Ravi Raghavendra studied chemistry. What the subject did to non-academically-inclined Raghvendra was to ensure that he did not want to study the subject for the rest of his life. In Chennai then, he decided to do something fun, and easy, for a living, and appeared for a copy test in 1997 at RK Swamy BBDO. He cleared it.
“RK Swamy BBDO was kind enough to hire someone as clueless as I was,” he reminisces. When he told his parents he was joining advertising, they were ‘clearly not cool’ with this career choice. For a South Indian brahmin family, if the son is not an engineer or doctor, then he is a failure and you have failed as parents – that was the mindset. For his parents to understand what a copywriter is, and come to terms with it, took a few months. “They saw me happy, so they reconciled with my career choice,” he says.
A year later, he joined Trikaya Grey Mumbai, the ‘hottest agency of the ’90s’. “I was under the same roof as Alok Nanda, Vivek Kamath and so many other great creative people. Most of my time there was spent staying awestruck,” he recalls. After spending a couple of years there, he moved to Contract Mumbai, where he met Ravi Deshpande, who he calls the first larger-than-life personality he has worked closely with.
When Deshpande went independent with his agency Lemon in the early 2000s, Raghavendra joined him as one of the starting team members. He spent about a year and a half there, before moving to Dubai (DDB) for three years.
His Dubai stint helped him win laurels and awards for his work on Volkswagen. He says tongue-in-cheek, “People have this conception that one goes to Dubai only to earn money and work there sucks. But I had a blast, and returned poorer.” After Deshpande returned to Contract, he asked Raghavendra to head the Bengaluru office in 2005. His daughter was born the same year. “I ran Contract's Bengaluru office for about five years (2005-10) as creative director. That is how I started running offices,” he recalls.
He met Satbir Singh (now, founder and CCO, Thinkstr) socially, and they hit it off ‘instantly’. Singh asked him to join Havas Gurgaon, which he did as ECD in 2011. After spending over three years, Singh and Raghavendra quit the agency around the same time. While Singh joined FCB Ulka, Raghavendra joined J. Walter Thompson as ECD in February 2015. As luck would have it, he and Singh met again and thought of doing something together. They announced the launch of Thinkstr, whose logo has been designed by Singh’s brother Dalbir, in January 2016.
Birth of Thinkstr
The six-member team sits in a minimally furnished office in Gurgaon’s commercial establishment – Galleria. The big board in their office has pinned printed quotes from #StartupIndia.
“We are just a few of us at the moment here at Thinkstr right now. It has been fantastic. We have signed up a few businesses. People are calling us, and we have a decent pipeline. It almost seems like there are some people out there who want to work with us. We are talking to all the interested parties, presenting our perspective. Hopefully, more conversions will happen soon,” he says.
Thinkstr reminds Raghavendra of Lemon, he says fondly.
He names Deshpande and Satbir Singh as the two mentors who he loves, respects, and admires. “Ravi was a wonderful teacher, and pushed me to do things differently and not to follow the herd and rise above trends. He has hired me thrice. If there is a fourth opportunity, I might just take it. Satbir is a brilliant copywriter and a great leader. He gives people their space. He brings out the best in people. He is also a softie at heart. He is just awesome,” says the ECD.
At Thinkstr, the team wants to execute fresh, new-age ideas for the digital world. “We are not a digital agency, but we are mindful of the shift of screens in the consumer’s life,” he says, adding that they are ready to do BTL activations in rural areas too.
Awards and beyond
Raghavendra is of the opinion that beyond a point it is not about brands a team works on, rather the people (clients) who one gets to work with. “Every brief has the possibility and potential to do something interesting and beautiful. What you really enjoy is nice, intelligent people on the client side. By and large, I have worked up with nice people,” he says. He names Nokia, Reckitt Benckiser and Times Internet as three major clients he worked with at Havas apart from Madura Garments and Himalaya.
Having won awards like Cannes, LIAA, Abbys and Dubai Lynx, Raghvendra says that while it is a recognition for being part of something original, and good for the morale, he is not crazy about awards. “In advertising what we essentially do is find creative ways of making an argument to sell a product. I have always tried to solve problems with creative solutions, and have fun along the way,” notes the 42-year-old.
On the question of scale, he reasons that it is always a handful of people who do the work and make a difference. If they can get together and work directly with the client, he questions the need for a 700-people organisation.
“It is a mindset thing, really, because beyond a point, you want to do it your way. Today clients are willing to listen to a bunch of people who are an organisation by themselves. That’s giving confidence to more people to start on their own,” he says.
When you are nimble, you make mistakes faster, learn faster and move on faster, notes Raghavendra.
“In our business, when you start off, you’re all bright and starry eyed and full of yourself. You truly believe that you are the only original piece that was ever created and that at most times, the whole world is out there plotting your downfall. With age, you learn how it works and you shed the angst. You realise there are a million reasons why an idea doesn't fly. That there is no point getting angsty about it. Once an idea gets bombed, it is not the end of the world and you can think of a thousand more. Chances are that it was not the world's best idea anyway. So move on, do better,” advises the self-acclaimed content junkie.
“I have started enjoying the business more and more every day. There is no angst anymore, thankfully. I am not waging a battle. I am only creating communication to sell stuff. And making a living in the most fun way possible. I’m not finding a cure for cancer. I take my job seriously, not myself,” he says.
He is upbeat about Indian advertising industry, quoting that we are the 13th best according to the Gunn Report this year, and are edging above every year. However, he is quick to add under-compensation as an ailment that the industry faces.
“As an industry, we are not being paid our worth. We have great talent here. Too much of good talent is being underpaid because of agencies being compensated poorly. You do a project for someone, and that someone will perhaps make a few crores if not more largely because of the marketing communication that was designed by an agency. For that project if the agency is paid two lakhs, I think it is unfair,” he notes.
He adds that it is a chain reaction – agencies are not being compensated well, therefore, agencies cannot pay well. “There are industries that are much richer, and they are paying people well – TV channels, Bollywood, production houses. Talent goes where money is. But that is another debate in itself,” he surmises.
(This article first appeared in the 19 February 2016 issue of Campaign India)