A look at the agency's journey so far...
When an ad campaign does well it becomes a talking point not just for the brand but the agency working behind the scenes as well. Similar is the case with Black Swan Life, a Mumbai based advertising agency currently buzzing thanks to a slew of creatives that it crafted for Society Tea. And so, we decided to catch up with the agency's founder and creative head, Sukumar Menon, to get to know his agency a little better.
Started in 2009, the agency will complete nine years next month; Menon describes this journey wherein "doing things on our own terms" was the motto. However, there were a few hiccups. "When we were four years into the business we realised that we were putting all our eggs in one basket," shares Menon, "We didn't want to become that one big client's agency where a lot of things are dependent on that one client. We had to consciously take a few steps back, re-evaluate and re-calibrate."
The advertising agency has been missing in action when it comes to self-advertising. Even the Society Tea ad was sourced by us from Facebook during a casual internet surfing session, something which is in steep contrast to how other agencies bombard media houses with press releases even when a leaf falls from the tree of their agency's garden. Menon confesses that the PR game doesn't come naturally to him. He adds, "Frankly, we didn't know the mechanics of it. We were always very curious but never took the effort to figure out how one publicises their agency. When you approached us for Society Tea and our team promoted that story on our respective social media pages, we realised that this is something we should actively do. Now that you have shown interest in us, you will hear a lot more from us on various fronts."
The agency has earlier handled marketing mandates of companies like Domino's, Lenskart, Fastrack and others. It has also launched brands like Dunkin' Donuts (in India), Jamba Juice (in UAE) and Crusoe (in India). However, one statement has been persistent in all their account-win stories - 'It is learnt that there was no official pitch held.' So, a question comes to mind - are we wrong in assuming that Black Swan Life is not participating in pitches or is this practice by design?
"It is actually both," explains Menon, "We don't jump into multi-agency pitches and I don't think we at times come under the radar. While working at agencies like Leo Burnett and DDB Mudra, we took part in these pitches as creative leaders but were unaware of the back-end department. There is a different mechanism through which one is approached for an RFP (Request for Proposal) and we don't know that either. Our growth has been through referrals. Our work at Domino's led us to Dunkin' Donuts which eventually led us to Haagen Daas. Later, Domino's general manager, marketing, moved to Dubai and joined Foodmark where they were launching American brand, Jamba Juice in the UAE and he wanted to work with us. Hence, work has always got us more work."
Menon also tells us that creative awards, media, visibility of work, and size of an agency, play a crucial role when it comes to the pitch process. "... it is like this one whole vicious circle," is how he puts it.
Despite the "organic growth", as Menon labels it, the agency operates in an environment where financially strong advertising giants dominate a major chunk of the market. Hence, how taxing is it for an agency to find its feet in this industry when not backed by an international network?
Menon says, "You will be surprised to know how a lot of clients, who could easily afford bigger agencies than us, didn't want them since these clients fear that they will not get adequate attention at bigger agencies. The conflict happens when a client chooses two different agencies for different mandates. In case of Domino's, we were handling a small part of their business and while there were other bigger agencies on board when Dunkin' Donuts came along, we were awarded its entire mandate."
So, is the line demarcating clients marked clearly? "The lines are getting blurred," says Menon, "nowadays, a client is not willing to put all eggs in one basket." And does that rattle the bigger agencies? "Obviously, we are starting to eat the starters if not the lunch of the big agencies," Menon chuckles.
At the moment Black Swan Life has a creative staff strength of eight and Menon tells us that three new senior-level appointments are on the cards. In order to keep up with its international clients, the agency has a set-up at Singapore as well. Menon, however, maintains that they are not actively pursuing foreign or international brands. "Our bread, butter, jam, and everything else, is Indian clients," informs Menon.