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Meet Ogilvy India's newly crowned creative leaders

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | August 01, 2017
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Interviews with Kainaz Karmakar, Harshad Rajadhyaksha, Sukesh Nayak, Ajay Gahlaut, Azazul Haque, Mahesh Gharat and Sumanto Chattopadhyay.

For Ogilvy India, it's the end of an era - and the beginning of a new one. Few weeks back, the news of Sonal Dabral's return to the agency as group chief creative officer and vice chairman, generated a great deal of buzz in ad-land. Sonal, who is currently wrapping things up at DDB Mudra, worked at Ogilvy India between 1991 and 1999, during which time he famously partnered Piyush Pandey to create some memorable ads, including Cadbury's 'Kuch khaas hai'.

The Rajiv Rao-Abhijit Avasthi era ended when the latter NCD quit around three years back; his co-NCD Rao, credited with creating the 'Zoozoo' campaign for Vodafone, moved on pursue ad filmmaking, last month.

Meet Ogilvy India's newly crowned creative leaders Meet Ogilvy India's newly crowned creative leaders

All these changes have now given the agency's second line of defense - the recently promoted Ajay Gahlaut, Sukesh Nayak, Kainaz Karmakar, Harshad Rajadhyaksha, Azazul Haque and Mahesh Gharat - a chance to really come into their own. What they do hereon will become synonymous with Ogilvy's creative product and culture. Meanwhile, Sumanto Chattopadhyay, who has been with Ogilvy since 1993, has been named chairman and chief creative officer of Soho Square, a WPP agency that's part of the Ogilvy group in India.

How has life changed for this band of creative leaders after their respective promotions? What's their brand of leadership, both individually and collectively, like? For the most part, they speak of Ogilvy like it's some sort of mutation in a gene they inherited on joining the agency. And the sense of having been handed the proverbial baton, a heavy one, is shared by all. For some, the change hasn't sunk it yet. For others, it's business as usual albeit with a stiffer collar and a new-found swing in their step.

Another question lurks: In what way will reporting to Sonal change their lives? A common sentiment is - his 'Ogilvy-ness' is a big plus; it's comforting to report to someone who has helped create the very system they now inhabit, they reason.

We got to know Ogilvy's new creative army a little better, through a series of mini-interviews. Edited Excerpts.

"I'm scared as hell": Sukesh Nayak, Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy West

Sukesh Nayak Sukesh Nayak

Sukesh got into advertising as a "stop-gap thing" about 17-18 years back, as "something to do" to bide his time before deciding what to do next. That's when he first heard about some of the work coming out of "this agency called Ogilvy, done by a man called Piyush Pandey and his many men, including Sonal Dabral at the time."

Recalls Sukesh, "I thought, 'If this is what I want to do, I should be there...' I had to go through several 'rounds', before I finally got in, in the year 2000. That was my first official job, technically. Before that I was just interning somewhere. So I've been doing this for 17 years now. I just never left."

For Sukesh, the recent elevation is a career dream realised. Over these years, he has often wondered what running this place within the capacity of leader would feel like. "If I ever wanted to run something, it was this place, no other. So it's a privilege. Sure, we've been running our respective brands under Kinu (Abhijit Avasthi). I was reporting to him. Yes, we were very hands-on with the brands, but this is the first time the organisation has given us the opportunity - to Harshad, Kainaz and me in Bombay - to run it!" he enthuses.

"The idea," he explains, while discussing the agency's creative culture, "is bigger than anything. The idea could be on film, radio, digital, branded content, activation... anything. We've always solved a problem with an idea. First have an idea, then think of the medium. Don't think of the medium before you think of the idea. That has been instilled in me all these years. Am I going to think 'digital-first'? No, I'm not going to do that! I am not a media seller. I am an idea seller. And ideas are independent of the medium. I will never make technology bigger than the idea. Medium can't be king. If medium was king then amazing 30-second-long pack shots would also be fun to watch."

New mediums and technology are important to Sukesh, insofar as they help keep the entire organisation abreast with changing times. "We're in a collaborative era today," he says, taking a then-and-now view for a moment, "Today, with technology, we can solve problems in many more ways than we could earlier; there are newer ways to execute solutions... but it's important to never make them bigger than the idea."

