Shreyas Kulkarni

Santosh Padhi wants to turn Wieden+Kennedy India into a cultural force

And while getting that done, he’s espousing a work culture that keeps creative thinking at the centre of everything.

Walk into the Mumbai office of Wieden+Kennedy (W+K) India and you will feel out of place. It is not an office; it is an advertising agency’s office – one spun off from fantastical tales college seniors would regale awestruck juniors with over a cup of chai after interning at an agency. 

Faces of ferocious monsters stuck on the entrance glass door stand guard against evil and misfortune, a figurehead of Ganpati welcomes you at the reception and so does a transparent human body created using some kind of plastic. 

Blown-up photographs of gods and goddesses are everywhere, and so is artwork that screams India like stamps and matchboxes and the art behind trucks tottering on Indian highways. 

One can easily mistake it for an eclectic store in Europe selling Incredible India merchandise. It is, however, the mind of Santosh Padhi expressing itself and its love for culture, Indian culture to be precise. 

Sandi Hildreth (Global Chief People Officer) and Claudia Valderrama (Chief Finance Officer) at the W+K Mumbai office.
Sandi Hildreth (Global Chief People Officer) and Claudia Valderrama (Chief Finance Officer) at the W+K Mumbai office.

“The reason why W+K allowed two offices in India is because they believed some wonderful cultural work happens here and W+K strongly believes in work that comes out of culture,” says Padhi. 

The press note announcing Padhi’s appointment as chief creative officer of W+K India in 2022 had a quote from its global chief creative officer, Karl Lieberman saying, “We feel lucky to have him join us at a time when we really want to connect further to the creative people and culture in India.”

An independent global creative network, W+K has 10 offices and is known for its work on Nike, Old Spice, Audi, and Honda. 

“Let’s stick to the basics. We are creative agencies. Are we here to only handle pressure and strengthen balance sheets? Hello? For god’s sake, you're creative, your job is to create. Go ahead and create something."
Santosh Padhi

In 2007, it set up its office in Delhi, built up Indigo’s branding from scratch, and worked on campaigns for Royal Enfield, Oberoi Hotels, AirBnB, and Oppo. Its last popular work was Da Da Ding for Nike India in 2017. 

A sweet return 

W+K’s Mumbai office was a sweet homecoming for Padhi because it was the same space in Prabhadevi that once housed Taproot, an independent creative agency he co-founded with Agnello Dias in 2009. 

Four years later, they’d sell a 51% stake in what had become one of India’s most celebrated independent agencies to Dentsu India.

Until Padhi’s exit from Taproot Dentsu in 2021, the agency had created some of the most memorable works in Indian ad land in recent memory. 

There was Pooja Didi for Facebook India that showed the levels of compassion Indians had for one another, especially during times of extreme hardship. 

It, for Pepsi Cola India, christened cricketing shots with quirky names like the Helicopter shot for MS Dhoni. 

I am Mumbai’ for the newspaper Mumbai Mirror used protagonists' and antagonists’ points of view to drill down the need for a newspaper with a spine. 

It was this kind of work W+K wanted Padhi to create for the independent creative agency in India. 

“They told me they are not chasing money. ‘We want that beautiful cultural work every other agency is doing which is missing in our portfolio. We have work from eight different offices but we do not have enough work, especially in the past five-six years, from India.’” reveals Padhi. 

Rough beginnings and smart hirings 

Padhi’s early reign as the creative and de-facto country head was not smooth sailing. People, he admits, did not want to align with the agenda of being a creative profit-making company. Some moved out. 

“… maybe there was a huge gap between senior management and the employees, maybe there was a gap between the vision and hunger and what we wanted to achieve.” It took him around six months to get everybody on board. 

In the past year-and-a-half, W+K India has made many senior hires such as Ayesha Gosh who’s the agency’s India MD, strategy head Anirban Roy, Shreekant Srinivasan to head the Delhi office, and Kapil Batra as national creative director. 

“I could breathe,” sighs Padhi after listing their names. 

And so he did. W+K India has doled out work for electric vehicle brand Vida, mirroed cricketer Shubman Gill's journey with the evolution ethos of the G-Shock, it is also responsible for the brand marketing of Jio True 5G.

Eligibility traits

When asked about what goes into hiring people at W+K, he rattled off character traits: humble, great human being, absolutely eclectic because Weiden is like that, and a new filter which is some handle of new-age media. 

These are tough filters, he admits. W+K has hired only 20 people in the past 20 months. 

One can assume W+K would hire from places outside metros and Tier 1 cities because people there would have a strong grasp on culture and community but this is not the case. 

“Unfortunately, these people are culturally rich but they do not know how behaviours are being articulated in communication, for insight, for strategy,” admits Padhi. 

The agency focuses on one’s portfolio, whether they can speak well, sell, and how deep is their knowledge about India. 

“As ‘Social’ becomes the king, the Indian narrative will take centre stage, we (India) want to separate from the world. Yes, we know what is happening but we will protect our culture, protect who we are, because that is the only differentiator we have, and people are loving that,” he remarks. 

A new identity 

Many people, especially clients, remember W+K for the work it did on Indigo. But that was quite a while ago. “Our intention is to do brave creative work,” states the chief creative officer. 

He nods to the agency’s global work on Nike, Old Spice, and Honda as evidence of them being good at starting conversations. “Adding tadka to it is what is needed in India.”

Padhi feels the industry took a beating with COVID-19 and then seeing so many senior folks leave the industry. He, however, feels that now is the most important time to do good, brave creative work because the industry is contagious: do bad work and everyone starts slacking, do good work and it will inspire people. 

This is how, he states, creative agencies were traditionally built. 

“Let’s stick to the basics. We are creative agencies. Are we here to only handle pressure and strengthen balance sheets? Hello? For god’s sake, you're creative, your job is to create. Go ahead and create something,” stresses Padhi. 

He truly believes today is a fantastic time because 20 years ago, brands would put money on campaigns only after they earned profits. “Now, people are borrowing money much before the brand is built, saying ‘story batao, make me famous.’”

And while doing all this, Padhi isn’t too concerned about the rise of independent agencies because “80% are doing dhanda for the sake of doing dhanda.”

There is enough space for everyone, he says and adds that he only wants them to be creative. “Once you get into the trap of money, you will never be able to come out of it.”

W+K, for Padhi, is like starting an agency from scratch. And amid all the noise from all the media, all he wants to do is creative work, nothing more, nothing less.

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