The heads of the creative function of ad agencies are no longer just mercurial and brilliant ideas people who help raise the creative bar at ad agencies. Instead, the best creative directors are increasingly occupying the coveted positions of chairman or chief executive officer of multinational agencies with new mandates that will see them juggle creative standards and tough business targets set by their international ad networks.
R. Balakrishnan (Balki) was recently promoted from the national creative director (NCD) of Lowe Lintas India Pvt. Ltd to the agency’s chairman and chief creative officer. The creative supremo has ambitious expansion plans for Lowe Lintas, such as starting new agencies and specialist outfits, and everyone expects his famous irreverence to rub off positively on the agency’s image, client relationships and profit margins.
Creative maverick Josy Paul recently left JWT India, where he was joint NCD, to take charge of the new Omnicom Group Inc. agency BBDO India as its chairman.
Interestingly, he will be a part-entrepreneur, as he holds some equity stake in this agency as well as associate agency RK Swamy BBDO Pvt. Ltd.
This is Paul’s second shot at becoming overall chief of an agency; before JWT, he was chairman of WPP Group Plc.’s creative hotshop David, which was subsequently merged with Bates Enterprise Ltd, leading to Paul’s departure.
Sonal Dabral—one-time protégé of Ogilvy and Mather India’s (O&M) creative superstar Piyush Pandey—has returned from Singapore, where he was chairman and executive creative director, O&M Worldwide, Singapore. He has now assumed the mantle of chairman of Bates David Enterprise India and regional executive creative director of Bates Asia and is already working on business and creative pitches.
And much before all these relatively recent developments, holding company Interpublic Group (IPG) appointed creative high-flyer Prasoon Joshi as chairman of McCann-Erickson India Ltd.
The trend of creative superstars being called on to head ad agencies was sparked by the promotion of Pandey from NCD to chairman and NCD of O&M India.
Still, there’s nothing new about creative stars moving up the power rungs within agencies. Advertising and theatre thespian Alyque Padamsee was called “God” during his term as creative director, and then managing director of Lintas India Ltd.
“Creative people (being put) in charge of agencies is not a new trend. Whoever is leadership material, and has the vision to run the agency, can be CEO or chairman...,” says Joshi.
Only, the trend is much more pronounced now.
In the past, few heads of the creative function at ad agencies made it to the top. Many chose to leave and start their own agencies. Those who did this include Mohammed Khan (who formed Enterprise Communications Pvt. Ltd in the 1980s and later merged it with Nexus Advertising) and Bharat Dabholkar (who formed Zen Communications Pvt. Ltd in the early 1990s and later sold a stake to Publicis Worldwide).
Many ad people say the growing number of instances of creative directors being made CEOs is a function of the rapid globalization of the advertising business, since most local ad agencies are now majority- or wholly-owned by international ad networks or global marketing communications holding firms such as IPG, WPP and Omnicom Group.
Says Santosh Desai, CEO, Future Brands Ltd and former president and chief operating officer of McCann-Erickson India: “Running an agency is simple enough in India. International funding is around and Indian heads need take no risky financial decisions or investments (involved in setting up one’s own agency). In addition, you could have a second in command under the chairman, who would do all the day-to-day work.”
Mature ad markets such as the US and the UK have tasted the success of creative chiefs as agency founders or chiefs. Examples include John Hegarty (who founded BBH), Dan Wieden (founder of Wieden+Kennedy Inc.) and Lee Clow (former chairman and chief creative officer at TBWA Worldwide). Global networks are thus open to placing achievers such as Paul, Balki, Joshi and Pandey at the top of their local operations in markets of the future such as India.
Leading the pack: (clockwise from top left) Sonal Dabral, chairman, Bates David Enterprise India, with his team (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint); R. Balakrishnan (Balki), chairman and CEO, Lowe Lintas India Pvt. Ltd (Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint); Piyush Pandey, chairman and national creative director, Ogilvy and Mather India, with his team (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint); Prasoon Joshi, chairman, McCann-Erickson India Ltd (Photo: Madhu Kapparath / Mint); and Josy Paul, chairman, BBDO India (Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint).
History, too, has a part to play in the rise of the creative directors. “Most creative heads are backed by a legacy of solid infrastructure and sound management systems. These happen to be historically strong agencies that they (creative heads) have inherited and continue to run,” says Ranjan Kapur, country head, WPP Group.
The changing role of ad agencies in content creation is perhaps the single largest driver of the change. Traditional advertising messages on TV, press and radio are giving way to new ways of engaging the audience such as in-film product placements and advertiser-funded programming. Meanwhile, consumers themselves are emerging as co-creators of content in micromedia such as blogs.
