Host of start-ups begin to make an impact, but do they have what it takes to elbow out the big daddies of advertising from the business?

" /> Host of start-ups begin to make an impact, but do they have what it takes to elbow out the big daddies of advertising from the business?

"/> Host of start-ups begin to make an impact, but do they have what it takes to elbow out the big daddies of advertising from the business?



Host of start-ups begin to make an impact, but do they have what it takes to elbow out the big daddies of advertising from the business?

29 May, 2017 by admin

Host of start-ups begin to make an impact, but do they have what it takes to elbow out the big daddies of advertising from the business?



“Ad agency models are breaking. Pre-roll ads are useless. Measurement models are outdated. The ad industry lacks diversity. And the phrase digital marketing should be dumped.”

Those are stinging words from Brad Jakeman, President of PepsiCo’s Global Beverage Group, to a gathering attended by 2,700 marketing and agency professionals in Orlando in October, 2015. Speaking on behalf of PepsiCo, one of the biggest advertisers globally, Jakeman openly slammed the agency models and marketing organizations for not changing with the times.

A year-and-a-half later, looking at it from an Indian perspective, we might want to ask, ‘Has much changed?’ Are agencies still used as just the execution arm of the Marketing department of brands, or are they more involved in what they are selling right from stage one, i.e., research, product development, technology, design, marketing solution and the end communication? Are agencies still talking of 30-second TV spots, clinging on to 20-second pre-roll ads on Digital for dear life or have they evolved from assuming that brands can be built only by using paid media? We have mapped a few startups agencies in the advertising business that launched post Jakeman’s thought-provoking speech, and tried to understand how differently they operate vis-a-vis the established big players.


The typical cycle of marketer approaches ad agency, which creates ad and places it on Television, Newspapers or Radio has become a lot more complicated today. Not only have newer mediums like Digital emerged, adding multiple layers and touchpoints to the once obvious choices, but the advent of tech giants like Deloitte, Accenture and IBM in the advertising space are giving nervous jitters even to the big holding companies. At such a time, here are a bunch of agencies that started small, but with big ideas. From teams that share workstations at co-working commercial spaces with other companies to entrepreneurs who allow their teams to operate from anywhere in the country to cut down on overhead costs and encourage flexibility - the way the agencies function depict a world of change.

Most of these agencies don’t even have fixed teams; they prefer freelance professionals who can be pulled in at short notice, to form a team according to the client’s requirement. It is a win-win situation for these agencies that do not pay fixed salaries or rent, and do not necessarily have to pull in business which may not fit their agency’s philosophy, simply to take care of the overhead costs in an unpredictable market.

Malvika Mehra, Founder, Tomorrow Creative Lab, which functions on this principle of collaboration with experts or other independent agencies, says the model is getting a thumbs up from many clients: “Many brand managers complain that big agencies come with huge teams, strategy heads and a whole lot of creative pieces for a pitch, but not very often do they get the crux of what’s really required. What happens is that the agency’s structure gets a little cumbersome for a lot of clients who prefer a tight accountable team versus an NCD who is there for the pitch but disappears after the win. The brand campaign is then handled by some junior art directors and mid-level writers… I’m not saying they are not competent, but sometimes it just falls between the cracks.”

Even creative agencies that started out as independent ventures are opening up to this collaboration model, but would that be a problem as far as getting credit for work is concerned? Says Satbir Singh, Founder, Thinkstr, who is currently in talks with Malvika Mehra’s Tomorrow Creative Lab, “I am open to building relationships with other independent organizations. Malvika is one of the best designers around. We are in talks and if it works out, it would be a combined product for which both agencies will get equal credit. It works out well for me, for example, if I have just one design brief in a year, it won’t make sense for me to have a designer on my payrolls all year long. A collaboration with an independent agency which specializes in design works beautifully for me here.”

Also highlighting how collaboration helps smaller agencies gain an edge over big networks, KV Sridhar (Pops), Founder, Hyper Collective, says, “Agility and talent are two factors that are most important for any agency today. Collaboration is the key to it, because you can’t hire everyone. Big networks are lacking there, because they don’t want to collaborate and prefer to either build expertise all by themselves or acquire the agencies which have them. Each is time-consuming and costly; by the time you have everything in place, technology would have moved further away.”

While collaboration cannot be called a new phenomenon with large agencies historically pulling in specialists like photographers, calligraphy artists, film production houses and directors on a case-to-case basis, one can definitely say that what Pops and Mehra are attempting to do is take it to the next level. But on the flip side, while collaboration is an interesting model, a big client would like to know exactly which team is working on his project. He or she wouldn’t probably go around hunting for people who can be held accountable for the work at any given time.


