Home / Industry / Anniversary Issue | Going it alone, creatively

In the past decade, consolidation has been the name of the game in India’s advertising industry. On an average, the past two years have seen a major acquisition taking place every two months, according to industry estimates. Today, close to 90% of the advertising business (by revenue) is dominated by advertising giants such as WPP Group Plc., Omnicom Group Inc., Publicis Groupe and Interpublic Group of Companies, Inc.

In the midst of all this, some creative professionals have chosen to opt out of the big-name and big-ticket client game. They have quit their cushy jobs and given up their corner offices to set up their own creative outfits.

Says Ramesh Ramanathan, former creative director of Saatchi and Saatchi Pvt. Ltd, and the most recent addition to the tribe of boutique advertising professionals: “Advertising is not what it used to be. With the number of multinationals in the market, agencies are getting too profit driven, and creativity is being ignored."

After a 24-year career in big agencies, Ramanathan claims he is one of the many creative-driven ad guys for whom “frustration set in, and the thought ‘let me do it my way’ surfaced".

Mint interviewed 12 professionals who have launched, or are in the process of launching, their own agencies.

While their reasons vary, there were three complaints in common: strangulation of creative freedom, fragmentation of advertising into various parallels such as buying, planning and creative, and sales gaining dominance over creativity in day-to-day work.

Among the front-runners is Alok Nanda, who quit after 15 years at Grey Worldwide to start Alok Nanda Co. He says: “The country is growing economically and secondly, clients are waking up to specialist needs—I actually think there is a market for a creative shop to specialize just in TV graphics, for instance." In seven years, the agency has built up an impressive client list that includes Google Inc., Marico Ltd and the Taj group of hotels.

Pushpinder Singh, who was the national creative director of Ambience Publicis, launched Saints and Warriors Communications Pvt. Ltd in 2006. The agency has built a reputation for bold and unconventional advertising.

In the past two years, agencies such as Ideas@Work Advertising Pvt. Ltd, CreativeLand Asia, Aqua Communications Pvt. Ltd, Cartwheel Creative Consultancy Pvt. Ltd and Brand Portrait Consulting Pvt. Ltd have cemented the trend of boutique advertising agencies with remarkable success. And 2008 is likely to see the launch of several new independent outfits.

However, say those in the industry, it’s only a matter of time before the consolidation trend catches up with these agencies too and global advertising giants start bidding for them.

“Companies in India are only getting bigger; as a result, they are looking for consultancies and creative ‘hot shops’," says Gopinath Menon, senior vice-president, media, TBWA India Pvt. Ltd, part of the Omnicom Group.

“We will continue to see many professionals branching out and starting their own (agencies), but as these outfits get recognized, bigger agencies will buy them out. This will have to happen," he adds.

Mint profiles five firms which have built up impressive client lists and healthy billings in a very short time. Branching out has yielded both creative and business dividends for them.

‘We set up Aqua to provide proactive solutions and ideas’


Aqua Communications

Launched: April 2007

Major clients: Times Business Solutions, Straps, Spice Mobile

Anil Madan (left) and Varun Arora (Photo: Madhu Kapparath / Mint)

The duo met through a common friend a few months before Madan resigned from Rediffusion. “We just clicked from the first meeting and we have the same dream, so we said, ‘let’s do it’," says Madan. “I had a nice corner office at Rediffusion, but it felt okay to chuck that and start out fresh," he adds. And the search for a new office ended when a photographer friend vacated a south Delhi studio apartment.

Then began the task of giving shape to their new agency. The idea was clear-cut: “We set up Aqua to provide proactive solutions and ideas that agencies should be giving (clients), instead of blindly chasing deadlines and revenues," says Arora. Aqua is not like other independent agencies, claim its founders. They are not some “hot shop that will run out of steam in a few years, but solid brand builders. We are involved in design of every kind, identity creation as well as advertising on platforms which include film, radio, television, press and (the) Internet," says Madan.

Their first client in the first month was the yet-to-be-launched business portal of Times Business Solutions, a part of The Times of India group. Straps, a lingerie brand, followed in the second month. Others came in quick succession: Tops Foods, Spice Mobile’s entertainment division, Mayuka Labs, Prerna Centre of Learning for Leadership, as well as several identity creation projects. Now they are in talks with a news channel, a hotel group and a major airline.

