"End of an era" for Leo Burnett India?

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | April 21, 2014
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As the agency undergoes a leadership churn, we look back at KV Sridhar and Arvind Sharma's long partnership and assess what the future - arguably a fresh, new era - holds for Leo Burnett India.

People make the place, they say. So when two "people of vintage", as an onlooker put it, leave a place in close succession, said place is likely to undergo dramatic change. We look at this adage in the light of the recent leadership change at the Big Apple in Mumbai - change that will impact the future of Leo Burnett India.

Leo Burnett signature

Leo Burnett pencil

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Leo Burnett

Last October Arvind Sharma, the agency's chairman and CEO, India sub-continent - who has also contributed significantly to industry bodies like ASCI and AAAI - announced his decision to move on from the agency, after 30 years of service. Three days back, another cog in the agency's top rung, KV Sridhar, or Pops as he is better known, announced his departure from the agency, where he spent 17 (non-consecutive) years. He was the agency's chief creative officer, India sub-continent. Together, the two struck a strong partnership, one that the media will have to start getting used to referring to in the past tense.

When I did a story on Lowe Lintas' R Balki recently, I spoke to his peers to get a sense of how he, as an individual, is positioned in the industry. At the time, Pops, former Lintas hand and a friend of Balki's, had said to me, "Every agency has its own philosophy and personality. Over time, it percolates down from the leader to the team," going on to explain how Balki's ideas have influenced his agency.

Taking this very thought forward, we decided to take a look at what the duo's long partnership meant, and how its absence will affect the agency, for better or for worse.

Creative Focus

KS Chakravarthy, NCD, FCB Ulka, says, "Their (Pops and Sharma's) vision was very clear - creative focus. They wanted to make Leo Burnett a creative powerhouse. That was their strategy and they stuck to it." Chax worked at Burnett between 1992 and 2001, by which time he grew to become the agency's NCD.

Satbir Singh, managing partner and chief creative officer, Havas Worldwide, who worked at Burnett Delhi for a bit, says, "It is difficult to think of Leo Burnett without Arvind and Pops. It might as well have been called 'Arvind Pops'. They built an ecosystem of great creativity. Usually, it is not easy for an organisation relying only on people, to overcome the loss of so many who shaped it for so long and bounce back immediately."

Some industry folk are of a different view. They collectively say, "It's about time this happened." As the Mumbai-based head of a leading creative agency puts it, "The era of eternal companies is over. Burnett needs fresh, young blood. It is not possible to keep yourself creatively juiced up for 30 years in one agency."

The head of strategy at another agency, articulates the same thought with, "The tyre needed re-tubing. And reinvention is best done by people who don't have a vested interest in the past."

Others opine the biggest change for the agency will be in its creative product, as with Pops, exits the 'Pops way' of doing things. Well, what was Pops' signature style? "Being a painter and design-focused guy, he was a great believer in art and nurtured talent in that area," explains an industry observer, saying the 'Nitesh Tiwari way' will find room to grow within the agency system in the days ahead. Unless, of course, rumours of his not returning to Burnett, post the release of his second film Bhootnath Returns, are true. He has reportedly rubbished them, though. In October 2012, Tiwari was promoted to the post of chief creative officer of the agency in India, when Pops was given a pan-subcontinent role.

Head and Heart

Satbir Singh

Meenakshi Madhvani

Meenakshi Madhvani has a balanced view. "The partnership of Pops and Arvind brought stability and consistency to Leo Burnett," she says, "It is important for the suit and the head creative to work well together. Theirs was a complimentary approach - Arvind was strong on the 'head' part of the communication and Pops brought in the 'heart' part."

Adds the founder of Spatial Access, a media audit firm, "From an organisational perspective, sometimes these partnerships can be too long. Every decade, organisations need to go through churn and if they don't, they end up getting into a bit of a rut. As individuals and as professionals, I have a lot of respect for both Arvind and Pops. From the viewpoint of the organisation, though, while it was a great partnership, I think in some ways it was past its sell-by date. With agencies that have the same head for decades, there's a kind of atrophy that sets in."

Speaking of partnership, a brand consultant points out, "They (Pops and Arvind) chased joint - not individual - success, something Santosh Desai and Prasoon Joshi couldn't pull off at McCann."

There are enough and more people who roll their eyes at the mention of Pops and Sharma's common goal. Here's where the scam word comes in. Recounting the agency's famed Luxor Highlighter campaign - one that received both, accolades and flak - these eye-rollers say Burnett's skew towards awards-driven work might decline soon. Mark Tutssel, are you reading this?

Scale, say many, is another area in which the agency could have done better under the leadership of the two outgoing heads. They feel, Burnett - which is roughly one-fourth the size of Ogilvy in India, in terms of annual revenue - has plenty room to grow as far as sheer size goes.

Future Ready?

"Goan boys" Walter Saldanha and Brendan Pereira co-founded Chaitra Advertising in 1972, in the midst of "one of the worst recessions in advertising history," as author Manendra Mohan says in his book titled 'Advertising Management: Concepts and Cases'. Interestingly, a gentleman called Leo Burnett started his agency in 1935, during the Great Depression, in Chicago, USA.

The now Publicis Omnicom Group-owned Leo Burnett entered India in 1992, when Chaitra became Chaitra Leo Burnett. After around eight years, the Chaitra name was dropped and Leo Burnett India was born. Some of its big ticket accounts in India include globally aligned ones such as Thums Up (part of the Coca-Cola business), McDonald's, Tide (P&G) and Complan (owned by Heinz in India) as well as local clients like KBC, among several others.

From Chaitra to Leo Burnett, the group has come a long way in India. Question is: Is it ready for its third innings - one that might come to be called the 'Post Pops-Arvind Era'? Yes, we gather.

All eyes on Saurabh Varma

As far as predictions go, there's a strong view that under the leadership of Saurabh Varma, the agency's CEO in India (since last October), Burnett's next era will be a strategy-strong one.

"Given Saurabh's strong planning background and international work experience (Varma was regional CSO of Burnett, APAC), he will probably bring in a much larger focus on strategy and a broader worldview," says the business head of a creative agency, that belongs to the same parent company as Burnett. Perhaps Rajeev Sharma's input will find more attentive ears now than ever before; the agency's national brand planning director has been with the group since the early 1990s.

Henceforth, the industry also expects to see a renewed focus on digital and new media at the agency. Vikas Tandon and team, at Indigo Consulting, will play an important role in shaping the agency's creative product, now onwards.

So the spotlight's on Varma, who along with Burnett's next creative head (did someone say Manoj Shetty?) will help change the agency's elevator pitch from 'Most Awarded' and 'The place that gave us great creative talent like Paddy,' to something newer, bigger and better.

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