At the start of this year, DDB Group announced that Joji Jacob, ECD, DDB Group Singapore, will be head of DDB Asia’s creative council. It has been quite a journey for Jacob, who joined advertising because he hung out outside Ulka’s office in Kochi.
In a telephonic conversation a day after the news of his appointment as head of the council, Jacob recounts his early days, taking us back to the start of his advertising career, around 22 years ago.
“I’m a civil engineering drop out. I hated civil engineering and dropped out of it. Although my roots are from Kerala, because my dad was in the army, I have been all over India. After leaving my civil engineering course I had started writing small bits of articles for newspapers. And then I did political science in English and German. By then my dad had retired and had some health problems and returned to Kerala. So, I went back there too. I happened to see an ad agency just by chance; a friend of mine was doing a course at NIIT and one morning I went to hang out with him, and opposite that was the office of Ulka in Kochi. They had some ads on a board outside the reception. That interested me and I walked in reading those ads. They (the ads) felt like something I could create and I asked the receptionist how could I apply there for a job. She introduced me to the group head. I took a copy test, which I think the branch manager lost. Somehow I joined the agency as a copy trainee and was with the agency for a year.”
During his early days in India, Jacob covered most of Southern India. “From Ulka I moved to Mudra in Coimbatore for around five months. From here I moved to Chennai and worked with a small agency. Then I got my first big break with Lowe. There I worked with Suresh Kailash, who was creative director and my first mentor. I learnt a lot from him. A little later I moved to Ogilvy Bengaluru. I spent two years there before moving to JWT in Singapore. In fact I’ve had a lot of mentors. Along with Kailash, the list consists of Ravi Eashwar, when I was at Ogilvy Bangalore, Juggi Ramakrishnan when I was at BBDO and Neil Johnson during my time at DDB.”
Move to Singapore
Jacob’s move from South India to South East Asia happened in 2001 with a move to JWT. He terms this the time he hit his prime in the business. He explains, “I spent around five years there. I think I hit my prime after I came to Singapore and had a great stint with the agency. I managed to work with some really good creative directors. Then I moved to Bates for a very short while, before a stint with BBDO. It’s been seven years at DDB now.”
Talking about the both the markets (India and Singapore), Jacob says, “There’s no comparison. India and Singapore are very different in terms of working styles and the kind of clients. The basic advertising is also very different. India is a very old civilisation and there’s a bit of a creative chaos. The country has its history and culture references to draw upon. We (India) have pride in our film industry and have a rich culture. Singapore meanwhile, is a very young country. We just turned 50 last year. It’s a country which has people settled from China, India and Malaysia along with other parts of the world. It’s a country which is still identifying its identity and its roots. On the plus side, a young country can mould itself. There’s more than 100 per cent smart phone penetration out here. So, digital is extremely big. It’s moving at a very rapid place and has innovations. Then again, you look at India, our office is doing amazing stuff in terms of films, music etc. So, they’re very different and doing well. I’m very fortunate to have one foot in each of these countries and this feeds my work.”
The creative council
Although it has been close to 15 years since Jacob has moved out from the country, he says he’s continued following Indian advertising very closely. And his new mandate of creative council head means, India comes under his remit again.
On the market, he says, “My interest back in the Indian market isn’t just because of the new role. I’ve always had a lot of friends in advertising in India and I follow it very closely. I always consult people like Sonal Dabral and Bobby (Pawar). Sonal has been really close to me for a long time now. We bounce ideas off each other, send stuff to each other. He was in Singapore for a while, and in a way he’s my guru and elder brother and another mentor.”
We caught up with Jacob just two days after he was given the new role. Yet he had his key priorities and responsibilities in place.
