The co-founder of Wannawill Inventorium, his latest venture, says the operating principle for it is ‘Invent – Operate – Transfer’.
“We will create consumer products which have a market – and there are clear need gaps in several spaces,” reveals Anantha Narayan, who also dons the titles of co-founder of Albert Dali, a brand naming consultancy (since 2010); creative director at Chennai-based 1pointsize (2002); and ‘chief devil’ at an entity called Lucifer Labs (2009).
The first patent and a prototype from Wannawill are in place.
“It’s an experiment. There are not too many consumer-facing products. I want to do everything in creative,” says the mining engineer from IIT Varanasi and MBA from XLRI, who started his career in 1996 as a sales manager in Bareilly for Philips Lighting. He realised within a year that it wasn’t his calling. As he reveals on his LinkedIn profile: “At Philips, I got the bright idea of escaping sales.”
The early days
The son of a former Member of Parliament moved base to Chennai in 1996 after giving up on selling bulbs in Western UP. Narayan, who was introduced to the joy of crafting words as editor of college magazine Grafitti, had given a copy test in an ad agency as early as in his third year of engineering at RK Swamy, ‘the only agency which responded’. But he didn’t rush into it because the pay was too low.
“But when I escaped Philips, I didn’t want to take a pay cut,” he recalls. A college mate Sanjay Santhanam, who went on to become marketing head at Royal Sundaram, helped him get his first break. And because of the pay difference, he joined Contract Advertising as an account executive instead of joining a creative team. After a stint of less than a year, he took a month’s break. To make his portfolio. The next stop was the creative team at McCann Erickson Chennai, hired by Rajesh Ramaswamy (ex-ECD South).
“In 1996, there were quite a few agencies in Chennai (unlike now). The big four would have been JWT, Lintas, Ogilvy and RK Swamy. Rubecon had just started doing the ColorPlus kind of work. McCann too was quite big. We handled Pond’s, Vaseline, Durex, Hot Breads… I was on Cornetto, which was handled by Bangalore and Chennai,” recalls Narayan. He wrote the line, “Pyar ka naya funda’ for the brand. After a year and a half, he moved to Mudra.
It was here that Narayan had what he terms the first taste of a ‘full blown FMCG account’ – via Henkel, and its brands Fa and Henko Stain Champion. The experience was richer with the first chain of cybercafés, Satyam Online. It was also during this stint that he found his art partner CP Sajith, with whom he paired up for 13 years.
The glory days
With Sajith, Narayan had his first taste of awards, winning Mudra laurels at local award shows. After Mudra came the collaboration with Sharad Haksar, photographer and head of what would become 1pointsize.
“The three of us started work by the side. It was a photographer and two creative people collaborating. Even with this set up, we started winning awards at the Ad Club Madras. We formalised the agency only in 2002. It was initially called SharadHaksar.com. After six months, we named it 1pointsize,” he reminisces.
During that time, when he worked only ‘half a day’ as he puts it, 1pointsize won the ‘Agency of the Year’ title thrice. But it was not about awards. What is dismissed as ‘smart’ poster and OOH work, was actually put to work to build brands, explains the writer.
He adds, “We saw that there were a lot of hoardings, and there were a lot of brands that had a limited presence (geographically). We thought it could work. Derby (fashion brand) had three outlets. We took it to 15 or so with a campaign that said ‘Get Unusual’. Word-of-mouth got us Peri Alley, another fashion brand. People up North thought of us as ‘scam boys’, but actually we had a lot of ‘Me-10’ brands as I call them. Eatalica (restaurant) was one of them. We picked boutique clients who trusted creative. And we gave them results. We became fairly respectable. In the process, we made Derby, Peri Alley and Stori ‘Brand of the Year’ at awards. We started getting resumes from across the world.”
It was only post that phase, that the three-member team expanded. “We hired the fourth and fifth employees then,” notes Narayan.
For Stori, a struggling brand in Bangalore, the agency came up with ‘Clothes with a twist’. While the trend was to do good catalogue-ish work, the team chose to treat the product with ‘utmost disdain’. The product would not be the hero – the ‘Stori’ would. It worked. The portfolio started attracting non-apparel brands.