Experts say that while most big clients today give 70% of their business to tried and tested agencies, they would like to put the remaining 30% on new and smaller agencies. Sangeeta Subramaniam, Creative Director of the Delhi-based agency, Foolish, says, “As long as they know that there is a good team handling their account, clients are not worried whether it is a small agency or a big one. Having said that, a PepsiCo will need 200 creatives a month; so will Vodafone - and it isn’t surprising that Ogilvy has got to dedicate an entire floor to Vodafone. So from a quantity point of view, you can’t blame these brands for going to a big agency and not coming to Foolish because a small agency won’t be able to pull off the sheer amount of work they have.”

It doesn’t come easy for agencies with big holding company backup either. Surjo Dutt, NCD, Bushfire, a new agency set up by FCB Ulka to focus exclusively on the start-up eco-system in India, says, “Having the FCB brand behind us does help us in engaging marketers in conversations, but it is still a bitter battle for any agency to get clients on board. They don’t walk into our office and say, ‘Hey, I liked your face, let me give you my business’. We are well aware that many agencies are born with new ideas, concepts and structures in the world of advertising and the success rate is not yet very high. So we don’t want to make any claims. It is risky but we are in it for the long run.”


Over the years, as the advertising industry became bigger in size, the agency model started getting more and more fragmented - Media went into one silo, Creative went into another and so did Market Research, PR, Logo Design, Packaging Design, Digital, etc. Today, some clients are struggling with the problem of having too many agencies to deal with. Some consider it the biggest downfall of the traditional agency model. For example, if a new product is being launched, a client has seven different agencies to brief and seven different outcomes to aggregate, but the client is not a specialist. This gives rise to a new breed of brand consultants – specialists who act as the de facto CMO for the company and the sounding board for the brand, juggling between all the agencies and the desired output.

Former JWT boss Colyvn Harris, who started his own brand consultancy Harris Mint, explains, “My role is to aggregate the best talent and give the client value for money. I have the confidence and trust and respect of the client, so I am the client as far as the others are concerned. For example, when I buy media, we approach the aggregators; they are in the space of companies who have not pre-contracted on rates. Take the demonetization phase - who would have thought that in those two months, there will be no sale, and you can’t help it if you are already contracted? So, we work differently and have the flexibility to buy when the pricing is right or not to buy. It’s simple - if you give an agency a lot of money, they will spend a lot of money. The more sauce you have on the table, the more you are going to eat it.”

Clearly, there are opportunities today in the advertising business which didn’t exist earlier. If an ad agency had three or four roles to fulfil back in the day, now there are at least a hundred. Only those who understand the space inside out will survive. So, let’s get a lowdown on the eight agencies which we have shortlisted - agencies that may be waiting in the wings today, but display enough mettle to take centre-stage in future.

Some of these new agencies arrived with a bang - Foolish won accolades at the Goafest Abbys for the way the team introduced itself to the world. Others are steadily working their way into the industry framework. There are agencies such as Tomorrow Creative Lab and Hyper Collective which believe in collaboration with other agencies and individuals to bring out their collective best for a client.

With the ‘start-up’ boom in India, there arose a need for specialized agencies catering to this segment, which FCB Ulka’s Bushfire and DDB Mudra’s Karma hope to tap. Then there are researchdriven experiential firms like Resources Go Beyond, and agencies like Thinkstr, which provides ‘Ideas for a digital world’ despite a 360-degree thrust.

On the other hand, Triggerbridge acts as a conduit between the brand and what it needs the most, while consultancies such as Brand-building, Eagle Brands and Harris Mint would be the bridge between marketers and experts.


Of butterflies, cruise-liners and start-up agencies
A wise man apparently said, “Relationships never die a natural death. They are always murdered by Attitude, Behaviour, Ego or Ignorance”. Discovered on Pinterest, retweeted multiple times, liked on Facebook and attributed to the Buddha, Jesus and Deepak Chopra by various folks, this quote epitomizes not just a very practical belief but also the times we live in.

Our life today is like that of butterflies: with shortening attention spans and a mind-numbing urge to flit from one thing to another, our relationships are in perpetual transit. Some butterflies live for a week, but on average, a month is all that they have. Often, this is how brands operate with their consumers because consumers also exhibit a very temporary loyalty to brands. So, campaigns that lasted years, now run for just a few weeks, positioning statements are redrafted far more often than earlier and classical brand-building principles are set aside in the desperate urge to ensure immediate ROI.


