Devina Joshi

If you don’t have an eye for detail, you’re dead.

A classic ad veteran, Arvind Sharma, chairman and CEO, Leo Burnett India, needs no introduction, perhaps. For he seems to have been there, done that, when it comes to Indian advertising. An MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, Sharma joined the world of advertising after a brief stint at Voltas more than two decades ago. He is the man behind campaigns such as ‘Yeh Kya Haal Bana Rakha Hai?’ for Coldarin, ‘MGM Lion’ for Strepsils, ‘Grow Up to the Thums Up Challenge’ and ‘Aam Aadmi Ko Kya Mila?’ for the Congress. Sharma is an advertising strategist, a creative man and a Hindi copywriter all rolled into one.

Sharma took over as MD of Chaitra Leo Burnett in 1995, and saw the agency’s smooth transition into Leo Burnett a few years later. Under his leadership, Leo Burnett, India, has been named Agency of the Year twice at Burnett – in 2003 and 2006.

Sharma has served on the executive committees of the Advertising Club of Bombay and the National Readership Survey Council. For the second year running, he has been nominated chairman of the Goafest Committee of the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI). He is chairman of the Market Research Users’ Council (MRUC), and he and the other members have pushed the launch of the Guide in Indian markets. He is a part of the ASCI Board and, in conjunction with its other members, has helped this body become a powerful entity.

In conversation with Devina Joshi of agencyfaqs!, Arvind Sharma touches upon topics such as his management style and how it has affected the growth of Leo Burnett in India, the McDonald’s campaigns, GoaFest as a benchmark for creativity, and the role of integrated communication in the life of a brand

Edited Excerpts

You have been with Leo Burnett for more than two decades now – first with Chaitra Leo Burnett and, later, when you witnessed its transformation into Leo Burnett. Have you ever felt a sense of boredom or complacency, or an impulse to move out? What has kept you with Burnett for so long?

(Smiles) Yes, well, it’s human for monotony to set in under normal circumstances. But personally speaking, I have broken this pattern with a simple mantra: setting up newer challenges and goalposts as I go along. Then, the game becomes exciting again. I guess a change of place is important when you’re young and restless, craving for exposure. In my case, I was handed responsibilities early on; in 1996, I was given the reigns of the agency. So, it’s really upto an individual to set new tasks both for himself and the agency.

In my 24 years with Burnett, I must say that I got real freedom from the network (Publicis Groupe), which was a big plus that kept me going.

Over the years, the changes in the ad industry have been rather dynamic, and it has been my responsibility to help the agency adapt to those changes. In turn, I have tried to ensure that creative standards stay high, and we recruit talent into the system that can deliver to those standards. Further, my job has been to steer Leo Burnett beyond mass media and move towards greater integration. Leo Burnett is also doing its bit in placing India on the world map by way of awards and other interactions with the international fraternity. So, I guess, every three or four years, I have kept myself busy with something new to do.

Surely, after selling off your stake in the agency back in 2003 (when Chaitra Leo Burnett became Leo Burnett), you didn’t really have any bonds keeping you here...

True. Actually, from 2003 to 2006, the stock market returns were awesome; it was a fabulous time for me to do what I did. And I don’t regret it.

But like I said, when there’s so much to do within your own system, you don’t really tend to look out.

Those who know you closely, right from your days at the erstwhile Clarion, claim there’s one word that describes you: detailing. Would you say your management style, inherited from IIM surely, has helped steer Leo Burnett’s strategic thrust?

I strongly believe that if you don’t have an eye for detail, you won’t survive for long in this business. You’re as good as dead. A good idea will not convert into a great commercial, if there’s no detailing. It will die the death of a potential good idea that ‘could have been’. And I try to imbibe that thought in Leo Burnett as often as I can.

Over the last five-seven years in particular, the pace of our business has sped up. Earlier, clients used to approve campaigns over three months…today that has reduced to three weeks. Clients want to know all the nitty gritty that goes into the making of an ad. So, while the work and deadlines pile up, the time allotted for each assignment is shrinking. The ad industry is facing the challenge of delivering ‘more for less’.

You said sometime in 2005 that Delhi would overtake Mumbai in the next three-five years, with reference to advertising revenues. Do you see that fructifying in the near future?

I can answer this in two parts: one is Leo Burnett specific, and the other is about the industry in general.

In our case, Leo Burnett, Delhi, is one-third of Mumbai in terms of billings. But in absolute terms, in the last three years, Burnett, Delhi, has grown three times its size. But I guess Mumbai has also been growing at a quick pace, because of which our Delhi office hasn’t been able to overtake it. But that’s not to say that our Delhi branch isn’t doing well for itself; our latest work on Thums Up and the Chevy Spark, coupled with our Radico-Diageo wins, are beginning to prove fruitful for us. Furthermore, in Sai, we have found a talented and exceptionally energetic ECD who is taking Leo Burnett, Delhi, to great heights.

