Ashwini Gangal

"All Arun Nanda said to us was 'Unfurl the flag again'": Rediffusion's new presidents

An interview with Rahul Jauhari and Navonil Chatterjee, the recently elevated joint presidents of the suddenly, and finally, independent Rediffusion.

"I know you've come to throw tough questions at us but listen, whatever you write in this interview, just don't bring up George Clooney!" says Rediffusion's recently elevated joint president Rahul Jauhari, harking back to a 2013 interview I did with Sam Ahmed, then vice-chairman and chief creative officer of the agency, who famously and flamboyantly swore to turn the agency around by giving a Hollywood reference ("By the end of the year Rediffusion will be the George Clooney of Indian advertising"), a headline that tickled our readers for months on end.

Rahul, who has been with the group for 14 years, continues to keep his title of chief creative officer. The group's other recently promoted joint president Navonil Chatterjee, who came on board three years back, also continues to lead as chief strategy officer. The creative-planning duo was given this additional mandate - joint presidency - when Dhunji Wadia vacated this position few days back.

Earlier this month Rediffusion's founders Diwan Arun Nanda and Ajit Balakrishnan (who launched the agency back in 1973 along with Mohammed Khan) bought back the 40 per cent shares held in their company by Y&R (part of WPP) and Dentsu, making the group independent again, after enduring years of friction with former WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell who stepped down from his role this April. When news of Rediffusion's autonomous status was out, Rahul wrote 'Freediffusion' and Navonil wrote 'Freedom at mid-day' on their social media pages. A re-branding exercise in underway.

Brands on the agency's client list include Audi, Cipla, Colgate, Eveready, Godfrey Philips, GSK, Hindware, SBI, TVS Srichakra, Kotak Mahindra, Liebherr, Star Jalsha, Parle Products, Tata Motors, and Tata Sons, among others.

Never mind Clooney; this interview, I assure them, is about addressing all the elephants in the room. So I start with the fattest one.

Edited Excerpts

Rediffusion is believed to be past its best days - an agency that needs to 'bring back lost glory'. It must be hard leading a firm that's always referred to as a 'has been'...

Rahul: Media keeps referring back to the loss of Airtel. That was a generation back. Life has moved on since. The ghosts are buried in articles written many years back.

In India, if you see a man in a kurta once, you'll call him 'kurtay wala aadmi', even after 20 years, even if he has moved from his kurta to a pajama to a suit. Similarly, the sinking ship thing is a hangover. Is the question surprising? No, it is not. But do I find any truth in it? No.

Yes, there's a tonne to do - become finally stronger, get a wider spectrum of clients. Rediffusion is a good car. We'll drive it faster, give it a new coat of paint, some shine.

If there's one thing we're guilty of it's not flaunting our work. For example, we've done some great work for Hero Moto Corp, but when someone sees a great ad for Hero, they don't think of Rediffusion. Similarly, lot of clients have given us projects, CSR work... that's not necessarily an account shift. But brands are increasingly working like that. This is all well appreciated, applauded work, but poor guys out there don't know who they're clapping for.

Also, fundamentally, we (himself and Navonil) are shy; we don't talk about what we do. Maybe that's an ante that needs to be upped.

But does the way the agency is perceived make the promotion bittersweet?

Rahul: We've been given a mandate that neither of us was lusting for.

Navonil: Over the past three years we've won pitches that every agency in town would've given their right arm for. I'll be honest, some of the brands we won have gone away, but most are there. The people at Rediffusion have swag and 'proper pride' as Jane Austen puts it.

Can we do better? Can we do more? Yes, definitely. Yes, we know some of the perceptions about us in the outside world. But if you're confident about yourself, then perception be damned.

As an outsider (spent 15 years at JWT Bangalore before joining Rediffusion in 2015) who worked at an agency with brands like Nike, Levi's, Google, my view of Rediffusion was always 'the fun place to be'. And look at the alumni Rediffusion has. I'll throw a challenge to any other agency including JWT, Ogilvy, to come halfway near Rediffusion on that front.

But that's like resting on past laurels. Do clients care about an illustrious alumni list? In fact, today legacy and heritage are sometimes likened to baggage...

Rahul: Good question. A client doesn't come to me because of a great person who worked here 20 years back. He comes for what I deliver.

We've handled the Tata brand for donkey's years. We recently picked up two prestigious and current mandates from them. They didn't give it to us because they like Arun Nanda's face or because we are X number of years old. It was a hard fought pitch battle. When a legacy brand wants to stay relevant it goes to relevant people to solve the problem; it doesn't not go to another legacy brand.

Are we under pressure? No. You have a problem with our legacy - handle it. Legacy is not a burden for us. It's like going to a good school with a great alumni.

Rediffusion is now led by a creative head and a planner. There's chatter about the absence of a suit to run the business, the P&L side of things...

