Shreyas Kulkarni
Advertising

"The best creative briefs are like a conversation between Manmohan Desai and R.D. Burman": Thomas Xavier

Leo Burnett Orchard's former chairman laments the lack of knowledge of advertising's fundamentals and wants to bring it back.

When an MBA, one from IIM Bangalore says "I owe my personal and professional growth to my right brain ventures...", you sit up and take notice. B-school graduates are notorious for their left-brain prowess that deals with logic, reasoning and analytical ability. And while they do use their right side (the more creative part) of the brain, to lay full praise on it is something you don't expect to hear.

"The best creative briefs are like a conversation between Manmohan Desai and R.D. Burman": Thomas Xavier

That's Thomas Xavier for you, the former chairman of Leo Burnett Orchard and now independent consultant and foudner of Transformer Purpose Branding. He has put together a course called 'Classic Creativity in Advertising for Young Brand Managers'.

Everybody has forgotten the print medium when it is, in fact, the basis for all digital work which is static. On the other hand, television is the basis for all audio-visual communication.

In a conversation with afaqs!, he spoke about the course, how today's generation don't remember the principles of communication, what he thinks of today's brand custodians, and the experience of delivering a visual-heavy course via video calls.

Edited Excerpts

What is this course all about and why now?

When lockdown happened, I believe we were transported to a world where we rediscovered our basics and retraced the fundamentals of our lives and experiences, even at work.

Today, in the advertising business, we've fast-forwarded into execution without knowing what's the primary principles behind which communication is done for brands and mass-media or in any medium for that matter.

"The best creative briefs are like a conversation between Manmohan Desai and R.D. Burman": Thomas Xavier

For instance, people are in a hurry to do a Facebook or Instagram post. But, the principles of writing for most of the digital media whether it's a still or a movie are based on the good old print ads or outdoor ads or television commercials.

A lot of people use the word 'brand' correctly but don't know the basics of it. It's a product with a differentiating idea wrapped around it which makes it more valuable and desirable.

Everybody has forgotten the print medium when it is, in fact, the basis for all digital work which is static. On the other hand, television is the basis for all audio-visual communication.

Fulfilling the technical criteria for a digital medium is not how you say I am good at digital. You still have to write the right kind of insight, use craft in your headlines and visualisations.

"The best creative briefs are like a conversation between Manmohan Desai and R.D. Burman": Thomas Xavier

The second thing is to go back and look at the fundamental processes of creating communication and see whether we're doing it right. For example, how to write a good brief is something we have not had the time to look at because we're always in a hurry.

The best creative briefs are like a conversation between Manmohan Desai and R.D. Burman where Desai is briefing the Burman on what kind of musical of output he wants. Actually, in advertising agencies, that's how briefs used to be given. I wanted people to back and see how it was done in the good old days when briefs were moments where copy people felt they may be writing a hoarding but there was glory with it.

This course is about going back to the foundations of creativity into advertising. I've used examples across time from classic campaigns to contemporary ones so that you can see how in the best of work, the fundamentals have not changed.

To put it in a nutshell, it's like watching Citizen Kane refresh your principles of film making. You're watching one of the classics to understand why we're doing and what we're doing with full knowledge.

His take on the word 'brand'

A lot of people use the word 'brand' correctly but don't know the basics of it. It's a product with a differentiating idea wrapped around it which makes it more valuable and desirable. That aspect if you don't know, you're just taking a brand and running with it.

A factory makes soap but out in the market, we're selling freedom. When I started my career in advertising, Alyque Padamsee said that and we were in awe of that because we realised the soap has no future in the market, without this idea of freedom wrapped around it. A brand is all about tangible and intangible and the intangible is all about ideas.

This idea isn't a one-off thing, it's deeply layered - The product at the brand level, at the creative platform level, and the executional idea level. So, how to transition from one level to another? These are things I thought was important for us to cover.

Why does the title of your course read '... for brand managers'? It is because they aren't as exposed to the advertising or agency world as young ad execs are?

I use the word 'brand manager' for two reasons. One, they're the ones who're vested with the most decision-making power today. And, when change happens there, the ripple-effect is there for everybody else. They're aware of this power and they will relate better with the advertising fraternity.

But, you don't realise that a Facebook post is nothing but an outdoor ad.

Second, I've used it in a metaphorical sense. In the good old days, account management used to behave like brand managers. We stopped doing it and because of it, clients don't expect account managers to be brand custodians. But, in the workshop, I tell people if you're a brand manager, you're already flagged off. But, if you're in an agency, you have to think like a brand manager.

Today for me, there's no such thing as account executive or management. If you think like a brand manager, you just happen to be located in an ad agency and the client will value your perspective because you've behaved like a brand manager. This is another perspective that's lost on the current generation of agencies. Holistic ownership of the brand is not there, they just feel they're carrying a list of things and feel their job is done when they've ticked off the list. And clients probably have relegated the to that level.

While they're all well-educated and creative people, this part of the capability hasn't been activated and I blame the advertising agencies for it. They've seen the shrinking of retainers and all that and feel why should we give more than what we've paid for. I feel it's a vicious circle and we've reduced our position in the pecking order.

I still feel when an account manager walks into a client's room, he shows ownership for the brand which is rivalling the brand manager's ownership till the brand feels it's got an ally on the other side as supposed to an agency. The brand doesn't care if you are agency or client, it cares about the managers it's in the hands of.

I wanted 'young brand managers' to become a mindset with which you look at brands and they should be people who know the craft from the fundamentals, they should have the fluency with all the fundamental concepts.

This course seems visual-heavy. How has your experience been teaching it via video calls?

Today, we're used to speaking on video conference and once the content takes over, we forget the fact that we're connected via internet. That's where the content has to be rich so that the medium doesn't interrupt. I found the experience completely seamless and I feel I have a live audience in front of me which just so happens we are not in the same room but we're in the same mental theatre and I am on the stage and they're sitting in the audience.

I'm grateful for technology because it magnifies your sphere of influence and I do it over Zoom because it's easy to use. We're beginning to connect without any kind of inhibition and the medium is by and large okay for me.

Do young brand managers make up the majority of your course students or are their experienced ones too looking to refresh their learnings?

There have been people with 3-4 years of experience for whom the course was an eyeopener. But, for older people, it was an affirmation of things they've campaigned for in their teams.

Let's say you want to do a Facebook post and concerns are mostly around proportions between visual and copy and all of that. But, you don't realise that a Facebook post is nothing but an outdoor ad. The moment you know the principle of outdoor, you will realise it's a medium in which you're moving and the hoarding goes past by so you only have a few seconds and yet you have to communicate.

So, the principles of outdoor are known to older people but the younger generation isn't patient enough to hear it because they see it as a Facebook post. But, when I show them four great outdoor ads and say it could be a Facebook post, they say if this was a Facebook post, I would have stopped my car and looked and it.

The principles of communication in mass media are underutilised for digital is the realisation which older people can communicate through this workshop. They say, now I can take these ads and show how the visual and the headline should complement each other and complete the message in the head of the reader. Even today, the best digital work works like that because someone who's understood the true potential of a medium. So, for older people, it's a great way to campaign for the timeless principles which we campaign for.

I've held courses for Airtel, Wipro consumer, Freshworks, will do it for Kotak and few other firms. Through this, I hope to give the new generation a taste of what the real joy of this business is.