As MagicCircle completes 100 days, we spoke to Misra, co-founder of the advertising startup - and former CEO of Publicis Capital - about his journey so far and the road ahead.
One look at Hemant Misra's LinkedIn profile and the line that will most certainly grab your attention, above all else, would be - "I have now stepped away from all management responsibilities to focus on ingredients for a compelling story."
Walk onto the fifth-floor office of MagicCircle Communications on Sohna Road, Gurgaon and you'll see that compelling story unfold before you. Inaugurated about three months ago, what strikes visitors, from the get-go, is the serenity of the space, although inhabited by quite a few young men and women working nose-to-the-grind on creatives.
The former CEO of Publicis Capital along with Natwar Singh (former senior creative director at Publicis) and Dheeraj Renganath (former unit creative director, Lowe) quit their jobs to launch this full-service ad agency.
In the 100 days since its launch, MagicCircle has won the creative mandates for MakeMyTrip, Goibibo, Intex Mobile along with Intex's entire portfolio of consumer durables. Very recently, the agency added Apis Honey to its kitty.
So, what is a former CEO doing launching a full-service agency?
The back story
"There are many reasons..." is the prompt response. Misra points to client behaviour - as clients' vision dropped from five-year timelines to three years and further down to three months, due of the pressure on profit and loss accounts, it became a question of survival first and thriving later. That hit the quality of output.
Talent in agencies - or misdirected talent - was another factor. "The current lot," explains Misra, "don't look at how they can build their career with brands - they focus more on the agency. Being in an agency for 10 years doesn't make your career. Being on a brand for four or five years makes a career. Only then are you actually contributing."
The constant harping on growth led to a situation where one person was forced to do the work of four. The time to think was taken away. "I have grown in a way that I used to have four to five-hour-long discussions with my bosses," says Misra, who wanted to get rid of the vicious cycle.
The first solution that came to mind was retirement. "I knew that an individual could not change the industry. I just wanted to relax and enjoy life. But people who knew me and my work started asking me why I didn't just start my own venture. My team, especially those people who actively worked on the MakeMyTrip campaign, were firmly in support of this idea. So, I finally cut my links with Publicis. In fact, it was Natwar who pitched the idea and pressed me hard to start MagicCircle," Misra outlines.
Is that how the three came together?
"Actually, Natwar and Dheeraj were the two people who worked actively on the MakeMyTrip campaign. Most of the strips were written by them, with my involvement, of course. And that's the team I am most comfortable working with," confesses Misra, who has his own style of working on an account/ campaign. It was the junior-most copywriter that Misra went to for an opinion on the campaign. He found that this gave him a clearer idea rather than having the information flow back up via the senior copywriter, then the creative director and so on. "What I get to hear is a filtration of all that," he smiles.
Did they just jump into the new business as a startup?
"I wouldn't call myself a startup anymore because a startup is an idea that is looking for resolutions; it's an idea you pitch and then see what happens," he declares. Misra feels that the beauty of MagicCircle is that every decision is taken with freedom. "I don't have to wait for the approval from Paris, New York or London," he says confidently.
Thirty-two years ago, at his first advertising job interview, he was asked what in life was important to him? His reply was, "Work and leisure are equally important." That philosophy has stayed with him. He encourages team members to go on vacations just so that performance is sharper and better. Misra's wife, Ajiti (previously with JWT and Everest as media head) also joined MagicCircle after a break raising their kids.
The years before MagicCircle...
Misra's journey in advertising started in September 1986 with Milestones, learning how to think, evaluate and make a presentation for a brand. He worked on the India Today (Hindi edition) launch campaign. After Milestones came Everest. He says, "I learnt a lot while working on Pan Parag and I considered myself lucky to have worked on the account. It was M.M. Kothari, the founder of Pan Parag, who taught me that if you can engage with the client and add value to the brand, there's nothing to worry about."