In this very volatile environment, where everything is under stress, how can client-agency relationships not be? Large agencies, built over years through long-standing relationships (and revenues) with aligned clients suddenly find themselves buffeted by storms that they had never imagined. These luxury cruise-liner-like agencies that have been built with all the trappings of large corporations discover that they are sailing in a sea of ‘pirates’. Nimble little boats that can move faster and respond to an unpredictable set of client-demands with alacrity.

In this ocean of uncertainty, what started as a trickle is threatening to become a tsunami of sorts: bright, young (and even not-so-young) creative teams are discovering they have an entrepreneurial gene that was dormant while they focused on awards. Teaming up with equally enterprising client-servicing folks, they’re setting up shop with a Mac and a mobile. So are dyed-in-the-Excel media planners/buyers.

Look at the start-up agencies that have mushroomed over the last few years across domains (in no particular order): .hypercollective, Enormous, Thinkstr, Clayground, The Social Street, One by One, BrandNew, Pixel Rush, GenY Medium, Flying Cursor, Triggerbridge, Karma and now Bushfire… some are manned (and womanned) by former colleagues, others by rivals turned friends (disclaimer: one of these is by the only sibling I have) – but all seem to be doing fairly well.

Contrast this with what’s happening in the larger agencies where revenue goals are in conflict with reduced client budgets and increased staff costs. Now, the interesting part is that advertisers are spending more but not necessarily on TVCs that cost upward of Rs 1 crore. More work is being farmed out to smaller shops with the brand manager being a quasi-orchestra conductor. What conventional creative agencies see as fragmentation, advertisers view as specialization.

However, there is one underlying theme that runs through this flux. A part of the shift has to do with market dynamics, but much of it stems from attitude. A large ship takes time to first acknowledge change and then alter course; and even if bigger agencies have acquired specialist units, integration remains a question mark. Harried marketers in search of the first lighthouse they can spot in a turbulent sea, will place their faith in someone they can trust to deliver quickly, effectively and efficiently.

The operative word here is ‘faith’. Simple trust that some individuals have built and which they are now leveraging. Trust that was the universal currency of all client-agency relationships for a very long time.

So, does this mean that only startups will thrive?

On the contrary, if an agency like Contract that was cleaved out of what was then HTA and was trusted by some of India’s finest clients, can rediscover its start-up gene (and it always was a start-up for the first 15- odd years of its existence) perhaps we will see advertisers placing their faith again in an agile agency that remains fiercely independent but very much part of a large network with access to the finest global resources.

We will perhaps also see enlightened advertisers ask not about digital expertise or fees but whether there are people and processes that can be trusted. “We live,” as a Chinese curse (also spotted on Pinterest) is believed to have said, “in interesting times.”


(Mohit Hira is a Strategy Consultant)



“We respect all start-up creative agencies as there are all kinds and sizes of clients, with all kinds of needs. We were once a start-up too! Very often, start-up clients need a personal approach to their business challenges, when they are in the initial funding stages. So, personal mind and attention helps that phase. Historically, Lowe Lintas has supported a lot of new producers and talent. Because of the width of categories we handle and the kinds of market challenges our brands face – and the data we look at as an outcome - our people are equipped with deep consumer knowledge across multiple categories which makes for great instinct in today’s ‘quick turnaraound’ era. With respect to new creative hotshops – again it’s the single individual who has started it who holds the experience and instinct. Having said that, startups are passionate about their offering and that’s good for clients and industry; its only when start-ups start to scale up that they often dilute their passion.”

CEO, Lowe Lintas

Seated alongside a TT table which also doubles up as a workstation in his new office is a beaming KV Sridhar aka Pops. Less than three months old, but many clients strong, his start-up has attracted attention, specifically for the ‘collaboration’ model he has adopted. With 29 agencies working with him and 30+ consultants, .hypercollective has taken collaboration to an altogether different level.

“Last year, I scanned around 300 independent companies and picked 29 from them to collaborate with. Thanks to SapientNitro, I am known not just in advertising and content, but also in the world of technology. So, many technology companies embraced the idea because they are not necessarily profitable when they work in silos,” explains Pops.

He believes that his competition is not creative agencies, but brand consultancies and technology companies because they handle end-to-end solutions for brands starting from research, business analytics, business consultancy, strategy, technology, CRM, content and creative, AR, VR, PR and even HR, i.e., monitoring culture of an organization and telling them who to hire. “It all depends at which stage the client wants us to come in. We would ideally like to do everything from the first bucket to the last bucket because strategy for one brand should ideally remain constant throughout,” he adds, naming Primerica Life Insurance and BBG Group as some of his clients.

