Ashwini Gangal

"The last way to pitch is by giving a discount": Sunil Lulla

We spoke to Sunil Lulla, chairman and managing director, GREY group India, who replaced Jishnu Sen last July. Previously, Lulla was president, corporate development, Bennett, Coleman and Co.

This is Lulla's second innings in the ad industry; between the mid-80s and mid-90s, he worked with JWT (India, China and Taiwan).

We also spoke to Malvika Mehra, his national creative director.

Edited Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

How have the past few months been?

Sunil: Frenetic, hard-paced.

We've seen business grow and work develop. We've built new relationships for the company. It's a good way to pick things up mid-stream and take it from there.

We've had a few successful new business transitions. I am involved in many of those businesses, but I don't necessarily lead them. We have business leaders and teams in place. I am just the drummer boy; I join the band when necessary. Sometimes I need to open a door, sometimes I need to help at the back-end, and sometimes the team just goes and delivers.

Besides, the first thing you do is not necessarily go out there and pitch for new business. To be fair, I spent the first five months at Grey with clients, understanding their business.

What is your focus area?

Sunil: Bringing in new services.

I have been building relationships with external constituents to build co-branded services. We had invested in a company called RC&M (Rural Communications & Marketing) and are using them to build our activation service at a very big scale, for our clients across rural and urban India.

The other service we're offering is with a sister company of WPP called Penn Schoen Berland (PSB), which is in the business of advocacy and research-based communication. Similarly, Grey Talenthouse is a crowd-sourcing service.

The days of vanilla agencies are over. The broader your spectrum, the better it is. All our account executives/business officers have a clear mandate to sell more than one service to their clients.

The focus is on expanding our current base into new services.

You've stepped back into the ad industry after all these years... how much has 'the client' changed?

Sunil: Clients are changing the way they work. In many cases, the marketing decision process has moved from the chairman/MD/CEO's table to the chief marketing officer's table. Sometimes, even lower down.

There are cases when the CEO gets involved in the marketing/communication decisions - such as choice of agency - especially in the case of startups. Or, when the MD/chairman has been a marketer in the past.

That's interesting. To what do you attribute this change?

Sunil: Regulation, supply chain and M&A activities have taken a big chunk of their time away. Many of them are surrendering the day-to-day operations to their colleagues downstream. I am not saying that is bad; CMOs are important. But earlier, very often, agency relationships were built at the 'company to company' level.

In the digital space, there's a lot of experimentation. Brand managers often decide to throw a pitch open for 50,000 bucks, for instance.

What other changes do you see in the ad industry?

Sunil: I worked in the agency business when all the services were fully integrated, when we charged high quality fees.

Today, there is so much fragmentation. All kinds of specialised services have been compartmentalised into companies. This creates walls, management difficulties and ego battles.

Agencies have become more frugal. The level of training has deteriorated. At the junior end, agencies are not able to attract and sustain large volumes of people.

And what about the senior end - what has changed as far as the top rung of leadership goes?

Sunil: Unfortunately, nothing.

In television, I worked through three or four 'generation shifts'. From Bhaskar Ghosh and Bhaskar Pant to Subhash Chandra, Peter Mukerjea and Kunal Dasgupta to Sameer Nair, Uday Shankar and Puneet Goenka... there has been a new crop of leadership, every six-seven years. This has brought in change.

In the ad industry, with all due respect, the vanguard is still there. And the economic value of the ad industry has declined. This industry has been shy of looking at its quantitative value. By no stretch of the imagination can you say this is a good thing.

What other 'industry realities' do you see?

Sunil: The ad industry is not collaborative. It is cut-throat, competitive and discount-oriented. I think the last way to pitch for a new business is to do so by giving a discount!

We need to figure out a way to get our clients to pay us better fees for the quality of work we do. There's just no industry yardstick. Many agencies suffer because they do not get paid on time.

We used to have this problem in television, but one day we drew the line. We stopped taking business from clients who had defaulted. Who gained most from the television industry's strict adherence to credit? Advertising agencies.

The same thing happened with print. The IBF and INS are industry bodies that structured their respective industries. We, in advertising, have not created such structures.

The top end of a media business spends a lot of time in shareholder/regulation/competition management, in fine-tuning the product, and bargaining for market share. In advertising, we spend a disproportionate amount of time looking for, or growing, new business.

That's a long list of flaws. Why again did you come back to the advertising business?

Sunil: (smiles) Somebody has to change it.

How's life as a solo-NCD, without Amit Akali?
"The last way to pitch is by giving a discount": Sunil Lulla
Let's face it. We've been a team for ten years; when you're suddenly a solo creative director, some of the balls thrown at you will fall. That's natural. But it's amazing the amount of strength, resilience and confidence one gets. Sometimes I surprise myself. Yes, we were joined at the hip as a team but we all come with our individual destinies.

For me, it's just about half-time at Grey. I am far from done here. We're not there yet but we're getting there. I will not let quality drop.

How different is it working on the Swachh Bharat campaign, vis-à-vis 'regular' brands?

Malvika: With such businesses, there tends to be this attitude - "Government client hai... cheypo, nikaalo." But I am clear - not on my time. The big difference I want to make this year is - government films will not look like 'government films'.

Swachh Bharat for me is a brand. The fact that you're being entrusted with changing the way the country thinks is even bigger than a Cannes Gold.

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