In August last year Wieden + Kennedy announced the appointment of Gautham Narayanan as managing director of its Delhi office. Narayanan moved from BBDO South Africa to take charge in Delhi.
A year later, we caught up with him to learn about his first year in Indian advertising and plans ahead.
This is your first stint in India. How has the last year been for you?
The experience has been really enjoyable. The year has absolutely flown past. I was born in India, in Mumbai. My family is from Chennai. I left the country when I was about seven. I don’t speak Hindi – everyone in the office finds it hilarious when I’m speaking with Uber drivers or Swiggy delivery boys.
After leaving India, I spent time in West Africa and the UK. The last four years before moving to Delhi were spent in South Africa. I find the country (India) really interesting and it was a great time to come back. You always have a keen eye on your country – there’s a thing in the UK called the ‘Tebbit Test’- which is if you’re from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh – which cricket team do you support when they play England. I fail this test and only support India.
What I’m really impressed about is how smart people are rather than how hard they work. Working hard is a given.
I have noticed that there’s a kind of an inferiority complex (and I noticed this in South Africa too), but given how big Indian companies and brains are around the world, I don’t know why we don’t stand taller in commerce and conversations. If you look at our actors, our investors, our sportspeople, the ones that who are really successful - they don’t just want to be the best in India, they want to be the best in the world. And I think as an agency and a creative community we should also embrace that habit.
In terms of work – what have you changed at the agency in this year?
We are in a period of change and rebuild. Part of that process was me joining. We have had other changes to the team too and got in great creative talent. Other than Dean Wei, we got George Abraham from R/GA Singapore who is great design and art director, Jossy Raphael from Ogilvy Delhi, who is a stalwart in the industry, and Sam (Samarjit Bhattachary) back who did a lot of work for us on ‘Make In India’ and Royal Enfield. We made a couple of changes in the account management too and have also made an interesting hire in ops. We got Vikram Singh back at the agency. He had moved to Oyo Rooms (as head of digital brand marketing) and what I’m encouraged by is Wieden’s magnetism to get those people back. He’s come back from a unicorn and one of the most talked about companies and that really excites me. So, I’ve tried to get the talent in space and a big part of that is the creative leadership. I’m super excited about it.
We are a very simple business and my job is to get the talent in. I’m really pleased with the work done on Airbnb ('That’s why we Airbnb'). We worked really well with the marketing team at the company and there was a real healthy level of respect. Agencies can get arrogant, but we can learn a lot from the client and vice versa. We want to give a brand a voice.
The strength of the team was 75 when we last spoke to W+K in 2017. What’s the number now?
We are at around 55-60 now. We had to let go of talent because a lot was brought in for ‘Make in India’. We had a really good three-four years with them and the work that the agency did was phenomenal. You have some clients, projects and moments in an agency’s evolution – they don’t define the agency and no client should, but they really help you reach the next level.
The agency did a lot of things that became buzzwords in advertising and marketing. They ‘newsroomed’ before ‘newsrooming’ was a thing. They ‘integrated’ before ‘integrated’ was a thing. They were a ‘brand partner’ before people started talking about that as they do now. They did social, digital, websites, PR and were like Modiji’s PR department. It helped us get a different skill set. It taught us a lot and made the agency act in a different way. Suddenly you become like CNN rather than an advertising agency. It ran its course of time and then came the ‘small issue’ of the election which caused a little downsize. We finished working with ‘Make in India’ in the end of March 2018.
What are the plans for the year then? Do you plan to increase strength again?
Whenever I get asked what the focus is for the company – there’s only one, to do great work with our clients. I find it so interesting speaking to the global team, the thing I get told is that the most likely reason you’ll get a call from the global management team is if the work isn’t up to the Wieden standard. Yes, I have to deliver our numbers, but there is a focus on getting the right work out for our clients. We have to do great work.
We have picked up a couple of interesting brands. We got a startup called Sarva Yoga. Their ambition is to take Yoga, which is as Indian as it gets, and make it world class. It’s an exciting company and have some amazing backing. There’s a VC company in London that’s backed them and the investors included Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez. Shahid Kapoor and Malaika Arora are backing them too.
