Shekar Swamy
Guest Article

Brahm Vasudeva made the client-agency partnership sing

Vasudeva was a master at making the client-agency relationship work. Shekar Swamy, who worked with him for 34 years, writes a memoir.

The chairman of Hawkins invested in relationships. Like in the advertising agency R K Swamy, his partner for 34 years. Vasudeva was a master at getting the client and agency to work at the highest level, as he went about building the exceptional Hawkins brand. Brahm Vasudeva passed away on July 10, 2020 after 36 years at the helm of Hawkins Cookers Ltd.

Ten lessons in running a successful client-agency relationship:

I remember that meeting clearly. It was on Saturday Jan 25, 1986 in our office in Mumbai. I had recently returned from the USA after six years. I was thrown in to head the fledgling RK Swamy Mumbai office. I was 28. Pressure Cookers & Appliances Ltd, makers of Hawkins, were looking for an agency. Their chairman and managing director Brahm Vasudeva was leading the agency search. My father RK Swamy had offered our agency services to him in a phone call which resulted in the meeting.

Shekar Swamy
Shekar Swamy

Two days prior to the meeting, we received a single sheet with ten points that Brahm wanted us to respond to. We had planned to show him our credentials’ audio-visual on slides, and work samples. I looked at the list – ranging from who would lead the business, to how we do the scraperboard art for black-and-white product reproduction, to response time for creative development, to our experience in packaging development and capability for language work, and so on.

These were simple yet searching questions, probes looking for clues and answers. I told my father that the standard presentation will not work. I spent the next 36 hours researching and writing out the answers. Many of them were new to me. Many of them our agency was not experienced in. I somehow gathered the answers and put them on slides, specific responses to each query.

Brahm came to our office around 11 am. I expected the meeting to be over by lunch. After all, there were only ten points. It went on till 7 PM. It was a personal grilling. Brahm directed his attention to me as I was offered as the point person. He asked me the widest range of personal and professional questions. I answered as truthfully as I could. Where I did not have the answer, I said so.

In hindsight, it was one hard interview. Towards the end, he asked me, “We have a track-record of changing agencies every five years. We have gone through three of the top agencies in the past 15 years. What do you feel about that?” From where I was sitting, five years seemed pretty good to me. I wasn’t sure of anything at that time. I had a blank look as I replied, “We will take our chances.”

That was lesson #1, in selecting an Agency.

Brahm was not looking for another agency. He was looking for a long-term partner, and he knew what he wanted from that partner. He knew what a good agency could do to contribute to his business. He also knew that if he chose wrong, he would pay the price, not just in wasted fees, but in more costly time, in years that would pass by and be worthless in unproductive activity, and the loss that it meant.

Cut to present day times when selection is done on the basis of price or without adequate thought or by people who don’t fully understand the implications of the decision. No wonder the client-agency relationships are mostly reduced to transactional ones with no emotional vesting. A squandered opportunity, for the clients!

#2: Total immersion

It was evident early in the relationship that there was no half measure here. The agency was expected to be totally immersed in the Hawkins’ business, and we responded in just that fashion. I spent a disproportionate amount of my time in that first year of the relationship on Hawkins. I sat in innumerable internal meetings. I visited the factory. I went to the dealers. As trade conferences happened, we produced all the presentations (those were the days of slides and carousel projectors).

From packaging to cookbooks, from posters to design of programs for Canteen Stores, from consumer research to product photography, from export trade shows to overseas advertising, from annual reports’ design to printing, from dealer-driven advertising to granular media planning, from national TV to local co-op … Brahm knew how to involve the agency and get the work out. He was the prime author or co-author of most of the programs. The agency had to be in step to meet the requirements.

In doing this, he never crossed the line. Staffing and team building was the agency’s responsibility. The agency did that, and we have never counted the resources or calculated the cost to deliver what was required. As a result, the institutional knowledge that accumulated in our organisation about Hawkins was something Brahm came to expect and count on.

#3: Set high standards, lead from the front

Brahm Vasudeva was a believer in the power of advertising. He used the discipline to build his brand and business. He defined advertising in the broadest manner. The colour of the sticker on his product was as important, if not more important, than the big budget TV commercial. His packaging was a prime medium. No detail was to be left unattended. His layouts had to be just so. Never the one to compromise, and to achieve the exactness, he had no problem spending hours on the work.

