BBDO India’s Chairman & CCO Josy Paul and CEO Ajai Jhala talk of the ‘Acts, not Ads’ philosophy that transcends their work, draws big brands as clients, and makes them the most awarded creative agency in the country
By Srabana Lahiri & Neeta Nair
Walk into the cool environs of BBDO India’s office – the famous ashram in Mumbai – and your senses are filled with the aroma of burning incense sticks and the calmness of the atmosphere. You immediately notice the minimalistic office décor – a la Mahatma Gandhi’s Sabarmati ashram – but what strikes you at the same time is the inherent energy of creative minds working in tandem, borne out by prominent displays of the agency’s famous award-winning work. In the open office space, there are no cabins, save a conference room and sound-proof room for video conference calls, and Josy Paul, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of BBDO India, and CEO Ajai Jhala sit wherever they want. The animated Josy and cool and composed Ajai are in fact the yin and yang of the agency, and their joint efforts have produced astonishing results. Just recently, BBDO India was named the most awarded creative agency in the country in 2016 according to two trusted global reports – the Gunn Report and Directory Big Won. The campaign ‘Ariel-Share The Load’ is one of the most awarded campaigns of 2016, claiming the No. 39 and No. 12 position respectively on the two lists mentioned above.
Over the years, BBDO India has won inaugural awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in categories like Glass Lion, a Black Lion for Creative Effectiveness, besides an Entertainment Lion and also a coveted Grand Prix. Awards, therefore, are top of mind when we begin our conversation. “We are in the business of depth, not in the business of awards,” emphasizes Josy, when we ask what awards mean to the man whose conference room table is creaking under the weight of all the trophies won by the agency at national and international award forums.
“The word ‘award’ has a very dirty vibe to it. It speaks of selfishness and that doesn’t feel right to me. Even the word ‘advertising’ sounds like you are trying to push something on to somebody and con someone. That’s not what we do. We create actions that help people solve problems, come closer to brands, or have a relationship with our brands,” he declares.
Ajai too stresses that theirs is not an agency focused on winning awards: “Agencies which only chase awards enter their work in some vague categories. You may have never even heard of the brand they worked on. We see awards as a by-product, we don’t chase them. Instead, we chase the idea of cracking big problems based on a powerful point of view, which is why in the last eight years BBDO India has been winning on big themes, and there is a consistency to it. For example at Cannes in 2016, one of our ideas – Share the Load - won across five categories. Our strength lies in shaping behaviour, and touching up on powerful things that resonate,” he adds.
A PROGRESSION OF ACTS
Most of BBDO India’s work has been based on the agency’s globally adopted philosophy of ‘Acts and not Ads’ and has had immense social impact. Their 2009 work for PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats titled ‘Cops on Oats' was a 30-day programme aimed at making the Chennai Police heart-healthy and fit. The agency renamed October to ‘Oatober’, and organized a whole series of activities which helped Quaker Oats attain thought leadership in the area of heart health. Apparently, PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi has asked Quaker to run the same campaign in North America this year. Then in 2011, the BBDO campaign 'Great Wall of Education' for Aviva drove people - both kids and adults - to donate books for under-privileged children. They managed to collect more than a million books in the process. More recently, BBDO India won accolades for ‘Women Against Lazy Stubble’ for Gillette, ‘Touch the Pickle’ for P&G's sanitary napkin brand Whisper and of course the much-talked-about ‘Ariel- Share the Load’, also for Procter & Gamble. The ‘Share the Load’ video for Ariel washing powder - encouraging men to do their fair share of housework - was hailed by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg as ‘one of the most powerful campaigns’ she had ever seen.
Explaining how they zero in on such ‘acts’ that inspire action from the target audience, Ajai says, “What helps is a point of view, to understand the values, culture and environment. I am not saying other agencies don’t have their points of view. But we begin with the concept of action and distill it down to ‘Acts not Ads’. Then of course we attract people who had not done this before, and provide them with a fertile environment. Having great clients is equally important, none of our ideas would have come to light without inspired clients.”
