It’s an early October morning and Chennai feels like it’s still at its sizzling worst. In the cool confines of a hotel’s roomy coffee shop, Mahesh Chauhan, Group CEO, Rediffusion Y & R, is catching up with some reading — In It To Win It, Peter Roebuck’s analysis of the Australian cricket team’s unrelenting supremacy over the years, occasionally becomes a reference point for Chauhan as he talks about his vision for the group. Chauhan, who took over as President of advertising agency Rediffusion in 2006 is now responsible for the other group companies that include TME, Wunderman, Showdiff, Rediffusion PR and OAP. In a freewheeling conversation with BrandLine, in which he frequently expresses appreciation for his colleagues and insists that HR is the backbone of his organisation, he outlined his plans for the group, emphasising creativity and underlining that every job within was creative, be it strategy or copywriting. Excerpts:
In last year’s interview to BrandLine (edition dated June 14, 2007), you had said the priority was to raise the creative standards in the agency. How far have you come?
We need to collaborate and we need to co-create. I was in Cannes this year. The best work on display — the HBO Voyeur campaign, or for the Xbox 360 — was a manifestation of that. It couldn’t have been done by one guy. It needed a team of people to come together and sit and crack the idea together, and bring it alive. Therefore, it’s probably a migration in a lot of ways, of creativity from pure play creatives by definition to every single purveyor in the industry.
It’s just different roles. It’s like all of us are cricketers when we play cricket, some batsmen, some bowlers, you won’t have a team without either. It’s the same story here, there are some who are creative strategists, let’s call them that, and some are creative craftsmen, such as copywriters. So I said it’s about time we as an industry started to practise that. That’s the competitive edge that Rediff tomorrow can have. See, what’s my biggest strength at Rediff Y&R today? I have media in-house, there’s no other group in the country, the bigger ones, which has media in-house. If I can bring it to play, I don’t see anybody stopping us.
You have a new role as group CEO. Were these units operating separately?
They were all operating in their own silos. The agenda for me now is to make sure we are collaborating and ensure we are more symbiotic. The idea is to put the brand in the centre and work around the brand as opposed to working around our own practice.
So you mean to say if you were offering a client’s brand 360-degree treatment, it wasn’t really happening in Rediffusion?
It is not happening in any organisation I know of, most of them don’t have media to start off with. I have always maintained, and I will continue to maintain, that the 360-degree treatment died about five years ago. I don’t think the game is about 360 as much as it is about bringing an idea to life. If 20 degrees can solve and bring my idea alive, I don’t need the balance 340.
I’m against the whole principle of discipline-based thinking. The thinking has to be anchored to the brand at hand. You need to have inputs from all the disciplines. It’s virtually like when you’re cooking, what comes out doesn’t taste like the different ingredients that have gone into it, but a cocktail of it all, it’s multidimensional and yet finite, it’s not 360.
Why don’t you illustrate this in an anecdote?
We have now begun to practise collaboration in a big way. The recent work you’ve seen on Airtel, on any of the campaigns, it was manifesting itself in the digital space, in the mobile space, and was actually anchored to the idea of ‘Barriers break when people talk’ (an Airtel tagline).
In Himalayan, we used the packaging as a form of advertising. There are five different labels, each tracing the journey of the water, it’s 20 years old, before it reaches the underground aquifer. I think it’s a great example of thinking out of the box, and not just the case of putting a label with the name and descriptor and other details. I think any transformation takes time.
From where we were two years ago, we’ve travelled a huge distance. This is probably going to be our best year ever in this decade. We’re looking at growth in excess of 40 per cent, which as I understand, is four times that of the industry growth, testimony to the team now in place.
Finally, we’re sitting on a fairly stable management team. We will announce our design house, which has actually been around for the last one year, just not announced. An announcement in the digital space is in the pipeline.
You’re going to acquire one?
No, no, we’re just building our own. The prices are too ridiculous, to acquire. We’ve identified someone to head it.
Rediff.com is already strong.
