Brian Tellis calls himself a victim of happy circumstances, the primary of which is the opening up of the economy in 1991. It led him to being on air with his own pre-recorded show on Times FM at 9am on August 15, 1993, the day private FM started in the country (hourly slots were available on AIR FM’s channel), and to co-founding his own experiential marketing and events company with two friends Neale Murray and Otis D’Souza, called Fountainhead Promotions & Events in 1994 (though the start-up was formalised in 1995). Tellis is chairman of the company.
Prior to that, Tellis had worked in accounts at E Merck and then shifted to a sales and marketing role in the airlines industry with Pantours, Air Canada and Air France. He was also pursuing other interests on the side: music, theatre, anchoring shows, singing ad jingles, and then hosting ‘Top 40’ and ‘Timeless Classics’ on Times FM. As his radio jockeying career took off, he admits he was well and truly bitten by the entertainment bug and was ready to kick his 9-to-5 job for Fountainhead. “We’ve got a lot to thank the opening up of the economy for because what we saw were a lot of multinational brands come in and those guys had already worked the experiential marketing (or below the line) plot in other evolved and developed markets and they encouraged it here,” he says. “But I remember going on sales calls (often cold calls) and the people we met didn’t know what events and promotions were. When we added that we’ll do their brand launches, the common response, besides the suspicious onceover they gave, was ‘I’ve got an administration department to do that’.”
Fifteen years later, the events and experiential marketing space is bustling with players like BIG Live, Wizcraft and DNA. It’s a welcome change, says Tellis. “It’s getting corporatised nowadays, and there’s a double whammy of excitement. One is that marketers are investing more and more in experiential marketing. The other happy aspect is that a lot of this business is unorganised, and it’s slowly getting organised. Hence the industry is growing at a reasonably accelerated pace.” He added, “The more solid and serious players there are in the business, the better it is for everyone, because it is a very nascent market.” Advertising agencies getting into the terrain aren’t posing a threat as yet. “Early enough in our career, we figured that the ad agencies were offering a separate bouquet of services from what we were. It’s only now that some ad agencies, like Grey and JWT, have invested in divisions, and are now offering experiential marketing as another stem in their bouquet. Our positioning was that we worked directly with the marketer but in conjunction with the agency – so we’ve never had any headbutting with the agency.”
Fountainhead’s strength in the competitive space is that it aims to be a partner to a brand, much like a traditional advertising agency is in traditional media, says Tellis. “We see ourselves as strategists, the creative glue in a supply demand situation for a brand,” he explained. “We want to be viewed as a partner who sits with the brand manager at the beginning of the year and charts out the course for the brand and contributes to that. It’s not about being party or show organisers, which is a loose and aimless kind of term.” He cited an example of a brand the company has worked with over the years. “There are many brands we work closely with, but back in the early days, we were the company that set the attributes around the brand Smirnoff, along with Deepak Roy and his team. Back then, we were the ones who gave Smirnoff its persona of what is now called Electronic Dance Music – with events like War Of The DJs, and Smirnoff DJ Nights. Then the brand changed and we went into fashion, which led to the Smirnoff International Fashion Awards (SIFA). And now they’ve come back with the Nightlife Exchange Project – so brands evolve, and that’s the exciting bit.”
What drives the business is also what poses the biggest challenge for the people in it – that experiential marketing is by and large, perception driven. Tellis explained, “Being a partner to a brand brings with it a whole load of deliverables, primarily understanding the ecosystem we operate in. Also, being able to quantify what we bring to the table. A lot of our business is perception-driven and experience-driven, but how do you measure experience? You could get 9 out of 10 things right in an agenda or event, and you’ll be remembered for the one thing that went wrong. Having said that, there are plus points as well, because it’s high on emotions, and not a factory line product – the finished good is in the mind of the consumer.”
Talking about the future, Tellis says the company has decided not to go the network way for now. He elaborated, “We’ve had a few offers, and we have considered it in the past, but for various reasons, we’ve decided to stay independent at this point of time. We want to take our business up to a certain level and then look at a coming together of sorts, a strategic alliance to grow the segment we’re in, versus a cashing out.” He added, “From a vision point of view, one goal is that we’d like to be a company that is admired for what we do; it’s not so much balance sheet-driven as it is perception-driven of the company. Second, we want to be a creatively driven agency. Third, our big endeavour is to create intellectual properties that we own like the Celebrate Bandra Festival, and third party ones like the Mahindra Blues Festival, because I truly believe that’s the future of our business.”
Of course, in the immediate future, is a trip to Cannes where Tellis has been appointed on the Promo & Activation jury. “It feels very good, I really consider it a bit of an honour and an opportunity to interact with people of my ilk all over the world, and I’m as excited to see how creativity is interpreted in other parts of the world,” he said.
Age Am 51 years young
Lives Conceived, born and grew up in Bandra
Most treasured possession Great family and crazy good friends
Print TOI, Rolling Stone
TV Watching soccer/sport, business news
How do you relax Long drives/rides, watching music concerts on DVD, doing absolutely nothing at home
Always in the fridge Stuff to satisfy my sweet tooth cravings
Motto The glass is always half full rather than half empty