Losing big accounts to larger agencies does not worry them. “A lot of clients know that behind the curtains of most large agencies, it is the core group of two or three people who make a difference to the brand," says Madan. “And bigger start-ups are slow. They have politics," adds Arora.

Starting out alone does involve challenges of balancing growth with deliveries, and attracting talent, but these don’t outweigh the “sheer joy of building something of one’s own," says Arora.

Will they eventually sell out to a bigger agency? “Maybe in a few years," says Madan. “But maybe not. Why leave when you end up being just what you ran away from?" he retracts quickly.

‘It was about the need for freedom to do my own thing’


Cartwheel Creative

Launched: March 2006

Major clients: Reliance Telecom, Henkel, Qualcomm Enterprise Services

D. Ramakrishna (Ramki). (Photo: Ritam Banerjee / Mint)

“At that time, it seemed about roles and responsibilities; I now know that it was really the desperate need for the freedom to do my own thing," says Ramki. “The freedom to choose (or reject) clients, the freedom to do an in-house production, to make a documentary film, to start a cricket website, to spurn awards, to decline pitches … the list goes on."

Starting out on his own in March 2006, Ramki at first confronted “financial insecurity and the sudden anonymity that the stripping of designations brings", but then began the process of focusing on what it was he wanted. “You focus on the ideas since you can’t put enough cardboard on the table. You focus on sound reasoning because you can’t put expensive research in the power point. You focus on getting the right people with the right mindset because you don’t have the badge value of a big agency," says Ramki.

His early “offices" were various tea and coffee houses in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb. In just under two years, Cartwheel has two movies, a cricket website, several in-house television commercials and lots of advertising to its credit. And Rs75 crore in billings. Reliance Telecom, Henkel’s Fa deodorant, Qualcomm Enterprise Services, are the big clients the agency has netted. Its major campaigns include ‘Bas Button Dabao’, ‘Call me’, ‘Star Copy’ and’ Total Network’ for Reliance Telecom, ‘Pink or Black’ and ‘Lotus or Cherry’ for Fa and a just-released series of animation films for Bollywood Hungama.

This, however, is not the first time Ramki has abandoned his big clients to venture out alone. In 1993, when he was creative director at Mudra Mumbai, Ramki quit his job to start Fifth Estate, a small advertising and marketing outfit in Chennai. Three years later, Mumbai’s buzz drew him back.

This time round, Ramki feels it is different. “I was exactly at career mid-point. And if I didn’t do it then (in 2006), I guess I never would have," he says. The question of selling out doesn’t even arise. His answer is a firm, “No."

‘Our one-point objective is to be unconventional’



Launched: July 2007

Major clients: Reliance Capital and Reid and Taylor

Zarvan Patel (left) and Prashant Godbole.

The much sought-after duo, however, put in their papers as creative heads at Rediffusion|DYR to pursue “a 10-year-old pending dream". Ideas@work provides any and every service it takes to market a brand—from film production to event management, even if they have to outsource implementation.

“A few years into Rediffusion, we realized that our team of 12 people was handling over Rs300 crore of business, and had taken the agency to numbers two and three at the Abbys, two years running. We thought, why not do it for ourselves?" says Godbole.

They began working out of a makeshift office in Godbole’s flat in Mumbai. They had no clients trailing them to their new venture, but neither did they attempt to poach any.

“It’s a karma thing," says Patel. “Besides, if you’re lucky to have Reliance Capital and Reid and Taylor among your first accounts within the first month, you aren’t exactly driven by desperation," he adds.

Now, seven months down the line, the agency has close to eight accounts and a swanky new office at Mahim.

The advantage of starting out on their own, Patel feels, is the freedom to do what they want to do. “Clients have finally realized that just because they’re with a big agency doesn’t mean the big names (in the agency) are actually working on their account," Patel adds.

And the downside? “For a creative person, the big challenge is learning basic math," says Patel.

They are not ready to sell out to big agencies either. When asked, Godbole responds with an “Er, maybe, um… No."

