Close-Up: ‘One should have taken the (digital) plunge a lot earlier’

Sudesh Samaria, chief creative officer, Webchutney, takes Jagadeesh Krishnamurthy through his career in advertising - from mainstream to digital, and what's cooking at Webchutney - including 30 per cent revenues from mobile next year.

Close-Up: ‘One should have taken the (digital) plunge a lot earlier’

How did you get into advertising?

It was never my first choice. I graduated in Fine Arts from Delhi College of Art in 1994, with speciality in painting. The interesting thing was that all my friends had taken Commercial Arts and since we used to discuss a lot of ideas with them, I took an interest in advertising. After graduation, while these guys moved into agencies, I was continuing my first passion of illustration and painting. Over time, they used to invite me over to help them with illustrations for their campaigns. Once when a friend asked me to illustrate, the agency’s creative director requested my help on the layouts too. Being a full time painter is a struggle, especially when you are not living with your family. Though I was making decent money with these freelance assignments, I took the plunge when a good offer came from Nitin Beri, then creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi, in 1996.

So, what prompted your jump from Saatchi to Trikaya Grey, and then to start something on your own?

When the entire team I was working with moved from Saatchi, I tried working with the new creative director for a while but did not have the same kind of fun working there. Meanwhile, I got a great offer from Trikaya and joined there in 1998. There I met Sidharth (Rao), who was a copy intern on my team. The good thing was we were very fascinated about the internet. In fact, Sidharth opened the first hotmail account for me. In those days, at advertising agencies, everyone was talking about internet, but nobody knew what could be done. Websites were also being made by programmers with scant regard for aesthetics. Both of us decided to moonlight, and started developing websites as freelancers.

Our first project was for a buying agent, and that was a painful account. She wanted to create a website based on some concepts, and not just a vanilla five page site. The only problem we faced with that was, while we came up with concepts, we couldn’t translate it the way we wanted it on screen. That was a major disappointment for me, and I got frustrated. Finally, we managed get someone with some international experience to help us fix the problem.
When Grey took over Trikaya, all the interns were asked to leave and Sidharth was also one of them. At that time, internet was booming, and we thought of making a career out of it. I was excited about it because of the challenges this medium offers.

What’s the story behind the name Webchutney?

Looking back, it was quite funny how we decided on the name. While in Grey, we used to visit this samosa shop behind the office. We were very excited about naming our venture ‘Samosa’. While trying to register the domain, we found it was already booked by some American company. Then we decided to use ‘Chutney’, but even that was registered. We tried out many other combinations, and ‘Webchutney’ was the only one available. Though the company name was decided by chance, we were sure about including either 'Samosa' or 'Chutney' in our company’s name.

What led you to take the entrepreneurial route, even without an investor?

We knew that it was now or never. When one is doing well, it is very easy to get sucked into it permanently and get used to that lifestyle. It is only later that we realise how one should have been adventurous. I see a lot of seniors still in mainline advertising agencies not having as much fun as they had in the beginning. I always anyway wanted to work for myself, at my own pace and time. So it sounded perfect.

Which are the campaigns from Webchutney that are close to your heart?

There are many.
(Let's start with this one) For the client, it was a very small campaign. But, for us, it was the piece of work that made people sit up and notice Webchutney. People, especially brands, were not taking digital seriously. That was the time when even software companies were not keen about spending on digital. One of their favourite arguments used to be: ‘Internet is a free medium. Even the images and technology running it are available for free. So, why are you charging us so much?’

At that time, the work ‘Chidiya Uddi’ for Makemytrip was a path breaking one. Till then, we were known as the agency guys who made ‘Gutter Space’ – a news portal dedicated to the advertising industry. The idea behind ‘Chidiya Uddi’ was simple and we did the animation ourselves. Our client was not even aware about it during development. We presented the final product and they loved it instantly. That, according to me, was the first viral. It was our Sholay moment. Everyone wanted us to recreate the same magic for their brands. You can’t get Ramesh Sippy to create a Sholay every time he makes a movie. Now, this guy must be s*** scared about the next video that he will be producing.

The Rajini website is another one that people remember Webchutney for. What led to this idea?
There are thousands of things said about him, and our sole objective was to create something which can also be part of the folklore. If you look at it, the design of the site is very simple. It is the idea behind the website that took it viral. One of our technology guys in Delhi, during his research came up with the idea about making a website work only when the internet connection is unplugged. I was very happy that the final website can now match up to the other ‘Rajini facts’. We hardly had three to four days to implement this before his birthday, and were very clear that we will not do a vanilla e-card website.    

After successfully switching to this (digital) side, do you miss mainstream advertising?

Not at all. Almost all the traditional agency senior hands are now saying, ‘We want to do digital’. Just talking about it doesn’t help. They should have got into this medium earlier. Because of the luxurious lifestyle they are accustomed to, they simply can’t switch to digital now. I switched to digital before internet was even top of mind at any of the agencies.

What is your view on the work created for awards?

Broadly, all I can say is that it exists even in digital, but it’s not only the agencies to blame. In our space, very few clients understand possibilities and innovation, which therefore limit their agencies to experiment with ground-breaking work. This (work created for awards) provides a platform to showcase some of the possibilities. However, for their own reasons, there are many who are still happy doing the basic stuff.

How has the Indian digital advertising space evolved? Is lack of talent hampering growth?

I don’t think there is a lack of creativity at all. There are some great pieces of work done by several agencies. For example, at the Yahoo Hackathon, while we won, the work from the other participating agencies was also interesting. That’s my point too - if there is an opportunity, the talent is ready to showcase. In fact, the talent landscape is getting better every day.

What’s next for you, and for Webchutney?

Mobile is the next biggest frontier. I believe the era of the desktop internet is slowly phasing out. We are at 100 million internet users today, and I believe 90 per cent of the next 300 million will be mobile/handheld first users. It comes with its challenges: small screen, limited formats, etc. It is going to be an uphill task for marketers and agencies to figure out how to stay relevant in this shift.
We have taken a strong position on this internally, and are working not just with our brands but telecom operators to explore this - some of our content is already live in the form of multimedia content, gaming and apps. Overall, 15 per cent of our revenues are from mobile this year. Having said that, wait and watch: next year we will be the first agency to have 30 per cent of our revenues from the medium. More on that, as we make more announcements during the year.

Mergers and acquisitions are the flavour of the season. Any news from Webchutney on that front?

Yes, talks are on with potential partners. We don’t want to do this for the sake of doing it. I am more concerned about my peoples’ well being. I will be happy when my people are. We would love to associate ourselves with someone who is willing to keep our brand identity intact.

What is the one thing that you always look back, and laugh about?

There was a case when the client was interfering too much in our work, but we kept working with him for the money as those were the struggling days. We used to think about how ‘this money could get us our new printer and scanner’. This guy used to get all his PowerPoint presentations to us and make us ‘beautify’ it every time he had a pitch. One day, I was not in office and Sidharth was helping him to find his files on my computer. After a lot of search, when Sidharth called me to check about the file, I told him to check the folder named ‘Muft Khor’ which had all his files. While Sidharth was nervous to open the folder in front of the client, he had to do it. And, as luck would have it, the client also read the folder name and was quite embarrassed. But, he got serious and asked us to send bills for whatever work we did. Sidharth and I always look back and laugh about that instance.  Eventually, we did stop working with him.


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