It was back in February 2020 that Kainaz Karmakar, Harshad Rajadhyaksha and Sukesh Nayak took charge at Ogilvy India as chief creative officers of the WPP-owned ad agency. Back then, Storyboard18 had visited Ogilvy’s Mumbai office to discuss their ideas and plans for the agency.
In a span of a few weeks from this conversation, the whole world changed. Lockdowns, restrictions, remote working and zoom meetings became the norm. Despite the uncertainty and the challenges of the pandemic, Ogilvy India has managed to produce groundbreaking work over the past two years under the trio’s creative leadership.
Campaigns for brands like Mondelez-owned Cadbury and 5 Star, HUL’s Dove, JSW, Thums Up, ITC’s Savlon and Asian Paints stood out and were applauded by audiences and industry peers alike. After almost two years, Storyboard18 caught up with the creative leaders again at Ogilvy’s Mumbai office to talk about how they created some of their bravest and boldest work during difficult times, what to expect in the coming days and their advice to those moving up the ladder of creative management.
Rewind to early 2020. What was it like to take charge of the agency with so much uncertainty around you?
Kainaz Karmakar: I remember it was March 18, 2020 when we were told that we are working from home for 15 days because we were told this thing called Covid is coming closer and closer. So when we actually started working from home, we thought we were doing it for 15 days. Harshad was on leave, he didn’t bother about his laptop because he thought he could take it 15 days later.
Sukesh and I had a team meeting in the office and we told them for 15 days we will work from home: we will have meetings, zoom calls and so on. It was only when those 15 days started getting over and when the Government introduced the lockdown that we actually realized the gravity of what we were going to do. We were going to lead a whole country for this agency that is going through a great turmoil just from our living rooms.
The energy of the fact that we had just taken over, we had a point to prove and we had a point to prove for the whole office. What kept us going was our goal to take care of all our people and give full salaries. The three of us were really responsible for that. We just kept pushing towards that goal.
Sukesh Nayak: Work helped us. Work helped the whole office. We also learnt as we went along. We realized that, you may be locked up, you may be wherever you are, but your mind is not locked up.
Sukesh, you’ve said that clients being brave during that time is what helped the team to produce the work that it did. Could you share some of the defining pieces of work to illustrate your point about risk-taking clients’ attitudes during times of crisis?
Nayak: We can be as brave as our partners only. Clients like Unilever, Mondelez, Coca-Cola, ITC, Asian Paints, etc. For example, right in the beginning for Asian Paints, Piyush Pandey recorded a voice-over for this brand from his cupboard! The client approved the video. Amit Syngle said, “let’s do it, why not?” It never feels that we are an agency and they are a client. Sometimes, honesty is so amazing.
There are no structures that define and restrain some people doing good work. If there is an idea and if it strikes you at midnight and you wish to chat over it, we can get together in 5 minutes. That is what technology helped us do. For example, Cadbury’s Goodluck Girls was approved in 5 minutes!
Clients have been accessible and brave. They have been brave not just with thoughts but brave in taking bold decisions even in tough times. They understood that businesses were also hurting but at the end of the day, if they do something brave people will love them for that. We’ve all seen the results.
What can we expect from the agency in the coming days and in 2022?
Harshad Rajadhyaksha: This year and 2020 both hit us and we were completely blindsided. Especially the brutal second wave which really hurt us as an organisation. Our people, our Ogilvy family, were hit. Now, this is a revival. The sheer confidence comes from the fact that in our most trying times we could produce work like we did.
This is going to be the phase of rebuilding and learning from the previous years. It applied in so many walks of life and businesses. This period has been a learning course on steroids and we had to crunch the learning of a decade in a couple of years. It is a boon in a way. It is for us to learn all these things and now starts the bit that was holding us back.
Within the agency, what do you do to keep pushing the standard for innovation?
Karmakar: I have always believed that work inspires work. Creating pieces like ‘Not Just a Cadbury Ad’ or MTV Karaoke inspires people. One campaign like ‘Not Just a Cadbury inspires 10 people. Those 10 people inspire a hundred others. The brief for digital has always been there for the last few years, it’s not a new thing. But the fact that when you produce benchmark work that brief gets translated into confidence: ‘We can do this too!’
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What the youngsters call ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out), is actually going to work in our favour. It takes away the cynicism. Otherwise it is like, ‘oh we don’t have the technology’, it can only happen in the USA. When you produce work, it takes away that kind of cynicism. Because it can be done, by us, sitting here, locked in our homes.
Rajadhyaksha: If I had to define this culture that Piyush brought in for our country and in this profession it is ‘fearless work’. And what we realised right now when we speak about the next chapter is we have evolved from certain backgrounds of the profession. Print was ruling the roost, then it came TV.
Now we have realised that anything that people interact with is where the next frontier is. And if we can pass on the culture of fearlessness to our youngsters it would be great. Also, learning is never going to be a one way street. All of us at this point in our careers and in our lives, we get to know so much from our youngsters. And that is all because of the culture that this place has.
Nayak: We got many calls on the Cadbury - Shah Rukh Khan campaign saying ‘Well done’, ‘Superb’, etc. But in the internal Ogilvy Group I know everyone was wondering ‘HOW’. That is what keeps the company running. Because you need to know. I need to ask them. It has to be both ways. It’s not that I know it all. I don’t know it all.
What words of advice do you find most useful to give to those moving up the ladder of creative management?
Nayak: Hungry….Everyday I woke up, I had one thing in mind - hunger! I always wanted to do things that made our company proud.
Karmakar: You have to be a playing captain. Unless they see you doing great work, you can’t expect it from them. And the second is don’t be insecure. Because once you are insecure that will be the end of everything. You will start killing ideas. Get out of your insecurities. When the agency thrives you will thrive as a creative leader.
Rajadhyaksha: There is so much that we have realised not just in our years of heading the creative for the Mumbai office but also in the job (management positions) and dealing with its demands. It completely eats away your work time. You have 6 meetings lined up, you are discussing various issues, and the tendency is to fool yourself into thinking that is work. No! That is your day job. So you have to invent time and stay close to the (creative) work. Be able to play that knock. Borrowing Piyush’s favourite cricketing analogy, I’d say that “don’t give up holding the bat and scoring the run”.
Nayak: Another thing that Piyush says is ‘You can’t be a flash in the pan’. If you want to grow as a leader you have to be consistent. If you don’t deliver consistently across business, then there is no leadership.