Ashwini Gangal
Interviews

"I don't care what people think": KV Sridhar

When the former chief creative officer of Leo Burnett, India subcontinent, decided to join SapientNitro recently, the knee-jerk reaction from the industry was - Why this of all places? Then, after everyone calmed down a tad, the second reaction was - Ok, what exactly is SapientNitro?

We spoke to KV Sridhar, aka Pops, to understand his decision to join SapientNitro, and more importantly, to take an educative look at the agency, through his eyes.

"I have not joined a technology company. I have not joined a digital agency. I have joined a future-facing, new-breed, storytelling agency that understands how to use technology to create platforms, build brands and talk to the 'always on' consumer," Pops explained over coffee.

"I like SapientNitro because their mission is not to create ads but to create 'worlds' for the consumer," he said.

With that, he had our full attention. Edited Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

Let's begin with the obvious question - Why SapientNitro?

I faced this question whenever I was doing very well. When I was at Thompson Bengaluru (1986 to 1990) doing phenomenal work on Taj Mahal Tea, Iodex and Woodward's Gripe Water, Mohammed Khan called me and I joined Enterprise. People asked me the same question - 'Why? You're doing such lovely work on some of the greatest brands - Why Enterprise?'

After Enterprise, when I went to Lintas, people asked me - 'Why? You really re-discovered yourself at Enterprise.' In 1994, when I joined Chaitra, people asked me - 'Why Chaitra?' When I left Leo Burnett and came back to Lintas, people asked me - 'But why?' When I left Lintas and came back to Leo Burnett, people said - 'You and Balki have been doing such great work; Lintas is back in action... why have you left?'

I could have been very comfortable at Leo Burnett. Nobody questions you. You've become like a God in your agency. Without doing things, things get attributed to you. You don't have to work very hard because the system is well oiled all the cogs are in place. Even if you don't do well, it will take many years for people to discover that you're not doing well, because the system hides you.

But with all this, it's very easy to slip.

I was comfortable at Leo Burnett. I had to ask myself, 'Am I too comfortable?'

Joining another mainstream creative agency would've also brought you out of your comfort zone...

This is a creative agency. SapientNitro is the most happening, most creative, 'alternate agency' in the world. It's a new-age agency which uses technology and creativity together.

What is 'mainstream'? When I started out, 'traditional media' meant word of mouth and direct selling. Then we evolved and TV was 'new'. So the definitions keep changing. What has not changed is the fact that we still need to communicate with consumers. We need to track them and go where they go, whether we do it via mobile, e-commerce, retail, search, offline, internet films or television spots.

What went into your decision to join SapientNitro? Tell us how it happened...

The plan to rediscover myself germinated over a year back. I've been in touch with SapientNitro only for the past few months. So SapientNitro is not the reason I quit Leo Burnett; the need to re-dedicate myself for the next 10-20 years drove me to quit Leo Burnett.

My frustration over the past two years stemmed from the process of orchestrating content across 10 mediums that don't talk to one another. Then there are six, seven, nine agencies for this - media agency, social media agency, e-commerce platform creators, digital agencies, brand consultants, creative agencies... it is so much easier if you have all the expertise in one place.

Besides, there's a big cultural a difference between a traditional agency that acquires a digital shop and a tech-based, digital company that acquires a creative/branding service. Remember that years back, Sapient, a technology company bought Nitro, a creative agency.

Today, all the global networks are buying digital agencies only because they don't want to lose revenue. The intent is not correct.

But when a technology company gets into marketing services and buys a creative agency, then the intent is correct. It is a far more successful model.

Why not just focus on new media within Leo Burnett, through Indigo Consulting?

The difference lies in scale, size and expertise. The level of technology and infrastructure is much higher at SapientNitro.

Also, at Leo Burnett, I wouldn't have been able to do it so rapidly; why progress by a step when I can progress by a mile? Yes, Leo Burnett has been preparing for new media, but I wanted to make things faster for myself. The dinosaur will take time to turn, and because of my age... well, I am a young man in a rush. I don't want to wait another 40 years to be relevant. I want to do it in the next eight months.

Doing it at Leo Burnett would've been convenient. It is too convenient for me to live in my past glory and say 'Oh I am a legend' but I don't want to do that. Whether I like it or not, at Leo Burnett, my respect comes from my past. I wanted to go to a place where my respect would come from my present and future.

You're SapientNitro's first CCO in India. Is getting you on board symptomatic of a change in direction for the agency?

Of course it is. SapientNitro in India caters to a lot of global clients. It has not concentrated on the domestic market. Now the focus has shifted. This is an attempt to aggressively launch itself in this market and sell itself as the 'new breed' agency that will focus far more on Indian work for Indian clients - and global clients that are present in India - than it did earlier.

On a lighter note, there's no denying the 'age bias' when it comes to digital/new media...

(laughs) I challenge any youngster to compete with me! You don't have to be the target audience to write for the target audience.

I don't care what people think. Recently, Piyush Pandey gave me great advice. He said, 'Pops, a lot of people want you. Some want to cash in on your name, some on your fame. Some desperately need you because they have some problem. But never fall for that. Go and do what you want to do.'

My decision to join SapientNitro is not a surprise to those who know me. But to those who know me only through the media, it comes as a surprise. The media has created this 'larger than life, wise old man, traditional media head' image.

I urge my detractors to go back and look up the lectures I have given or the campaigns I've created over the past five years - there's a reason why Leo Burnett has won a Lion in every medium including cyber.