Ashwini Gangal

"Goafest is the most democratic awards show of its kind": Nakul Chopra

Nakul Chopra, chief executive officer, Publicis, South Asia, and president, Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), is calm and jovial, a month ahead of the 12-year-old Goafest, an annual awards show he has chaired thrice in the past four years.

Chopra has spent close to four decades in advertising. Originally an Ambience hand, the 57-year-old has spent over 20 years at his current company, one we've known as Publicis for 14 years now.

Publicis, by the way, will not compete for an Abby this year.

Presented by the AAAI and The Advertising Club, the award - it wasn't always called an 'Abby' - is now five decades old.

Edited Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

Four years back, when Publicis re-looked it top brass and brought in Partha Sinha, Bobby Pawar and Ambika Srivastava, you said, and candidly so, that Publicis had not been up to the mark as far as its creative reputation went. Today, would you say that end has been met?

I will stick my neck out and say this - put together the work reel of any agency in India and compare that with ours. I am confident that ours is among the top three. I look back and feel satisfied. The culture of creativity has seeped in. A lot of the milestones have been reached. A lot of the intermediary boxes have been ticked; not all, but a lot.

Which boxes remain un-ticked?

The areas we hope to do better in are - providing integrated services which stretch across production, activation and digital. We have made progress, but our ambition when we set out was very aggressive and I am not sure we've quite lived up to that.

Another goal was to fix the way the group was perceived. Publicis, you said, was a very fragmented franchise, with a residual 'Ambience vibe', a strong 'Capital vibe' and a global 'Publicis vibe'. Your peers tell me it's still quite fragmented and that this is not necessarily a bad thing...

Whoever these peers are, they are right. But I am right too.

The need to consolidate the perception of the franchise as 'brand Publicis' - the global network we're part of - is an emotional one.

And there's a rational reason too.

And what is that?

People start believing that Publicis is a franchise that's distinct from the Ambience franchise, the Capital franchise and the Beehive franchise. Actually, Publicis is the mother ship of these three. So when people sit out there and imagine our scale, size and capability, vis-à-vis our competitors, if they think of us in terms of our smaller parts, rather than our integrated whole, we're at a perceptional disadvantage. That's what I was seeking to correct. Publicis as a brand is undervalued in this market - that's what I had said.

Have I realised the full value of brand Publicis in this market? No, I don't think so. Yes, today 'Publicis' is an established brand. But has it achieved a position commensurate with its global standing? No. I still believe there's a gap. I am trying to fill it.

How involved are you with the creative side of things at the agency? For instance, tell me about your role in creating the award-winning 'Khali' campaign for Ambuja Cement.

The big myth is - the creative product of an agency is dependent on the creative people. Fact is - the best creative people can't create a good creative culture if the suits are not interested. I have been in situations where I've had to admonish a colleague because I saw her de-sell a campaign - with her pulled back and defensive body language - in a client meeting. The client wasn't buying it. If you want to change the creative product, then you have to change a lot of suits or the attitude of those suits.

When I saw the 'Khali' film for the first time with Bobby, I was underwhelmed by it. I was worried. I told Bobby what I felt. He said, 'It didn't make you laugh, right?' I said, 'Right, it didn't.' Bobby said, 'Okay. Go home. Don't worry.'

The next morning he showed me the same film. I swear to you, I couldn't tell the difference; it was the same film I saw the previous night. But it made me laugh this time around. When I asked Bobby what he did, I learnt something invaluable - when you want to make somebody laugh, you have to give enough pause. Don't move to the next scene before they can laugh. So all he did was increase a few frames on a few shots.

Former presidents of the AAAI, like Ambi, for instance, have gone blue in the face telling people that the duties of the body don't begin and end with Goafest...

Because of Goafest, people have misunderstood the vision and mission of the AAAI - the mission is not to run Goafest!

Right now, in the middle of all the Goafest-related work, the AAAI is busy resolving certain issues with the Maharashtra Government, working with BARC, MRUC and IRS on matters pertaining to media measurement, and representing the interests of our industry to the government in the context of GST. We're spending many man hours and money on this.

So if an account executive or a young copywriter doesn't know what the AAAI does... come on! This is utter nonsense. Why are you even asking them this question? It's like tapping someone on the road and asking him, 'What does the government do?' You will get wrong answers.

Trade bodies and what they do are not corridor conversations in the organisations that they represent, and the premise that they should be, is stupid. I have no ambition whatsoever, as president of the AAAI, to start educating rank and file on what the AAAI does.

In the context of the less-than-ideal participation of admen and women in trade bodies, Sundar Swamy, in a recent interview with me, dubbed today's agency heads "businessmen" as opposed to "advertising professionals". As president of AAAI, how do you react to his view?

