Elvis Sequeira, falls into that category of adlander who got into the industry by chance. The chemistry graduate’s advertising journey began 24 years ago after a brief stint as quality control inspector in a printing and packaging firm.
Sequeira recounts, “At that firm, I first saw work that was created by advertising agenies. It seemed like a cool job, and my English wasn’t too bad, so I thought of giving it a shot. My first day of work was 12 March 1990 at Clea Advertising, which was the only advertising agency that gave me a job. It turned out to be a financial advertising agency which did a lot of public issue advertising. I didn’t have a head for any of that.”
He adds, “I then discovered that I wanted to work on a lot of brands. Luckily enough someone from Mudra spotted me. I was cheap enough for them and they hired me. I was finally working on things besides financial advertising. Turns out it wasn’t such an easy thing to do. There were no writers left in Mudra Mumbai at that time, so I was pretty much doing everything in that branch. Then I thought enough was enough and I needed some money. That’s when they (Mudra) realised that they shouldn’t let me go and offered me the chance to head the creative in a unit of theirs which was Interact Vision. I was heading a branch suddenly. At that division, I launched Apple Computers in India. I also got business from Rasna, Reliance etc. It got boring after a while, because it was only so much an agency of that size could do.”
That’s when Lintas happened, he explains. “Lintas wasn’t easy either because at the age of 26/27, I was the youngest creative director at the second largest business of the time, Bajaj. At that point if you didn’t work on Hindustan Unilever, you weren’t worth much. It didn’t help that we lost all our businesses too. We soon won the Oberoi business, Jet Airways and some other businesses and became the go-to team that turned brands around. We won a significant amount of the business back in those five years. Everyone thought that life was going to be easy following that, but it became difficult as I got the worst set of accounts at that time (ICICI Prudential, Shaw Wallace, Johnson & Johnson etc). All of these accounts were under review at the time. Then, after I’d spent seven years at the agency, I thought enough was enough.”
It was at that time that Sequeira made the decision to move on. He recalls, “At that point Rajesh Pant from Percept/H asked me to join the agency as national creative director after having just 12 years of experience. We won a lot of businesses (22) at the agency within a year and a half. Then one fine day, Pant left. That’s when I decided to move to Delhi and JWT happened. Again, that was not easy, I was promised a whole lot of stuff. I was interviewed by Bruce Matchett and Colvyn Harris. I was asked to run Delhi and Kolkata. When I got there, things had changed. They suddenly realised that I had an equation with Hero Honda, businesses had changed, Josy (Paul) came on board etc. But, it was very great fun too. Then, three years later I got itchy feet and thought of doing something more creative and different. I thought of doing films as well.”
The journey from NCD to COO
Sequeira left JWT to join Cheil. Before his move to Cheil, Hakuhodo had approached him to join the agency, but there was nothing concrete offered. He recounts, “I was sitting around and doing nothing, when Cheil happened. Hakuhodo was on my tail for quite some time, even before I joined Cheil. But, they were taking their time, and I decided that I should do something instead of just hanging around and doing nothing. I joined Cheil and quickly discovered that it was not the place for me. I had a short six month stint with the agency before joining Hakuhodo, which had a different role for me. They didn’t look at me as a creative, but as a COO of the agency. They expected me to bring that balance of creating a reputation.”
When asked about the differences in leading the agency’s creative as NCD versus leading an agency as COO, Sequeira says, “It’s not been a radical change because I’ve been doing something like this even at other agencies. For more than half of my career I’ve been managing agencies, people or brands, responsible for getting businesses. The big scary bit was sitting down on financial reports. I think I got some good advice very early. I have a concept of numbers, but can’t really analyse a balance sheet.”
His mantra to others who make this move is simple. “Just get a good CFO, that takes care of everything. Otherwise, there’s my good old Gujurati chartered accountant, who I ask to simplify things.”
On a more serious note, he adds, “That’s (the financial part) the only different point. You can’t fake your way through things. You can’t sit in a financial meeting and say something like ‘I quite get the grasp of it’. I decided to be straight up and open and say I don’t understand a bit of it, but I see our expenses are more than our income and we need to go get some businesses.”
Soon after Sequeira saw that balance sheet, he looked at changing it. The first step was taken in early 2012, as the agency bagged all the brands under Sony. “Not many people know that we’re the only agency in the world that handles all of Sony’s brands in India. We’ve won other Indian clients like Century Laminates, Costa Coffee, Line Messenger and Hindware. We’ve also clawed our way back into Maruti and won new businesses from Suzuki. We convert about 60 per cent of our pitches that we get into, and that’s not bad for an agency that’s often confused for Percept, and lacks a clear identity,” says the COO.
On Maruti, he says, “We used to handle the A-Star, Ritz, WagonR and some part of the corporate brand before I came in. We then lost all those accounts. Our first gain was the Auto Expo earlier this year. We created their stall (which we also did for Suzuki). That shows the versatility we have, we’re not just about creating TVCs. We’ve now also bagged the mandate to handle the new retail dealership for Maruti. We’re in talks for new brands as well. It’s about getting back into full capacity.”
Japanese agency with an Indian heart
Hakuhodo Percept is often labeled as a Japanese agency working on Japanese brands. That’s an identity which Sequeira also plans to change. “In the beginning it was about talking about a Japanese presence, Japanese clients in India. That’s the mandate, while other agencies would concentrate on Indian businesses, entrepreneurs etc. Over the years, that was a slow burn and takes a long time to achieve scale. So, it just made sense for us to open this out to handle Indian businesses. Indian businesses are also changing and with so many opportunities an agency with a strong backbone and structure would be best served to go after those businesses.”
The agency is present in Delhi (HQ), Chennai and Bengaluru and has 68 people working across these offices.
The country is gaining importance in the global scenario, says Sequeira. “The focus and attention is on the country as it is an emerging market. If you look region wise, India is a dynamic, fast growing market. So, it only makes sense for people to shift focus here. You’re seeing companies like Amazon and Facebook doing the same. So our Japan headquarters have realised this and they’ve made a different approach here now. Whether there will be external investments and stuff like that, it’s a little early to say. We’re looking to strengthen the offering we have, put a better product with more talent and accounts. We are seriously aggressive about getting new businesses on-board. We’ve set an audacious target for the next five years. It’s about growing like crazy. Clients deserve better than what they’re getting from other agencies.”
When an agency is pitching aggressively for new clients, there have been murmurs that other agencies taking that path have taken the under-cutting route. Sequeira completely rules this out from his agency’s standpoint. “You have to remember that the DNA and the base of this company is Japanese. We believe in transparency. Ethics and integrity is very high. It’s sometimes scary about the openness and the amount of information we share with people. We never resort to those practices as a principle.”