If you’re asking me generally, well, Delhi continues to grow ferociously and has quickly been gaining ground. According to my estimates, at present, Delhi is 75 per cent the size of Mumbai with reference to ad revenues; over four years ago, it was less than half! I guess in Mumbai, there has been a lot of financial advertising, which has fueled growth here, be it ICICI, SBI or Bank of India. But hold your horses – Wal-Mart will be based out of Delhi. So, retail advertising will help fuel growth there.

At present, Leo Burnett is only in Delhi and Mumbai. Any plans on opening offices elsewhere?

Well, all the major advertisers are Mumbai and Delhi based. So, we’re going to concentrate on these two markets. As per our recent policy, we will not look at businesses that are below a certain value. Small businesses are a no-no for us. Our strategy is to go for the long-term big players only. Reliance Communications is a fine example.

As far as the group as a whole goes, we have Orchard in the South, which takes care of the clientele there. But essentially, markets down there, especially Hyderabad, are IT driven. And as one can guess, IT clients aren’t exactly an ad agency’s dream come true.

The McDonald’s work done by Leo Burnett, India, be it ‘What Your Bahana Is?’ or ‘I’m Lovin’ It’, has always enjoyed high media presence and a slew of awards domestically and internationally. However, of late, the advertising seems to be high on strategy and low on creativity. Why is that? Even the awards barometer seems to be turning against the brand...

Well, we have the ‘McChicken’ and ‘McDelivery’ campaigns on air right now, which are being fairly well received. These are simple ads, particularly the ‘McChicken’ one, which has a father so happy with the burger, he hands over his car keys to his daughter who is craving to drive it. Her father then tries the same trick on her, getting her to agree to meet a prospective groom while she is busy with the burger.

I’m also satisfied with our Thums Up and HDFC Standard Life work. Even Tide is doing steady business, although ad spends in the last quarter have dipped because of which it isn’t being advertised too much right now.

Anyway, my view is that the strategy part of the game is important, but as more and more media fragmentation takes place, creative cut-through will gain importance. There was a time when frequency could deliver for our campaigns, but not any more. Earlier, a ‘KBC’ or a cricket match was enough to fetch eyeballs. The industry is waking up to the reality that this is not true any more. So, whether it is McDonald’s or any other brand, we are laying special emphasis on our creative product.

For that matter, Leo Burnett is still perceived to be a strategically rich, but creatively poor agency. Why is that?

I wouldn’t agree with that. We were amongst the largest Cannes Lions winners from India last year. We have a talented team in place now, with three main ECDs – Shriram Iyer who has joined us from Lowe, Sukumar Menon who has come in from Mudra and, of course, Nitesh (Tiwari). We have KP Vinod providing the creative firepower at Arc. Wait for another six months, the seeds will bear fruit. We’ll have some pretty powerful work on McDonald’s and other brands very soon.

Heinz came up with a rather dramatic campaign last year. But the problem remains the same – the product just refuses to take off...

See, Heinz (the company) has had two flagship brands in India – Complan and Glucon D. They both enjoyed healthy growth rates of 20 per cent each in the previous financial year. But if you’re talking of the tomato ketchup, well, its share of ad spends in the overall Heinz portfolio is less than 10 per cent. So, obviously, that has an impact on the performance of the brand in the market. I also feel it was a wrong step to position it as a vitamin ketchup early on. People actually said, “Hey, if we’re looking for vitamins, we have other sources. Ketchup is only supposed to enhance the fun quotient of our food.”

But in the next three months, you’ll see some dramatic fun stuff on Heinz.

How would you rate your performance at the GoaFest this time? Are you satisfied? But while Burnett won several awards, not a single gold came to the agency. Wasn’t there a single piece of work that was upto the mark, enough to fetch a gold? What do you have to say about that?

Well, juries have their own minds, and make their own decisions. If I had any influence on the selection of juries, then things would be different! (Laughs) No, really, GoaFest is as fair an awards festival as it comes. I’ll say it has become the definitive awards festival in the country. As the chairman of the GoaFest committee, I ensured that the judging process and awards ceremony were completely just and transparent. You could say that when a person is the patriarch of the family, then more often than not, his own son has to bear the effects of that. What happened with Leo Burnett at the ceremony is a bit like that.

Are you saying that you deliberately underplayed Leo Burnett’s performance at the festival, so that the awards ceremony was totally fair? Wouldn’t that amount to cheating your own boys of their glory?

You’re putting me on the spot! (Shrugs) In a way, yes, that is what I have done. But the festival is only two years old; there will be many more ceremonies in the future when they can go for the kill! (Smiles) And hey, it’s not like we came back empty handed; we were among the top three metal winners at the festival.

Do you believe that Leo Burnett has managed to sell itself effectively to clients, but has a lot more to do when it comes to communicating with the media?

