What made you shift to advertising?
I began my career as a marketing executive in 1995, selling financial products for stock brokers. Soon I realised I wasn’t good at sales. Following that I joined a company called Repro. I was designing multimedia presentations there. For me the exposure at Repro was tremendous. I used to go for client meetings and meet key decision makers. After about a year and a half I joined Booz Allen. Three and a half years into the job and the company shut shop in India along with six other APAC offices. I was heading the IT and graphics departments with a focus on the dotcom area.
I joined a start up, Marshall Infonet, a dotcom company. I think some of the ideas were way too ahead of their time. At that time internet penetration was 0.4 per cent. Logically, you can’t expect miracles from this. Within four months of working for this the founders decided to put their hands up. A few of us tried keeping this afloat for two months, but it was way beyond us.
Following this, Grey happened. I was interviewed to come on board as head of IT, with a carrot dangling in front of me saying there’s an interactive division and eventually I will work in it. I took the risk. It was paying be below my dotcom monies but I saw some substance. I particularly liked the people who interviewed me - late Vinod Prabhakar, Subhash Kamath and Nirvik Singh. That was one of the few things that influenced me to join Grey. Within six to eight months I was given charge of the interactive division. At that time most agencies were downsizing their interactive division, because during the dotcom boom a lot of them had scaled them up. When everything came crashing for others, is when we started investing at Grey. The management had a pulse of where the medium was going.
What encouraged you to join a digital agency when internet penetration was only a 0.4 per cent?
From 0.4 per cent it can only go up. It was known that dependency on the internet was increasing - that was the gut feel. Had it not been for the interactive division, I may not have been at Grey at all. It’s been a fantastic 12-year journey for me. We’ve done some tremendous campaigns. I believe that if you look at the current digital landscape amongst agencies, I would rate my 75-member team very high in terms of services, ideas and execution.
How has the digital work evolved since 2001?
In 2001, people were selling media and not the medium. My first client on the digital side at Grey was Saffola. We created a website for them called healthykhana.com, which I thought was quite good in terms of content.
We also worked with Kerala Tourism, an account won by our Bangalore office. The account was purely digital and was targeting the international tourist. Internationally. The medium was pretty evolved by then and it made sense to use the digital path.
Following this, Amitabh Kant who was the secretary at Kerala Tourism joined the Ministry of Tourism India and they called for a pitch. We won a fiercely fought pitch and it came with lots of challenges. One of the key criteria of the pitch was to set up a website in seven days. We invested and bought content and kept everything ready. It was high risk for a division as we invested before we won the pitch. Luckily it wasn’t a wasted investment. We set up the website in four days. This account was our biggest till 2004-‘05. In 2006, Grey won the entire Incredible India advertising account. We won the Euro Effie the same year and till date ‘Incredible India’ is the only Indian brand to have won a Euro Effie.
We started beefing up our tech team. In 2009, we took the plunge and entered social media.
What happened when WPP bought over Grey?
Grey as an agency changed the way it worked after WPP bought it in 2005. There was lots of confusion in the market. We were confused too. Grey Interactive was rumoured to be centralised with GroupM for buying media. But that didn’t happen.
In digital, you cannot keep the two (media buying and creative) separate. But it is happening. For many clients, we are just a creative agency. We have managed to strike a close coordination with the media partners because we realise that it’s a win-win for both of us. Till 2005, people saw us as the media buying arm of Incredible India.
What’s the difference between working with a government organisation versus your other clients, given your experience with accounts like Kerala Tourism and Incredible India?
They are as ‘private sector’ as you can get. They are very focused and clear on what they want. They are clear in the communication. They give creative freedom too. I enjoyed working with them.
How’s your experience been working with Volkswagen?
For Volkswagen, the idea is to push the envelope and create something good. At the same time you can’t lose sight of what the result should be of the campaign. Lutz (Kothe) and his team will not entertain work created only for awards. He says create work that breaks all norms, create work that will be award winning but not at the expense of business results. The #Anything4Jetta campaign is one that’s very close to my heart. The YouTube test drive video campaign is another such campaign.
What about the other work coming out of Grey Digital?
Some of the work that we have done for Adobe is brilliant. Unfortunately, we don’t buy media for the Indian markets. The campaign runs in parts of North America and some markets of Europe. For six of the products we manage, we run their global campaigns out of the Indian offices.
The work done for Star has also been very good. We created ‘Oscar Charades’, where we took a simple idea of ‘Dumb Charades’, a game played by everyone. Another campaign that we created and are disappointed that it didn’t win an award was the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ game created prior to the movie been shown on Star Movies.
Infosys is also very close to my heart. It was one of the highlight pitches of 2007. It took nine months of preparation. In terms of pure campaigns that are meant to be run internationally, creating this was an achievement by itself.
What’s your view on work that’s created only for awards?
We won about 27 metals last year. None of the work was created with awards in mind. It was created because the idea was powerful and we strongly believed it would deliver in terms of visibility or interactions.
The jargon ‘Digital is the future’ is a tad bit old now. When do you think this will change to present tense?
I think we are reaching that stage soon. I believe that in some sectors it’s already mature. In some categories like the financial sector, digital is a done thing. It’s the norm in India and abroad. For FMCG products, where the ticket value of the product is not too high, your idea should be to engage audiences. People spend 10 to 12 hours in office. The only medium of entertainment is a computer or mobile phone. The same people spend only an hour or two on television. But clients put the bulk of their money on TV. It is for us as an industry to showcase our potential.
Rural India is going to skip the computer generation. They access internet directly on their mobile phones. By 2015, most cell phones will be smart phones or internet ready phones. Then the scale will be completely different. We have a 800 million active user base expected (by then) and even if only 30 per cent of that base looks at the internet, we still have close to a massive 300 million.
Do you see enough talent in the digital space?
No. A lot of people want to do digital, but they’re going wrong with something fundamental and that is their dependence on technology, which is way too high. You can choose to turn away from that, but if you don’t know what technology can do to your idea you’ve lost the plot. People ask why an Indian agency hasn’t won at Cannes or other awards abroad (in digital). The answer is simple. We are not ready for it (as a market). It’s not that we don’t have the ideas but bulk of the audience can’t consume that campaign. I think it’s completely unfair to say Indian agencies can’t win a Grand Prix or Gold at Cannes - it’s more a function of accepting the local reality.
#anything4jetta The largest twitter campaign in a single country. Won maximum awards for an automotive brand in 2012.
Singapore Birdpark An immersive interactive experience of the Singapore Birdpark that was finalist at Webby’s.
Jetta SI Youtube Test Drive India’s first direct video response campaign.
Incredible India The only brand from India to have won a Euro Effie(2006). A brand that was first launch online before any other medium
Pirates A trans-media scavenger hunt that integrated social media with On-Air programming for the premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean IV on Star Movies
Singapore Zoo An immersive interactive experience of the Singapore Zoo Webby’s
LifeOK Indias largest online concert for the launch of the Hindi GEC LifeOK. Gold for best integrated campaign at the IDMA.
Oscar Charades Oscar promotional campaign for Star Movies, featured on the coveted Google Rich Media Gallery. Winner at DMA awards.