The Abstainer

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising
Last updated : June 27, 2013
For all the scams, creative awards are worshipped by ad agencies for two reasons. First, agency bosses insist that despite the feigned indifference, marketers are secretly impressed by awards, which improve the prospects of an agency winning business. Second, awards on the shelf are great for agency morale. With so much going for them, how can an agency stay out of the rat race? Apparently it can, going by the example of Lowe Lintas, which has kept away from creative awards for a decade. And it isn't staring into an 'Abbys' either.

R Balki

While interviewing ad veterans in their offices, I can't help but notice the trophies that adorn their desks and shelves. Most of these acknowledgements of creative excellence are perched at eye level and often form a halo of colourful metal around the interviewee giving him - or her - a strange, deity-like appearance.

Lowe Lintas & Partners India is different in that its offices and cabins are bereft of such decorations. There is a simple reason for this: the agency doesn't participate in, and therefore doesn't display, creative awards.

However, this hasn't stopped it from coming up with appreciable creative work and maintaining an almost arrogant stance against creative awards. The halo around Lowe's top management screams: 'We don't give a damn about awards'. With roots stretching back to an Abby-related incident over a decade ago, this stance against participation in creative awards was initiated by R Balakrishnan (better known as Balki), chairman and chief creative officer, Lowe Lintas & Partners, and has since percolated to all employees. The agency has even come to host four editions of what it calls the 'True Show', its own internal awards show.

As Balki puts it, "We don't do things by the rules of juries or by what juries believe is the definition of creativity. We are our harshest critics and better judges of our work than anyone else can ever be." It is only fair to assume that a strong conviction such as this has had an impact on the overall atmosphere within the walls of Lowe India, giving rise to a creative culture that is different from the rest in the award-hungry ad industry. But does it make the average creative director at Lowe less competitive?

Amer Jaleel

"There is enough competition within our agency. We have enough brands and there's a lot of internal evaluation," says Amer Jaleel, national creative director. According to him, the top management at Lowe is breeding a 'pure culture'. "The purity," he explains, "lies in the fact that the work we do has to make news in the marketplace and has to be talked about by people. We resist the greed for awards. We resist being cockeyed - with one eye on the work and the other on awards. At Lowe, both eyes are on the marketplace."

Effectiveness first

Speaking of the marketplace, Lowe's skew towards 'effectiveness'-based competitions is no secret. The agency regularly enters its work in competitions that reward marketplace effectiveness such as the Effies and the Asian Marketing Effectiveness Festival (AME).

"Peer recognition feels good and the outlet we seek for that is in the form of effectiveness awards," states Vikas Mehta, chief marketing officer. According to him, this skew towards effectiveness is a conscious attempt to look down on creativity for creativity's sake. "In the ad industry, creativity is a means to an end, not an end in itself. With all due respect to the creative awards jury of 25 people who are our peers, their lens seems to be that of craft alone. We believe advertising is commercial art, not a pure art. Work that is artistic for art's sake belongs in an art gallery, not to the advertising world," he adds.

Vikas Mehta

The creative heads at Lowe admit they don't hesitate before tossing aside a brilliant creative idea, internally, if it is not an effective one. "This is part of an internal hygiene system that we have cultivated," says Jaleel. Of course, the creative leaders at Lowe are sure to clarify that 'effective' work has never meant 'not creative' work and realise that creativity and effectiveness are not mutually exclusive qualities. Balki, though, has additional reasons for being partial to effectiveness-based competitions. "The Effies are more credible than the Abbys as there are many more clients on the jury," he shrugs. A 'credible awards show', in Balki's eyes is one that has seven clients, who produce fantastic work on their brands, as jurors.

Despite its longstanding stance against entering its work in creative award shows, Lowe India's ads still stand a chance of being awarded at these very shows. How so? Enter Lowe's Global Creative Council. This 30-member body that came into existence around three years back comprises creative talent from around 20 of Lowe's global offices. The council is free to pick work from Lowe India and enter it in any global award forum.

One may argue that this is a rather convenient set-up that allows Lowe to milk the best of both worlds: the agency maintains its anti-award stance while its work gets evaluated by international juries, a recent case in point being Lowe India's Lifebuoy commercial that was entered at Cannes by Lowe London and won the agency's UK contingent a Silver Film Lion last week. Jaleel reacts, "What comes first is important. The work we take to this council comprises work that has already succeeded in the Indian market and work that we're proud of. If the council feels it meets the criteria set by international award forums, they enter it, but we never make ads in a particular manner just so that we can present it to this council." And luckily for Lowe India, the global Lowe network as well as its holding company, the Interpublic Group, have both been supportive of its approach to awards.

