Agency Employees: Lasting Bond

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | January 02, 2013
What makes some employees stay loyal to an agency for years and years?

Recently, following the termination of a rigorous creative pitch, I called my contact at the losing agency to give him my 'tough luck-maybe next time' pep talk but the cheer in his voice took me by surprise. But it didn't surprise me in the least when I learnt that he'd moved on to a rival agency in less than a year.

This little incident did make me take a moment to think about those who have stayed put at one single agency for years, sometimes even decades. Even if one excludes family successors like Srinivasan Swamy of RK Swamy or creative stalwarts like R Balki (Lowe) and Piyush Pandey (Ogilvy), who went on to become synonymous with their respective agencies, the list is still quite long (see box: Commitment Factor). What makes these people one-agency men and women?

The wild years


Before exploring what loyalty entails, it is pertinent to take a look at why most agency employees tend to be footloose, particularly those from the creative side.

There are several reasons why art and copy employees tend to hop jobs faster than their planning and servicing counterparts. Firstly, for a creative employee, especially during the first decade of the career, 'doing the agency rounds' is actually recommended. It is said that they get exposure to different schools of thought - the Piyush approach, the Prasoon touch or the Balki way of thinking - and are better placed to mould their own creative style.

Says Ashish Khazanchi, national creative director and vice-chairperson, Publicis Ambience, "It's a great idea to move around and get exposed to different influences and not just get fed in one way of working." When he moved from Ogilvy to McCann, Khazanchi claims to have 'dropped the Piyush Pandey school' and 'moved on to the Santosh Desai perspective', a change that helped round his creative signature.

The planning discipline also has these schools (McCann, thanks to Santosh Desai, follows a more people-led, cultural, sociological planning system while JWT believes in more client-dictated, business-led planning), but it is seldom the cause for hopping. The discipline itself is relatively young and the sphere of influence given to planners is not uniform across agencies yet for it to play such a big role in a planner's decision to move.

Secondly, a creative employee's fortunes are almost entirely tied to the 'Sensex' of the accounts he works on. It's the lure of fresher, not bigger accounts, across newer product categories that tempt a creative director to travel. 'You don't quit jobs, you quit ccounts' would seem a good adage for creative movements.

And lastly, as the cliché goes, creative folk are inherently more fickle and restless and seem to tire faster than non-creative people. Also, it's the intense, personal nature of the job that fast tracks their burnout at a particular place. "With each ad, a part of you goes into the product," confesses Malvika Mehra, national creative director, Grey.

Take root, bear fruit

In times where job hopping is rampant, curiosity about the nature of the glue that holds certain agency employees back for amazingly long stretches of time is high. So what is it?

For one, it does bring the opportunity to become the face of a brand or a set of brands much faster than others. As Haresh Moorjani, group creative director, Draftfcb Ulka, puts it, "It works both ways. Yes, acquiring experience over a variety of clients and products does help but again, so does cutting your teeth on a particular brand because building that brand and making it famous helps you by virtue of association." He has been working on - and specialising in - the Amul account (amongst others like TCS, ITC and Indian Oil) for 16 years now.


For planners, the loyalty game involves a unique set of considerations. When it comes to chasing after brands, unlike creative professionals, who are largely product category-agnostic, planners tend to be more category-sensitive. ''Creative people try and work on as many brands as possible, across categories but planners are experts and seek expertise in few select categories,'' explains Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar, national creative director, Bates.

So while a creative person is out for width, a planner's goal is depth. Even on the hiring front, a completely fresh creative mind (one that hasn't ideated on that particular product segment before) is valued but planners often face the question, 'Do you have relevant (read category) experience?' ''This reduces planners' temptation to get lured by any and every new brand out there and consequently increases their longevity at an agency,'' says Mahabaleshwarkar.

A second area of expertise a planner seeks to conquer is linked to consumer demographics. ''It's not always category expertise that adds to a planner's premium. It's also in-depth knowledge of specific audience segments,'' says Jitender Dabas, executive vice-president, planning, McCann Erickson. At the end of the day, a planner is a consumer advocate, a large part of whose expertise comes from how well he knows his target audience. So if a planner has worked across brands or categories that cater to the same consumer segment, he is on his way to becoming an expert in that TG.

For example, if a planner has worked across brands like Nokia, Pepsi, Nike and Fastrack, he becomes a youth (16-19 years) expert. However, as Dheeraj Sinha, head, planning, Grey India, South and Southeast Asia, points out, ''It is also true that young planners see such 'micro-profiling' as a somewhat limiting way of working and are going the 'creative way' as far as variety-seeking behaviour goes.''

