him engaged for two years. “But things were kind of going down; the agency was on its last legs,” he recalls. It was around the time another programme mate, Balki, came to Mumbai.
‘Don’t put me on Levers’
When Balki invited Ramakrishna to ‘come to a big agency’, he agreed, but said, “Don’t put me on Levers.” What ensued was quite unexpected, and pleasantly at that.
While the first year was spent on non-Levers brands, he ended up working on the likes of Surf Excel, Wheel, Domex and Vim. For Vim, he recalls the demos across the country – from South Bombay to dhabas in Ambala. And the ‘First Night’ film for Vim bar.
“I did some work I was really happy about. We had some fantastic category heads and brand managers to work with. I realised that having slightly evolved clients who trust you, who want to listen to what you have to say, makes a big difference. There were more than enough clients at Levers like that; I give them the credit,” he explains.
Ramakrishna adds that it was a time before things got internationalised - with global templates and ideas implemented rigorously. The timing helped pull off campaigns he recalls fondly, like a filmi Wheeel film with Govinda.
“After a point, the kids who liked to do one-offs, liked to work on brands like Axe, wanted to do stuff on Surf Excel and Vim. That was nice,” he notes. His association with Levers brands lasted a little longer than that, albeit on other brands.
The JWT inning
It was when Tarun Rai (now with WWM) wanted to get someone to handle creatives of the Levers business at JWT, that Ramakrishna was approached. Rin, Sunsilk and Lux were in the portfolio. The task was daunting, but proved to be an attraction for Ramakrishna.
“At the time, JWT was not really perceived as the best agency on Levers. That was the challenge which attracted me. To some extent, we did manage to change that – definitely on Rin. It started happening on Lux as well. Sunsilk took a little longer,” he recollects. He also recounts some good work on Philips and De beers during the JWT stint.
Along the way, he was already experimenting, talking to the agency about creating a creative platform. He made the case that half the people in the agency wanted to write their own films – so why not channelise some of their creativity?
“To Tarun’s credit, he said ‘Let’s try it out’. We got Jaideep (who would become a partner for Cartwheel’s first feature later) in as a consultant. But that’s when I was reaching a mid-life crisis as well,” he explains.
A slew of leadership changes at JWT India only added to this 'crisis'. Ramakrishna explains that it wasn’t just about the changes, but about what he yearned to do: “I found that my heart was not in it when I was sometimes doing a ‘corporate speak’. I got a little restless about repeating myself. And yes, in the changes that were happening, I didn’t find myself in the thick of things. I decided to move on.”
The creative Cartwheel
A lot of what Ramakrishna wanted to do and believed in, he has attempted to realise through Cartwheel. It’s a ‘little more than a creative experiment’, something that pleases the agency’s founder. A new creative culture sans ‘9 to 5’ was born.
“If a creative guy is made to feel responsible for something, he will deliver,” surmises Ramakrishna. He was elaborating on the work philosophy: Cartwheel has no attendance register, no leave forms, no cubicles, no designations, and no ‘departments’. “I wanted to create this workplace which has almost no rules – as little as we can get by with,” reveals the agency founder.
People sometimes take a month off, sometimes two – often prompting the agency to wonder if they’re going to come back, he says in jest. People have written screenplays, novels and movies while at Cartwheel. In the spirit of using the space to do something, the agency has also seen other entities being born on its premises – Aegis Group’s Doosra was born at Cartwheel, reveals Ramakrishna.
We asked him if the ‘agency sans rules’ approach has worked, and whether misuse and abuse of this freedom has been evident. Ramakrishna responds that while the system has been abused by some, the agency’s stand has been vindicated.
He retorts, “People abuse culture even when there are rules. You can come in at 9 am and faff away – that is also abuse.”
He names ‘Naga’ as a major influence, crediting him for the ‘surreal experience’ that got him into advertising. Ramakrishna is quick to add that the lot that he churned out has done rather well. He credits AG Krishnamurthy for his quiet manner and the culture of ‘getting things done’, at Mudra. He admires Ganesh Baliga for his ‘wild, ambitious, reckless way of dreaming big’ (back then). And Balki, once his contemporary and later his boss, for his passion, stamina and energy.
What about the young people in his fold? What is his approach to mentoring them?
“The young need mentorship. They need the space, but you just can’t let them be. They look for it, they seek it. We don’t recognise it,” he signs off.
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