Engineering to MBA to advertising – that’s a familiar career path for several agency heads in the country, and Jignesh Maniar fits in. He also fits the list of engineering-to-creative head converts.
On how his advertising career began, Maniar says, “I was an engineer and it was while I was doing my MBA, I’d bunked some classes and one of my friends decided to mark me present without my knowing. Of all the days it was on that day that the professor took attendance and found out that four people like me weren’t there and were marked present. So we were called by the director of the institute. I told him that I did not ask for my friend to mark me present and it was something she did on her own. I told him I don’t care much about attendance and he didn’t like that. So, he threw me out and told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to sit for the exams. I thought it was just the second month of my MBA and it’s not good to take a panga with the director, so I wrote a very nice letter to him stating what I felt. I used to write poetry back then so I wrote down one for him as an apology. He was very impressed and he told me to try advertising because he felt I was very creative. That’s when I realised that there might be a career here which might not be as boring as engineering. So, I started exploring it and slowly got interesting in it.”
After taking his advice, Maniar joined the agency world in 1998 with a one-year-stint at Vyas Giannetti as a trainee copywriter. He followed this with eight years at Ogilvy, where he handled clients like Perfetti, Pidilite, Castrol and ESPN, among others.
Recounting his time at the agency, Maniar says, “The first TVC I worked on was for Asian Paints and it was called ‘Flags’. In fact my very first TVC was in the running for awards and was also nominated at Cannes. I did a lot of work on Perfetti and the one brand I worked on a lot was Mentos. Back then the brand was actually struggling finding traction with consumers. Ogilvy had done a couple of campaigns before I came in and they hadn’t worked. In fact the client was considering whether this product was a fit-in the Indian market and was thinking of pulling it out. But, I had conviction in the product and asked the client to give it one more shot and then figure out whether there’s potential in it or not. I believed we could do magic with this product. We then rolled out the ‘Classroom’ TVC. That campaign changed the fortune of the brand and it moved from a small and negligent brand within the Perfetti portfolio to one of the biggest in India.”
During his initial days at the agency, Maniar worked with Abhijit Avasthi, but later on he had his own team and reported to Piyush Pandey. About working with Pandey, Maniar says, “It was great working under Piyush and observing him. Just by watching him you learn so much. But, life is the best mentor. Just observing life and seeing stuff around you, observing people and their nuances gives you ideas. To anyone who wants to get into advertising I have advice: just look around at people, and observe their lifestyles – that will help!
The Onads journey
After spending about nine years in advertising, Maniar was looking for new avenues. That’s when he thought of going independent and launching the agency in 2008.
He explains, “I had spent eight to nine years in advertising and won more than 50 awards, done a lot of international work for Perfetti and worked on most of their brands (Alpenliebe, Mentos, Center Fresh), and this work was very noticeable. The work had gained me a lot of traction too. And I was wondering what was the next step or objective for me. Winning another 50 to 100 awards wasn’t an exciting thought. Nor was getting designations like CD or ECD. I wanted to do something more. I wanted to partner Indian companies in building brands. Indians aren’t traditionally known to build the big brands like say those in the US market are. To back what I’m saying, India rarely features in the top 100 global brands. So, one of the objectives was to partner Indian companies to build brands and help them build the brand through their work and ideas. That was one reason for me to start my own company.”
Seven years on the agency team consists of 50 people across two offices, one each in Mumbai and Bengaluru. Mumbai has the majority of the workforce with 40 people working in that office. The leadership team of the agency consists of Maniar along with Sidhesh Pai who heads its mainline business. (VP – brand services) and the digital arm is led by Rajesh Makhija (VP – strategy and digital).
While Maniar went independent to launch the agency, he says the agency is open to acquisitions, mergers or JVs. He adds, “We are enjoying what we are doing right now. It could depend on what opportunities show up in the future. We’ve not had any specific offers, but for a couple of passing conversations. We will keep our options open.”
On the clients the company services, he says, “The clients are a wide range. We manage entire the creative portfolio of Bajaj Electricals. We also have Adani Reality, Levis innerwear (digital). We have about 15 clients on board in total. We have 360-degree capabilities within the agency. We are one of the few companies that have complete synergies between creative and digital. We don’t have silos. We have one core team that partners the client.”
While the specialisation-integration debate runs on, Maniar claims his agency scores in the ‘understanding of digital with a creative sense’. He explains, “The problem that clients are facing is that they feel that digital agencies don’t understand branding and they feel that creative agencies haven’t evolved to give them digital as a complete holistic service. And we all know that the way digital is growing it’s already becoming inseparable. When one does a campaign it’s first launched on digital or at least promoted on digital. That’s where we come into the picture. We give the client the whole bouquet of services. They just have to come to us and we have the complete offering for them.”
Explaining why traditional advertising is still relevant, he underlines, “Yes, people are saying the future is digital, and I believe in that too. But, currently the thing is that digital is still a small percentage of the total advertising pie. There’s still a long way to go for it (to dominate). We are talking about connected consumers, but that doesn’t mean they are engaged consumers. So, it will still take time till we have completely engaged consumers on digital. Having said that it’s growing fast and it’s the medium of the future. Ultimately, all agencies will become digital agencies. But that’s still a decade or two away. Right now also, I think only 12 to 14 per cent of the advertising spends are on digital in India. We are still some time away from a digital age, but it’s a matter of time.”
Plans for 2016
On the plans ahead for the agency, Maniar says it’s about consolidation and growth. He surmises, “We are looking at a mixture of consolidating our relationships with existing clients and helping them with their growth and also actively being out there pitching for new clients. Opportunities keep on coming, and we evaluate them and see what needs to be done. It depends from case to case. In terms of people, we are always looking for good people too. Our doors are always open for new talent.”
(This article first appeared in the 25 December 2015 issue of Campaign India)