He knew that creating and executing the work was time consuming. He planned for it. If he felt he’d compromised on something, he would bring it right back the following day for review and discussion. The man was thinking about his work all the time.

The agency team had to measure up to his standards at all times. I reminded the team never to try and cover up anything. If we had not done our homework on something, we would say so. But never give a glib answer. There was no need. All that we were trying to do collectively, Client and Agency together, was to deliver the best possible work given a certain task. Our homework was thorough; that was the expectation. When you have a leader working harder and staying involved, it is amazing to what levels the crew would rise to, on both sides of the table.

Deep thinking, sharp analysis, loud debates, careful scripting, scrupulous execution and finally the satisfaction of a task well done … all these and more were fostered by Brahm. His leadership never wavered. He was like Rahul Dravid in test cricket. The man was capable of a tireless level of focus. That made all the difference.

#4: Control from the top

As the CMD of Hawkins, Brahm took control of the agency relationship and was always in charge of it. In the past 34 years, the agency has dealt with a slew of senior marketing and advertising directors at Hawkins. While they were all knowledgeable, powerful and influential in their own way, they knew one thing. If the agency relationship was to be changed or modified, it would require Brahm’s concurrence. The agency never took anyone, or the relationship, for granted. From the agency’s side too, the relationship was dealt with from the top. Any issue in terms of delivery or project management was promptly addressed.

This is in sharp contrast to so many other companies where changes in middle management often result in review of agency relationships, much to the detriment of the client’s operations. It was not that Brahm was not approached by other agencies from time to time. He took time to meet many of them and heard them. They all left the meeting hearing the same thing: “Hawkins is satisfied with its present arrangement and will contact them if there’s a need.” In the spirit of transparency that was always there, Brahm would keep me informed of such conversations. Come to think of it, in the last 15 years these conversations dried up altogether.

#5: Partnership without parallel

In the first several years of the relationship, Hawkins’ programs and activities looked ad hoc and somewhat unplanned. Or so it appeared to us. This meant that the agency was often working to deliver against the sharpest deadlines, with its own issues. I spoke to Brahm about it. I suggested a better planning process, in the beginning of the year to outline the activities and allocate budgets. I advocated that Hawkins would be more in control and the resources could be better utilised.

Brahm bought into the idea, and thus was born the annual Hawkins Advertising Seminar. This was a five-day offsite, with teams from both agency and client huddled for 10 to 12 hours a day. Everything was analysed threadbare with the agency. Although it was called Ad Seminar, it was the de facto business planning activity of the company, led by marketing. We recently held the 26th Hawkins Advertising Seminar. I was fully present in 25 of them (missed one for health reasons). Brahm was also in 25 of them. He missed the last one due to ill health.

As demanding as the preparations were for this annual event, the agency people looked forward to it and gave it their all. I know Brahm looked forward to it, and he would set the tone for the discussions with his thoughtful opening remarks. The seminar became ingrained into the Hawkins’ process. It brought us all closer together. The business benefited immensely. Personally, it brought me closer and closer to Brahm, as we would often discuss all sorts of issues late into the night, too personal on both sides to be recounted here.

#6: Continuity of personnel

This is the obvious lesson most often missed by clients and agencies. Not so with Hawkins and RK Swamy. While Brahm and I served on either side continuously for 34 years of the relationship, the teams working on both sides had remarkable consistency. This was something that Brahm highlighted right in the beginning. His message to me was to ensure that there should not be frequent changes in the operating team.

Both sides kept their side of the bargain. While I can count eight to ten key members on the Hawkins side through the years in marketing/advertising, there were an equal number of eight to ten members on the agency side who kept everything moving. The current creative lead on Hawkins has worked on the brand for decades. The Account Management head has been on the business for 19 years. There are at least 15 to 20 people or more in the agency, each with 15+ years’ experience on Hawkins.

Continuity like this, nurtured by Brahm, is hard to find in this business.

