Ashwini Gangal

"I've never been known to warm a seat": Srinivasan Swamy

Srinivasan Swamy, 62, is a busy man. The chairman and MD of RK Swamy BBDO, and recipient of the Advertising Agencies Association of India's Lifetime Achievement Award, is as involved with industry bodies as he is with his own agency. Weeks away from his ASCI chairmanship, he's all set to get busier.

Edited Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

Your peers call you 'The Ultimate Networker'. Others say you're 'The Ultimate Organiser' - what do you make of this?

I don't know about 'ultimate' - that's an overstatement. There are people who are better at networking than me. But yes, I know many people in the industry. It's about being here long enough. You normally get invited to similar parties again and again where you meet the same advertising, marketing and media crowd. After being in this business for 38 years if you don't know 10 out of 15 people then you've probably not done something right.

I take on responsibilities stupidly, then try and deliver on it. Very few people take that leap and close the job on hand - they normally take on responsibilities and do it half-heartedly. You've got to sweat the details. Unless you do so, nothing gets done.

How do you stay ambitious and motivated after all these years?

There are lots of things that we need to do. It's not as if the world is broken and we need to fix it. But it is important to continue to do something that makes it stronger. And that's something I'm happy to be part of. I have lovely friends who egg me on to do that. And therein lays the difference. You have to have a team that's supportive of what you do.

We always ask awardees how the recognition changes things for them at a business level. The question for you, however, is - what does this recognition mean to you at a personal level?

My brother (Shekar Swamy) and I knew it would happen someday soon. It was not unexpected. Not because we angled for it or lobbied for it... I think there are very few people who have devoted this much time for industry activities, and it is nice to be recognised for it.

AAAI, ABC, ASCI, IAA - Why is it this important for you to be part of so many industry bodies?

Some years ago, I decided that if I can find the time, I will do it. Any amount of time you give to the industry is fine, because it's this industry that's feeding you. That's something ingrained in our family. So it's payback time. It also costs money; at the time I took the decision, I could afford it.

Sure, but doesn't it divert attention from your agency?

We have a set of managers who can motor along pretty well without my involvement in running the business. Our unit heads are empowered to do many things. They do a much better job than I do. Let them do it. Whenever they want my time, I give it to them. I sit on reviews, and am always available for meetings. All I do is get them to take risks and remove the financial obstacles that they face. And I've not lost any senior colleague to a competitor. I must be doing something right.

So that's how I find the time to do the things I want to do. I also devote my time to societal and religious things - these are the things that excite me now, more than business.

Which of these industry roles conflict with your agency business more than others?

As a matter of fact, none. I run parallel lives. My business and my industry associations run on different tracks. I put things in two different compartments - my time with my industry friends is in one, and that with my business is in another. They don't meet. The only time they meet is when I have to dip into my wallet. I earn from somewhere and spend somewhere else.

I don't think anybody in the industry can accuse me of misusing my relationship with them for business growth. I may put my hand in their pockets for sponsorship for the associations I am involved in, but not for business.... not to put money into my pocket. It's very different.

Many times, my agency does pro bono work for the associations - including hospitals, schools and consumer associations - I am involved in. People are scared to see me in office...

Why so?

(laughs) When I come in, my creative people know it's for some pro bono work that will eat into their 'client time'. Their client work comes with deadlines, but my work has super priority deadlines. That's their concern. I brief them saying, 'I want this by tomorrow morning' - they then put in the extra time. I say it nicely, though.

Your ASCI chairmanship is due next month. What's the first thing you will change?

I'll tell you once I assume that position. Let the current president's term get over. Today, he's in the limelight. We should not steal the thunder. But I've never been known to warm a seat. So I will do something different for sure. I always want to make a difference to the chair that I occupy.

Why do you suppose more creative heads don't participate in industry bodies with your kind of enthusiasm?

It's about DNA. Most of them don't want to be part of 'administration'. Their mind space is not devoted to it. They'd rather spend a free evening with their buddies, than talk about industry issues. And this is true all over the world - only the so called suits are part of industry associations. In fact, the CEOS of major agencies are more of 'businessmen' than 'advertising professionals'.

Right, didn't you state in recent interview that it'd be much better if the creative and planning teams dealt with clients directly? That's like saying the account management function is redundant...

I would not say 'redundant'. I'd say 'less relevant'. Given the income squeeze, I think it would be a lot more efficient to have only two legs - creative and strategy. It's important to have a lesser number of - but smarter - people. Figuring out where the line falls is an art. I'm making changes in my own company.

Speaking of DNA, size notwithstanding, why is BBDO India so much 'cooler' than RK Swamy BBDO? It's not like you don't have any P&G clients of your own...