At Mudra, Misra was the creative person and head of strategy. It allowed him to develop his entrepreneurial skills and gave him the confidence to work on big brands like Nestle. "The late AG Krishnamurthy used to come to me and say - 'You have to run this business, but I have one complaint: your people don't come to office on time'. I always insisted that if I expected people to come on time, they would leave on time too. My commitment to clients was to deliver good work, and that is what I did," he reminisces.
Soon after, Misra joined JWT because he "wanted to work on Pepsi". In a short one-and-half year stint, he had a "wonderful time" heading the entire business of Pepsi - from beverages to snacks. That was the time Pepsi launched its Blue Billion campaign for the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2007. "Unfortunately, India lost in the first round and the campaign did not receive the kind of finale it deserved," he says ruefully.
Publicis came next and he spent 10 years learning corporate management. "At the time, the Nestle account was handled by Publicis and people in the agency knew that I handled it previously and respected me for it. I give a lot of credit to Nakul Chopra, who headed the agency because he took care of a cost aspect. After Milestones, the biggest learning I had was from Nakul who taught me how a boss should handle his team," Misra adds.
What is probably not well-known is that Misra has done professional theatre and has almost 150 shows to his credit. He says, "I have worked with Habib Tanvir and staged plays in Germany and Lahore. In the last three years, however, I couldn't do much theatre because travelling between Delhi and Gurgaon had become a pain. So, I was itching to restart."
Misra has given himself 100 days to fix the content part at MagicCircle and settling things at the agency. "I didn’t need to hire a CFO or a business head, I didn’t need one. My son Shaunak is my CFO; he has helped set up the finance function ridding me of the one responsibility I never looked forward to. Big agencies need finance controllers to manage their expenses and incomes. I am not here to focus on money, but to service my clients and partners," he states, further adding that his vision is to work with 'ambitious' Indian brands.
"The next big challenge for me is to get my team back; those with whom I worked previously. In the next 100 days, I will also try to learn things I haven't done before such as - understanding the business aspect of a digital agency. Although I have headed a digital agency before, I never looked into the business angle of it," he says, by way of explaining the road ahead.
How has the road been so far?
Misra responds, "It has been a fabulous journey. People are getting along with each other very well and we didn't have to motivate them. The only worry I have is that I love the office we're currently in, however, very soon, we may have to move to a different location as we will be expanding the team."
What was it like working on the MMT campaign?
Misra says, "While at Publicis, I committed to MMT that I would lead the account. The MMT team are always open to sharing ideas. When we launched the MMT campaign, Alia Bhat wasn't that big of a star. Even Ranveer was just beginning to come up. But I am really impressed with their performances in the MMT ad films. Both of them are young stars and they get so involved in the characters that they actually start contributing to them. What they enjoy and what we have consciously done is not use them as film stars, but rather, as characters. And we continue to change those characters."
A changing world
According to Misra, the business of advertising is not what it used to be three decades ago. The client's expectations have changed so drastically that it is strangling the business. Clients expect more at a much lesser cost and in much lesser time. "Thus, what happens in the agency is that you can't have very good talent and whatever you do have, don't have the time to think. Half the time you think I wish I had a week more to work on the campaign," he states.
There is no one way of doing pitches in advertising. "Every pitch is different. Also, a lot of advertising people, unfortunately, left advertising and joined marketing. That is certainly taking the respect out of the business," he adds.
So what is MagicCircle's weapon to take on the competition?
As a full-service agency, MagicCircle provides all kinds of services - strategic thinking, execution and production - except media.
Misra says candidly, "I don't profess that I have a USP. I want to create a pool of talent which is carefully selected." The eight-member team he started out with is now 19-people strong and the agency is self-funded; there are no investors.
Misra and MagicCircle's idea is simple - Look for storytellers! "I am looking for people who can listen to the web. So, in the next 100 days I am looking to create a team of great storytellers and listeners," he signs off, full of hope.
We are watching.