‘It is only true creativity that can help sales in the long run’


CreativeLand Asia

Launched: April 2007

Major clients: Parle Agro, Café Coffee Day,

Sajan Raj Kurup (left) and Vikram Gaikwad, partner and executive creative director, CreativeLand. (Photo: Ritam Banerjee / Mint)

For Kurup, who quit his five-year job as creative head at Grey Worldwide in April last year, creative freedom was the first priority.

“People seem to have forgotten that while sales is important, it is only true creativity that can help sales in the long run," he says.

Kurup has spent 16 successful years working for various ad agencies, but was keen to go solo. “I always wanted to start something on my own…a creative platform for brand enthusiasts," he says.

The company handles everything from print and film production to retail design and creative solutions.

“Advertising today has fragmented into pieces with buying, planning (and) creative—all being handled by different organizations with new rules and restrictions," says Kurup.

“I wanted to build something to put the pieces back together at CreativeLand."

In less than one year, the agency has a healthy Rs75 crore in billings and a list of clients that includes brands such as Parle Agro’s AppyFizz and Frooti, Café Coffee Day, Reliance’s, Diageo India’s Blossom Hill and Nilaya wines, Guinness beer, Bailey’s Irish Cream liquor and Mintrox hard mints.

Kurup believes that advertisers too are increasingly switching to smaller agencies that are independent in their thinking.

“Advertising is about breaking away from clutter and standing out. Clients are increasingly realizing that smaller agencies can provide them with ideas that are unconventional, while also providing them with a lot more services," he says.

The advertising industry is in a state of churn for the past few years, and “a certain level of frustration is setting in among mid-rung executives in big advertising agencies who can only go so far and no more," says Kurup. There is more pressure to deliver to clients on time, rather than do so creatively.

These factors, combined, are pushing guys like them to get creative on their own, he adds.

The biggest challenge for the start-up is the starting up process itself: “Suddenly you have to do everything on your own". But Kurup says the upside is that the company can be positioned “whichever way we want", and “this market calls for reinvention."

Bigger agencies have already approached Kurup with buyout offers, but his answer remains a firm “No".

“I’ve refused a few offers to be bought over, and it will remain a no, at least for a while," he says.

‘We started something focused solely on delivering results’


Brand Portrait

Launched: September 2004

Major clients: Apollo Hospitals, TVS Electronics, Pepe Jeans

Venu Gopal Nair (left) and Raj Narain.

Both Nair and Narain’s 20-year careers in advertising taught them that advertising was getting too fragmented, with clients becoming ‘distant cousins’ of the creative agencies.

“Advertising was and, in fact, still is going through a very rough patch where commissions are under constant review and mid-rung professionals, who do all the work, never get a chance to get to the top," explains Nair.

“We realized that clients go to an agency because they want results, not because they want to spend money. So why not start something that is focused solely on delivering results?"

Thus Brand Portrait came into existence with a mission to deliver results, expecting no returns unless the client was satisfied. “Now our clients don’t even have to approve the work before it is released. We have earned their faith by delivering what they want," says Narain.

They feel this is why many advertising professionals are leaving their cushy jobs at large advertising agencies to start out on their own. “The economy is doing very well and businesses are growing. As a result, clients want agencies to spend more time with them and give them undivided attention, which only smaller independent agencies can offer," says Narain.

Brand Portrait is based in Chennai, but also has offices in Mumbai and Texas in the US. The company even outgrew its first office in Chennai and moved to a bigger one with “free-flowing space," says Narain.

In Chennai, their clients include Apollo Hospitals, Verizon Telecom, Great Lakes Institute of Management, TVS Electronics and TVS Infotech; in Mumbai, Pepe Jeans, HDFC Securities and SOTC Holidays of India; and in the US, digital telecom services company, the Chutneys chain of restaurants, reseller for Direct-to-Home (DTH) provider, Direct TV, Best of Indian.

With billings close to Rs40 crore, Narain and Nair are satisfied with their decision to branch out. “You are your own boss, but more importantly you have earned creative freedom," says Narain. Now, three years down the line, they are unsure if they are open to being acquired. “What we’re doing is very close to the heart, so I really don’t know if we would be open to being acquired," says Narain.

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