Shreyas Kulkarni

We’re commercial artists, not artists for art’s sake: The Womb co-founders

Kawal Shoor and Navin Talreja on why they won’t participate in the upcoming Effie India Awards, staying independent and refusing to pitch for work.

“3% more (revenue) doesn’t excite us. 3% less doesn’t bother us,” states Navin Talreja, co-founder of The Womb (along with Kawal Shoor), when asked about the uncertain economic climate. But that’s The Womb for you.

The eight-year-old independent agency is notorious for not pitching for work while doling out memorable effective work like Fogg’s ‘Kya chal raha hai?’. It also counts the likes of Saregama Carvaan, Vicco, Truecaller, upGrad, Britannia Industries, Sebamed, Axis Mutual Fund and McDowell’s in its portfolio.

The Womb was judged Independent Agency of The Year and won bronze for Agency of the Year at 2022’s APAC Effie Awards – the premier awards for marketing effectiveness. 

However, The Womb will not participate in the upcoming Effie India Awards.

To use a higher purpose as a strategy to meet commercial objectives, demeans the word.
Kawal Shoor

“We want Effie India to put its judging process in line with global SOPs, which hasn’t been happening over the past 10-15 years,” mentions Shoor, adding that it doesn’t mean The Womb has decided to stay away from the awards forever.

“Somebody has to bell the cat and it’s fine if we’re known as the bad boys of the industry.”

While it will give the Effies India a miss, to win such laurels is one thing, but to do it when most of the communication industry is in the throes of passion with purpose-led creative work, must be quite hard.

“We are not an agency which only does measurable results work,” quips Talreja and says that creativity, for The Womb, is “a means to that end.”

“We want to make brands famous through our work. We’re in an industry where art means moving people and getting them to make choices in favour of our brands.”

Shoor talks about ‘purpose’ in Tata creating the Tata Memorial Hospital. But “to use a higher purpose as a strategy to meet commercial objectives, demeans the word.”

“We’re commercial artists. We’re not artists for art’s sake. You won’t find even one piece of this nature in our eight years of existence,” adds Talreja.

Ad agencies may have drowned in the wave of purpose-led work, but Shoor clarifies that it’s not the same with clients. “Barring a few, most experienced clients focus on delivering growth for their companies.”

60-70% of our conversation with CEOs and CMOs, says Talreja, revolves around business problems, opportunities, driving growth, higher profits, etc. 

The pitch embargo

The world today is filled with LinkedIn thought leaders and Instagram hustlers, who have captured the entire communication space. For agencies, doling out quality work consistently and/or winning advertising pitches is paramount.

The Womb prefers to let its work do all the talking. That is easier said than done, especially today. “Not pitching puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on the quality of our work,” reveals Shoor.

So, how does The Womb get work in the first place? There are three ways, and one of them is the good old, yet dangerously effective word of mouth.

For starters, people reach out to the agency after they see its work. The agency speaks to the potential client on its business model.

You buy people who're different from you because they will add a different dimension to your network or company.
Navin Talreja

“You should get us to react spontaneously to the issues you face, to understand how we think. For us, to come and say, we have a solution in two weeks to your problem, is BS,” stresses Talreja.

Old partners come in handy too. For instance, the agency had worked with Lenovo and its chief marketing officer Amit Doshi moved to Britannia Industries, as head marketing. Today, The Womb counts Britannia as one of its clients.

“Clients reach out to us basis recommendations from Saregama, Sebamed and Mahindra,” reveals Talreja.

Still, the agency stands to lose a lot of business and, as a result, money. “A principle isn't a principle until it costs you something,” says Shoor, quoting Bill Bernbach, one of the three co-founders of ad giant DDB.

An unrefusable offer

A successful independent agency is bound to receive calls from big agency holding networks to become a part of it (the latter).

The Womb is no different. It recently received such a call, but nothing materialised because there was a culture mismatch, as per Shoor. 

A culture match, explains Talreja, rests on three aspects: reputation, great work and money. “You buy people who're different from you because they will add a different dimension to your network or company.”

The need of the hour for a network, says Shoor, is a “federal structure of agencies – loosely bound by two or three key values and maybe finances, but there is a lot of operational independence.”

The Womb doesn’t mind joining a network, provided it’s allowed to retain its identity. The trope of agency leaders, post-acquisition, wearing the proverbial suit and doing management work, is what led to the birth of the agency.

“Wearing suits and largely doing general management work took up 60% of our time at Ogilvy. That is why we started The Womb and continue to remain independent.”

The hunters

A big pressure on The Womb is to find and hire folks, who can churn quality work every day.

“70% skill and 100% hunger is what we’re looking for,” says Shoor. “People can be taught various skills, but we can't teach hunger.”

The Womb is hiring more mid-level talent, who’re hungry to leave their mark, says Shoor, adding that ‘not yet fully formed’ is 70% of the skill the agency is looking for in potential hires.

Shoor also believes that the industry is struggling to hire talent because of the work it doesn’t do – memorable advertising.

Adland’s maza nahi aa raha moment

“Are people spending on advertising? Of course they are. Are campaigns more noticeable? I don't think they are,” exclaims Shoor.

Why’s that?

It all boils down to the Darwinian theory of Survival of the Fittest. He cites the case of Indian Premier League (IPL) broadcast, where over 25-second-long ads aren’t accepted.

Can you write great or noticeable stories or ads in 25 seconds? “Of course, you can.” So, why’s there a shortage of memorable work?

It all boils down to priorities. The industry is fighting on many fronts – from idea ownership to awards, etc., says Talreja. “You should first fight for what you can do well, i.e., the quality of the products you can deliver to your clients.”

The Womb co-founders want to ensure “great growth” for their clients.

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