“In the initial years, we were very excited with the awards game. People said ‘This couldn’t have been mainstream work’. The truth is, it was. It just wasn’t national and it was not on TV. We’ve also done a lot of work since then on Lifecell, on a lot of real estate brands. And Tamil work for large retail brands like Kumaran Silks. We rebranded and repositioned Beissel Needles, launched two new magazines for Vikatan Group. Today, we are an end-to-end brand consultancy,” explains the creative.
But what hasn’t changed is the size. “That’s why we called it 1pointsize,” he reminds us.
The Chennai challenge
The market in Chennai has gone downhill, admits Narayan, reiterating a known fact. Big clients like Pond’s moved out. The likes of CavinKare moved marketing to other markets. In his words, the city has ‘hundreds of small agencies handling one or one and a half clients each’. His estimate is that with a lot of the larger agencies moving base or marking a token presence, 1pointsize would possibly be in the top five by size. He refers to top agencies that have moved down from 100 to 30 people in less than a decade to make his point.
In this competitive scenario when the opportunity in the market is largely in real estate and retail, 1pointsize made the conscious transition from boutique to consultancy. Narayan proudly claims that if there was an Effie for real estate, 1pointsize would probably win Grand Prix for work on Akshaya Homes, which sold 1,000 apartments in three days.
The agency had to play the ‘survival game’ for three-odd years, in effect, taking its ‘eyes off the awards game’. But there were other avenues for the creative to seek gratification.
His love for words led him to coin about 1,000 words with partner Avinash Subramaniam. Columns in newspapers followed, including one called Namasutra in The New Indian Express. Beyond words and names, he’s also written columns on cricket. He also runs a ‘silent ad agency’.
Lucifer Labs is an outfit that ‘never takes credit for its work’ says Narayan. The modus is to pick dark horse brands and offer free advice and do work for free. So what is the point? It is ‘for the joy of building brands on our terms’, explains the three-time copywriter of the year, as awarded by Madras and other regional Ad Clubs. Among campaigns that he does disclose, is Campaign for Dignity, an initiative by Campaign India and the Dignity Foundation (for the elderly).
Along came Albert Dali, another partnership, this one with his colleague from Mudra, Muralidharan. The naming consultancy had its genesis in ‘Word Mint’. It was born from the pain point that ad agencies don’t research the brand names they suggest, contends Narayan. Offer 25 or 30 names without thinking them through and the ‘joy of creating brands goes out of the window’, he contends. Among brands that he does name, created by Albert Dali, is Skore condoms.
“What we’re good at is telling the shortened story of the brand – in one word,” he explains. From FMCG to pharma to consumer electronics, he rattles off five or six top-of-mind companies in these categories which have sought out the services of Albert Dali. But the idea is to keep the pricing affordable, to partner start-ups. Working with linguists outside, the consultancy is equipped to handle other markets as well.
“In 10 years, if we are around, we will be the Ray+Keshavan of verbal branding,” he notes.
A ‘part time’ job
Till 2006, Narayan confesses to working only for half the day. On second thoughts, he tells us that even now, he works at 1pointsize only for half the day. But there was a time when he worked at two places.
“Xavier Thomas asked me to restart the Chennai branch of Orchard. I handpicked the team. We brought it to profitability. Orchard Chennai then became Leo Burnett Chennai. Orchard had become a big agency. From 2002, I had stayed away from big agencies. In Chennai, you just do ‘maintenance’ work in a big agency. That doesn’t excite me,” says the creative on his near three-year stint.
Making the case for smaller agencies, he underlines that 1pointsize ‘would have built at least 100 brands’. On going out of its way to support start-ups, he cites the case of Stayzilla, born from Insara Technologies. 1pointsize was the agency partner working at a pittance (Rs 25,000) to create it, reminds Narayan.
It would have taken extraordinary confidence on the part of Orchard’s Thomas and 1pointsize’s Haksar to allow the creative director to multi-task across shops. On his working half a day in each agency during that phase, Narayan quips: “I still work only half a day. My half a day is 7 hrs.”
Of one thing we can be certain. There will be enough to keep him occupied during the other half.
(This article first appeared in the 27 November 2015 issue of Campaign India)