Shreyas Kulkarni

Cannes, creativity, and brand building from the mind of Talented’s Gautam Reghunath

The year-old agency won three metals at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity this year.

Winning three Cannes Lions metals in your first year as an agency takes quite a talent. For Gautam Reghunath, the co-founder and CEO of the creative agency Talented, the wins brought a sense of exhilaration, of course, and a sense of been-there-done-that.

Having helmed the reigns of Dentsu Webchutney (now Dentsu Creative) before co-founding Talented, he led the network agency through multiple Cannes Lions trophies, such as the Agency of the Year in 2022.

Surely he must have aced the Cannes Lions thing by now, but no. Reghunath says he “finds the process cumbersome”, especially for Indian brands in those two-minute case studies. “We, unlike western global brands, must figure out a way to set the context and explain a lot if one does not know the brand.”

Despite this exhaustive process, Talented submitted work and won a silver Lion for its work on Cleartrip and two bronze Lions for its Why Is This A Swiggy Ad? at the 2023 event.

What is interesting to note here is Talented's CEO never had the creativity festival on his year one goal or to-do checklist despite being, in a way, the defending champion.

Network agencies experience “Cannesxiety” where regional chief creative and executive officers feel pressured to accumulate Lions. He says it was never the case at Dentsu, and that the awards, for everything it offers, “is marketing for us and how we tell the world what we are good at and the brand of creative work we want to champion.”

The team at Talented began to think of participating at the Cannes Lions somewhere after the campaigns were released. "You see that people like it, and there are nice reactions… And then you evaluate it against the standards you already have for Cannes Lions-winning work.”

Deciding which campaigns to enter in the awards when one has a kitty of award-worthy work is a challenge. Adding more hurdles is the cost. “It is prohibitively expensive,” exclaims the Talented co-founder. He says not only India, but several developing markets face the same challenge.

He feels smaller and independent agencies find it harder to participate or send in as many entries as they want as compared to big networked agencies with predefined budgets.

“You got to do that mental math in your head and think if it is worth it. I wish a fairer system was there to represent creativity as a whole.”

To offset this challenge, Reghunath prescribes spreading one campaign with various legs across multiple categories, and if the campaign has a strong strategic aspect, push it hard in that category.

“If agencies are considering Cannes Lions as a value-addition, start small, pick your best work, throw in a couple of categories, see if it bites, evaluate where your work stands compared to other work, think of the entry fee as a tuition fee,” he states.

And speaking of work, Indian agencies in the past few years have won their Lions on the back of work which many term ‘causevertising’.

It is but natural for folks to think along these lines because it brings in the awards and the fame. But, isn’t there a risk of creative thought which moves the business needle facing a decline?

Reghunath doesn’t think so at all. He, instead, thinks agencies should do commercial work, get the results for the clients, and when it comes to the awards, focus on a particular kind of domain, and if that is the strategy, it's cool.

“Cannes Lions is a creative show, not the Effie Awards,” he reminds everyone.

He, however, adds there is a time for everything, and an agency runs the risk of being typecast if it is doing the same kind of work every time.

Having said that, he surprises us by saying the split between cause work and commercial work isn’t that different in the western markets compared to the split in India.

“It's just that how wide you stretch your imagination with commercial stuff is more unique in developed western markets, and the use of technology is more consistent.”

Indian agencies too are getting consistent with the use of technology especially Artificial Intelligence (AI) whose use Reghunath champions because he believes it will help one kickstart their creative thought, and perform most of the bland and boring work. “Where I will have some sort of watchful eye is the privacy concerns, copyright concerns, source material.”

When asked if the indiscriminate use of AI can become a crutch for creative folk, he says every agency has a threshold when it comes to acceptable standards and the ones who are unable to meet it “stand out.” But, considering how new AI use is in Indian advertising, he’s more on the side of “excited about it.”

What’s also noteworthy along with the increasing use of AI is the spike in project work over retainership. One wonders how it affects the brand building.

The Talented co-founder feels it has no impact on brand building. “A lot of agencies are afraid of losing the surety a retainer brings. I am too.”

He says when he co-founded Talented, he didn't see any other way but to build the base on a bunch of retainer clients and then do projects over them but the team convinced him otherwise.

“Ideally, a retainer gives me 12-month visibility at least. And inside your head, you think client as a subscription fee, and then you start taking the client for granted. However, every day your client is choosing whether to be your client or not.”

Reghunath believes agencies who've taken on project work have not taken the pedal off brand strategy or brand thinking. “Project vs retainer in my head is a finance conversation, nothing else.”

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