We collaborate with them very well but there are lots of capabilities that need to be in-housed, especially, let’s say, creative capabilities. If you look at the industry, all of us are playing the contact game right now. We’re a late starter in the industry, haven’t kept pace with the change that happened - most of the agencies today are still opening contact streams, digital, retail, design … Whatever the domain, fairly soon this game will stop, and the content game will start. Who’s got better content, and owned content, in our space – that’s where the big game will play.
Fortunately, I think we’ve more than caught up and are well on our way to our path of leadership in this industry. Our contact game will be fully in place and probably be very, very competitive and the best in class.
So where is the growth coming from? Existing clients, new clients?
Both. Existing businesses are growing, giving incremental business and there’s a good run with new clients as well.
Has the economic situation affected advertising?
We are seeing signs of it but it has not really affected us yet. The fact remains that while India is tipped to grow at 7.75 per cent this year, significant clients (of ours) are fairly insulated. At the same time we are being cautious, keeping an eye on signals, on costs. But investments have to be made. I wouldn’t just clamp down and seal everything, and say no more investments, we need to continue them because we’re not seeking any shortcuts. In the next three years we see ourselves as very significant leaders in this industry, our vision is long-term.
What’s happening on the creative front? Last year, you did very well at the GoaFest, this year was not too good, or was it?
We did very well in 2007 but these were largely ‘creatively inspired’ awards but I went back disappointed. A lot of agencies take pride in winning with those entries but I actually went back and admonished the entire agency. I said if that’s how we’re going to win, I don’t want it. So we put a stop to this. We won about 50 metals and 44 were for all this kind of work. Then we won about 10 and those were genuine. I was far more happier with the growth from 6-10. It should look better from now on, with the fantastic work of Sagar (Mahabaleshwarkar) and Ramanuj (Shastry).
We’re a settled organisation today with a huge investment in people and knowledge. I don’t think it’s unfair to say we’re probably the most caring organisation going in our space.
What about these issues which typically confront the agency business today: not getting quality talent, the issue of compensation…
It’s still a fight; talent is a bloodbath even today. Having said that, what we managed to do over the past one year is decide that we should be among the best paymasters in the industry. We realised we need to up the ante to attract the best so we did. We also moved to a merit-based performance system, increments are no longer a birthright. We’re clearly moving towards a meritocratic system, not just as an organisation but as an industry. So we got some of the best people on board … but we’ve had to bite the bullet and make it happen.
We’ve also gone for a far younger organisation, so I represent the oldest in Rediffusion, at nearly 40 years of age, but the rest are all younger. The senior leadership is in the 37-40 age group.
Last time you chatted with us you weren’t happy with the creative product.
Since Sagar and Ramanuj came on board I’ve been reasonably happy. I also believe some of the best work being done now is being done by Rediffusion. There are some nice pieces of genius, they’re just not coming together in one explosive piece of creativity which is perfect and well rounded. The next benchmark is not there yet, but the team is fantastic.
If we’re driven by external logic at Rediffusion, we’ll be happy up to a point. These guys (tapping Peter’s Roebuck book, referring to the Australian cricketers) are not driven by external logic, but by their own internal logic. Beyond a point you need to have your own which will drive you, to raise your own benchmarks. If we’ve to really be the winners, we have to be on the world stage.
The four pillars on which we rest:
Empowered to fail: This is most crucial in the ideas business, we can’t go further if we play safe or are scared of failure.
Mandated to have fun: One has to have a good time, if not, you’re not one of us.
Challenge to outperform oneself
Expected to collaborate internally and externally
We have 700 in the group. We are working on an initiative, ESOPs, which should be rolled out in the next couple of months. That’s the extent of change to which we have gone, building a far more committed leadership team with rightful rewards.
Would you say Rediffusion as an organisation is reasonably profitable or fairly profitable?
When I came in, it looked like we could post a loss. Then we became fairly profitable, but nowhere close to the agencies of our kind. The vision is not one of profit, but rather to invest more in people, in knowledge, put unusual amounts of money to create vibrant, happier people – for me money’s not a consequence. Focus is there, money will happen when it does.
6 months ago