He explains, “There are two or three key responsibilities that the network has defined for me and what I’ve defined for myself too. Firstly, unlike a lot of networks, each DDB office is very diverse and has a particular strength. My job is to make sure each of the offices taps into the strength of each other. So, for example, India’s strength is creative storytelling; so I’ll be looking to tap into that and take that to some of the other countries. Singapore and HK are digitally very strong. In Singapore, we have this base of technology, and my hope is to take this to some of the bigger campaigns and clients in other countries. The second objective is to help our clients across geographical borders. We have a fair amount of regional clients and it is my responsibility to get each of our offices work together with other offices like a well-oiled machine. Thirdly, my responsibility is to be the torch bearer for creative work in the region. I have to get highly effective and visible work. I have to make sure that in terms of creative and effectiveness awards, I manage to keep DDB in pole position.”
Jacob’s looking at around five people to be on the council. He’s identified the people he wants and should soon have them on board. He adds, “Sonal (Dabral) will be joining me on the council. He’s a proven leader and has worked in the region. He has a lot of respect too and is known very well. He’ll be like my partner here. We used to sit on the earlier council, called Bulls Eye. This will be called ACE. Then, from the Singapore office I hope to have two more people, but it’s a bit premature to announce who would be here. We’ll have five people, that is the right size in my opinion. Anything more than that will be too much of talk, and anything lesser will be too quiet.”
Jacob further explains that the earlier council, Bulls Eye, continues to operate in Australia and NZ. It’s difficult to have one council for the whole region, because the work is different there compared to South East Asia and the rest, he notes.
For a man who has spent 22 years in very different markets, there have been plenty of changes and learnings he’s seen through his career. He says, “It’s changed in leaps and bounds. My personal experience is that brands are forced to be honest. Today, the consumer is so much more aware. They have more avenues to express their displeasure if they’re not pleased with a brand’s advertising. That is a defining moment according to me in the history of advertising and marketing. The honest brands will do well. Brands that are useful rather than just parity products in the market will do well. What is even more interesting for us, is that you are forced to be more useful, relevant and creative in this day and age. It’s not money over mind anymore. Earlier you could buy 1,000 spots and ram (the brand) into peoples’ throats. Now, this can’t happen because people switch off. It’s an exciting time to be in advertising because there are so many different ways of doing things and also that the consumer can keep you honest and on our toes.”
Like the Indian market, Jacob says talent is a major problem in Singapore too. But the reasons seem to be different and remuneration doesn’t top the list.
“The talent crunch is everywhere, and is in Singapore too. I think the advertising industry hasn’t proven itself to be as attractive or flexible compared to the other businesses. I see the talent crunch becoming worse unless we reinvent ourselves and allow younger people to have a bigger choice on the stuff that we do,” says Jacob.
He says, “Remuneration isn’t a problem here. I don’t think advertising pays lesser that other industries here. It’s not a problem in China, HK and Singapore. Advertising still pays fairly decently. I was talking to somebody else (from the industry), and five years ago the biggest question young people asked us was how much will they be paid. That has changed to how many leaves will they get in a year. This is very telling. Younger people want to do their own things. We have a very young planner in the team, who is extremely talented. Late last year she came to us and said that she loves working here, but wants to take a year off to travel around the world and blog about it. Now, in the olden days, we would think that a year would be too long and we wouldn’t be able to keep the job. But, now we realised that if we don’t give the person the leave, we’ll lose the person, and maybe not just from the agency but from the industry too.”
Talent isn’t the only challenge Jacob foresees. “I think we are taking too long to define new ways of working. The consumer is in a different space compared to where most advertising agencies are. Ad agencies are slow to maneuver and move. The second challenge is that there’s a lot of fear in agencies that the industry is changing; that newspapers and magazines, TV, are going to die. There’s a lot of paranoia around this. Amongst all this fear, nobody is focused on what is going to work and how the situation is going to change. Instead of fear mongering, we need to figure out what’s next,” he adds.
Return to India?
No conversation with an Indian who has moved abroad, can end without a question about a return to the country. And Jacob, like many, suggests it isn’t on the cards right now. But he doesn’t completely rule it out. He surmises, “Who knows what happens in the future.”
(This article first appeared in the 22 January 2016 issue of Campaign India)