About the road ahead, Sukesh has no qualms saying, "I'm scared as hell. If I'm not scared, I should leave the job tomorrow and go. Fear makes me do better. I have the same butterflies in my tummy that I used to get before exams. One can't be cocky and complacent..."

"We're not home-grown": Kainaz Karmakar, Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy West

Kainaz Karmakar Kainaz Karmakar

When Harshad and Kainaz were outside Ogilvy - (the two worked as an art-copy team for three years at JWT before joining Ogilvy in mid-2010) - they admired the agency's work. "When we joined the agency, we didn't have an agenda; we joined only to experience the place. And it's been such a ride. See, we're not homegrown. To come from outside, and be told that we'd be one of the people who would be leading the place, was an absolutely tremendous feeling," Kainaz says with candour.

About being just about a month shy of reporting to a new boss, she says, "I've never had a problem with any boss. I've worked for 18 years now. Anybody I report to, I get along with famously," adding about her first meeting with Sonal, someone she classifies as "home-grown", in the context of Ogilvy, "I had a brief two-day session judging an awards show recently - that's the only window I've ever had with Sonal, who was head of the jury. I found him fair and funny... and he backed the correct kind of work. At the time, I didn't know he'd be coming back to Ogilvy."

Is there a sense of liberation now that she, along with Harshad and Sukesh, will be running the show at Ogilvy Mumbai? "Even as ECDs, we functioned pretty independently, with Piyush and Rajiv stepping in only when we or a client required them to. They have never kept us on a short leash," she answers.

"The challenge is to balance work and admin": Harshad Rajadhyaksha, Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy West

Harshad Rajadhyaksha Harshad Rajadhyaksha

Harshad (Kainaz's partner) has spent seven years at Ogilvy. He says, about his new role, "The fact the organisation has given us this bigger role does make us introspect and ask ourselves what this bigger role means." And what does it mean? "In many ways," responds Harshad, "It's an acknowledgement of having done a few things right. So now we have to do the same things on a larger canvas." He reminds us, however, that even as an ECD at Ogilvy, he alone - as is true for the other ECDs he worked alongside - was handling the amount of work an average mid-to-small sized agency would handle as a whole. "So now we have to do it on an even larger scale," he deduces.

When quizzed about whether this elevation will bring with it more people management and less time to indulge in the craft, he says, "The administrative side came when we became ECDs. The challenge is to balance work and admin. Piyush often says, 'Be a playing caption. Don't get too swayed by the admin part of the job.' It is a challenge but we're sure we can surmount it."

Another challenge, according to him, is something the industry is facing: The effort of creating a campaign has become more collaborative than ever. "Earlier," he explains, "a client sought a solution from one agency and that was the be all and end all. Today there are multiple partners that collaborate on a project. So co-ordination and ensuring the freshness of the idea remains intact despite these multiple collaborations is something we'll need to keep an eye out for."

"I'm part of the van-guard now": Ajay Gahlaut, Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy North and Deputy CCO, Ogilvy India

Ajay Gahlaut Ajay Gahlaut

Ajay worked at Ogilvy as creative consultant between 2001 and 2005 after which he left and re-joined the agency in 2007. He has been there since. About his recent elevation, he says, "It is a fairly clear change in the system, a clear statement of intent. It feels good to be part of the company's future plans. As a professional, you feel valued. Immediately, things won't metamorphose into something different. The core remains the same, but yes, there is a certain level of responsibility that one feels... of being part of the van-guard now."

What changes will he use his new-found power to make? "More than on the outside, I'd like to make some changes within myself. Maybe become a little more disciplined with things, a little less ad hoc, manage time better perhaps," he says with a laugh, sounding every bit the frank, humorous adman he is. He adds, "As boss, I can now pick and choose whatever I want to work on. For example, I do all the Imperial Blue films myself."

