Shreyas Kulkarni

"I realised I can't survive without work": Santosh Padhi, chief creative officer, W+K

The new CCO tells us us how he landed the job, the challenges of hiring folks in the metaverse era, and his urge to unlearn his two decades of advertising to succeed at his new workplace.

“Someone upload Paddy’s news fast” screamed the team’s WhatsApp group around 10 on a Tuesday morning. I was, naturally, snoring obliviously to the rolling notifications on my smartphone’s screen. WhatsApp messages rarely wake me up but that day, the notification beep penetrated my snoring with effortless ease. My eyes, half-open, tried to peek through a maze of water, pitch, and haze to read the messages. The moment they read “Paddy”, they bolted open, I sat upright on my bed and began to scroll the group like a madman.

Santosh Padhi or Paddy as he’s lovingly called in adland India had joined Wieden+Kennedy (W+K), one of the world’s most storied independent creative agencies as to its new chief creative officer in India. He joined it after spending more than a score at Taproot Dentsu, another celebrated creative agency he co-founded with Agnello Dias (Aggie) in 2009, that before being acquired by Dentsu, the Japanese agency holding network, in 2012 was known only as ‘Taproot India’.

Paddy is one of the best creative brains of his generation and along with Aggie, the duo shook adland with Taproot India's creative chops and soon this independent agency was beating the creative giants and agency holding networks on performance and stunning work. Also, it charged for pitches, unlike others.

Paddy’s exit from his agency in September last year (2021)/made waves because it was supposedly one of the if not the most high-profile exit from a series of c-suite level folks leaving Dentsu India. The Tuesday felt similar.

W+K is known for its work on Indigo Airlines, Royal Enfield, Make in India and is known for consistently doling out impressive creative work. Let us not even touch with decades-worth of drool-worthy work on Nike across the world. For many creatives in India, it has become an aspirational workplace. Taproot too began to develop a similar reputation.

Paddy’s six-month break after his exit was eventful for two reasons. One, he realised he cannot live without work. “… can't absorb more than three weeks of holiday, these months I realised I will suffocate if I don't work”. He was not completely idle. He helped a few friends here and there and during these times, he noticed everybody would agree to his opinions and suggestions. “Why is there no pushback?” he wondered. The poor guy was desperately missing the agency-client to and fro calls and meetings before work were given the green light.

“I wanted to get into something purely creative and I was thinking about people who're more fearless, edgier, braver, and these guys (W+K) got in touch with me,” reveals Paddy. Turns out, a friend living in the same building as he knew W+K’s chief financial officer. The friend knew the agency was looking for a creative head and about Paddy’s search and like a good friend, he set the two up for a date, oops, meeting.

Paddy had three meetings with the leaders of W+K i.e Karl Liberman, the global chief creative officer. He spoke about his journey during the first meeting and W+K spoke about its on the second. The third meeting Paddy tells us was a series of questions and answers each threw at one other.

Creativity is what W+K makes stand out in the market and it is something Paddy has sworn by throughout this career. “I started weighing my CV against W+K and I felt I needed to unlearn everything I have learned because I have not reached a level where these guys produce work.”

The Dentsu saga

If Paddy’s exit was shocking, many were quite intrigued when Taproot was sold to Dentsu in 2012. This point did come up during his talks with W+K and being a fiercely independent agency, it wanted to understand what made the sale. “Guys, I made a mistake,” was his reply to the agency and he then went on to remark, “all the independent guys thinking of selling, sell with a lot of strong clauses that work in your favour… In the long run, you will make money. Make sure every single clause works in your favour because they want you.”

Was it these clauses that made Paddy leave Taproot Dentsu? No. It was mainly about Dentsu’s decision to merge all its creative agencies under the McGarryBowen name. “I was standing for Taproot and WebChutney and they were doing well and it doesn't make any sense to drop these two names in the Indian market; it has taken several years to build these brands”.

A new start

Dentsu consolidated its properties last year and W+K India is stretching. Launched in 2007, the agency’s sole India presence was in Delhi. Along with Paddy’s appointment, it will open an office in Mumbai. This is noteworthy because W+K, unlike most agencies, is known by its city names than a country when being mentioned in the press; W+K Portland, W+K London than W+K USA or W+K UK.

“When it started in 2007, W+K was dabbling in its head: Should it be Mumbai because it has the creative fraternity, Bollywood…” reveals Paddy. The Mumbai office is yet to have a physical location.

Hiring in the metaverse age

In the past two years, consumers have changed and so has the advertising and marketing world. We live in a world of metaverse and NFTs than radio jingles and viral social media campaigns. One of the major tasks of W+K’s new CCO is to hire folks for the Mumbai office and that is one tough challenge.

"I will be looking for people who understand the consumer because an ad is a reflection of society and the way society behaves, we need to portray it in a wonderfully creative way. and if you're not able to understand the consumer, you won't be able to communicate well with them", he remarks.

Paddy has his work cut out because the advertising industry is seeing a lot of creative people leave it for the likes of OTTs, e-comms, and startups. He feels adland is running short of creative people because more clients have come up.

He tells us of brands around 20 years ago who’d do good business, make money, and then reach out to agencies to make an ad about their work. Right now, people are building brands on VC money or plastic money. Most entrepreneurs, he feels, are not selling the product and then building the brand. “They're coming with the ideas and ideas bring in VCs and currencies and they spend the money on agencies stating "boss build my brand"".

Such folks have increased demand but creatives have left adland for multiple avenues like films, OTTs, some have launched their agencies. To put a number, Paddy tell us demand is 200 per cent right now but adland has lost 40 per cent of creative folks to others.

But, Paddy isn’t breaking too much sweat. He is a marathoner and has seen the ups and downs of this world. What is most interesting, to me, is the fact that W+K has handled Nike's creative duties since the '80s and Adidas had chosen Taproot for its creative campaigns in India.

For the guy who chose the JJ School of Arts when everyone was pursuing medicine or engineering, impossible must have felt nothing. Today, after all these years, he’s a student once again. "Let’s do it".

Have news to share? Write to us