“It’s not that I have changed, the world has,” reflects Joono Simon, founder of Brave New World.
We caught up with Bengaluru-based Simon over a call. The conversation commenced with us bringing up his Cannes Lion for work on Red Cross in 2004 when at JWT, and the inaugural Promo Lion for Kurkure ‘Firestarter’ soon after, also for the same agency. Those remain fond memories, but the nature of work has changed a great deal, notes Simon. He has no qualms about entering awards even today, he underlines, pointing to the good they can do for individuals’ careers and the creative fraternity as a whole. Yet, one needs to keep in mind some fundamental changes in the ecosystem, he warns.
“What is respected today, is not what was respected 10 or 15 years ago,” explains Simon. “The world has clearly outpaced and outsmarted the agencies. To my mind, agencies are still grappling with social media, with changing youth habits. There was a time when agencies used to be ahead of the game. Marketers used to look up to them for direction. Today, it is the other way round. In a sense, we (agencies) are holding back the world.”
Indian wins, including his own at Cannes, were great, he says, but also admits to feeling a sense of unease over the years. The real integrated work that worked on juries was not coming from India. There was some introspection, and inspiration from what was being celebrated on the global stage. That helped shape the new ‘World’ he wanted to create.
A ‘good Saturday night drinking session’ later, Simon became aware of the professional opportunities in advertising, thanks to a couple of friends already in agencies. He decided to give it a shot, thanks to a natural talent for drawing. The art director without any training in art started his career at a ‘really small shop’ before getting his first ‘proper’ full service agency break at MAA Bozzell, in India's garden city. The science graduate learnt the ropes in what he terms ‘almost a school’, with over 200 people and ‘lots of brands’ to work on. Stints at SSC&B Lintas, Contract (where he became a creative director), JWT (Chennai) and Mudra followed. Wanting to take a break, he moved to Leo Burnett Colombo for almost a year. Coming back for personal reasons, he took up Ogilvy’s offer and was ECD – South for Ogilvy and Ogilvy One, until the January of 2015. It was post this stint that Brave New World was born.
So who backed the new outfit at launch, which Simon says turned profitable six months into launch? And how easy or tough was it to get an investor on board?
“There are a lot of start-ups in Bengaluru. It is very easy to get funds with respect to products. But the moment you say ‘services’, you see them despairing. Especially advertising, which most investors don’t understand. You are forced to go to someone who understands your business,” reveals the founder, without actually revealing much. He describes his ‘angel investors’ as ‘friends reluctant to be visible’. Probe further, and all that we get is they are not from the advertising world, but people who understand advertising.
Simon clarifies, “If you are someone with a decent reputation, with decent credibility, you will get decent clients. So the amount of investment required is not very large. It’s about having a cushion for a few months.” An important cushion, as it allows the start-up to avoid compromise in the pursuit of sustenance in its early days.
Brave New World announced its arrival in March 2015 and has grown to a headcount of 20 now. This includes his former Ogilvy colleagues Keerthi Raju (business director at the new outfit), Sraman Majumdar (senior CD) and Tara D’souza (creative controller). Freeda Lazar from Idiom Design is on board as creative director, while Nikhil Kumar, who comes with travel portal experience, is the social media head. Vincent Paul Rajan (planning director) and Amina Shazi (show director) populate the top rungs.
“I have always been very careful about whom I pick. Especially so in this case, because I have been trying to create in my mind something very unique. This is not a ‘mainstream’ agency, this is not a ‘digital’ agency. It needs someone who understands both worlds, to be able to deliver full service – integrated communications. It needs skills, yes, and at the same time, it needs the savvy to understand technology,” explains Simon.
That explains in part why instead of an art director, there are a group of graphic designers at Brave New World. There is rationale to this, too.
“When I studied agencies that inspired me in the last few years, whether it is Droga5 or R/GA, they all have a very strong graphic design point of view. As a country, we are very far behind in terms of design. I was very clear that I would insist on giving that extra dimension in the way we express the brand communication. I feel that a classic art director is a bit of everything – handling photographs, print layout, etc. But they are mostly from the print and poster world. I wanted people from a slightly different era; people who have learnt from Pinterest and Instagram. They are much younger. When you marry the insight with new age design expression, it becomes very potent,” reasons the seasoned creative-turned-agency founder.
An ‘integrated’ independent?
Simon contends that the globally, the agencies that have made a mark in the last few years, are the ones that have remained independent. “You need a vision, and that, I feel, is led by one person,” he says.
