"There will be no scam at Leo Burnett; not on my watch": Saurabh Varma

By Ashwini Gangal, afaqs!, Mumbai | May 02, 2014
Saurabh Varma

Saurabh Varma

CEO, Leo Burnett India

He took over the reins of Leo Burnett India from Arvind Sharma six months back. Ask him what he's most apprehensive about when it comes to filling such large shoes, and Saurabh Varma responds with, "I'm fearless. I never think about the past. I'm grateful that Leo Burnett is in a great place and has a good set of clients but the only way for me to live my life is to think about the future."

What keeps him awake at night, then? "Speed of change," he admits, "I am paranoid that somebody (read: other agencies) will move faster than I will." Speaking of other agencies, guess who he named when we asked him who he thinks the brightest creative mind out there is - Lowe's Arun Iyer.

Varma is a CEO with a strong planning background; before taking charge of the agency's India operations, he was chief strategy officer of Leo Burnett APAC, and was based in Singapore, where he spent over six years.

We spoke to him about his plan to transform the agency from "LB 1.0 to LB 2.0" (Sharma to Varma?), the people he works with and his zero-tolerance attitude towards scam. By the way, LB is not participating in Goafest this year.

Edited Excerpts

What defines LB 2.0?

We believe the narrative is changing - it will no longer be about the 30 second spot. Leo Burnett wants to create 'trans-media storytelling'. We will create participative work, work that consumers can play with and share. It'll mean new people, new processes, transforming the way we take briefs and transforming the way we work.

For me it is frustrating to hear agencies say, 'I have a digital agency'. It implies the main agency does not do any digital work. This is where the rest of the world was five years back. India needs to transform.

Some countries are quicker. Say, the work that comes from Australia is a great benchmark to have. Across APAC, every country is in transition. India is behind the curve. Having said that, I think India will skip a few phases like it always has; we'll go through the transition much quicker than other countries.

But the Indian advertising industry has still not 'integrated'.

What do we need to do in order to 'integrate'?

Integrated communication is about making sure there are specialists at the table. At Leo Burnett, we will convert our account managers or planners into 'integration managers' - people who understand different mediums.

Imagine a client briefing me on something; now, if I have an e-commerce specialist, a shopper specialist, an integration manager, account planners... all sitting at the table, imagine what the content will look like. It might not look like a 30 second spot at all.

And Leo Burnett is in a unique position to do this because we don't have the problem of silos that every other agency has. We have one P&L, which makes things easier.

What exactly do you mean by one P&L?

If you look at some of the larger agencies, there will be a P&L for activation, a P&L for PR, a P&L for e-commerce, a P&L for search, a P&L for mobile, a P&L for shopper... and each of them is led by one guy at the top. And they are all fighting for the same thing. In any large organisation, who typically manages social media - the PR team or the digital team?

Well, it's not necessarily the digital team. In all likelihood, the PR arm is fighting with the digital team saying, 'We should be running social media'. I think it is happening in every large agency at the moment. It does not happen at Leo Burnett.

When it came to selecting a creative partner, what made BBDO's RajDeepak Das your best choice - the need for young blood?

I was looking for the best integrated storyteller out there. Age was not at the back of my mind at all, neither was the temptation of going for somebody who was a really big name.

I don't think the Indian ad industry is really focused on expertise and specialisation at the moment; it is focused on personalities. The 'personality cult' is not as pronounced anywhere in the world, as it is in India. At Leo Burnett, our focus is not on creating personalities; it is on creating expertise.

Your strong planning background almost makes you CEO-cum-CSO, rolled into one. Won't your expertise make Rajeev Sharma's role redundant?

Strategic planning is not one person's domain. It is about some great people coming together and defining what I call 'the problem'. And the hunt for the problem needn't necessarily be one guy's mandate. It could be a journey undertaken by many people.

So far, since I have come in, not a single person has been asked to leave. We've decided to change the context, not the people.

Besides, we believe the fate of the agency cannot be decided by just one or two people. Leo Burnett is trying to do what the Aam Aadmi Party has done. We want to make sure a guy at a bottom who has great ideas, can shape the agency.

Leo Burnett has been criticised for being too skewed towards awards. What's your take on creative awards?

I love awards. I think celebrating what we do is very important. We're all in this business to create, and then celebrate, great work.

Having said that, I'll add - I am absolutely against scams. I am very clear that if this great work does not happen for our real clients, to solve real problems, it is useless. And it is not going to happen on my watch. You will not see Leo Burnett creating anything which is not for a real brief, to solve a real problem.

So is scam a problem you're consciously looking to fix at the agency?

It is already done. It got done the day I joined. I have been absolutely ruthless as far as communicating the new vision goes. Yes, we want to win. We want to win big. But we want to do so by doing real work on real clients.

Of course, I would hate it if we are not proactive. I would hate it if we don't, on a daily basis, hunt for, define and solve our clients' problems. I am not against proactive thinking for real clients, to solve real problems.

Is there anything you want to change about the way your team approaches a pitch?

(smiles) We don't want to pitch a lot. In fact, we want to pitch very little. I think agencies often forget how much potential revenue there is in their existing clients. Our focus is organic growth.

Going forward, our focus will be less on 'pitching' and more on 'prospecting'. There is a big difference between the two. Pitching is when you get invited for a pitch and you're one of five agencies competing for a business. Prospecting is when you create value for a client - even though they might not be your client - and ultimately win the business, maybe even without a pitch.

The chances of winning a client are far more through prospecting than pitching.