It is an agency that works differently. And it has clients that are fiercely loyal. What makes Draftfcb Ulka click?
I bumped into a senior Draftfcb Ulka official at a media event sometime back and asked him what advertising meant to him and his agency. He smiled, turned, took a few steps away from where I stood, looked back and said, "Advertising is just one piece of the jigsaw puzzle." While this gentleman was only trying to avoid the next pesky journalistic question, he couldn't have summed up Draftfcb Ulka's ethos better.
Draftfcb Ulka follows a policy of 'commercial creativity' - it combines marketing and creativity to help sell brands, not just talk about its virtues. Low profile, media shy and a belief in the safe and effective rather than the spectacular makes Draftfcb an oddity in this business, and very un-meteor-like as its second name suggests.
MG 'Ambi' Parameswaran, executive director and CEO, Mumbai Group and Cogito Consulting, has an answer; "We approach the client problem from the perspective of first understanding the marketing issue."
HISTORY OF AN 'INDIAN' AGENCY
Ulka Advertising, probably the first locally-owned ad agency in India, was set up by the late Bal Mundkur and his wife, Ann, on February 1, 1961. Seven people comprised the first team, including R K Joshi, the father of modern typography in India.
Bal's brother, Bhaskar joined Ulka soon after, leaving Hindustan Lever where he served as head, marketing services. When Bal started Ulka Advertising, it was perceived as a boutique creative agency with Bal himself as the swashbuckling leader with a swagger and a prudent financial brain to boot.
The team soon realised the importance of speaking the client's language and Bhaskar's marketing background helped. A team of six professional managers, comprising the current top rung of leaders Ambi, Arvind Wable, Shashi Sinha, Nagesh Alai and Niteen Bhagwat, led by Anil Kapoor, joined the agency in the late 1980s - the ''suits'' as some of their peers refer to them half in jest.
In February 1997, Foote Cone & Belding (FCB) acquired a 51 per cent stake in Ulka and it was renamed FCB Ulka. In 2007, Draft Worldwide and FCB merged globally to form DraftFCB. Soon after, DraftFCB acquired the remaining stake and the name changed to Draftfcb Ulka.
The 50-year-old agency has seen two eras so far: the creative-strong 'Bal Mundkur era' followed by the strategy and marketing-strong 'Bhaskar Mundkur plus Anil Kapoor era'. Is there going to be a third era that brings its creative muscle to the fore again?
One has to wait and watch if the agency is going to shed its old ways sooner than later.
The agency's peers attribute Draftfcb Ulka's strong managerial focus, in part, to the solid management background of its IIM-bred senior members, who have at some point been brand marketers. "Ulka is run by suits," smiles the head of a leading agency, rather good-naturedly.
Draftfcb Ulka does a lot to perpetuate this focus. Consider its long-standing HR/recruitment programme called Star One - fresh management and creative trainees are put through a month-long orientation where they are made to understand what the agency calls 'the whole picture'.
"So, even if you join Ulka as a copy trainee," explains Ambi, "you don't write copy on day one. You go through an orientation where you learn how the entire marketing cycle works. You need to know you are writing copy to solve a bigger marketing problem. It is not about just writing a clever line and solving the client's problem."
The agency also conducts independent 'brand reviews' annually, on the top 20 brands it handles in an effort to spot trends that it can bring to the notice of its clients. That is also why the agency has stable and long-standing relationships with its clients. What is the secret of that loyalty? Explains Niteen Bhagwat, executive director and CEO, Asterii Analytics, Ulka's brand analytics division, "A client once said to me, 'When we launch a new product and are having sleepless nights about it, I know that you guys are also sitting up, worried just like me and not enjoying your weekend in Alibaug.'" That, pretty much, sums it up.
'Look beyond ads,' is what Draftfcb Ulka drills into its inductees. The agency is firm on ensuring it doesn't undersell itself or get commoditised. "We are not just suppliers of creatives," declares Nagesh G Alai, executive director, India Operations, Draftfcb Ulka Group.
For Singh, the fact that the CD (creative director) on the account, Sanjay Sharma (now group creative director), has stuck around - unlike creative heads in most agencies who hop jobs frequently - is a comforting one. Often, accounts move out when the key creative or planning authority on the agency side quits.
She goes on to share an anecdote that shows Ulka's active contribution towards the brand on the product-side. A few years back, Naukri.com was doing a study to understand its consumers better. Ulka came up with an interesting strategic suggestion that the brand ought to launch an offering that is like a 'privilege card' for its premium consumers. This was based on the insight that many job seekers in the premium segment weren't sure whether Naukri.com really had much to offer to them, given their differentiated and unique requirements. It led to the launch of Naukri Premium, a part of the portal that caters specifically to the premium segment of job seekers, that is, people looking for jobs that offer above Rs 15 lakh CTC. The segment has additional privacy features.
For Manish Kalra, head, marketing, Makemytrip.com, it is the fact that Ulka's senior leadership comes up with a lot of business-related solutions that sets them apart. "They understand the business problem first, see what the marketing objective is, and then get into a 'solution-approach'. This is different from any other agency I have worked with in the past," says he.
Zee values Ulka's research-led inputs and insights that help the channel churn out frequent on-air as well as off-air promos and communication. Akash Chawla, marketing head, national channels, ZEEL, applauds Ulka's contribution that led to differentiated communication for Zee's recent re-branding, as well as for the shows Betiyann (in 2006-07) and more recently Punar Vivah. "Ulka is also our strategy agency. They do a lot of 'Consumer Speak' with us," he says.
