Shreyas Kulkarni

We are not an advertising agency: Rajdeepak Das, Leo Burnett

The chief Burnetter and now CCO, Publicis SA distils the making of an agency fit for the more than everchanging times ahead.

Leo Burnett India, in the past 730 days, has won 13 Cannes Lions metals, scored the creative mandates of IKEA, PepsiCo and Meta among many others, and was adjudged Creative Agency of the Year at the ABBY One Show awards twice.

And yet, Rajdeepak Das, co-CEO and chief creative officer, Leo Burnett, says, “We are not an advertising agency.” 

It is less about the Publicis-owned agency’s structure, and more about the mindset of the man leading it and the network especially now when the industry and the world are going through a technological remoulding of sorts, with generative artificial intelligence leading the charge.

Always in black, with a pair of headphones around his neck, and an Apple fanatic to boot, Raj (as everyone calls him) is one of the most bullish folks on Indian advertising and the country itself. 

Two weeks after this interview took place, he was announced as Publicis Groupe’s chief creative officer, South Asia and chairman, South Asia, Leo Burnett; these were jobs created for him. 

Dheeraj Sinha and Rajdeepak Das
Dheeraj Sinha and Rajdeepak Das

Quite the update after Dheeraj Sinha, his co-conspirator at Leo Burnett for nearly a decade, moved to helm FCB as group CEO, India and South Asia, in September 2023. 

“We don't behave like an advertising company. Of course, we do TVCs, outdoor and everything but no, it is using creativity to solve human problems,” says Raj. 

“There is a lot. They are pumping in money”
Rajdeepak Das on client budgets.

The genesis of this shift comes from thought. “We are thinking from an advertising background. No. Tell me how consultancies work; they work on solving long-term problems, we are doing the same thing,” he explains. 

Six to seven years ago, advertising agencies viewed consultancies as a threat, and now these very agencies are trying to become one. For instance, Dentsu India is reshaping itself into a tech-driven marketing consultancy under new CEO Harsha Razdan. 

“I do not know about six to seven years ago but today we have proof of the pudding; we have a story to tell that we did not that time ago,” remarks the Leo Burnett chief. 

He nods to Ogilvy’s use of AI and ML to mimic Shah Rukh Khan’s voice for countless small stores in a Cadbury ad or the folks at Dentsu Creative who used technology to show the real history of the artefacts at The British Museum for Vice News (most people who worked on the campaign have moved to Talented). 

What changed? “Maybe we realised we are all on the same boat, have the same goal, are inspired by each other.”

It is this optimism in the future of Indian advertising that makes him say that those who feel the industry is experiencing an existential crisis have left it, and it is for the best. 

“They were part of the industry and said it was dying, what were they doing to save it? The day you feel it is dead, you should quit,” he fumes. 

He knows the future is technology and that India is on top of it. “AI is not alien; we are riding it. Other countries are struggling with it. In India, we know how to ride AI. People who left the industry, it is fantastic. They have left the playground for people to redefine it.”

Been there done that 

Be it Dentsu’s moves to become an integrated marketing consultancy or the recent merger of Wunderman Thompson with VMLY&R to form VML, Raj says Publicis Groupe was ahead of them by eight to nine years. 

“One country model before anyone could have done it, everyone was laughing at us. Now everyone is going for it,” he grins. 

Raj also mentions Marcel, a custom-made AI platform (launched in ’18) that connects all employees of the Publicis network, and how it is an example of his network being ahead of everyone. 

A new breed for a new agency model 

For a few years, this writer has heard ‘mutant’ being thrown around here and there when Leo Burnett was mentioned; Dheeraj Sinha often being the culprit. 

It takes one to Marvel’s X-Men where genetically gifted people come together as a team of superheroes. Think the same here, but it is based more on their ability, than some biological blessing. 

The Leo Burnett chairman, during the interview, introduced us to a few whom he believes represent a new breed of people building a new agency model.

A 22-year-old young lady from Sonipat helming the agency’s social media, a 23-year-old using 3D printers to build models for clients, an aerospace engineer turned adman, a rapper who’ll give you a song based on a single word prompt. 

“They are not art directors or copywriters, they are human problem solvers,” he states. 

“We do not lose any opportunity to solve a human problem. Again, I will not do it for the sake of doing it. I will only do it if it is relevant to my brand."
Rajdeepak Das

Think for a moment, and one will see it is a generational shift in advertising. Two or three decades ago, there were poets, actors and singers who worked in advertising and led the agencies into the internet era; the cycle starts afresh. 

The agency considers the people as its products. “People, product, profit” is a motto going around Leo Burnett, we were told. 

Money is not an issue 

Start-ups are no longer the strength that dominated advertising spending. No clear alternative has emerged, and yet there is, Raj states, no dearth of work or money. 

“There is a lot. They are pumping in money” he remarks when questioned on client budgets. 

“Marketing people also want to do great work and stand out. They know how hard it is to survive in the world where social media is screaming every day,” he says and reveals, “1.4 million individual messages on Say It With Oreo. Brands spend money when you impact people.”

Doing purpose before it became cool

Throughout the over an hour-long interview, he reiterated Leo Burnett’s sole mission: “impact a billion people's lives using our brands.”

Observe its work and you will find a streak which reflects the philosophy he espouses. 

There was the Smart Farm for Lay’s India that used artificial intelligence to diagnose issues with crops and where and when human intervention was needed. 

Another example was The Missing Chapter for Whisper which made sure no girl dropped out of school because of periods. The agency designed a chapter on the biology behind periods for girls to understand, and to eliminate the stigma around it. 

Raj is not too pleased when someone says Leo Burnett has been doing such work only in the past few years. 

“No sorry. We started eight years back when we melted warship INS Vikrant for Bajaj, when we got OLX to make India and Pakistan interact together, when we got roads that honk for HP, when we used social media to help people avail loans from Tata Capital,” he clarifies and says people are only seeing now what the agency had started experimenting all those years ago. 

When one thinks of such work, there is a feel-good moment because it is for society. Unfortunately, such work or ‘purpose-led’ work has begun to taste sour in many tongues because they consider agencies do such work for the sake of purpose. 

Unilever CEO Hein Schumacher in October said the company would stop force-fitting purpose in its brands. No bigger evidence than one of the world’s biggest advertisers commenting on the issue of purpose. 

“I am a P&G guy,” he quips when asked about this statement from Unilever and then stated outright: “I will never go to a client for the sake of doing purpose.”

Staying ahead

With the Indian Premier League, the T20 Men’s Cricket World Cup, the Paris Olympics, and the general elections, 2024 is a year of events. 

Brands will look to cash in during these times but may end up force-fitting themselves to an event, and lose more than win. 

Raj says it will not happen to them because they are trained to find problems. He harks to Jeep India’s 'The Drive for Democracy' campaign from 2019 where the auto company sent a fleet of its cars to drive voters from villages to faraway voting centres to improve voter turnout. 

“We do not lose any opportunity to solve a human problem. Again, I will not do it for the sake of doing it. I will only do it if it is relevant to my brand,” emphasises the new Leo Burnett chairman, South Asia. 

It all boils down to becoming comfortable with change, and that is something this agency wants its people to excel in. “We are scared, shitting bricks but we know it's good, the feeling inside that what we're doing is right, it is change for the good.”

With an 80-85% striking rate in pitches, Leo Burnett is having a good run. “I have 15-20 years left to give back to this industry. I wake up excited about the industry,” he claims, summing up everything he feels and wants to do for ad land India. 

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