Rahul: The trend is to put the guys who do the work at the helm. Who does the client want to interact with today? With the person who's really doing the job. Why else would Leo Burnett do it? (Creative head Rajdeepak Das and planning head Dheeraj Sinha were made managing directors in April). He's doing the thinking (points to Navonil) and I'm doing the work.

Yes there was a time long back when creative hid in a corner, planning didn't exist, and servicing did the planning and managed the relationships. Today, servicing is a relationship holder more than anything.

As Balki once told me, whoever stands up and says 'It's my ass that needs to be taken' is the leader. Don't ask him his caste, creed, sex, or where he's from. So right now, it's our asses that we're offering.

Navonil: Creative people are some of the savviest when it comes to finance and money.

WPP's Rediffusion versus an independent Rediffusion - how does your life change?

Rahul: From the perspective of business and daily operations, the Y&R clients were zero, for the last 10 years. So nothing changes. We have nothing to lose because we anyway had nothing from them.

When you have a global partner there are some decisions one can't take. You're not free to do whatever we want - the direction, who you partner with... so those things get eased up. For example, we're now free to build serious digital platforms and solutions for our clients, with (founded by Ajit Balakrishnan in 1995).

Part of the freedom is about saying 'Ab apne paise apne paas hi rahenge'.

Navonil: What are the advantages of a network? Google is enough (laughs).

Rediffusion has a complicated history. Does that hang in the corridors?

Rahul: People don't Google that far back. The younger people here don't have a sense of history. They have a sense of today. I am part of the history - I was part of the team when Airtel was at its peak and I was heading the business. But I try to be a 24-year-old even today who doesn't give a damn about the past. It's not relevant for us. But yes, if I joined from the outside and took over now, then it's a fair question.

Also, most of the marketers today are young, so they don't know all this.

Navonil: Of course it's going to be difficult for us. But we've already made a head-start.

What did Arun Nanda say to you when he promoted you? Was there a pep talk?

Rahul: He's the last symbol of an Indian agency saying 'We can run it in India, the way Indians want to do it, with complete ownership'. He said one line to us: "Unfurl the flag again. Guys, now it's your baby. Run it."

Navonil: What I value most in people is a spine. Agencies -and advertising- are increasingly losing it. He has it. He said, "Remember now there are 300 people looking up to you..."

In 2016 Rohit Ohri said to me on behalf of FCB Ulka: "We're three campaigns away from sexy". How many campaigns away from sexy is Rediffusion?

Rahul: This is something we do within the industry. We look at each other's latest ads. It's flippant and myopic. A brand is not built because of the last ad. And the last campaign is not a judgment on how strong and stable an agency is.

Will sexy work help us? Absolutely. No debate there. But I'm sorry, my last three campaigns are not the definition of what my agency is.

Also, a lot of the work we do is not shared on Facebook and flaunted. Don't judge an agency by just that.

Navonil: We're very clear on what's a go and what's a no go. We haven't been pussyfooting. We're not pitching indiscriminately.

Describe Rediffusion in one word...

Rahul: Entrepreneurial.

Navonil: Trending.

Top three priorities, hereon...

Rahul: First our people, then our clients, then ourselves.

Navonil: Great work, recognition, fame.

A Note From the Editor

This interview with Rediffusion's newly appointed joint presidents Rahul Jauhari and Navonil Chatterjee is special for many reasons. The chain of events that culminated in their elevation is noteworthy. For starters, the original promoters of Rediffusion Diwan Arun Nanda and Ajit Balakrishnan bought back the 40 per cent shares held in their company by Y&R and Dentsu, making it an independent outfit once again. That it happened just days ahead of Independence Day is a coincidence, of course. Earlier this year, Sir Martin Sorrell, who tried hard to increase his stake in the agency over the years, stepped down as CEO of WPP.

Then, the president of the agency Dhunji Wadia moved out, making room for Rahul and Navonil to step up and take on the additional mandate of running the business. All eyes are on this creative-planning duo; in fact, sceptics are already taking about the absence of a business head. When I asked Rahul to react to this, he recalled a conversation with Balki from many years back, which, when distilled down to its core lesson is something to the tune of - the one whose ass is on the line is the leader, regardless of the discipline he or she belongs to. Touché.

Rahul and Navonil patiently addressed similar questions, gleaned mostly from feedback I gathered from their peers in the industry before meeting them.

I spent an hour with the men in the eye of the storm... and walked away feeling calm. They're affable, relatable and easy to talk to. They share a hard-to-miss professional camaraderie - the kind that lets one complete, and rudely interrupt, the other's sentences with a smile. My favourite part? They seem to have a sense of humour about everything that's going on around them, the kind that'll serve them well in the days ahead, as they do their best to make good on Arun Nanda's brief to them:

"Unfurl the flag again!"


(This interview was first published in our magazine afaqs!Reporter on August 16, 2018)

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