Chawla reveals that Ulka's tool 'Mind and Mood' is very helpful. "It is all about meeting consumers and figuring out insights," he says. Ulka has played a sizeable role in helping Zee understand how consumers across different population strata are changing over the years.
While it helps the agency stand out, Draftfcb Ulka's unique marketing disposition brings its fair share of criticism. The agency's unwavering focus on the larger marketing problem has fetched it epithets like 'shadow-planning agency' and 'surrogate marketing team'.
Arvind Wable, advisor, has a theory. Most agencies, he explains, are outsiders giving creative solutions to clients, who are the insiders. Ulka, by virtue of giving marketing solutions, becomes an insider to the problem. But won't becoming too much of an insider make one lose perspective? "We are insiders but can still look at the client's marketing problem from outside. We are in a position to provide objectivity," says Wable.
The general peer perception is that it is easy to win a pitch against Draftfcb Ulka but near impossible to take a client out of Ulka once they have won it. So with pitch skills that don't threaten most agencies, but with clients that won't budge for decades, Ulka seems to have carved a strange niche for itself. According to Parameswaran, this doesn't necessarily mean Ulka's creative product is not good; it just means that the agency could work on improving its pitching skills. "Pitching is an art and some agencies do it extremely well. They put their best resources on the pitch and 'razzle and dazzle' the client during the pitch. A lot of clients get carried away by that."
By 'razzle and dazzle' he refers to making a presentation that an agency puts together by pooling in all its best resources and having them work on the pitch, indulging in some 'pitch act' or maybe even roping in freelance talent just for those few hours. "We never pull talent working on key accounts off their regular work just for a pitch. We try not to disrupt the entire agency for a pitch," says Ambi.
In Wable's opinion, this peer view is probably a function of the fact that Ulka doesn't pitch as frequently as other agencies in its league do. "I believe that if you do too much pitching and put your best resources on pitching, you're being unfair to your existing clients," he says.
Draftfcb Ulka's creative output has found itself under the scanner many times in the past. In a bid to produce effective advertising, do the finer creative aspects get compromised? "We've been more successful in effectiveness, perhaps, and not so consistent in creative quality," admits Alai.
That was one reason why the agency roped in K S Chakravarthy (Chax) as national creative director four years ago. "We have clearly sent a message out into the market to those who had any doubt that Ulka doesn't think that creative is important," Ambi says. This appointment stemmed from the realisation that strategic soundness has to translate into clutter breaking memorable creative. And Chax is quite eager to change things but not in a tearing hurry. "You can't keep saying the right thing very tamely. You have to say the right thing outrageously. There have been bursts of great creative work from Ulka but it was not consistent enough and it was not across enough brands," reveals Chax.
Besides being a message for the market - so that the agency could attract the right kind of creative talent - this move was also a strong signal being sent internally, to make the existing creative team feel more empowered. Interestingly, more than the creative team it was Ulka's servicing front that felt empowered by Chax's entry into the system. "Unfortunately this has become a personality-driven culture. Clients say, 'Ok damn good strategy, but creative mein kaun hai?' Finally servicing has an answer," laughs Chax.
Bhagwat, though, has a different response. "If the creative fraternity's opinion is the yardstick, then you'll come to one set of opinions. If the yardstick is how much consumers liked the ad, you'll get another set of answers. But, if the yardstick is how much the brand's market share grew year on year, then you'll get an entirely different set of answers. We have always aimed for the third. In the bargain, sometimes our creative sizzles, sometimes it does not," he says.
Speaking of long-running campaigns, sometimes it is the fact that a single positioning has stayed constant for so long that gives onlookers the impression that the communication is fuddy-duddy. Explains Chax: "Consider Amul's 'Taste of India' communication. Why break such a successful long running campaign? This is why people don't see fresh looks and fresh work on most of Ulka's brands. It's like getting caught up in your own success."
Another reason why Ulka's work is perceived as 'stale' is because not all of it is visible. This is by virtue of the work being research- and strategy-heavy as opposed to just campaign-driven. Besides, Ulka has far fewer clients that an agency this big would typically have. "Creatively-speaking, that's a problem. We do not have lots and lots of small 'fun and games' clients that help us show off creatively. So, the work may not be so visible," says Chax.
Ulkaites agree that it needs to up its ante as far as new business wins go. "The new business area is one that we have not given enough attention to. We have realised that we need to change this for several reasons - to increase agency visibility, for our image, and for the creative stimulation of our creative team," says Chax.
To draw a parallel from the cricketing world, Draftfcb Ulka has been the Rahul Dravid to other agencies' Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag or Mahendra Singh Dhoni - safe, but sure and no in-your-face aggression. But there seems to be a slight change of heart.
While refusing to change the fundamental way in which Ulka does business, Parameswaran promises to become more aggressive in the days ahead. "We probably spend less than five per cent of our time on new business pitches. We will start opening up, change our new business approach and look for more business more aggressively," he says, adding, "We've become less timid of late. Maybe we need to become a little more aggressive in presenting ourselves to the public, prospective employees and prospective clients. We can't continue to be very shy. We are ready to face the new future," he lets out. That is a very strong statement.
And it will also be something to look forward to Dravid playing like Sehwag or even a Virat Kohli. It is something that the late Bal Mundkur (Ulka's swashbuckling founder) would have approved - with an eye on the finances of course.