Suraj Ramnath

"I've won more awards than some of the biggest creative names in the industry": Pratap Bose

Every now and then, ad agencies are accused of creating work for no reason but to win awards. But at the recently concluded Goafest, The Social Street came under unusually scathing attack after it won ‘Creative Agency of the Year’. Pratap Bose, founding partner and chairman of the three-year-agency, thinks that is unfair.

The launch of The Social Street in 2015 had generated a lot of curiosity. For one, Pratap Bose, one of the four founders, had been the CEO of Ogilvy as well as the COO of DDB Mudra Group, before venturing on his own. Second, it was one of those rare well-funded agency start-ups which began with multiple offices across India. The agency has operations in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru with 220 employees.

So, when a much-discussed, young agency wins ‘Creative Agency of the Year’ in merely its third year by grabbing 40 metals, eyebrows were bound to be raised. Especially since 14 of those came for work done for charities such as Alzheimer's and Related Disorders Society of India, Blood Donors India and the Mohan Foundation. Several of the other awards too were for relatively little-known clients.

Part of the heat generated was because when The Social Street was launched, Bose had said that it would do a lot of work that traditional ad agencies don’t do. However, most of the awards came from areas that would be considered the preserve of traditional agencies.

In this often heated conversation, Bose dismisses the snide remarks and gives his view of where advertising is headed.

Edited Excerpts

Let's talk about the issues around your Goafest performance. You have been accused of doing pro bono work to win awards. Comment.

It is not pro bono work. We have done work for organisations that have a huge amount of credibility and for brands that work in the marketplace. Talking just about awards, I have been known to win awards better than anybody else, right from my Ogilvy days. So, I am really not bothered about what people have to say. We are proud of our work and even put it up on our website. Agencies which are embarrassed by what you call 'pro bono work' don't do that.

We started TSS with 17 disciplines. Across these disciplines, we have extremely creative ideators, much more so than what you would call traditional 'creative' people.

In the last three years, we haven't overtly done any PR even for our account wins. If you are clear about the key objectives of the company, then you do whatever it takes, rather than sit on the rooftop and blow your own bugle.

If awards do not reflect the expertise of an agency, then what do awards stand for?

Awards certainly do not reflect the expertise of an agency in the way the media sees it. In my view, awards define the creative standard of an agency; it shows how creatively the agency thinks. It also helps attract the best creative talent in the industry, which in turn, helps an agency to do great business and bring out exceptional work.

So what does TSS do and not do?

TSS does pretty much everything under the communications umbrella. We produce films, do print campaigns for large clients, we are very strong in the social media/ digital space, as well as all the brand activation and content spaces. In short, we do what it takes to keep a client happy.

People are very surprised by the fact that we win big. I don't enter to win three-four metals and, by the way, awards are not our focus anyway.

But when afaqs! interviewed you in 2015, you said you wanted to win awards...

Do I love winning? Yes, I absolutely do. Well, who doesn't? But awards don't drive business. You can be Creative Agency of the Year at Cannes, but does that mean a client will give you business? The answer is no. Only 10 per cent of all clients are interested in awards. Most want agencies to contribute to their growth - and that means sales. If an agency helps them in that journey that's great because you are finally recognised for the work you do for your clients, rather than by your peers.

If that is the case, why are awards so important for you?

As I mentioned, awards are not necessarily important for business. But at the same time awards are part of the mandate when you work for any large ad network. As an independent agency, we don't have a mandate to win awards. However, they do fuel the creative juices of the creative team and I'm happy to do that.

Last year you told me about the fake ads you'd seen at Cannes. Now that you have been accused, what's going through your mind?

I think there is a crab-eat-crab mentality in this country. If anyone wins at D&AD, One Show or Cannes, nobody ever questions it. I have never seen an Indian journalist question the authenticity of an entry there. All the halla (noise) is saved for Goafest and that's how it has always been and always will be.

If a healthcare agency wins an award in PR, nobody talks about it. I could win in innovation. Cannes has never seen an Indian agency win in the mobile space and I might win that. Does that mean I am an expert in that space? No. Awards are not a barometer to judge an agency for what it does and doesn't do.

