Ashwini Gangal

"I'm not your quintessential harmless nice guy": Sajan Raj Kurup

By his own admission, Sajan Raj Kurup, 40, is one of the 'most discussed' creative heads in the industry - and not always for the most flattering reasons. In a candid chat with afaqs!, the founder and creative chairman of Creativeland Asia, a nine-year-old advertising agency, talks about what makes him both popular and notorious.

Creativeland Asia has 167 employees and its clientele comprises names like Mercedes, Micromax, BBlunt, Domino's, Indian Express, Benetton, Café Coffee Day, Kalpataru and several brands from the Godrej stable.

Edited Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

Your work for brands like Café Cuba and Micromax appears to have a common 'rebel' theme. What are you rebelling against? Is having a signature style a dangerous thing for a creative guy?

All these 'rebelling against' and 'signature style' type of conversations are for the advertising fraternity to discuss. Every single new business call we have got in the last nine years has been from potential clients who have wanted to work with us after seeing our 'signature' work. The only dangerous thing for any creative person is to worry too much about what anyone has to say, good or bad.

To what extent did your pitch strategy change after losing the Parle Agro business (run by Nadia Chauhan) last year? How hard is it to stick by one's 'rules' -say, only going after a certain type of client or charging a pitch fee- during adverse times?

Parting ways with Parle Agro was a mutual decision. It wasn't as dramatic as it was reported to be in the media and around water coolers. Both of us run businesses and were very clear that the transition must affect as little of our respective brands as possible. Nonetheless, it was a loss and I won't deny that. Adverse times are about making the right decisions for the future of the business and not just about figuring out quick fixes.

None of my business heads was put under pressure to meet numbers. But yes, everyone at Creativeland was under pressure to keep our culture intact. We were aware about loose statements people would make under the circumstances. While one or two deserted me, I had a great team of senior and young leaders who stood by Creativeland. When you know you are in the right, nothing works like putting your head down and working.

You've been known to charge a pitch fee in an era when competing agencies under-cut one another. Do you still charge it? Why's it so important to you?

We use this pitch fee as a deterrent. It wards off 'free idea shoppers', 'penny pinchers' and 'compulsive pitch-callers'. When someone puts down money to meet you and listen to your pitch, you know they are seriously considering you. It also makes me accountable, to go back and justify my worth.

You said you'd launch a London office, years back. Why has that plan been shelved?

Yes, we have been planning an office in London for the last few years and we will do it. We believe in getting it right even if it takes time. We have had fabulous interactions with the UK Trade Council and other industry associations that have been more than helpful. It is not about just opening an office in a new location. It is about being able to expand the 'Creativeland culture' into that market. We are clear that we will run multiple geographies on a centralised P&L; that has its own complexities.

Is it a constant fight balancing 'Raj the businessman' and 'Raj the creative guy'?

I know my P&L almost as clearly as I see a creative idea. The creative guy and the business person in me never fight. In fact, I consistently catch them doing a beautiful tango. They love each other and I don't think they'd want to live without each other.

Why don't you have an overtly new-age brand, like a dot com, in your stable yet?

Majority of the dot com brands in this country are leading a fund-to-fund existence. They don't believe in long term brand building. They are in it for the short run - sell and exit. To add to the woes, they seem to have money for everything, be it media, technology, a swanky office, expensive hires... everything. But when it comes to their creative brand partners, they always play the 'We are a startup and don't have any money' card.

"I'm not your quintessential harmless nice guy": Sajan Raj Kurup

So, being creative partners to them doesn't make long -or short- term sense to me. The only way I will work with a dot com is if they are willing to part with equity or if they are willing to pay high valuation for my services. In fact, we have just started working with a couple of them on an equity swap and incubation model.

We interviewed Taproot Dentsu's Santosh Padhi recently. He thinks ad agencies that boycotted the Abby Awards ought to re-embrace it for the greater good. Do you see yourself participating in Goafest again? After all, it seems to have got part of its mojo back.

I am open to having a conversation around what this 'greater good' is. But I am pretty clear that legitimising celebration around ads created to win at awards is not my idea of 'greater good'.

The most interesting thing Goafest did this year was bringing someone like Raj Nayak on board. I sincerely hope that with his clout, experience and radical thinking, he cleans up and weeds out some of the wrong thinking out of it.

There are rumours about Creativeland Asia getting acquired by a large network. Under what circumstance will the 'For Sale' sign go up in front of your door?

