Suraj Ramnath

"There needs to be distance between marketing and advertising teams": Prashanth Challapalli

We profiled the recently elevated chief operating officer, Leo Burnett Orchard.

Prashanth Challapalli (43), who was recently elevated to chief operating officer, Leo Burnett Orchard, joined Leo Burnett as chief integration officer, South Asia in January 2017.

"There needs to be distance between marketing and advertising teams": Prashanth Challapalli

Prashanth Challapalli

Before joining the Leo Burnett Group, Challapalli worked with iContract as executive vice president and digital head. With over 20 years of experience, Challapalli's repertoire includes agencies like Ogilvy, Lowe, Dentsu, Publicis Ambience, Bates 141, and Rediffusion Y&R. He has also successfully built and led Jack in the Box Worldwide as co-founder and chief operating officer. Brands like Inox and Bennett Coleman and Co are also very evident on his resume.

Challapalli has been an integral part of the Leo Burnett Group since the last 18 months, driving the integration agenda for key clients such as Google, P&G, McDonald's, and TVS Motorcycles.

Leo Burnett Orchard is a subsidiary of The Leo Burnett Group India which is a part of Publicis Groupe. Amazon India, Viacom18, Essilor, Dream11, Amante, Colors, Volkswagen and Emami are some of the major clients handled by Leo Burnett Orchard.

So, from CIO to COO, we ask Challapalli how his life has changed, to which his response is, "The way I look at it, one vowel or letter has changed in the designation - from CIO to COO; so, an extra 'O' has been added. I won't look at it as a massive change in what I am doing or what I have been doing. However, the one big part that gets added to what I have been doing is the profit and loss (P&L) space. For me, personally, the good thing is that I have done the P&L role twice before, so it is not new from that perspective."

Challapalli believes that the great thing about this transition is that in the last one-and-a-half year, the time he has spent in the group has given him a very good understanding of what the group's capabilities are because he has worked with everybody within.

"So how has my role changed from CIO to COO? I am still going to continue doing the same thing except that my focus is largely going to be Leo Burnett Orchard and driving the growth for the agency across Mumbai and Bengaluru. Obviously, I have been handling a couple of client relationships like Google and McDonald's so I have always worked with large teams and Orchard is a fairly large team with about 70 people across both offices. So, I will be managing teams, understanding what the requirements are, where we have our strengths and weaknesses, and what gaps we need to fill," he adds.

Previously, as CIO, Challapalli worked with Dheeraj Sinha, managing director - India and chief strategy officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett, and Rajdeepak Das, managing director - India and chief creative officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett; he reported to Saurabh Verma, chief executive officer, Publicis Communications -India. In his new role as COO, Challapalli is reporting to Sinha and Das.

Has there been a massive change in his role, post elevation? Challapalli says, "Not really, apart from the P&L. The way I look at P&L is that across the group we have a simple philosophy of how we approach business; we call it 'People, Product and Profit'. Focus on the people and if you get the right people, you will get a great product out and the great product will ensure that you have profits. It is a very simple formula. So, the difficult part is getting the right kind of people and to get them, you need to have a good vision of where you are going as an agency, who you want to become and what you want to do. But a really great product also cracks talent."

Challapalli tells afaqs! that the moment the agency comes up with some really great campaign(s), their inbox is flooded with resumes with a note saying - 'Hey, do you have openings? We are seeing the good work you are doing and would like to be a part of it.' The same rule applies to clients, he says. "When they too see two-three great campaigns, clients call up and say - we really like that kind of work, can we have a cup of coffee? It's a domino effect," he explains.

Talking about the focus areas, Challapalli says, "The focus is also on getting the right kind of talent. The core leadership team we have in Mumbai and Bengaluru are some really great people. That is a very stable, strong team of people that we have. There are certain gaps that we will fill and additional skillsets we would want to get on board and we will and I think we are very clear in our heads what we want to do and where we want to go. For a number of reasons, I don't want to fully articulate what the vision or ambition is. My belief is you rather do it first and then let the world know about it."

We asked him what the expectations are from Sinha and Das. He responds, "I think this is our collective expectation. We don't take decisions in the group at an individual level. The whole point of integrations is not about one person. The power of one is not about one person, it is about many people coming together to develop and deliver one big solution. Obviously, a change like this doesn't happen overnight. It's been a conversation in terms of what do we need out of Orchard and therefore, how do we need to structure it. So, there is Dheeraj, Raj and Saurabh and things have been completely aligned."

He continues, "This is not just my personal vision of how I want to build Orchard; I work within the group and with the group. Orchard has a role to play in that group. There is no diversity or difference in thinking about what we want to do with Orchard and how we need to go ahead in doing that."

Talking about the challenges Orchard is currently facing and those he would want to solve, Challapalli says, "Every agency in India has two challenges - one is talent. The industry, by and large, is facing a talent crunch and that problem can be seen on the client side as well. Obviously, finding the right talent is a challenge. The second challenge is growth. If I look at India, we are at a far better percentage level of growth compared to North America, Europe or most markets. But what is more important is to find the right kind of growth. My growth needs to be future-proof."

According to Challapalli, it is easy for him to pick 10 clients who will pay him well and the agency could be sitting on good revenues. Nonetheless, he has questions, "Can we do justice to those clients? Do I have the skillsets that are required to work with those kinds of clients? So, finding the right kind of growth is important. Growth by itself is not a challenge for Orchard. If we were a standalone agency which was left to its own devices and all we were doing was two TVCs and BTL somewhere, then there would have been a massive problem. We know what our capabilities are and we know what we can leverage from the group. Finding the right kind of growth is the current challenge".

Procter & Gamble (P&G), in the last couple of years, has been acquiring creative agencies and making it an in-house business. We asked Challapalli - what if clients in India start doing that too. He says, "It has happened and is not new. Lintas started as an in-house agency of Unilever. Lintas' full form is - Lever International Advertising Services. Clients have been doing this for a very long time. Our belief is that specialists need specialist agencies. There needs to be a distance between marketing teams and advertising teams because you need to bring that objectivity to the table. I am not saying that all clients who have their in-house agencies will fail, obviously, there will be some success somewhere. But is it going to threaten the agency model? I very much doubt we are under threat from that model. A lot of these things depend on the kind of people you bring in."

According to Challapalli, a great creative person would want to work with other creative guys within an agency and the same logic applies to an account planner or any other person within a creative agency. When you put a bunch of people from the ad industry in a marketing environment, obviously, there would be people who come and go. Finding the right people to replace the ones who have gone, might become a question mark. But anything is possible. I am not Nostradamus to say if this will work or won't, but I have my doubts. While P&G is putting together its in-house team, we handle P&G right? We have a massive global relationship with them. Are we losing business from them? No!" Challapalli signs off.