People in the business say that they don't see work by TSS for the entire year, not until the awards...

The most awarded piece of Indian creative work last year never saw the light of day till Cannes announced it as a winner. I don't do PR for every (piece of) work or for every new win. We are doing work in South Africa, Singapore, Korea, and Bangladesh but we don't talk about it.

I don't need to be a specialist. Those who say I have to be a specialist in print to win print awards need to have their heads examined. I have been in the industry for 27 years and I have won more awards than some of the biggest creative names in the industry. I have won awards across categories which include digital, promotions, outdoor, activation, packaging, retail design and much more.

I can win an award in any category tomorrow morning if I put my mind to it because we have a team with an exceptional level of insight on what it takes to win - and it is a fun thing for us to do. When I was at Ogilvy, I won Media Agency of the Year at the Emvies and we won it technically because in those days they gave no points for a Grand Prix. We won the most number of Golds. That year people got very upset that a creative agency had participated in the media awards.

You had worked out a partnership with Rediffusion. How is that working out?

Our partnership with Rediffusion is doing extremely well. We partner with them on all non-creative services for their clients. In turn, we seek their help on pitches whenever required and more often than not, we pitch together on large businesses.

What are the big factors affecting advertising business today?

2017 was an extremely difficult year for everybody. The obvious reason was GST (Goods and Services Tax), notebandi and all of that. Everything was affected, not just advertising. Clients are no longer looking at their agencies to deliver an efficient media plan or plan creative solutions. That is the past. The financial numbers of all the holding company groups, worldwide, have seen a downslide last year and they will continue to drop unless they are able to reconstruct themselves with the realities of what clients want in today's AI, IOT, Blockchain, and Mobile First world.

So, where is this heading?

The traditional agency business is under a huge threat. My belief is that it will soon be extinct. There won't be ad agencies in three years' time which is why we started The Social Street. We wanted to do everything that an ad agency doesn't do because there is no money left in that business unless you are a very large agency like an Ogilvy, JWT or Lowe. Over the years they have reached a threshold number by revenue by which they can sustain their costs. The minute that gap starts narrowing, that's the day they will find it difficult to sustain their business. Large clients don't see agencies in the light that they saw them 10 years ago. The world has changed completely.

Could you elaborate?

I still hear people talking about digital and social media agencies. If you are talking about digital and social then you are already dead. We are way past that. Millennials don't think like that. I think clients are looking at Return on Intellectual Capital that agencies deploy on their behalf. God help them if they are thinking in terms of a 30-seconder or a print ad or a digital banner!

In the next five years, clients won't even need a media agency. Do you think a Times of India or a Star won't take an ad directly from their clients? Of course, they will. Large clients will have their in-house agency, be it media or creative - and it is already happening. Unilever already has in-house agencies. Look at Accenture; they have bought around 20 agencies in the last six years. The internet has changed the way clients now look at consumers.

What other possible changes strike you?

The demise of the smartphone is inevitable. Disruption will happen when voice and gestures determine new access points and when artificial intelligence becomes our guardian angel.

And yet, business continues in an archaic way. I was judging an award show the other day and there were entries saying 'we achieved a four per cent click-through rate'. So what? Did you sell or did you not sell? Even the parameters on which we judge agencies are so archaic.

Unless agencies are providing an exceptional solution or partnering with clients on helping sales, they are of no value. You ask any agency if they have any clue about stocking issues, distribution or product innovation. They don't. That's the core of the client's business, but no one talks about that. People talk about Goafest and Cannes. That's how superficial and shallow we all are; let's be honest about it.

What differentiates an entrepreneur from a manager?

A title doesn't define a person and who you are. You can be called by any title, but it is about the respect you get in an organisation, your contribution to the organisation and how highly valued you are that really counts. If you have the ability to motivate people, build a team, build a business that is profitable, and do well for the company, I think those are more important than designations. If you are who you are then you remain who you are. You don't change as a person just because you become an entrepreneur. We started three years back with four partners and I am still functioning the way I did when I joined Ogilvy in 1992.

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