Pooja Ahuja Nagpal
Sep 16, 2013

Profile: Finding new language to bond with the young

Ajai Jhala, CEO, BBDO India, tells Pooja Ahuja Nagpal about the need to shape, nurture and motivate talent today

Profile: Finding new language to bond with the young

“Brands cannot talk the language of the last decade and be passive. The conventional communication of brands will not work with today’s youth. They need to engage and talk with consumers in a whole new way. Today’s consumer is asking for a platform and a brand that does just that is the one they want to talk about to their friends. This results in amazing word of mouth for the brand and channelises the restless energy of today’s youth as well. The brands that do this will get it right,” explains Ajai Jhala, chief executive officer, BBDO India, on the agency’s philosophy of ‘Create acts not ads’.

In September this year, Jhala completes five years at the agency that was set up by Josy Paul, chairman and chief creative officer, BBDO India, in 2007.  Paul, a classmate from St Xavier’s College, asked Jhala to partner him in creating an India narrative for BBDO.

Five years hence, Jhala admits that the best body of work he has ever created has been at BBDO. The agency has worked on brands such as 7Up, Visa, Gillette, GE, Johnson’s Baby, Aviva Life Insurance, Blackberry, and Quaker Oats. And the work done on many of these accounts have gone to win awards and recognition. Jhala cites winning the Black Lion at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity as a pinnacle for BBDO India.

Beyond product

An avid runner, Jhala was initiated into running marathons by a friend in 2007 while he was on a break from his work as global communications director at Lowe Worldwide for Unilever. At Lowe, he shuttled between four cities - London, Paris, Bangkok, and Mumbai - handling the personal care business of Unilever. On his role there, he recalls, “Lever had realised that one has to find a powerful territory for the brand and an idea that has a deep universal truth so that it can be taken to other countries. Lever understood the power of brand ideas that go beyond just attributes and benefits. Brand ideals or values break category conventions and the one that I worked on was Surf’s ‘Dirt is good’ campaign. This was completely pioneering stuff.”

However, he reminisces that adapting a global campaign across various countries is not easy as local nuances have to be kept in mind. “It is imperative to find the right hot button between the brand truth and what’s happening in the consumers’ life and not just saying ‘It’s a global idea so I am going to ram it down your throat’,” he adds.

Adapting ‘Dirt is good’ for the Asian region was one such challenge. According to him, typically mothers in Asia would want their children to be indoors in a clean environment and on a PC rather than playing in the mud. Hence, for the campaign, the idea was tweaked to connect the concept with an endearing value such as the brother stepping in the puddle to save his sister and getting his clothes dirty in the process. The campaign went on to achieve stupendous success across countries, informs Jhala.

The Lever anchor

Prior to Lowe, Jhala was based in New York and worked as a planning director at Ogilvy & Mather in the mid-2000 handling the IBM business. Though this stint lasted for just a year, according to Jhala, it had a deep influence on him. It was in New York that he discovered his two favourite publications - International Herald Tribune and The New York Times.

Apart from this short stint at O&M, Jhala has worked at Lintas for nearly 20 years across New York, Mumbai and London. Armed with a Bachelors degree in Statistics,  Maths and Economics from St. Xaviers College, Jhala started out at Lintas in Mumbai as an as executive trainee as he did not have a management background. From Mumbai, he moved to Chennai for two years and then to Lintas London.

“Lintas kept changing its name (Lintas, SSC&B Lintas, Ammirati Puris Lintas, Lowe Lintas, Lowe). Between the name changes, management changes and different cities, the one anchor was that I got the opportunity to work on Unilever brands - personal care, home care and food. It was my anchor client pretty much from day one.”

Of all the management changes, he distinctly remembers the transition from Ammirati Puris Lintas to Lowe Lintas. The management realised that the model was not working so they merged it with Lowe. Therefore, out went the Ammirati Puris management with a ‘golden handshake’ and in came Frank Lowe.

He reminisces, “In the West, there is no safety net in that sense and suddenly before you know it, all the people at Ammirati were out. It was pretty bloody and the Lowe New York team came in and literally took over. It was swift, brutal and ruthless. This was my first (such) experience because India is generally a nice and safe environment and you never experience this kind of a takeover. I survived because I was not an Ammirati employee but an employee of Lintas India.”

People first

Jhala believes that talent is the key to an agency’s progress. And this is why the core management team at BBDO has been around since its inception. He adds, “If you want to look ahead for generations then you have to grow people. It is important to shape, nurture and motivate talent; to focus on their strengths and not worry about their weaknesses and give them the room to fail.”

On the road ahead for BBDO, he surmises, “We started out doing completely pioneering stuff that everyone else is doing now. The challenge is how we can find compelling ways to engage with people; how to be at the leading edge and predict where people are going. We have to find the new language to create this bonding with young people as they are most open to change, experiments and projects.”

The Flip Side

Age 52

Where do you live Delhi and Mumbai

Favourite movies Sholay and Man Who Planted Trees

Favourite gadget Blackberry...... in silent mode

Favourite holiday destination Annapurna in Nepal

Hobby Trekking

Favourite quote 'What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?' - Henry James.

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