I have been hearing these rumors for eight out of nine years. Almost every large network has spoken to us multiple times. Some have made fairly generous offers as well. But I don't really need the money to do what I am already doing in the advertising and marketing communications space. Where I intend to take Creativeland in the business of creativity... I don't know how many of them will even have an appetite or the vision for it.

Those who know me well know for sure that Creativeland Asia is not for sale. I am all for investment. People who have invested in Creativeland, in whatever way at whatever stage, have seen disproportionately favorable returns.

We interviewed The Viral Fever's Arunabh Kumar recently. Sure, when it comes to ad budgets, the disparity between TVCs and his kind of digital content, is laughable, but isn't it wise for agencies to start viewing the likes of him as a viable threat?

If you think like an ad agency, everything will look like a threat, whether it is another ad agency, a media agency, a BTL agency, a digital agency, a brand consultancy, Google, Facebook... anyone. If you are clever and progressive, you'll spend less time worrying and more time extrapolating possibilities in the new media landscape.

As far as the likes of TVF go, brand integrations or in-serial placements (the primary source of revenue for YouTube content creators) have been there for years. Online digital content is not just the AIB/TVF type of content. I love the quality of content TVF creates, but it is a small part of the kind of online content one can create around a brand. You are creating way too much hype around the typical content they create.

Generalising the disparity between TV and online is not being fair to the marketers. If there is anyone evolving and exercising their choice of spends sensibly it is the marketers. We are consistently approached by marketers to create online content with budgets as high as those for TV, if not more.

"I'm not your quintessential harmless nice guy": Sajan Raj Kurup
I've heard you've got a crazy, Amazon-ish work culture at your agency... that people weep at their desks. Is that true? Are you that difficult to work with?

Creating value for Creativeland in this highly commoditised market has taken serious rigour, discipline and sacrifice. We have an incredibly strong work culture. And it is not for everybody. It is a great place for passionate people. We have no space for people who hide behind hierarchy and other people's talent. If you are really good at what you do, Creativeland is a very easy place to work at. If you are not, then God bless you.

News articles around you and your agency get a disproportionate amount of traction on our website. You're a person of interest, to put it mildly. Why do you think you have so many detractors? Are you the most misunderstood adman out there?

I have never been afraid to speak my mind. From my decision to quit my last agency to start Creativeland, to my actions that have kept me competitive along the way, I'm sure I've rubbed enough tall egos and insecurities. I am not your quintessential harmless nice guy.

Not all of them will love me or ignore me. There will be haters. And an online portal's anonymous 'comments platform' is a safe haven to vent from. I don't worry too much about whether people understand or misunderstand me. All I know is that I have some amazing people around me who love and guide me unconditionally. I have been brought up with strong values around family, God, honesty and goodness. I can be honest, shrewd, stupid and intelligent in equal measure. I am just balancing my karmas and walking my path.

What about the advertising industry as it stands today worries you?

Why are you trying to create more detractors in my life by asking these big 'industry type' questions? I am a just a simple creative entrepreneur trying to live and work by my beliefs.

A Note From the Editor

Last month I interviewed Arunabh Kumar, digital content creator and founder of The Viral Fever. That story was very well received by our readers. One of the reasons for this is his immense popularity among netizens. Another is the subject itself; digital video is the hot new thing in the online, particularly mobile, content space.

But there’s a third reason, the kind that sort of creeps up on you as an afterthought – the interview was loved because the interviewee fielded tough questions sportingly. Sample this gem: “We target the progressive young Indian who is not exactly waiting for the next episode of Diya Aur Bati Hum (hit TV show on Star Plus)..."

Whether it's Dentsu Aegis Network's India head Ashish Bhasin saying "In the advertising business if you can't handle pressure, get out or die young" (in our Cover Story last fortnight) or whether it's GroupM's global president Dominic Proctor saying "...every time we have a pitch, we pay with our sweat and with our marriages." (Economic Times, 2011; he was global CEO, Mindshare, then), it is fearless statements, uttered at a raw, human level, that are applauded the most.

Which is why, we decided to go out there and ask our admen and women – and their clients – some tough questions about their work, their work ethic and everything that affects the two. We decided to start with Sajan Raj Kurup, founder and creative chairman of independent ad agency Creativeland Asia.

Why are you one of the 'most bashed' admen online? Why do your peers call you audacious? Why do I get the feeling you take that as a compliment? We threw some difficult, yet fun, questions at Raj and guess what. He didn't squirm.

In the fortnights to come, we hope to bring you more such interviews with the men and women who influence the Indian ad-media industry through their work, creative culture and attitude.


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