Indian advertising’s golden boy, Sonal Dabral, will be returning to India to take up a new post as India chairman and regional creative director for Bates Asia. In an interview with Mint,he speaks about his priorities for Bates Asia, and why India is faltering as far as international advertising award shows are concerned. Dabral graduated from the National Institute of Design (NID) and has worked with agencies such as Lintas India Pvt. Ltd and Ogilvy & Mather India Ltd. He has won innumerable international awards, including Cannes Lions, Clios, D&ADs, One Show and AdFest.
Your thoughts on returning to India. Why the shift?
It has been a combination of many factors. Though the prospect of returning ‘home’ after spending close to a decade overseas had its own pull, it was also the opportunity to shape the future of one of the most ambitious and exciting networks within WPP that prompted this decision.
Having lived in cities as varied as Agra, Ahmedabad, New Delhi, Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore—each place has helped me imbibe a different perspective on life. If I’m now able to give back some of those learnings and turn some hidden gems here in India into world-beaters, it will be hugely satisfying for me. Also, when I do return next year, I will still have regional responsibilities so my focus will be the whole of APAC (Asia-Pacific), of which India will play a major part.
What would your priorities be as India chairman and regional creative director for Bates Asia?
We are a medium-sized network in Asia—probably the seventh largest currently. Our ambition is to become one of the Top 3 networks in the next two-three years.
Through organic growth and acquisitions, Bates India has almost doubled in size in the past three years. So, in India too, getting into the Top 5 in the next two-three years shouldn’t be a problem at all.
India and China are the two growth tigers, and Bates has big ambitions for these markets—(we are) looking at around 20% growth. All this will happen on the back of path-breaking creative work. My priority now will be to raise the creative bar across Asia, ignite some fires and make everyone believe that we can be both big and hot.
How does India compare with the rest of APAC as an ad market?
Size immediately sets India apart. Barring China and Indonesia, to some extent, India is huge as an advertising market. Besides the size, the diversity of cultures, languages and idioms that abound here make this a fairly complicated and challenging market for any advertising professional. India has its own unique culture and a strong identity, and that makes it less global compared with the rest of APAC.
India is full of advertising talent. We are sensitive as people, and the inherent melodrama in our religion and culture makes us natural storytellers. I feel, however, that compared to advertising markets within the region, we have not been pushing ourselves enough. The ideas are there, but we keep falling short on really crafting them to standards they deserve. This is one reason I feel India is faltering as far as international advertising award shows are concerned. We need to stop patting ourselves on the back and, most importantly, we need to stop being too easily satisfied. If Thailand and Singapore can excel consistently on the world stage, so can we.
Wieden & Kennedy has gone on record to state that they are setting up a New Delhi office to handle Nokia and other business. In fact, your appointment is said to be a move to safeguard the Asia business of Nokia. Any comments?
Nokia has not yet taken a decision, so I can’t comment on W&K’s statements. Bates Asia has set its own goal—and being the creative leader that best understands and leverages the changing dynamics of Asia is a key part of that. Bates Asia has helped Nokia achieve market leadership in India and, if we retain the brand, my attempts will be to help make Nokia one of the most liked brands in India.
In India, after the merger with Enterprise and now with David, Bates is seen as having a very ambiguous identity. Is that correct?
Bates Asia has to grow both organically as well as through acquisitions. The acquisition of Enterprise Nexus and David helped it achieve the size and economy of scale. It is up to Subhash (Subhash Kamath is CEO, Bates Enterprise David Ltd) and me to give it the clear identity Bates Asia fully deserves.
Which would you consider to be your best creative work so far?
There are quite a few pieces of work that I truly enjoyed working on and I’m proud of. From my days with Ogilvy India, there’s all the Cadbury’s Dairy Milk work, including the famous ‘cricket’ commercial and the Perk ads with Raageshwari and Preity Zinta. Asian Paints’ ‘Pongal’ was another. In Malaysia, it was the Mattel-Matchbox print campaign that got us a One Show gold. It was not only Ogilvy’s, but Malaysia’s first One Show Gold as well, and that makes me especially proud.
An ad I wrote and directed for the MC2 awards in Malaysia was nominated for ‘Best direction’ by D&AD. Then the Asian Media-Grand Prix winning anti-smoking commercial, where an old man offers a seat to a young smoker. In Singapore, we did some good work on Panadol, which scored at Clio in 2007, and a campaign for Eno, which won a Yellow Pencil at D&AD, last year. Most recently, our FHM print campaign won us three One Show Golds as well as a Cannes gold which helped Ogilvy Singapore become the third most awarded agency in the world—soundly beating agencies like Weiden & Kennedy and Crispin Porter Bogusky. A first ever for any agency from Asia.
How do you plan to raise the creative bar in India?
My goal is to ignite the fire in the minds and hearts of the team. I’m sure the talent is there, it’s the attitude that I want to inculcate among the creative people. By bringing an international perspective to the agency, I want us to aim for the world stage. It’s not just about India any more.
How do you feel about taking on your old boss and agency, Ogilvy India?
Professionally, challenging O&M India will be interesting but, as I said earlier, I see it as just one part of a larger goal-kicking on an international stage. At a personal level, Piyush (Pandey) has been a great mentor and friend for a long time, and that’s going to stay, no matter where each of us go professionally.