If ever Brave New World were to collaborate with someone, it would be with the likes of W+K, R/GA or Droga5, he adds, noting that while they have grown, it has not been ‘mindless growth’. Staying focused has helped these outfits deliver truly integrated work, he contends – something he wants to emulate.
“There is room for a completely media-neutral agency. I feel that gap exists. The idea is not to go after too many (clients). But those who understand the need for cross-platform thinking, and those who appreciate the power of big ideas,” Simon explains.
Underlining the need to remain nimble-footed, he points to the emergence of the world’s second largest search engine – YouTube. “What is the next thing that will change brand experiences? Do we know? We are not in a position to see what is ahead of us,” he notes.
We interrupt the impassioned flow to remind the entrepreneur that ‘integrated’ is a space that’s been appropriated by everyone today – digital agencies doing ‘mainstream’ work, media agencies creating content and creative agencies doing digital work, among others.
He is quick to clarify: “A lot of social / integrated / digital agencies are mimicking the mainline. I don’t think that works. You need original thinking and original ideas to persuade people. Re-skilling is a hard act. We are living in a world of specialists. Smaller start-ups are becoming specialists within a category, while large agencies are trying to be everything to everyone. That’s not going to be easy.”
So what is Brave New World’s differentiation? Simon responds that one must judge the agency on the basis of its work. He quips, “There is a lot of talk. Eventually, the guys who deliver will actually make the difference. The work will separate the good from the bad.”
The remuneration issue
“We say clients don’t reward ideas – even agencies don’t,” admits the agency founder, when asked about compensation at the entry levels in advertising and the imbalance between the top and bottom.
He points to the model of getting paid for one’s time as against ideas as a source of the problem, leading to agencies not getting what they deserve. The problem at the junior rungs is even more accentuated, bemoans Simon.
“There has to be an equitable system. I don’t think it exists today. The system is designed largely for middle and upper-middle levels and the top management,” he adds.
So the obvious question follows. What has Brave New World done about it? “I can honestly say I have made an attempt at Brave New World. I have tried to, with the belief that there has to be an equitable way to reward people. If you can’t take care of your people, your business model is inherently flawed.”
And Brave New World may need new skills soon, adds Simon, in a specific direction. He points to Augmented Reality as one such opportunity, of many.
Meet Pocketman. A man challenged to live for 48 hrs with only the contents of his 13-pocket jeans. And the help of fans on social media. He was given 5 minutes to pack in as much as he could, including a mobile phone, and was then locked in a box and livestreamed. His task? Prove that a man can live out of his Pocketman jeans.
ZAGO Bengaluru Human Flag Day
Once engagement on the brand-free hashtag #FittestCityBLR had reached a considerable mass, the brand hijacked its own hashtag by creating an even larger, culture-sharp hook – it responded’ to #FittestCityBLR with the creation of an event called Bengaluru Human Flag Day. The challenge was to help the brand own a long-standing visual and emotional mnemonic that epitomised its stand on fitness and health. The agency noticed that within the fitness circles of the city and the country, a particularly challenging feat seemed to be gaining cult status – The Human Flag. So it seized the moment with the creation of Human Flag Day.
MAST & HARBOUR
A custom-created mobile experience with a user journey starring the phone’s shake functionality. The experience is a 16-film rich video travelogue of a young couple and a pair of specially created digital dice that can be rolled on shaking the phone. One die displays actions, the other displays locations. Viewers get to control which moments of the story would be revealed to them by shaking their phone and rolling the dice.
This Diwali, gift time (O&M)
"What started as an internal initiative to help the victims of the Chennai floods soon snowballed into a global relief operation with its head quarters at the Brave New World office. The idea to collect and distribute power banks was born from the realisation that the main problem was the lack of communication owing to the loss of electricity. The flood victims were unable to charge their phones and couldn't get in touch with their families and the relief workers on-ground."
LANGUAGE OF THE LEAVES - THE SOCIAL TREE
Total Environment's new project, Pursuit of a Radical Rhapsody, comes with full-scale trees on every floor. Hence its chosen brand ambassador was a Social Tree – one that would even interact on social media.
Titan Raga (O&M)
A campaign that celebrated the liberated Indian woman (O&M)
Kurkure Firestarter (JWT)
Winner at the inaugural Promo Lions
Indian Red Cross - Give (JWT)
Work that wowed the Cannes Lions juries (JWT)
(This article first appeared in the 29 April 2016 issue of Campaign India.)