Both RK Swamy BBDO and BBDO India have global P&G clients - some are aligned here, some are aligned there. We have Mars pet care and chocolates, Mercedes-Benz, some of P&G's below-the-line activities...

... And yet all the creative glory and sexy campaigns belong to Josy Paul's agency...

I'm proud of the fact that BBDO India has done well; it's partly owned by us. But the fact of the matter is - it's only one or two pieces of work that cross the threshold and get noticed. They seem to have those two pieces of work every year. Because of the client mix we have here, that threshold doesn't get crossed. Also, someone has to have the mindset to do the kind of work focused on appealing to a jury in different geographies. That in itself is a talent.

And this is true of all agencies - if there are 100 pieces of work, only few cross the threshold and these are milked and showcased.

Your agency gets called boring or fuddy-duddy - How important is it for an ad agency in this day and age to be cool?

All kinds of comments get passed; I am not unfamiliar with them. Our clients are happy with us. When we go for a pitch, we are invariably ranked No.1, against all the big names. You know where we lose out? On the commercial bit. When I charge Rs.10, the so called big, 'creative' agencies charge Rs.2. The agency with the better creative reputation quotes one-fifth the amount and takes the business away. This happens again and again. No one has ever told us the work we presented at a pitch was crappy.

In any business it is always good to be cool. But you can't change DNA - your South Indian, conservative DNA; you suddenly can't expect me to have a ponytail, an unshaven face and be brash about it.

That's too literal...

Well, I'll give you an example - there was a call from my outdoor team asking me if they can put ten hoardings in Mumbai around my Lifetime Achievement Award. I said, "Don't even think about it."

As far as clients go, senior management is worried about moving products off the shelves. Maybe the younger brand managers probably want to see more of the cool quotient.

You've seen Goafest from its infancy. It seems to be a crazy adolescent today. From your vantage point what does the Abby look like and where's it headed?

Goafest, whether you like it or not, is here to stay. There are people who are out of it and there are people who are part of it. The reason people are out of it is because the work that is entered here goes through a high level of scrutiny, to check whether it is scam. And once a piece of work gets reported as scam, the chance of it getting awarded at Cannes, Adfest, Pencil, etc. is dead. Nobody wants to take that risk. I know at least half a dozen agencies that stay away for this reason. Yes, there are agencies that do good work and don't participate. It's because of personal animosity. It's absurd. But that's the world we live in.

The Abby is going to get stronger. It is an important report from India that gets counted for the global Gunn Report. So there'll always be pressure on people to be part of it. It's a question of time before most of the serious agencies come back. But they need an excuse. It can't look like they had a sudden change of heart. They must think they're being persuaded to come back. That's the nature of the beast; you've got to do the ego massage. I hope the future leadership of the AAAI and Ad Club create an environment for them to return.

You're called an 'influencer' in the industry. What are you hoping to influence?

If we are able to get a compensation system going which is going to respect agencies' IPR, I think it's the best thing that can happen to both agencies and advertisers. Today, compensation is based on time put in and competitive forces. It should be based on outcome, not output.

(Photo credit: Yashpal Bhagat Singh)

A Note From the Editor

On the 5th of August, it poured in Mumbai. I was scheduled to meet Srinivasan Swamy, chairman and managing director of RK Swamy BBDO, at ITC in South Mumbai, for this interview. He had slotted an hour for this, right before an IAA (International Advertising Association, of which he is president, India Chapter, and senior vice president, globally) event that was scheduled to take place at the same venue. That very day, he flew in from Chennai for the event only to learn that it had been cancelled due to the heavy rain.

It would have been all too easy for him to cancel our interview and fly right back. But Sundar Sir, as he is fondly known, braved the flooded streets between the airport and the hotel, and showed up, on the dot. It takes this kind of discipline and punctuality to lead two professional lives - he runs his own agency and is actively involved in numerous industry bodies. In fact, as soon as he entered the hotel premises, he rang me up and demanded, in his familiar, strict voice, "Where are you!?" seconds before I spotted him walking towards me, a brisk urgency in his stride.

I was in the lobby, gathering my rain gear and journalistic paraphernalia, convinced that the appointment stood cancelled. The meeting went as planned and I walked out of there, a happy scribe. I was glad he honoured our appointment but was delighted because I happened to catch him in a great mood. "This is a freewheeling interview... you're getting all kinds of nonsense from me," he laughed at one point, adding, "But I never worry about what people think... If you read my acceptance speech (AAAI Lifetime Achievement Award) you will know that I don't give a damn."

The conversation was loaded with smiles, humour and pearls of wisdom, many of which are borrowed from his father, the eponymous founder of RK Swamy.


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