You took over the CCO role in 2005. In the last 10 years how have you seen advertising and creativity changing? Is the golden age of advertising over?
Technology is changing with rapid velocity and that’s impacting our industry. The screen age that we now operate in is influencing the kind of content we produce. I think the one thing that hasn’t changed is the power of ideas. We are still an idea industry. People still value and expect ideas. We don’t compete within an industry. We compete within a popular culture and our ideas need to be as rewarding and interesting as content that people can find. That hasn’t changed and that won’t ever change. How we dispense it has changed. Mobile has become the primary screen for communication. Mobile is more than just a screen. It’s a life tool and an identity. We’re moving into a different space where content creation has to be stronger. Creating for different screens has made us think in a different way. When you go back ten years ago, we were still operating in traditional channels and had moved a little bit towards the online space. It was always seen as a small percentage of our clients’ budgets. Now, clients are looking to leverage the power of social, data, mobile and content creation.
I think there are various things that have changed. Some clients lean directly into it. Some still use film, but in a different way. We look at what’s happening in Cannes and how that has changed. This show was primarily about celebrating television commercials in our industry. In recent times they’ve renamed this as the ‘Film’ category and films live on all screens – from a Bollywood screen to mobile screen or a VR screen. These are demanding content that is interesting and rewarding and valuable. The fundamental thing that has changed is the ability to communicate in real time and the ability to personally connect with people. We’re not preaching to the masses, we’re talking to the individual. We’re not advertising, we are communicating. I think those things have changed enormously. Clients are putting a lot into social and mobile advertising.
How has Leo Burnett evolved in the last 10 years?
Leo Burnett is always work-in-progress or work in beta. We have to be in this stage because it’s about moving with the speed of culture. We need to create content that resonates with people in the real world in real time in a powerful way. We have to evolve and change as society changes. The tools we use to connect to people have changed. The content that we create has to be valuable to people. In the early days we used to think we have some divine right to people’s attention. But, we don’t. People are not interested in advertising. So your first duty is to be interesting. Now, technology has given people the opportunity to block. Especially the millennial generation that doesn’t watch television. So, 'if you’re going to interrupt me, you bloody well reward me, otherwise I can block you'. That’s changed immensely.
We have seen a few changes in creative leadership across markets, across agencies. At Leo Burnett India, both creative and business heads have changed. How does change in creative leadership, especially, impact the way an agency goes about its business?
The one thing we’ve done in India by design is have new world thinkers. We’ve created an agency model that’s designed to disrupt and bring a fresh way of thinking in the market. We’ve got two young, dynamic and modern leaders in place, charged with growing the business and brand to produce world class iconic work that connects with people. Work that uses technology in a new way. If you look at the model, in most countries, particularly in India, it’s a model that’s been in place for many years. India is on the cusp of doing something remarkable quite soon. Technology is igniting that country. It’s got 1.2 billion people who are hugely creative, have mass interest in entertainment, life and society; if we can unlock that with content that is valuable and interesting, we’ll do something amazing.
I think every brand has a culture. Leo Burnett has a very strong culture. But, we believe in the power and value of creativity and that it can transform human behaviour and change the world. We have a creative leadership in India that is different. We have a thinker, planner, a strategic guy and a world class creator teaming up together to lead the agency to create the culture and environment. So, I’m really excited and it’s unlike anything else in India at this moment.
Which are the top markets for the agency and where does India rank, in terms of creative product? How has this changed?
The best work comes from everywhere. We’ve done work on Samsung and Proctor & Gamble that has captured the imagination of the croisette this week. We do great work the world over. We were the number one agency in Asia according to Adfest. We are number one in Australia, MENA and many parts of Latin America. We’ve been the number one network in almost every awards show this year. So, in terms of geographic creative prowess we lead the industry by far. All our offices from Sydney to Sau Paulo and everything in between have produced great work.
What about India?
I could not be more excited about India as a place of opportunity. I think it’s on the cusp of doing something remarkable. It’s like purpose – you define the purpose and design accordingly. We’ve defined the purpose of Leo Burnett in India and now designed the team that’ll ignite it and take it to the next level. It’s about evolution and not only about the type of content, communication. It’s the magic that you still need to bring it to life and the human touch – and both Raj and Saurabh have that human touch. They understand people, human behaviour and they create beautiful content that people love.
The Amazon work is a prime example. In terms of integrated holistic thinking, that really uses every communication channel to make that emotional connection – that’s where Raj lives. That’s the most exciting space for our industry and certainly for India. If I look at the work from India, historically it’s still very much at the traditional channels as opposed to the new world channels. We’re not moving away from traditional. People love film, Bollywood being a prime example.