Paul’s BBDO India, for instance, wants to create its own unique culture. “BBDO and the Swamys (owners of RK Swamy BBDO) are hugely ambitious in India. Josy shares that ambition. He brings experience tinged with edginess, a belief in the power of ideas and a desire to challenge the existing norms of the market,” says Chris Thomas, chairman and chief executive, BBDO Asia-Pacific.
Desai, however, says that the rise of creative directors to managerial positions only signals the reduced responsibilities of an ad agency. He says agencies have been reduced to a “creative services set-up” while earlier, planning and client servicing played just as important a role.
It’s also a way of retaining people, he says. “They (global managements) think that they can give additional responsibilities and retain talent. A creative chief is more accessible to clients and it’s a lot easier to cement client contacts and relationships.”
Some international ad networks and creative chiefs also say that people from the creative function are often more open to change than others. “Lowe is an ideas factory. I’d like our work culture to be such that we produce better ideas. I’d like layers and bureaucracy to be cut off and things to get done faster,” says Balki.
Other than starting new domain-specific agencies, and perhaps a local agency servicing local ad accounts under the Lowe umbrella, Balki hopes to revitalize SSC&B Lintas Pvt. Ltd as a strong second agency or an agency that focuses on clients in specific businesses such as retail and finance.
Paul says a leader who comes from the creative function can usher in faster turnaround time on projects and create leaner structures and a culture of creativity. “The walls between account management, planning and the creative department begin to collapse. In fact, the agency becomes less organizational and more of a creative community.”
The most important benefit that such people bring to the business is passion, says Pandey. “We don’t understand machinery or hierarchy. Only passion for the business,” he says.
Also, the global model allows such people to enjoy the power, money and security of being part owners of a set-up without having to take the risk of starting their own agency. Paul is an example of this best-of-both-worlds solution.
“It’s a world of asset creation. You don’t make assets by remaining an employee. You get equity instead,” says Desai.
“And what’s wrong in it? If you make business for the agency, what’s the harm in getting earnings out of it?” adds Pandey.
In the US and elsewhere, some holding networks are encouraging their creative stars to set up agencies under the umbrella of the holding company or global network. TBWA\Chiat\Day North America executive creative director Chuck McBride launched new San Francisco boutique agency Cutwater with the backing of the Omnicom Group. Several TBWA\Chiat\Day San Francisco clients moved to the start-up, including brands such as Ray-Ban and Fox Sports.
Such equity-based models may take wing in India, especially since there aren’t too many good senior creative directors in the ad business here and those that are around are faced with attractive career options in businesses such as media, entertainment and retail.
However, the attraction of being a leader may actually matter more to some than equity stakes.
“Leadership gives you opportunities to create something new and wonderful. It brings you closer to the truth of the business and allows you to protect the core reason why we all joined the business. Equity is a numbers game. It gives you a certain amount of control and a sense of ownership,” says Paul.
But, the prospect of high-profile creative chiefs taking charge of agencies doesn’t always excite advertisers. “It does not make the product more creative or less just because a creative chief is leading the agency. It is difficult for him to be personally involved in everything. It depends on who is working on the account,” says Abdul Khan, vice-president (marketing), Tata Teleservices Ltd.
KBS Anand, vice-president (marketing and sales), Asian Paints Ltd, who also played a part in the Cutting-Shutting Asian Paints campaign from O&M, says that “even before he (Pandey) became chairman, he was just as involved with our work because he was the NCD.”
Some clients, however, say that creative standards suffer when the creative chief become agency in-charge with much more on his plate. “Most of the creative directors who have sprung to the position of chairman (have) become less accessible to clients. With their star power and aura, they bring in new business but are least involved with the creative work once the business comes in,” says an advertiser, who doesn’t want to be named.
If anything, the rise of creative heads is the result of undue media attention, say ad veterans such as Kapur of WPP. “Thankfully, I belonged to a different age when management chiefs were given iconic status because they were seen as the turnaround men. Then came a time when the media started giving undue attention to creative directors. The management in global offices sits up and takes notice. Why not make him a leader?”
Management skills seem to hold less weight in such high-rung appointments, Kapur says: “Ad networks feel that by appointing a creative chief as chairman, they’re sending out a signal that the creative product is the highest priority. But the fact is that many creative directors do not have a head for numbers and don’t fare well in client relationships.”
Experience has shown that very few advertising start-ups founded by creative people have grown to mega stature, says Kapur, adding that Mohammed Khan’s start-up Enterprise was an exception, and that agencies which show vitality and growth such as JWT India or Rediffusion DY and R Pvt. Ltd are not run by creative heads.
“Josy Paul ran a small agency (David) that never grew in business. Again, he quit JWT after a mere eight months. What was the management expertise and growth that he brought to the party?” asks Kapur.
For all the doubts and potential negatives, however, the creative chief’s day in the sun seems secure.