Ashwini Gangal

"I see everybody as competition": Arun Iyer

A breezy chat with the chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe Lintas.

Around three years back, Wieden+Kennedy London created an interactive digital film called 'The Other Side' for Honda; during the film, the viewer could press 'R' on her keyboard to start watching a darker, frame-by-frame spin-off of the same ad at any point, and switch back at will. Through this ad Honda promoted two cars - the Civic and its variant Civic Type R - and won many accolades. But what's that got to do with the man whose photograph accompanies this article? Nothing. Except, this is the kind of creative work he worships.

"I see everybody as competition": Arun Iyer

Arun Iyer

Which is why, as I waited in the lobby of Express Towers, South Mumbai, before my interview with Arun Iyer, I binge watched international ads by W+K on YouTube. When I met Iyer, I asked him what it is about the agency's work he so admires. Says the chairman and chief creative officer of Lowe Lintas, "It's not just the ads, it's their approach. They have massive thoughts. They saw that keeping media separate from creative hampers creativity and then brought the two together." The Honda idea was born when the media and the creative guy sat together. "That really impresses me," marvels the 40 year old... or as he puts it in true Tamilian style, '41-running'. Almost four years back, I interviewed Saurabh Varma (present day chief executive officer, Leo Burnett South Asia and Publicis Communications India) and asked him, as an aside, to name the brightest creative mind in Indian advertising. He didn't take more than a few seconds to answer me: "Lowe's Arun Iyer."

So I placed my forward and backward looking binoculars on the shoulders of the person who represents the best of the present generation of Indian advertising talent. And so it began, our discussion around what Indian advertising got right and wrong in the last 12 months, what Lowe Lintas stands for under his leadership, and what Indian advertising ought to worry about as an industry. "Businesswise, it's been a tough year... not us as an agency or anything like that; overall, the general going this year has been tougher than previous years for sure. Because of demonetisation and GST our clients have had to manoeuvre their business a certain way. And that always has an impact on marketing..." he says. Among his key accounts are names like Surf Excel (Neki Ek Ibadat' Ramadan ad for Pakistan), Fastrack ('Move On'), Axis Bank ('Maa Ki Suno' ad with Revathi), Tanishq ('Rivaah Brides'), Flipkart ('Big Billion Days'), Zee ('Rally For Rivers'), Kissan ('Real Togetherness'), Paperboat ('My First Train Ride') and Google ('Look Before You Leave' campaign for Maps).

"At a craft level, budgets have gone down this year. And a lot of conversations like 'It's a digital film, let's do it cheaper' are happening. For any creative product, spends dictate the investment in the asset itself. Experimentation, in terms of finding completely new ways of telling a story, has not really happened," he elaborates. However, there's a silver lining to this, one that highlights an interesting dynamic: "A lot of new talent - like production guys, directors - has got an opportunity. Because budgets are lower, there's less pressure on working with the experienced hands and risk taking ability has gone up."

While he goes on to tell me more about these trying economic realities, I can't help but notice that this is the chairman, not the creative livewire, talking. And I say as much. Is this a new thing - the chairman in him taking to the fore?

"No, not really," says Iyer, who was named chairman of Lowe Lintas around the first quarter of 2017, "I've seen so many stages of myself in this place... when you spend many years at Lintas (he joined in 2003), one of the things that happens is - you always have an eye on the business. It's not like that overtakes everything but you've got to keep an eye on it. And yes, given the new responsibility (chairman), it is something I've got to watch out for... there's a reason it's called 'commercial creativity', there is a commerce angle to it, you can't ignore that..."

To this end, Iyer works closely with Raj Gupta, who was elevated to CEO of Lowe Lintas earlier this year, after spending almost two and a half decades in the Lintas system. In a recent interview the duo told us that their partnership works because each worries about the other's territory in equal measure as he does his own. Gupta tells Iyer things like, 'Yaar Arun, creative mein mazza nahin aa raha hai. Do din aur le loon kya client se?' and Iyer, in turn, says stuff like, 'Raj, we're a little off the money. What do we do?'

Speaking of partners, Iyer shared a famous intellectual partnership with Amer Jaleel, his co-NCD of over five years, before the group split the agency into Lowe Lintas and Mullen Lintas in 2015, after which Iyer and Jaleel were put in-charge of separate creative agencies (Jaleel runs Mullen Lintas as chairman and chief creative officer). 'Lowe Lintas + Partners' itself was re-branded 'Mullen Lowe Lintas Group'.

Answering a long overdue question about the end of his creative partnership with Jaleel, Iyer says, "The truth of the matter is, even when we were co-NCDs, there were parts of the office Amer was looking into and parts that I was looking into. It wasn't like we were bouncing stuff off each other on a daily basis. We were doing our own thing even then and that arrangement just got formalised (in 2015). It wasn't like we were working together on everything... we're good friends and we still chat."

Does he see Amer and Mullen as competition now? "Yes, because tomorrow there could be a pitch that both of us are part of. That's definitely a possibility," he fields. Iyer, by the way, has an interesting approach to competition, one that's symptomatic of the changing environment around networked advertising agencies. "The Lintas and Ogilvy competition is very famous, but it would be myopic of me to say only other agencies are my competition. I don't think it's only about agencies anymore," says Iyer.

What then? He goes on to explain, "We're living in a day and age of ideas and today, ideas can come from anywhere. Content companies, TV guys and radio guys have their own creative teams. There's a whole bunch of creative folk out there, unlike when we entered the business. At that point in time if you wanted to be a creative person, advertising was one of the only few possible destinations. So I see everybody as competition today, even a standup comedian..."