This opens a can of worms. The AAAI ex-co has often been accused of being an impregnable old boys' club. I've also sat on the outside; I've also believed this. But after I joined, I slowly started to understand how the members need to take a balanced view that takes into consideration all types of agencies and all sides of the industry. It's easy to sit on the outside and take a critical view and make assumptions about how it works. From the inside, you see the whole picture.

Perhaps one of the things the association hasn't done a great job of is communicating its perspective to its members.

So here we go - the membership of the club is wide open for young guys and gals. There's a lot of work to be done and we all have day jobs to do. So this is an open invitation to young CEOs to join.

Let's discuss one of these worms in the context of what Sunil Lulla told me two years back: "In the ad industry the van guard is still there..." - As someone who will complete 40 years in the industry in 2018, tell me why longevity is seen as a bad thing in advertising.

There has to be some respect for what continuity has achieved for the industry.

Sunil is a very dear friend. I don't know whether he considers himself a part of the van guard. I think he is definitely part of it (laughs).

Do you believe it is the prerogative of the AAAI to create an environment that makes it easy for the big agencies to return to Goafest?

The media is a little obsessed with which agency not coming to Goafest. There is no awards show in the world in which every agency participates equally, every year. There are many reasons why agencies stay out of an awards show. Of late, budget has become a very big reason. But the CCO is not going to tell you, 'Oh this year we won't enter because we don't have the money to do so...'

One's perception of one's chances of winning also play a role; many agency heads have said to me, 'I only want to come if I'm going to be in the top three/top five...'

So providing agencies with a reason to change their stand of not participating is difficult because each has its own reason.

By its very nature, Goafest is the most democratic awards show of its kind. It's done by the industry itself. So when constituents have a strong point of view about something, the industry bodies have no choice but to take it on board. Even the judging process is more democratic than that of any privately owned awards show can ever be. Can you pick up the phone and ask the guys at Cannes 'Why didn't you call anybody from my agency for the last three years?' Cannes is not going to answer a question like that. But we are.

If you have a disagreement with an award at Cannes, sure you can take it up with them; it'll be a short discussion in which they'll tell you what the rules are. But if you have a disagreement about what we have done, your voice is disproportionately heard.

You can't say 'I'm not going to Cannes/Spikes because it's not fair'; you'll get slammed for saying that. But you can say all this about Goafest, because, interestingly, you're saying it about yourself.

Does it even matter if the non-participating agencies return?

It matters. Saying it doesn't matter would be an act of bravado. Inclusiveness adds legitimacy to the show; it makes the industry cohesive. But we should not overstate how much it matters. Goafest has reached a point where any individual agency participating or not cannot dent the show.

What do you make of all the talk about scam around Goafest?

Calling these ads scam is like saying the Cannes Film Festival is a festival of scam films.

Nobody has seen or heard of those movies and documentaries till they are screened at Cannes. A lot of the stuff you see there is done on an experimental basis. Nobody can spend millions to make an experimental film, but you can do it on a small budget. When it gets appreciated, you get the courage to do it on a large scale.

So a lot of what the media labels as scam advertising is actually experimental advertising that gives many clients the courage to move out of their comfort zone.

(This interview was first published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on March 1, 2017)

A Note From the Editor

"Wait, first let me put on my makeup," joked Nakul Chopra, Publicis supremo, as the photographers walked in with their studio lights and reflectors, into our interview room, his cabin at the agency's Mumbai office.

Nakul was in a surprisingly good mood, when I met him for this interview. Surprising because I met him smack in the middle of the pre-Goafest chaos that typically surrounds the members of the Advertising Agencies Association of India, a trade body he presides over, one that organises the annual awards show along with The Advertising Club.

Surprising also because when the photographers interrupted us we were in the midst of a heated discussion around why the 'triple As of I', as the body is called in ad-land, is deemed an impregnable and insular organisation run by the van guard of the industry.

He explained his unexpected cheer with, "When you've been classified as an old man who's part of an old boys' club, you don't resent being made fun of..." However, he made it a point to rap the table very loudly and clarify, "People have misunderstood the vision and mission of the triple As of I. The mission of this body is not to run Goafest..."

This is the kind of confidence that comes only after one spends nearly four decades in an industry. But I must say, agency heads have become delightfully unapologetic about voicing their ambitions and speaking their minds.

It was particularly fun interviewing Nakul because most of his anecdotes hark back to the era of glorious admen like Ravi Gupta, Vikas Gaitonde and Alok Nanda.

The organisation he heads, one we know as Publicis today, is a culmination of seven acquisitions, over the decades: D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles (DMB&B), Zen, Maadhyam, Ambience, Capital, iStrat, MarketGate and Beehive.

The four "solution hubs" that comprise the Publicis Group today are: Publicis Sapient, Publicis Media, Publicis Communications and Publicis Healthcare.


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