Ajay has a strong view on the manner in which 'the client' has changed over the past few years: "They experiment a lot more and are more open to projects. Longer-term relationships with agencies might not be the norm now. There's more flirtatiousness on part of clients today; they're willing to work with multiple agencies. Perhaps, clients today have a shorter fuse - pitches might now be called a little more often than they would, earlier. This is especially the case with newer, younger people. New-age tech companies work at a frenetic pace themselves and expect that kind of pace from their agencies, which is a challenge because agencies are used to working in a certain way. But we are learning as we go along."

"The initial challenge was to get the client to start believing in Bangalore as an office": Azazul Haque, Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy South

Azazul Haque Azazul Haque

For Azazul, who moved from Ogilvy Mumbai to Ogilvy Bengaluru with his creative (art) partner Mahesh Gharat last year, the task was pretty clear - that of bringing sexy back. "Ogilvy Bangalore didn't have creative leadership for almost three-four years, because of which people here looked forward to the work Ogilvy Bombay did. We didn't create the kind of magic Ogilvy Bombay did. In the past, however, Ogilvy Bangalore has been one of hottest places - Rajiv (Rao)-Mahesh V were there, then Amit (Akali)-Malu (Malvika Mehra) were there. They've done some really cult campaigns. So that vibe had to be re-created in the office. The initial challenge was to get the client to start believing in Bangalore as an office. Thankfully, we've been able to do it," he explains.

About the leadership changes 'above' him, Azazul, who has spent around four years at Ogilvy, says, "Though Rajiv, Kinu have gone, the DNA is set. Now we have to make sure it carries on. When Kinu left we all were very scared. But he said, 'Azaz, nothing will happen... nothing will change...' And it didn't... because the creative culture was intact."

The challenge now, is to "instill that creative culture in all of Ogilvy South. Even a trainee in Ogilvy South should imbibe the 'Ogilvy philosophy'. I need to make sure that happens. Right from planning to servicing... even the security guard at Ogilvy is a creative person. We take pride in everything we create - a film, a poster, a banner or a full scale campaign."

"It's all about how you perceive the South market": Mahesh Gharat, Chief Creative Officer, Ogilvy South

Mahesh Gharat Mahesh Gharat

Mahesh has been with Ogilvy for around a decade. How different are the pressures of the Bengaluru advertising market, as compared to Mumbai? Mahesh, who moved down South, from Mumbai, last year, says, "The difference between these two markets is that the South market has bigger international, national, as well as local accounts. So you keep getting an interesting mix of briefs, challenges and clients: In the morning you're meeting a very traditional client looking for cutting-edge work. At noon, you meet a young, risk-taking brand manager who wants you to create a great campaign for his crore-plus consumers. And by evening, you meet a start-up genius who's ready to launch a unique service or product..."

Is the Chennai market as hard to crack as it is said to be? Answers Mahesh, "It's all about what you perceive the South market to be. Once you're in the thick of it, like Azaz and I have been, you realise that business pressures there are quite like those in every other market. For local work, our Ogilvy Chennai office helps us learn the local nuances... with the right collaboration great work can come from any nook of the office. We're learning new things about local market. There are a lot of challenges, but the biggest one for us is to come up with the next big idea."

About his clients, Mahesh says, "Both Azaz and I still believe in classic, simple and effective advertising, but there's a clear change that we're all witnessing: Today, what really cuts it for a brand is integrated advertising. It's the 'call of tomorrow'. There's no other way around it. We have to adopt it... It's what clients want. It's what consumers like. It's what is going to create stickiness and fondness for any brand going forward. So what we want is to create a culture at Ogilvy South, for people to come together and create more integrated work."

"I would wish for advertising professionals to be treated with greater regard": Sumanto Chattopadhyay, chairman and chief creative officer, Soho Square

Sumanto Chattopadhyay Sumanto Chattopadhyay

Sumanto, who has been with Ogilvy since the early 1990s, has, arguably, developed deep relationships with many a client (like Dove, Pond's). Is it safe to assume these accounts may follow him to Soho, over time? It's natural if it happens and almost strange if it doesn't. "... I would be delighted to keep working with some of my existing clients. But we are assessing what works best for them and will decide the way forward accordingly," he answers, divulging little.