We have a session (at Cannes) titled ‘What would you do if your creative head is 25 years old?’ Are we moving to an agency world of younger creative leaders?
I don’t think age comes into it. We’re talking about talent. I don’t care how old somebody is. My son works at Facebook and works for a man who changed the landscape of the planet at 23 years of age. I think it’s about people having amazing ideas. You don’t get better ideas with age. You mature with age. I’m a great believer in finding the best talent in a creative environment where talent can flourish. We have created a beautiful space in India for us to grow and flourish and we have two leaders who have the ability to lead by example and have the quality to inspire. Leaders are followed, while managers dictate. I think our Indian leaders have created a following, culture, belief and purpose for the company and have got us firing on all cylinders. Our new business has been phenomenal. We’re starting to see the work grow. We’ve become a very attractive proposition to new clients in India because we’re bringing something new to the table that’s relevant to today’s landscape. More importantly, it has the ability to connect to the new generation of people.
Leo Burnett is one of the Indian agencies that is looking to send more youngsters to Cannes. How important is being at Cannes to the young talent?
This is one week in the calendar year where the industry takes time out to focus on what it does. This is a celebration of creativity and product. The media circus around this is nice to have, but the only important thing is what happens in the Palais De Festivals in those four walls – the work, work, work, work, work. If you’re a student of work, you’re not only motivated and inspired – you’re educated. If you use Cannes correctly and extract the wealth of knowledge and talent here, you leave richer for the experience. This is one week where you can dedicate yourself to what you love to do and then take it back and start thinking like that on a daily basis. It’s always been about ideas, and Leo Burnett has spent a lot of money to educate them, inspire them and motivate them. We want them to grow and evolve and be furnished with every opportunity to be prolific. We talk about being the best in the world, bar none and to be the best in the world, you need the best people and best environment where you think people can be the best. We are in a people business and they are the only assets we have. The more investment we make in the people, and feed them, educate and inspire them, is the best investment for us ever. Bringing people from India to the South of France will make them super charged when they get back. Every single one of them will want to be back next year, in Cannes, on stage.
What is the approach to retaining creative talent in a world where they're moving to other industries, like TV and technology companies?
What retains talent is productivity and quality product. This week we’ve had a record year in terms of Lions. That makes people very happy and helps in retaining talent. It also helps as a magnet in attracting new talent. So, it fuels what we do. It’s about the same feeling that you get when India wins a Test match.
Are agency creatives ready to embrace the ‘maker’ culture, where you make things/apps/products, not ads? Are they equipped to compete with the geeks?
At Leo Burnett we talk a lot about acts and not ads. We are looking for ideas that activate a relationship with people and great participation. The greater the participation with the audience, the greater the effect of the campaign. So, we have to use all technology to create content that interacts with people and allows people to co-create, collaborate with and participate in. That’s how we fuel it. We’re always moving people to act. We don’t do ads. We don’t advertise. Advertising is dead. Communications is alive. If you find interesting content that communicates and rewards, it’s relevant, it’s meaningful, it’s stimulating and useful – you will create an emotional relationship with people.
Brands have emotional relationships with people. Everything we do is rooted with people. Raj and I believe in exactly the same thing – we are writing for people, writing for emotion, we are trying to create something of human value. We don’t look at things just as things. We are looking at communication and big platform ideas that resonate with people – that change behaviour, mindset and force people to think and feel in different ways. #LikeAGirl is an example – it’s not only one great big business idea for the brand, it’s created this incredible relationship with young girls. #LikeAGirl has become a meaning for women who are capable to do great things as well as sell the product. Such big scalable ideas is what we endeavor to do every day.
What have been your learnings from Cannes 2015?
Everything I’ve learned this week originates from the work. A couple of big headlines that I would say – safety has been a massive subject matter this year. Samsung, Lifebuoy, Volvo have had safety angles. Screens on steroids has been a massive subject too. We’ve seen brilliant uses of screens.
People are interested in human stories that they can relate with. A lot of the work we saw was around this. I love the fact that stories now have a very human touch and are what people can relate to. The introduction of the Glass Lion has been huge too. Creative Data is interesting too, and I’m looking forward to who wins there.
There’s a lot to learn. Innovation is happening as we speak, but all of the best ideas are incredibly simple and are rooted in beautiful human truths. They’re amplified by using technology. So, it comes back to the first question you asked about what’s changed – nothing will change. Ideas will be king, ideas will be of human interest. Brilliant ideas will always be consumed and enjoyed. Ideas drive business. There’s a direct correlation between high creativity and market place success.
(This article first appeared in the 10 July issue of Campaign India).