Ashwini Gangal

"I might be a monk": Sonal Dabral, Ogilvy

Dabral has completed over two months as group chief creative officer and vice chairman, Ogilvy India. An interview.

"I love advertising, I love people, I love teaching. I'm never worried, I never feel any pressure, I'm calm. Like a cucumber. I'm almost Zen. I never get angry. It might be a flaw... or I might be a monk," says Sonal Dabral, group chief creative officer and vice chairman, Ogilvy India, at some point during an hour-long quasi interview with me, after which he patiently posed for our photographer for another hour, the former actor in him still among us.

"I might be a monk": Sonal Dabral, Ogilvy

Sonal DabralAs I remind my cameraman that Dabral acted in Fauji and hosted Philips Top 10 on TV, the insecure scribe in me couldn't help but wonder whether he was enjoying the photo shoot more than he did my interview. I ask him whether our chat was okay. "Yes, yes..." Click-Pose-Smile-Click. "It was nice... very disarming," he says, before indulging the shutter-happy man in front of him some more.

Seated in the 'Cigar Lounge' at Ogilvy's Mumbai office, we chatted about his 32-year-long career, which reached a crescendo when he joined Ogilvy on September 15 this year. "Of the three decades I've spent in advertising, almost two have been with Ogilvy. So it's part of me in a way..." he says. The past couple of months have been a whirlwind for Dabral. A fortnight after joining, he went to judge the London International Awards for about ten days; when he got back, he spent time "meeting people, getting inducted into the accounts... after I came back from judging, I hit the ground running. Some accounts are new for me (Tata Sky, Pernod Ricard, Amazon), some are old (Pidilite, Asian Paints) and I already know the clients..."

A lot was said and written about his recent move from DDB Mudra to Ogilvy. What did Dabral make of all the hype and noise around the development? "... In a way, the noise was expected, because I've spent so much time at Ogilvy (India, Malaysia, Singapore) and have partnered Piyush (Pandey) on many great pieces of work, which took Ogilvy to the top... I can understand why that noise was created. It was a big thing, even for me."

Dabral began his career with Lintas, but his "growth as an advertising person happened with Ogilvy." It is here that he learnt how to lead, "first a group, then an office, then a country office."

For the most part, our chat was about how times have changed over the past three decades. For instance, the way an ad film looks today is different from the way it did during the 'Humko Binnies Mangta' and 'Kuch Khaas Hai' era. While there are many adjectives one can use to describe these ads, the most fitting one is - simple. Is some of that simplicity missing in the ads we see today?

"I won't call it 'simple versus complicated'; I'd say when you have only 20 or 30 seconds to tell your story, there's a certain discipline that comes in. You have to communicate in as economical a way as possible and yet have that memorable twist at the end. At the spine of the typical 20, 30 or even 60-second TVC, there's only one thought you can go with. The moment you bring in layers, it never works. That becomes the bane of many commercials. Creative people get greedy. We want to put in too much..." he says about the 'then', before going on about the 'now', "In the digital era, it's become possible to tell longer stories, work with emotions, build more layers, more characterisation, work with music... but yes, you can still mess up a five-minuter; creative people need to have a sense of what they should hold back and how much they should put in..."

Dabral cautions, "On digital, we may have time on our hands, but we have to be sensitive about how we use it. Instead of saying, 'Oh I love these shots and must include them in this film' we must wonder whether the audience has the patience to sit through it for five minutes. One has to be careful on digital..."

At a recent event organised by Facebook, Dentsu's Ashish Bhasin made an interesting statement - 'It's not about TVC planning; it's about video planning'. Marketers frequently stress on the need to 'go beyond the TVC' and expect an agency to do 'more than just make TVCs'. It has almost become fashionable to bash the 'typical TVC' today. As someone who has built a personal brand by cutting his teeth on this format, what's Dabral's take on the video-beyond-TVC movement?

"I find this bashing that you speak of a bit shortsighted. Ask any client - television still, in India, is the most efficient medium to reach the masses. You have to use that 30 or 60-second commercial for any brand to be built here. And you'll continue to use the TVC for some time to come... a TVC is still a very revered piece of film; a lot of 'thinking time' of some really 'expensive' creative teams, and a lot of money goes into it - both media and production," he says.

About the consumer, Dabral says, "Because of so many different screens, touch-points have increased. Earlier it was simpler. Our audience was more 'disciplined'. They didn't have so many choices. They sat and watched TV, saw billboards, then heard the radio... Now, at odd hours they're checking their phones, checking WhatsApp messages, looking at YouTube, binge-watching programs, recording these programs... there's a whole lot of indiscipline. So we no longer have a captive audience. Our storytelling, therefore, has to be that much better..."

The world of the client has changed too. "Earlier, clients had one lead agency - that was the only custodian. Today, we're moving towards a world of collaboration, with more 'content houses' and expertise outside of the lead agency. But I still feel brand custodianship should sit with the lead agency - the team that has all the experience and history of building that brand," Dabral says.

About media planning, he opines, "Previously, there was print, TV, radio. If you had a certain budget it went into these three. In a year, you did two or three big commercials and a few print campaigns. Everything could be nicely planned. But because touch-points have increased, everybody is under pressure. Today, the audience can reject an ad very fast... this puts pressure on clients and agencies. With the budget we used to have for a couple of TVCs and print, we now have to connect with the audience in 15 different ways. Budgets can't keep increasing... so agencies have to be more efficient with the same amount of money..."

According to Dabral, newer and more complex media like augmented reality, virtual reality and artificial intelligence will become mainstream someday. "Already there are algorithms and software programs that can create an ad..." he says.

Speaking of A.I., it said, the only field a robot can't take over is creativity. 'So your job is safe,' I tease Dabral. He fields, "The way I see it is - till a robot sheds a tear or smiles at a joke, our work is safe."

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