“We have had many long-standing relationships with our clients,” says Josy. “We worked extensively with Sharat Verma first when he was associated with Gillette and even after he moved to Ariel. During the Gillette ‘Women Against Lazy Stubble’ campaign, we were doing this programme in Mumbai where 2000 men shaved at one shot. There was a counter-group called ‘Men Against Women Against Lazy Stubble’, they surrounded us and started throwing stones at us. I got a bit scared and was about to run away when Verma caught me and said, ‘Where are you going… it’s your idea, let’s stand our ground and finish this’. He was brave and made it happen.”
AN EQUAL PLATFORM
Team BBDO India – with offices in Mumbai and Delhi – has a total of 78 employees, and just 23 of them are creative professionals. While this lean team coming up with so much good work is impressive, an interesting aspect of the work culture at the agency is that while everyone has key responsibilities, they are not divided into departments to avoid any bureaucracy-like structure. So when it comes to ideating for a brand’s communication, often, the entire office sits together to brainstorm. Talking of such sessions Josy says, “When designations and hierarchies are forgotten, people become human. When everyone is equalized, beautiful things happen and everyone’s diversity comes into play. It’s not advertising, it’s therapy. So, you are not walking in saying I am in this department or that department. You are walking in as a person, as a human being and the moment you see the environment, everyone has got stories. Everyone lives in this world and has got a point of view, so everyone belongs to this culture. What we get is a lot of rich themes. Then the next level is bringing it all together, that’s where the expertise starts coming in, that’s where people like Rajat Mendhi (EVP, Planning) and Hemant Shringy (Executive Creative Director) come in. But the starting point, the source is important. If your source is not unique, then whatever you get will be minor contributions. But we want big contributions.”
“It may seem chaotic and often it is, but there is always a method,” adds Ajai. “It’s really about diverse thinking - we don’t just hire a bunch of MBAs, or designers; we have people from diverse backgrounds. We put them into a pot and create powerful themes which allow our brand to have a powerful point of view. And that’s exactly why a brand like eBay came to us. They said, ‘We want the team that has created all these movements’.”
NOT BUSINESS, AS USUAL
Apart from the intense creative process, we are intent on knowing what happens at the business level at BBDO India– how much stress is on pitching and winning new business, and on organically growing the brands that the agency already has.
“It depends,” says Ajai, “To win the Crompton Greaves account, everyone in our core team - Josy, I, Hemant, Rajat - worked on that pitch, interacting directly with Shantanu Khosla, who is a marketing legend, and Matthew Job. For some pitches, our team would bounce the core idea off Josy and me, but we may not be directly involved.”
“There is a lot of immersion in what we do,” adds Josy. “We invest a lot into new business. We do spend a lot of time with consumers. And for us, that’s 80% of the new business work.”
AN EVENTFUL JOURNEY
Josy Paul and Ajai Jhala started BBDO India after days of coffee-shop-hopping in Mumbai in 2008. The first premise was to deliver on the global BBDO promise of ‘The Work, The Work, The Work’ to which was added the philosophy ‘Create Acts, not Ads’. “I suppose the ability to create conversations, which is what a lot of our work does, may have started because we sat in coffee shops. That’s where all the conversations happen,” quips Josy. It was sheer luck and in Jhala’s words ‘Josy’s nightmare’ (in which Jhala made an appearance) that brought them together on the path to create a successful agency. Eight years later, they have turned BBDO India into the most awarded creative agency in the country. Here are excerpts from a free-wheeling conversation with Josy and Ajai.
Q] Eight years down the line, how do you assess the progress on what you set out to do?
Ajai: Josy and I were always quite clear that ‘Acts, not Ads’ was the way to go. It was where the market was going. It may now seem obvious, but it wasn’t then. So that’s what we started doing with clients like Procter & Gamble and Aviva. What we didn’t expect was an opportunity to work these ideas on massive brands that have gone global. In the last couple of years, we managed to create big social movements on big brands in a massive market like India.
Josy: When we set up BBDO India, we decided to focus on the India aspect, on what we could do, which is so unique, that people say we contributed to both Indian advertising and to BBDO. As Ajai said, we were fortunate that we had this epiphany about India being an action-oriented country because the nation was getting younger and people believed in action and not words. A lot of our work was very local in nature, be it ‘Women Against Lazy Stubble’, or ‘Aviva – Great Wall of Education’. But we never expected that it would have such a global resonance. ‘Women Against Lazy Stubble’ has been used in many countries. ‘Share The Load’ has gone across the world. And ‘Touch The Pickle’ has influenced a lot of movements in other parts of the world. So ‘think local’ is actually going global.
