Ashwini Gangal

"Quite frankly, I feel the simplicity of being an agency is lost": Vineet Bajpai

Vineet Bajpai, 39, former Group CEO, TBWA India, and present day chairman, Magnon Group, has written his debut fiction novel 'Harappa - Curse of the Blood River', a blend of history, mythology, religion and crime. It took him two years to write it.

"Quite frankly, I feel the simplicity of being an agency is lost": Vineet Bajpai

This is Bajpai's third book; existing (non-fiction) titles include Build From Scratch, The Street to the Highway and The 30 Something CEO.

Bajpai set up Magnon, a digital agency, in 2000; it was acquired by TBWA after 12 years, giving birth to MagnonTBWA.

Magnon, we learn, has pulled in clients on the back of Bajpai's books: "...simply because they read my business books and wanted to do business with the author..."

Edited Excerpts

You've written three business and management related books. What prompted the desire to veer towards fiction?

Creatively exploiting the rich history, mythology and heritage of India has been a missed opportunity. Whether it's film-making, gaming, tourism or literature, we have not leveraged even one per cent of the content available to us. Harappa is an effort in that direction.

When we read books written by brilliant western authors like Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons), we love them. The way a contemporary thriller is written around the Knights Templar or the Holy Grail is absolutely mind-blowing. But it compels me to think about the content that can be created around the mystical past of India.

A book like (Brown's) Inferno takes you on a mysterious trip based on the western classic Dante's Inferno or The Divine Comedy. But why hasn't a book ever taken us on a fantasy ride through, say, the great warrior-saint Parashuram's battle with Sahastrabahu Arjun, the Kshatriya king with a thousand arms? Why hasn't a book explored the dark and terrifying narratives of the Garuda Puraana?

The work that is being done (around our heritage) can hardly be called fiction. Authors are writing about established and revered characters like Shiva or Rama or Sita or Karna, and are simply reinterpreting -or even misinterpreting!- well-known figures. But the characters in Harappa are all sculpted afresh.

You were 22 when you quit GE India to set up Magnon, an agency you continue to run today. What, to your mind, has been the biggest change in the agency business since then?

Quite frankly, I feel the simplicity of being an agency is lost. When we started as a small but effective digital agency many years ago, we did not work in a complicated environment of resources Vs cost Vs competition Vs build or buy Vs vendor Vs delivery Vs procurement... we worked with clients as close strategic advisors and partners. Clients did not treat us as 'vendors'. We were their sounding-boards, their beer-buddies and their 3:00 am friends.

But now digital has brought in harsh measurability. And with measurability comes contempt, perhaps? Suddenly the world of 'gut creativity' and subtle consumer behaviour (analysis) has given way to cold analytics and proof-of-deliverables. While that might be good in a flat ROI sense, it threatens to take the creative 'purist' away from the business of advertising.

And has the 'the client' changed too?

The client has changed in both positive and negative ways. The positive aspects are her sharp eye on every dollar spent and the bang-for-the-buck approach.

The speed at which bright brand managers, marketing heads and CMOs are absorbing the nuances of tech-based advertising and its empirical nature is dazzling. But, on the other hand, debate with your advertising agency on the merits of advertising expertise is drastically counter-productive.

Marketing has to be different from advertising - both are specialist zones. The day you feel one of them can outperform the other... that will take away the soul from the client-agency partnership.

Clients must remember that along with great visionaries and entrepreneurs, it has been creative icons like Lee Clow and Jean Marie Dru who have built immortal brands. This mutual respect and collective dreaming is the essence of brand building. This must not be lost in the mad quest for ROI and the surgical, excel-sheet based negotiations of procurement teams.

Before Govind Pandey took over as CEO of TBWA India last January, you ran the agency for close to two years. What was that experience like?

Rewarding. As a young entrepreneur who built a digital agency from scratch, created value around it and sold majority share to a global powerhouse like Omnicom, I was living any advertising/digital entrepreneur's dream. And then the opportunity to be the Group CEO of a leading multinational network at the age of 35 was a terrific platform.

During that time, I was able to pull the agency's ranking back into the top-15 ad agencies in India, knit the advertising and digital agencies of the group together... (we) posted the best revenue/profit figures for the agency in several years and won integrated multinational clients like Haier Appliances.

That role gave me the chance to work with some brilliant advertising stalwarts. When I chose to step down as Group CEO, to launch my media and entertainment start-up talentrack, I had tears in my eyes.

A couple of recent stories on afaqs! (Abhik Santara's article, Ashish Bhasin's interview) sparked a discussion around the kind of pressure this business puts on agency folk. What's your take on the matter?

The problem of the over-worked ad agency executive is a complex one. I may sound biased as an agency leader, but the ever-increasing pressure and emphasis on the bottom-line and relentless cost-control by procurement teams at the client's end are compelling agencies to squeeze more from limited resources. This manifests itself in the strain on agency executives.

The problem is compounded by what can sometimes be a regressive 'agency culture'. Why should advertising executives be over-worked at all? In a decades-old industry, why hasn't a positive equilibrium been found and implemented? If other service-based businesses like software companies or law firms or investment banks can evolve into well-structured, metrics-based workplaces, why can't advertising?

And here I feel some agencies -and agency leaders- take pride in the chaos, which will eventually damage the quality or profitability of the creative output. Sometimes young agency teams are seen playing pool or smoking for long hours during the peak, productive hours of the day, and then sitting late into the night looking tired and groggy. That's a culture thing, really.

Advertising is a great industry and I don't think as a business it has any inherent disadvantage for the executive. It's about time agencies adopted HR policies that ensure work-life balance.

A lot of young agency executives want to write books. What advice would you give them?

You don't have to write books on the things you know. As fiction writers, you can write books on the things you can imagine... fire-spewing hydras, one man combatting a hundred serpents, a woman falling in love with a stone... it's up to you.

Secondly, remember that books have now become like Bollywood films. Over 1,00,000 books are released in India every year; 95 per cent of them don't sell even a thousand copies. The marketing part is -unfortunately!- more critical than the writing part. I don't want to name writers here, but they write garbage in the name of fiction or mythology, and then spend Rs.2 crore marketing that trash. They are the best-sellers of today.

So if you are planning to write, plan to market as well. And marketing will take money, whether we like it or not.

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