How so? "They are insightful and there's nothing stopping them from getting into the branded content space. Anybody who wants to think for a brand is competition to me... the number of people interested in this stuff has gone up exponentially," he says, "Today, for a brand, you have to think not just about ads or about giving people information, but of how you can make the brand a part of people's lives through the stuff they are interested in."

Where, in this scenario, does purpose-led messaging, something his agency has come to stand for, fit in? And how is it different from ads that are made in the hope of infiltrating popular culture - like the agency's old 'What an Idea Sirjee' line for former client Idea Cellular (they decided to part ways few months back)? "It's not about picking a cause," insists Iyer, in whose book, popularity precedes purpose. "...your brand should be in a position to make a statement. If we hadn't done so many years of 'Daag Achhe Hain' (for Hindustan Unilever's Surf Excel), we wouldn't be in a position to say 'Haar Ko Harao' (the detergent brand's most recent catchphrase). You have to earn the right to say certain things... it's not about riding a wave. I'm very conscious of stuff people do just to be fashionable."

That word came up again in a different context during our chat, when discussing the way in which the agency-client equation has changed in the recent past: "Overall, clients are dealing with many partners today; it's not just about one partner anymore. As a business, in marketing and advertising, the sense of commitment that is felt at both ends has weakened." Why so? Answers Iyer, "At the end of the day, clients are looking for a 'solve now' and they don't mind getting it from whoever they're getting it from. That to me is fundamentally why a lot of stuff which is not so pleasant happens. We all need to sit down and address these niggling issues."

At some level, this goes against Lowe Lintas' philosophy of 'hyper bundling', that positions the firm as a one-stop shop for clients. In fact, the marketing head of a leading apparel brand recently wrote an article for us about how and why the 'full service agency' has become a relic of the past. How does Iyer balance these contrasting realities?

"As a company, we're focusing on only doing stuff that we are good at. Let's not over-promise and under-deliver. It has become fashionable for agencies to say they can do this, this, this... and this for a client. But it's really about what you can do well. We may not be able to do the entire gamut today. It may even mean actually calling it out and saying, 'You know what, we're not up there with this right now, we're working towards it, maybe we'll get there.' There's a level of honesty that needs to come into the being of agencies as well..." he admits.

Where does that leave 'full service', then? Is there work to be done? "Definitely, there's a lot of work to be done," he admits, "All said and done, as agencies, we are generalists trying to compete with specialists. It's not an easy battle to win and it's not an absolutely even battleground either. I can understand that clients, while looking for partners, tend to slot their partners. How do you slot yourself as somebody who can provide the entire gamut?"

In fact, one of the things Iyer frets about is the way advertising agencies are perceived by clients today. "The perception that agencies are contemporary and moving with the times has, somehow, taken a beating. It worries me. It's not a good thing for the business."

But what has led to this perception? And is he sure it is in fact perception and not reality? "The 'agency', as a concept, has existed for very long, versus a lot of the new stuff... and the world tends to look at the new. What agencies do still excites me, but I don't think it's being perceived like that. It's not the agencies' fault, entirely. A lot of clients speak about new-age stuff but expect conventional stuff from their agencies. When your deliverables are conventional and the talk is about the new-age, a gap gets created... it's a complex, tricky world out there," he defends.

This, among other issues, is something the advertising fraternity can solve if it operates as a unified whole. Iyer says, "The one thing the advertising business is getting wrong is - we do not come together as an industry. We all talk about it but there is very little we do about it. I see other industries do it. But not in advertising. Here, we're too busy with our own lives and campaigns. As heads of companies in this industry, we need to sit down together, figure out and solve certain things."

We asked Iyer to let us in on his personal pressure points. He answers, "For the quantum of work we do across brands, staying on top of it all and not letting the ball drop on any of them is something that does add pressure... but after a point, I just stop worrying and run straight to the badminton court."

(This interview was first published in our magazine afaqs!Reporter on January 1, 2018)

A Note From the Editor

I got my appointment for this interview with Arun Iyer in 30 seconds. He heard me out over a call and said, 'Let's do it.' No 'Let me check my schedule', no 'Send me a mail first', no 'Depends on what you're going to ask me', no 'Talk to my PR team', or any of the things journalists typically hear from a lot of senior folks who work for large, globally networked corporates. Sure, I may have caught him on a good day, but this exchange reflects how simple Arun likes to keep things.

I've been writing about Indian advertising for almost eight years and am surprised to discover that this is the first time I've interviewed Arun, at length; (I have a feeling this is the real reason I pitched this idea to my boss, shhh). The last time Arun and I sat and talked about his work and experiences was at an afaqs! event called 'Unmetro', in Gurgaon, nearly three years back. Our conversation then was about the small town Indian consumer and whether ads that target this pool ought to be any different from those crafted for their big city counterparts. Displaying his need for simplicity, Arun said at the time, "...sometimes agencies are guilty of 'over analysis'..."

This time around, at Lowe Lintas Mumbai, we spoke about what Indian advertising got right and wrong in 2017. I feel the sexy, devastaing ads were conspicuous by their absence. When I said so, I got a polite 'Right, right...' from Arun, but did he really concede? I'm not sure.

At the risk of sounding unoriginal, I asked him about his creative process. How does he 'crack' ideas? "Once I understand the problem, I just 'float around' it. Honestly, as foolish as it may sound, when you get 'that' idea, it is an absolute stroke of luck. It comes in a flash," he said.

Basically - problem, incubation, eureka.