Manoj Shetty, group creative director, Ogilvy, who has been specialising in the Cadbury business for 15 years, claims that this prolonged experience helps him stay truthful to every script he pens down for the brand as the ads he creates reflect the feelings and aspirations the consumer already has for the brand. This, he explains, is important for brand differentiation.
Another advantage of staying with a single agency and, consequently, one brand is that, often, the employee has more knowledge about the brand than the seniormost person on the brand marketing team. Besides sinking his teeth into Cadbury (no pun intended), Shetty has simultaneously been developing his distinct creative voice for brands like Castrol (seven years) and Bajaj (10 years).

Loyalists have the foresight that allows them to see that chasing bigger brands and doing racy creatives can improve their portfolio and may even fetch more awards, but in the long run one has to slow down and subscribe to the philosophy of one agency or another. Only some realise the importance of heading towards a point where it's the professional's turn to influence the agency. "By staying loyal, you are able to have a more characteristic approach to your work and a stronger signature, which develops along the long journey at an agency," says Deepa Geethakrishnan, president, creative, Lowe Lintas and Partners.

Another commonality is the periodic change of some sort that kept their mandates fresh for years, especially during the initial chunk of their long stints. Whether it was a new platter of brands to work on every now and then, a revamped job description, the intermittent introduction of a different set of teams to work with, newer roles to step into or even the chance to experiment, those who stayed had the satisfaction of hitting the refresh button regularly, while retaining the comfort of their old jobs.

The right stimulus

Consider the career of Swati Bhattacharya, national creative director, JWT, who has been with the agency for 20 years. During her first decade at JWT, she worked across brands and teams including Pepsi, Sunrise Coffee, ITC, 7UP, Hero Cycles. "If I look back at the number of brands I handled in my first 10 years at JWT, I realise I would have had to change agencies every two years to get that kind of exposure," admits Bhattacharya, who 'settled down' to focus on far fewer clients (GSK, Apollo Munich) in her later years at the agency.


Savio Sequeira

Allow us to present to you the curious case of Savio Sequeira. He has been servicing the Colgate account for 18 years, across markets and even agencies.

Sequeira, who has been acknowledged by Colgate as a 'Valued Agency Partner', began servicing the account in 1994 as an account director at Rediffusion-Y&R Mumbai. He soon took charge of the entire Colgate oral and personal care portfolio. In 1998, the Colgate account took Sequeira from Mumbai to Bucharest, then Warsaw (2000) and France (2004), by which time, he was regional account director, Colgate International Team, Europe.

Between 2006 and 2010, Sequeira was in Hong Kong, where he worked on expanding Colgate's oral care portfolio in one of its fastest growing regional markets. Then, in 2010-11, when WPP decided to move the Colgate business out of Rediffusion-Y&R and set up 'Team Colgate' in Bates India, he followed the account to Bates and moved back to Mumbai to continue servicing it as managing director, Team Colgate, Bates Asia.

Is it natural for a servicing guy to face a loyalty dilemma when his longstanding, pet account moves out of the agency? ''Absolutely,'' says Sequeira, ''If due to some global alignment the account decides to move and if you're a key partner to the client, they will ask for you to move to the new agency.''

The only time he didn't work on Colgate was in 2002 (in Singapore), when his job involved developing key Y&R businesses in the APAC region. How did that work out for him? ''I was miserable without it. Within a year-and-a-half, I went right back to servicing this account,'' he answers with candour.

For many others, this stimulation came in the form of newer geographies, both local and international. For instance, Ogilvy's executive creative director Chattopadhyay did a six-month stint in Sri Lanka (in 1998-99) and continues to look at accounts from Ogilvy Colombo. He also works on key regional brands like Pond's from time to time.

Madhu Noorani, president, creative, Lowe Lintas and Partners, had spread her wings from Lowe Mumbai to Lowe Chennai quite early in the day. But it was only around seven to eight years into her tenure when the international gates opened up. It started with a three-month spell at Lowe Djakarta (J&J account) after which, she became a regular participant in Lowe's international workshops. These were brainstorming sessions, where creative talent from all over would come and ideate on the agency's global accounts.