#7: Integrate, don’t disintegrate the service

Brahm Vasudeva thought holistically, and executed comprehensively. He was hands on. It was impossible for him to think only of strategy, or consider only execution elements, separately. One led to the other seamlessly, or the latter influenced the former expansively.

The late 1990s/early 2000s were the period of the separation of the media function from the creative agency. Ever the watchful advertiser, Brahm studied this phenomenon. He held conversations with media-specialist agencies, which were eager to get their hands on the Hawkins’ budget. He told me he was going to have these meetings. I encouraged him. I told him there was pressure on us from our international partner to spin off our media service into a separate entity. This had been done pretty much across the world. I kept Brahm informed of all developments. I told him that it did not make sense to us, and we may not do it.

After a period of assessment, we both reached similar conclusions. Notwithstanding the promise of better savings, which to Brahm seemed to serve the media agencies more, the cause of the advertiser was better served if the service was kept integrated. Although he heard a lot of the views, Brahm kept his own counsel, as he always did. The matter was dismissed by him typically, “I don’t have a New York or London telling me what to do. This is not in Hawkins’ interest.” Brahm was a major factor in helping us keeping the creative and media services together. After all these years, RK Swamy continues to provide the most integrated services to Hawkins, like few agencies provide to their clients.

#8: Work with decision makers, not unseen bosses

The advertising agency business in India, at least among the top twenty agencies, has been mostly taken over by multinational holding companies. At RK Swamy, although we have a long-standing relationship with BBDO, it is well known that we have maintained ownership control of the Indian operation. Brahm was watchful of this development when BBDO took increasing stake in the Indian company.

One day he spoke to me on this candidly. He said, “If you are going to sell the agency and start reporting to an overseas boss, please let me know well in advance. I have seen how this works early in my career. I do not wish to work with unseen bosses.” Brahm went on to explain. According to him, the big international agencies place a priority on their global clients, and consequently the top talent was always directed to support such clients. After all they were paying the big fees globally and he understood that. He said Hawkins did not wish to work with B and C teams and be marginalised in this process. This was a major strategic consideration in Brahm’s mind. I reassured him that nothing like that was going to happen, as long as I was on the agency side.

I thought to myself, if only more clients really understood these issues and acted with such insight.

#9: Agency to be the buffer

Brahm Vasudeva was an active member of the Indian Society of Advertisers, the trade body that brought companies with a major interest in advertising together. This gave him a close view of the issues that impacted advertising.

One of the structural factors in the advertising world is the presence of media industry groups like the Indian Newspaper Society or the Indian Broadcasting Foundation. Brahm’s legalistic mind was clear. He did not want Hawkins to be engaging with media owners directly. Handling the media and its attendant complexities was the agency’s job. He made it clear to me on more than one occasion.

Being fully informed, and having access to media information to make educated judgements, was a responsibility best placed on the agency. The agency role was to be the buffer, in Hawkins’ engagement with media. While Hawkins would receive and process information sent to them, they would never deal with Media and its trade bodies directly. This was a sagacious approach. More than one occasion has shown the wisdom of this arrangement over the years.

#10: Pay a fair price, extract maximum value

How many clients tell their agency that they receive good value from the relationship? Brahm has told me this on more than one occasion and I am grateful for that. It will surprise many to know that the contract we entered into with Hawkins in 1986 is still extant. Does it mean that we have earned steadily increasing fees year on year, or Hawkins has received greater and greater discounts every year? Neither is true. The agency compensation has gone up or down depending on the year, but the expectation of the service level, and the delivery of the service, has never wavered.

This arrangement has worked because both sides were attentive to the value being provided or gained. From Hawkins’ side, Brahm never expected the agency to be out of pocket on anything. From the agency’s side, we have never skimped on anything. Neither side was ever focused on transaction costs of doing a project. This was too complex, too intense and too continuous a relationship. We were engrossed with doing the job of building the business, whatever it takes. With this attitude, the delivery of good value worked itself out. Today’s procurement managers will be hard pressed to understand this.

Going back to the original question of changing the agency after five years, it never came up a second time. Thirty four years after that poser, I still had the privilege of counting Brahm as our client. He had morphed into a friend and virtually, family, till he passed away. Now I deeply feel the loss for his family, and as his family.

The author is Group CEO, R K SWAMY HANSA.