I believe we are at our best when we can help shape a company from the start. We are starting with the brand and that’s what we did with Indigo.
We have also picked up a project with DLF that’s very exciting.
On Indigo, we have just launched a campaign too. We do an anniversary campaign every year, but we looked to do something more meaningful this year. We wanted to do a campaign about how Indigo is connecting more people and how it enables them. What is really interesting is that we always think backwards which is really good. It comes from the DNA of the agency. We start internal, look at PR, then the airplane, then the airport and then OOH, press and radio.
What’s really encouraging for me is the number of new business meetings we’re getting called to. We are very selective and I genuinely don’t mean that in an arrogant way, but we are at our best when we have a client that understands and values the creative partner.
We don’t want to get a client who we don’t know much about and then battle for six to nine months. We all know how that movie ends. I’d rather not do that. You end up scaling up, hire for it and there’s an issue for people. We say no to quite a few pitches too. We’ve got a run of new business options which are literally happening now. I’m encouraged by the quality of the companies that want to put their trust in W+K.
The agency wasn’t participating in pitches that had more than 5-6 agencies. Does that stay?
It will depend. There’s no number or rule. I’ve seen it differently in different parts of the world, but we should be able to stand up and have a bit of integrity and ask a client that that do you need eight agencies to pitch with you? Do you expect all eight to do it for free?
I understand the business we’re in. But I don’t think McKinsey and Bain pitch for free. They tell people ‘here are our people, our methodology and this is what we’ve done for similar businesses. If you like what you see let’s have a discussion and partner’.
For us I would rather do this.
We’re seeing some clients doing this. We’ve had good, honest, strategic conversations based on some thinking we’ve done. It’s about checking whether the agency is the right partner. It’s tough for the client too. They’re being told the world is getting disproportionately complicated. I don’t know if it is as complicated as the people who are making it complicated. I don’t think the world is as complicated as it should be but it is hard. So as a client you have to make the right call. The biggest sympathy I have with marketing departments is that never before in time were they expected to do so much in such quick time with the kind of resources they have and get feedback on a minute to minute basis. There’s a lot of pressure for marketing departments and my advice to them is be absolutely rigourous in finding your agency partner. If agencies don’t deliver for clients, we’re not doing our jobs.
You mentioned a pitch fee? Do you charge clients that?
We believe that our greatest strength is our people. We want to have an honest conversation with the client. We need to have a sense of self-belief and have honest conversations with clients. We have charged clients for pitches too. A pitch is the agency at its best and if you put the best people on your agency on that pitch, it’s fair to say to the client that we will charge you. Some say yes and some say no. And then we take a call. There is no rule at Wieden, we judge each client by the people. We need to add value rather than be like have you ticked off asset number 265.
There’s an arrogance from an agency sometimes and feel that when they look at a client from the outside for two weeks, they feel they have cracked it. How much time we spend with the marketing team, go to the R&D, sales people to really understand them?
We are at our best when we have four, five, six, ten, eighteen year relations with the client. It is like caring about the client. It’s like if we call Indigo and don’t like the hold music or didn’t like something on the plane, we need to tell people about it. We have to feel that the brand is as much ours as it is theirs.
You need to be clear what you measure. Vanity measures like ‘Likes’ and ‘LOLs’ are not required. We need to understand what works. Data points are so confusing and difficult. None of these data points are wrong but I don’t know if they’re the most effective thing for clients.
Only having an office in Delhi – is that a challenge?
Yes and no. Obviously most agencies have multiple offices usually based on clients. We wouldn’t go to a place where we don’t have a client. If we picked up a big Mumbai business, we are open to finding flexible ways of working. We won’t hoist the Mumbai flag for W+K, but find ways of working. In Delhi we’re based in Saket and work with Airbnb and Indigo who are based in Gurugram. It’s almost as easy for us to get to Mumbai as it is to Gurugram.
So, yes it does help sometimes in proximity, but what we have learnt is that you have to work a lot smarter from afar. We go spend days in our client’s office too and that helps us learn more.