Q] You were just acquaintances before starting BBDO India together despite studying in the same college and working in the same agency. What kind of equation do you have today?
Josy: Ajai has been both an inspiration and someone who has shaped my work. Whenever we are in Delhi, I stay at Ajai’s place and when we go back home at around 11 pm or 12 in the night, we continue talking till about 4 or 5 am in the morning. You may wonder how come we still have so much to talk even after almost a decade of knowing each other. But we can talk about everything under the sun when we are together, and not just work.
Ajai: Josy had the choice of selecting the same model where the Chairman and Chief Creative Officer would have a CEO who reported in. But I think he chose to have a CEO partner not just to set up BBDO in India but to make a difference. We have a very fluid relationship where there is nothing like ‘this is your territory or my territory’. There is no ego.
Q] Talking about ‘Share the Load’, was there any kind of scepticism about how it would be received in a largely patriarchal society?
Josy: We had three-four different ways of coming to the point on Ariel, but when we came to ‘Is laundry only a woman’s job?’ I was sure that was it. It took two years for people to realize how big it is.
Q] Did you ever fear you would alienate the men out there with the campaign?
Josy: We never thought about it that way. What we found was that somehow it wasn’t getting people pissed off, everyone was nodding or agreeing. In this case, the truth didn’t seem to hurt anyone, in fact it opened them up, which was very powerful.
Q] Are you going to take it forward this year too? Will there be another ‘Share the Load’ sequel?
Josy: It’s not for us to decide. It’s sustaining itself. The work we do is a joint decision between us, the consumer, and the client. The consumer wants it to go forward and so does everyone else. It has now moved out of our hands and is going to write itself. It doesn’t even need us.
Q] What is your creative vision for BBDO India for the long and short term?
Josy: There are things out there that people have not yet questioned, for example our recent work on eBay. Everyone said e-commerce work is transactional and noisy but we felt we could go under the skin a bit and have a point of view about e-commerce. So out of all the other work on e-commerce, many are really good, but they were just purely transactional. But eBay suddenly came through as a brand that has a point of view. So, for me that is all that excites us, that there is always another way. And finding out what is that other way.
Q] Similarly, you came up with a campaign for Crompton, a brand which doesn’t lend itself to stories as easily as the others. How challenging was it?
Josy: So that’s the joy, the challenge of finding the other way. It’s a discovery process to be honest and not just an advertising process.
Q] Is creativity being compromised by the mobile medium?
Ajai: People love stories and a lot of our work is social by nature. Now with smartphones, more people are watching the brand films and passing on stuff. If the younger generation likes something, they will share it, and it explodes the idea like never before.
Josy: We have found that it is in fact multiplying and maximizing the potential of an idea. Maybe in the past we had this notion that everything was shrinking and it’s affecting the idea. But it’s not. Human emotions are coming through far more sharply and intensely due to the personal aspect of your mobile phone. Share the Load could grow from one million to 11 million views in one week mainly because of mobile phones.
On whether they work with a business target, or just go with the flow, Josy says, “I think we are all governed by the forces of the environment. But our expertise comes from our past. We take those principles and see how to apply them for the future, but the joyful part is not knowing what the next thing is. And that for us is the more exciting part - not to know! We don’t want to know, because when you know, then what’s the point? You have already reached there. We want to see how the forces are flowing and that way, we can evolve the business and evolve advertising.”
Ajai has a different point of view: “No, I don’t think we can go with the flow. Neither is going with the flow right, nor can we just say that we want to grow madly. There is a lovely quote that goes something like this - ‘Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of a cancer cell’. We want to grow, but there’s got to be a purpose for it. We want to grow brands, we are going to get new business, big national brands… so that is our ambition, we may even look at strategic acquisitions, but not just because we want to grow big. We want to build culture, build a different point of view… We think of the people we want to talk to, and the brand. Our growth will come both from existing clients, and new avenues. Interestingly, a lot of our growth is coming from our existing clients, but from their offices in different markets outside India. We work for a client in Latin America, and for another in the Middle-East, because they realize the power of the idea.”