The HR lens

Though Lowe India feels no pressure from its global heads to compete for awards, how has this stance impacted hiring at the local level? It is said that a portfolio laden with work that has won awards helps propel the career of the average creative director. Balki rubbishes this, saying, "This used to be the case 10 years back, when people were fools. Work propels careers. We're not dumb enough to hire someone if we don't like the work and the work has won an Abby."

Anuradha Narasimhan Britannia

Even so, has Lowe's no-awards belief ever made hiring a problem? Michelle Suradkar, director, HR, Lowe Lintas & Partners, admits that in the short term it did rattle a few applicants, but in the long term it has only made hiring easier. In the initial years after Lowe adopted this outlook, some young creative people would say when they found out about it, ' that means I can't apply as I won't be able to do work that will win me awards', but over the years, it has helped weed out the misfits and attract the right talent. "I recall a conversation from four years back with a young creative director who applied for a job here saying, 'I have won enough awards through scam ads to now want to do the real thing. That's why I am here'," shares Suradkar. She claims that today, across departments, Lowe's attrition is lowest in creative.

Ask Suradkar about the characteristic features of Lowe's creative breed given this no-awards culture and she responds with, "We're not defined by what we don't do but rather by what we do. Our stand against awards is not our defining factor." Is the quintessential creative director in Lowe more brazen given a strong anti-establishment leader like Balki? "This company has been arrogant about the fact that it is principled and does the right thing," she says.

Cheers and jeers

The agency's employees may have bought into its philosophy, but what about its clients - the people who actually invest in its brands? Which brand manager doesn't like going up on stage to be applauded for an ad created for his or her brand? And there's no denying the existence of marketers who pressure their agency partners to deliver 'award-winning' work.

Says Anuradha Narasimhan, director, marketing, Britannia Industries, "Advertising awards are for the advertising community. For me, the cash register is more important. Would it be nice to win something? Of course! Is it such a big deal, though? Not really."


Awards could also be a source of feedback for a brand marketer. On some level they help determine one's standing amidst competition. Do Lowe's clients miss this feedback? According to C K Venkataraman, chief executive officer, jewellery, Titan Industries, given social media and the general buzz around brands in the public space today, it's not too difficult to find out whether one's ads are being well received. "The husband-wife Diwali film that Lowe created for us was talked about in the news and in the industry. Experts wrote about it. For us, that's recognition, as opposed to a forum like an awards ceremony. So if the work is good, you get to know anyway," he says. And former adman Venkataraman admits that as an agency employee he used to feel excited about awards. "Back then, I'd feel bad if my agency didn't win but my perspective has changed now that I'm on the marketing side of things."

The leader who started all this is happy. His team seems to have adopted his views. Clients aren't complaining. Of course, there's the occasional cynic, without whom things would be all too perfect. K V Sridhar (aka Pops), chief creative officer, Leo Burnett, Indian subcontinent - creatively, one of the most awarded agencies in India - sums up Lowe's outlook interestingly.

Says Pops, "Every agency has its own philosophy and personality. Lintas, right from Alyque Padamsee's time, has had a very audacious personality. After Alyque, the 'We are God' personality got diluted a bit but after Balki came in, the audacious, I-don't give-a-damn personality of Lintas returned."

Did we hear Balki say "touché"?

A Note From the Editor

It has always amused me that many of the advertising agencies which advise clients on how to position their brands are themselves indistinguishable from one another. This provides a perfect ground for an agency to be different. Whether or not R Balakrishnan (Balki) saw it this way, Lowe Lintas has certainly managed to stand apart in the quirkiest of ways.

It is an old joke that people in advertising award themselves more than people in any other profession. Over the past decade this has turned into an obsession with agencies creating fake work and even fake clients to get their hands on a metal. Personally, I think this has turned the profession into a laughing stock but ad agency heads have had no qualms going along for three reasons: one, it impresses potential clients; two, it is good for agency morale; three, awards don't hurt anyone.

Under Balki, however, Lowe Lintas has shunned the Abbys, India's biggest creative award show, for the past decade. As awards have grown bigger, so too has the criticism of the pathetic ploys agencies employ to win. In such a climate, Lowe has become a flag bearer of genuine advertising that moves consumers to buy as opposed to work-for-awards-alone.

I find it intriguing that Lowe has managed to remain contrarian in a climate in which more awards are supposed to translate into an invitation to new business pitches. In some way, the agency seems to have taken its attitude against scam ads to inspire itself to do even more compelling work - as if to prove with each good film that Lowe doesn't need a jury to pat it on the back. A manager in the agency says that like new converts to a cause, some of the younger creative folk feel fiercely about doing genuinely creative work.

For all the popular wisdom, clients seem happy to live with an agency which has no awards to show. Of course, there is no denying that Lowe has history, size and the enviable presence of Unilever brands in its portfolio. But, then, history and size alone don't give an organisation its backbone. Faith and leadership do.


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First Published : June 27, 2013

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