Noorani started doing one-off projects for brands like Signal Toothpaste (which is what Pepsodent is called in Europe) and Clear Shampoo (Bangkok) and soon found herself in the middle of "this big global scene". "Whenever I thought 'Oh God, now I need to think of something else', something great came along," she recalls. Today, she is the global creative head on Clear Shampoo (Singapore-based, where she spends two weeks each month) and Pureit (in India) accounts. Her job involves working with creative teams across markets such as Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil, China, Turkey, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

While at first glance this may look like a 'large agency phenomenon' (and there's no denying that the stickiness does tend to be high in large setups) that gave these professionals the opportunity to taste what only a job switch could offer, in reality it's more layered than just this.

Rohit Srivastava has been with Contract Advertising for 23 years. And, whenever he felt that "there was something else I'd rather be doing", the agency channelised his restlessness - whether it was allowing him to switch disciplines (servicing to planning) within the first few years of joining or regularly exploring new avenues thereafter, doing overseas projects or setting up a strategic planning unit (Core Consulting).

"It's more about the culture of a place. I could have easily had a boss who said, 'Don't waste your time, just focus on your basic work' in which case I'd have been forced to look elsewhere," he adds. Others who stayed on for long at Contract include Ravi Deshpande (13 years for his first stint, now eight years and counting in his second), Umesh Shrikhande (stretches of nine and seven years) and Raj Nair (17 years before he quit to join BMB).

Exchanging vows

Srivastava's case shows that an employee's loyalty to an agency is a function of the agency's loyalty to the employee. "After a point, one of the main things that urges them to move is lack of adequate encouragement and stimulation from the agency's end," says the head of HR at a leading ad agency in Mumbai.

After a long innings

This 'loyalty' or intervention on the part of the agency tends to vary depending on two main factors: the type of agency and the type of function. Media agencies tend to work hard towards keeping high-functioning employees adequately stimulated. Starcom MediaVest Group kept its former CEO Ravi Kiran motivated by giving him 11 different roles to execute across his 12-year span at the agency. "Had they not given me those new roles every 15-18 months (something he terms 'reasonably regularly') I wouldn't have stayed for so long," he admits, referring to his pan-India roles across Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi and, later, Singapore. And the mandate to mentor his peers in other markets like West Asia and Mexico.

In media agencies, new roles are crucial. "A media agency guy's functional, learning and managerial bandwidth grows only with each role change. As long as that is happening, people stay on," says Kiran. Moreover, media agencies unlike creative agencies, are not personality driven and the working styles are not influenced by the leader's own style. Individual portfolios are not important because the final product can't be attributed to one person. Each planner or buyer's subjectivity is no more than 10-20 per cent. The rest is data-driven. All this reduces the temptation of moving, barring the chance of a superior role elsewhere. Is it then easier to hold back servicing professionals?

Demand and supply

According to Rohit Ohri, executive chairman, Dentsu India Group, agencies usually have an answer when account executives get bored and say 'What next?' because it's relatively easy to intervene and offer more. Contract's Srivastava concurs, "A new brand is the maximum an agency can do for a creative guy." Perhaps today an agency may be able to move a creative person into a design function or a digital function. But these are options that have come only recently.

An alternative theory to explain why attrition rates are higher for creative people rests on the demand-supply model. On the business side, there exists a more organised funnel of supply - MBA institutes, other agencies, client teams, research agencies and consultancies - that arm potential candidates with the required skill sets.

Says Srivastava, "An agency looking for a copywriter or art director doesn't have 500 'creative schools' to choose from." They are, therefore, wooed with that much more aggression, right at entry level and at other levels later on. Burnett's K V Sridhar has another theory. "Till the 1990s, creative guys had no say or freedom of putting forward their philosophy about how the brand or the organisation should be run," explains Pops, who is the chief creative officer, Indian subcontinent, Leo Burnett. According to him it was this lack of freedom and power that turned creative directors into frustrated agency hoppers.

"But today, a creative guy's judgment is more respected and he doesn't necessarily report to a suit. Arvind Sharma (chairman and CEO, Indian subcontinent) and I are equal 'co-owners' at Burnett," he points out. He foresees a time not far from today, when creative folk will have much more 'power', and fewer reasons to move.

If Pops' prediction doesn't come true, the loyalists profiled here - deemed by Gen-Y as anachronisms - could become the last remnants of an era long gone.

(Based on additional conversations with Suraja Kishore, national planning director, Publicis Ambience, Kaizad Pardiwala, branch head, Grey Mumbai, Dhunji Wadia, president, Everest Brand Solutions, Priti Nair, co-founder, Curry-Nation and Amit Gurung, brand manager, Jyothy Labs)

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