For Shumo, as he is known in the ad industry, the task of leading Soho nationally must come with its share of pressures, we assume. "You're right," he says, "The prospect of leading an agency nationally is both exhilarating and challenging. Times are tough in the advertising industry. With the global recession, advertisers have tightened their budgets, but need the same level of service. Moreover, the advertising Rupee is spread thinner, with more categories of communication, such as the ever-multiplying subsets of the digital medium, coming into the mix. Add to that questions about the true efficacy of some of these channels, the lack of accurate, straightforward metrics and, sometimes, the lack of a genuine understanding of how it all works, and the scene gets messier. But it's all par for the course in an industry in the middle of a major transformation."

About leaving Ogilvy, he says, "It is hard for me to move out of Ogilvy. It has been home. And school. I did have a number of discussions with Piyush (Pandey), Kunal (Jeswani) and members of the Ogilvy board such as Hephzibah (Pathak) and Madhukar (Sabnavis)... They saw it as a great opportunity for me, as well as for the group. Talking to them helped me clear my thoughts and see the move in the right perspective."

That Soho Square is, at the end of the day, an Ogilvy group company, helps. "It does not seem like I am going into alien territory. Of course, emotionally it is a big step for me..." he shares. Owned by WPP, Soho Square is Ogilvy India's second agency. The firm employs over 50 people across Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. Its clients include Tata Motors, Lava, Cipla, Yes Bank, Piaggio, Voltas, Bisleri, Franklin Templeton and Himalaya Herbals, among others.

What's the one thing Shumo would like to change about the advertising industry as it stands today? "Respect! I would wish for advertising professionals to be treated with greater regard..." he rues. While agency folk are expected to do their best, "in exchange, our time, our expertise, ourselves as human beings, need to be better appreciated."

He goes on, "From stories heard from industry colleagues, and instances where I myself have been on the receiving end, I am perplexed by the behaviour of a few individual clients towards their agency partners. I do not know what it stems from. Is it just an unpleasant assertion of power in a situation where you know the other party needs your business? Whatever it is, I do not think it leads to great outcomes for either party in the long run. This is not a rant or a whine but genuine curiosity about a phenomenon that I don't quite understand."

(This article has been published in the current issue of our print fortnightly afaqs!Reporter)

A Note From the Editor

'How best can we capture the changes in Ogilvy India's creative leadership?

That was the big question facing us at afaqs!Reporter about a fortnight back, when the agency announced the promotion of six creative professionals - Ajay Gahlaut, Sukesh Nayak, Kainaz Karmakar, Harshad Rajadhyaksha, Azazul Haque and Mahesh Gharat.

Sumanto Chattopadhyay, who has spent nearly two and a half decades at Ogilvy, was tasked with leading Soho Square, Ogilvy India's second agency, nationally.

The Kinu-Rajiv Rao era is over. Sonal Dabral, Piyush's partner in creative crime from the '90s, and man of Ogilvy vintage, is set to come back and lead the new team. Should we interview Sonal? Should we ask Piyush about these changes? We tossed questions like these around till we noticed the elephant in the room... err, seven elephants. What better way to capture the dawn of Ogilvy's creative new era than by interviewing the new creative leaders? All the times I've mocked Hindi news reporters who thrust a mike into someone's face and ask, 'Iske baarey mein aapko kaisa lag raha hai?' came flooding back, for I was about to do just that!

So I spoke to these talented folks one by one - they fielded my questions, and my photographer's lens, patiently and enthusiastically - to get a sense of what their new-found positions mean to them. For hereon, everything they do will become synonymous with Ogilvy India's creative product. Now, whenever a marketer says, "I want an 'Ogilvy kind of ad'..." she will be, without necessarily knowing it, be referring to the copy and art Ajay, Sukesh, Kainaz, Harshad, Azazul and Mahesh create and approve.

Are they nervous? What about? Does that even happen at their position? Why, it was heartening to learn, it does. Motivating "everyone on the floor" to be as excited as they are, is on all their minds.

That, and making good on the creative legacy they have suddenly inherited.

ASHWINI GANGAL


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