Shreyas Kulkarni

100% of the work from Leo Burnett is designed to move the effectiveness needle: Dheeraj Sinha

The agency CEO settles the creativity vs effectiveness debate, opines on the relevancy of awards, and talks about winning regional markets for national clients.

Leo Burnett last attended the Effie India awards on the ground in 2020. Three years later, India’s premier awards for effectiveness returns to its stomping ground – Mumbai’s Taj Lands End on January 13, 2023.

The Publicis Groupe-owned creative agency will be there but the adland today will not resemble the industry which attended the '20 Effie India awards.

In the past three years, adland, amongst the many changes, has seemingly adapted itself to the genre of purpose-led creative work or communication that’s creative and nothing more.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with it but how do agencies, ones like Leo Burnett, which pride on winning awards for effectiveness go about doing their job when the industry’s focus is elsewhere?

Dheeraj Sinha, CEO, Leo Burnett South Asia, believes what is creative is effective as well in today’s time and that the old debate between creativeness and effectiveness was a “false” one. It has “done more harm than good to advertising agencies and clients.”

100% of the work from Leo Burnett is designed to move the effectiveness needle: Dheeraj Sinha

If a client wants a campaign to achieve 10 million monthly active users (MAU), “we design a campaign to achieve that… 100% of the work from Leo Brunett is designed to move the effectiveness needle.”

Creativeness and effectiveness are mutually exclusive and Leo Burnett, as per its chief, does not do creative work for the sake of creativity. Everything is designed to be effective but what is designed to be effective also has to be creative otherwise you're not engaging the consumer, he stresses.

He cites the agency’s 2016 Bajaj V campaign which won a Gold at the Cannes Lions in Creative Effectiveness as well as a Grand Effie at the Indian leg of the awards.

The relevancy of India’s advertising awards

Leo Burnett, in 2022, made an eye-catching return to the Abbys, India’s leading awards for creative excellence in advertising, and won top honours including Creative agency of the Year.

The Womb, an independent agency, said it will not participate in the upcoming Effie India awards because it would like the judging process to fall in line with global standard operating procedures (SOP). This after being judged Independent Agency of The Year and winning bronze for Agency of the Year at 2022’s APAC Effie awards.

Two separate yet noteworthy events will make marketers and advertisers and especially young agency folks wonder about the ongoings and even the relevancy of India's advertising awards.

Adding to this the MullenLowe Lintas Group is famous for not participating in any awards show except Effie India and other such effectiveness-based competitions.

“We at Leo Burnett never target awards,” asserts Sinha who says the agency focuses on building work for the market.

This does not mean Leo Burnett shies away from any awards. It participates in select awards such as the Cannes Lions, Abbys at the Goafest, and Effie awards because “these are good benchmarks to see where we are.”

“If you don't have benchmarks, you can feel you're great but how do you know you're 4/10 or 8/10,” says Sinha explaining the agency’s participation in awards.

An agency may consider these benchmarks crucial but do today’s young creative directors feel the same? Do they care about spikes or metals on their resumes in front of new age motivators such as a parallel influencer career or a verified tick because of their comedy sketches on Instagram?

It all boils down to the organisation’s culture. “If the culture focuses on awards, young people imbibe it,” feels the Leo Burnett CEO and then says they focus on the work and everything else takes a backseat.

The regional gamble

Staying true to its obsession with work, Leo Burnett in 2022 launched a new offering — LB Regional. A specialised division helping brands maximise their reach with national audiences by understanding region-wise insights.

This offering, Sinha says, is not to win clients in Tier I or II or II regions but for “large national clients who've realised they need to win Bharat up than India down.” Think Spotify, Airtel, and PhonePe.

While clients have significant regional strategies and some even have internal teams to handle the rural regions, Leo Burnett struggled to hire the right kind of people for this offering.

Few creative directors were thinking in local nuances and even fewer wanted to continue to think local because anybody remotely good at creative thinking wanted to go films in Hindi or English. These are senior creative folks with 12 to 15 years of experience behind them.

LB Regional is active in the states of Punjab, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerela, and Karnataka and the work is mainly on TV, radio, print, and outdoors right now. 

While Leo Burnett doubles down on its regional offering, the agency and its chief know this year will be a challenge. Not everybody is suffering but “we have seen budget cuts with technology companies,” reveals Sinha and at the same time, the agency's FMCG clients have done well. They’ve grown from 15% to 25%.

Leo Burnett goes through these awards, clients, successes, and challenges because of its culture. Sinha has his task cut out because he balances the leadership role at sibling creative agency BBH India too; he was named chairman in 2022.

Thankfully, the two agencies have different positionings. Leo Burnett is a large agency which focuses on solving those big problems for India and its billions. On the other hand, “BBH India has the opportunity to be more modern and international in its outlook,” comments Sinha citing clients like Beam Suntory, Mahindra E Racing, and Red Bull.

Management guru Peter Drucker said culture eats strategy for breakfast. One can say Leo Burnett is having quite the healthy one these days. 

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