Oh, our communication with the media has been chaotic at best! Yes, our focus has been on our clients, and not so much on our own agency’s PR. But then again, I believe great work speaks for itself, and media coverage follows.

Last year, Leo Activation ceased to exist and Arc Worldwide took its place. How has this global entity helped Leo Burnett, India, strengthen its foothold in the BTL space? Will the new retail division, Retail Design, fall under Arc?

Yes, Retail Design will fall under Arc. Roopam Bohra, who was our ECD in Delhi, will now focus on this division.

See, essentially, there are three types of clients. The first lot is mass media focused, and mainly includes those in the FMCG and consumer durables space. For these people, below-the-line and integrated ground-level communication isn’t of prime importance. The second lot uses mass media and integrated communication judiciously. For the third type, integrated communication is not just some add-on; it is their core focus. Arc has helped us in managing the third type. For instance, it has done some remarkable work for Centurion Bank, UTI Mutual Fund, and even the Future Group store, Home Town – a business we recently picked up.

Arc is also doing some work for P&G and Heinz, but its role here, considering that these are mass product companies, is quite limited. We recently roped in Venky Sharma as our director and executive V-P, Arc; he joins us from Tribal DDB, where he was country general manager. He will work closely with Romit Mitra to steer Arc in India.

Now that integrated marketing company Solutions has been bought over by the Publicis Groupe, it is learnt that Arc will work more closely with Solutions than Publicis Dialog. Is that true? How will it all work out?

See, Solutions is now an execution arm for all Publicis Groupe agencies’ BTL divisions. So, it will work closely with Arc as well as Publicis Dialog in India. The system will work like this: Arc will come up with the strategy, planning and creative, and the execution will be carried out by Solutions.

The main job of Solutions is to provide scale of operations in the execution bit. It makes no sense to do BTL without scale; a three-city activity is virtually useless. We’re talking of 30 or 70 city executions. As Solutions is purely into execution, there is no case of conflicting businesses within the group.

Leo Burnett, India, did quite well at Cannes last year, having won in the Media Lions category too. Which Burnett brands, in your view, stand a strong chance this year?

Perhaps Pops should answer that! (Chuckles) Well, my bets are on the Tide ‘Fragrance’ press and outdoor campaigns. Also, the ambient work on Complan sounds promising. We had lights placed across various malls, in an area frequented by kids, in such a manner that when the children stood in front of the lights, their shadows grew taller and taller. Of course, the branding part explained the connection.

Our work on Maneland Jungle Lodge has also done very well for us at various awards shows; we’re expecting it to bring in some Lions.

Being the chairman of the GoaFest committee, you must be proud of what the festival has achieved in only its second year. But clearly, there’s no love lost between AAAI and the Ad Club of Bombay...

See, it’s very tough to get unanimity across industries. The fact that the GoaFest is only in its second year, and we have all agencies except one (O&M) participating is a big feat in itself. Lowe is an exception as it doesn’t take part in any creative awards shows – neither the GoaFest nor the Abbys. But Lowe executives attended the festival, even if they did not participate.

Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that a vast majority of the industry is with us and supports the GoaFest.

As far as the supposed long-drawn debate with the Ad Club is concerned, well, we’re making progress. We’ll keep on trying to convince them for a merged awards show, but if it doesn’t happen, GoaFest is progressing quite happily on its own.

In fact, progress seems to be in the air at the moment. MRUC has been making some remarkable progress; its radio measurement system, Indian Listenership Track, is soon going to be fully scaled up. We will also announce the Indian outdoor measurement survey soon.

Even ASCI has got itself government regulation under the Cable & Television Act recently… yes, things are looking up.

It is rumoured that AAAI will soon launch its own advertising effectiveness awards show. How will this show be structured – a one night affair or a festival with case study presentations, etc.? When is it expected to roll out?

Well, things are still under discussion. We can talk about it officially only a few months from now. The AAAI committee is expected to give its recommendations soon, after which such details will be finalised.

Do you think Indian admen are in a self-congratulatory mode, judging by the number of awards the country has won recently?

Awards are not about self-congratulation. They are about the industry celebrating brilliant creativity. But yes, some creative guys do see awards in the wrong context – they view awards as goals in themselves and not as recognition of brand building or higher ROIs. So, it’s up to NCDs and agency heads to keep things in perspective and spread the right kind of culture and vibes down the ranks. But that doesn’t mean that the celebration of breakthrough ideas should be done away with altogether.

What went wrong with the Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH)-Orchard tie-up? At one point late last year, talks were almost on the verge of finalisation...

Well, you didn’t hear me say anything on the talks earlier, and you won’t get me talking now! (Grins) I have never commented on media speculation and won’t begin now. So, it’s no comments from me.

All I can say is that globally, Leo Burnett has acquired a stake in BBH.