Apart from the 29 partners, .hypercollective is also willing to work with agencies on a project-to-project basis, but when asked if he would like to work with a network agency if need be, Pops replied, “For example, Leo Burnett, which is like my own company, cannot be a partner agency for .hypercollective simply because here we work with independent companies, where the founders and owners don’t have to ask their global heads before taking a decision. I don’t want to get stuck with the same problems of bureaucracy. At .hypercollective, I have access to 1,700 people, all I need to do is pick up the phone and the founder of that particular agency will tell me straightaway if we can take a project forward or not.”



.hypercollective has set up a first-of-its-kind Live Content Studio at the Nestle office in Gurugram. Along with its collaborators Ping Digital Broadcast Network for the live video content and WindChimes Communications for social media posts, .hypercollective is churning out original branded content, interactive videos, social campaigns, as well as experiential content for the 28 brands under Nestle. Even before its formal launch, Sridhar claims to have signed business worth Rs 15 crore.



Situated in a quiet part of Bandra, the Tomorrow Creative Lab (TCL) office looks more like Malvika Mehra’s personal space than her work space. It is perhaps because her flexible team operates from different parts of Mumbai, Delhi, Qatar, Singapore, the United States, etc, - in short, anywhere but her office.

Mehra says she is working on a system called ‘Friends of Tomorrow’ where she can pull in people to work with her on a project basis as per the client’s requirements. “For example, there is Sourabh Mishra for strategy, Rajiv Raja of BrandMusiq for sonic branding, George Abraham for design and art direction, etc. I am not burdened with fixed salaries or rent for a huge office space. I have seen other entrepreneur friends start with heavy overheads, and just to afford it, they have to pull in businesses which, given a choice, they wouldn’t have liked to work on,” Mehra explains.


On the face of it, Technology, Design and Ideas define Tomorrow Creative Lab but Mehra, who has a strong background in Design, emphasizes that the agency has to be part of the complete brand journey, from product development to design, logo, packaging, retail push and finally the communication. She feels her role is that of a sutradhar, stringing it all together, to ensure that there is a cohesive thinking for the brand across all touch-points.

“Many a time, clients feel start-up agencies are desperate and will accept any kind of work, which is half true. I was even approached by a big client for a retainer, but I was trying to pick projects which allow me to express, outside of the typical ‘let’s do a film’ talk. The account eventually went to BBH. The fact is, I don’t want to operate like a sweatshop. So my problem so far has been in saying more ‘nos’ than ‘yesses’ to clients. My friends keep telling me that I am going to become a pauper very soon,” says Mehra. “People often tell me my agency model is similar to the one Pops has, but in my defence, Tomorrow Creative Lab started way before .hypercollective did.”



The agency’s clients include Hotstar, Desi Deli, Old Delhi Haveli project by Vivaana Hospitality, Arvind Mills, Mojarto - an NDTV venture, and more recently, a yet-to-be-named snack brand from a big company. For Vivaana Hospitality, the agency’s mandate is to convert two 150-year-old Havelis in Chandni Chowk into a top notch heritage hotel, starting from the nomenclature, branding and design aspects; and finally create experiences around it.



The collaborative creative agency and beyond


Collaboration in the agency world is not new. Even large, longstanding creative agencies have extensively used collaboration with outside partners to deliver to their clients. Be it in film or print production, or more recently in the areas of tech, digital and social media.

The genesis of the new wave of collaborative agencies is really rooted in the desire to strike out on one’s own and throw off the shackles of the large agency, rather than create a new type of agency offering.

What is apparent is that the bedrock of each of these new collaborative creative shops is usually the core competence of their founder/s. And so, not surprisingly, the solutions provided continue to be in the realm of that competence rather than be truly holistic ones that serve the brand wholesomely. So it amounts to more old wine in newer bottles, or in some cases a cocktail with a consistent base ingredient.

I would like to suggest that perhaps it is time to relook at the core of one’s collaborative agency offering. And move away from the conventional C’s - creative, campaigns and communications - to a more rich and evolved approach that is centred around the two most crucial C’s - Clients and their Customers and audiences. Wrapped in a strong layer of another C, a Consultative approach that provides a neutral big picture view of what is required rather than a vested view skewed to tactically selling the agency’s services. Even at the cost of the agency losing out in the short term. Simply having a consultant or two on its collaboration roster is unlikely to embed a consultative big canvas orientation to the agency. Start consultative instead, and then lead to the offerings that need to be used to deliver to the bigger goals.

This new approach is already a reality with traditional consultancies merrily chomping away at the lunch of big agencies. With this layer in place, it then comes down to an agile, Lego-block delivery offering that is wholesome, and in which creative services are but one of the blocks.

The smartest collaborative offerings will not be like a paint company shade card offering countless options that clients can tick off on the basis of what grabs their fancy, and where the agency then becomes like a contractor rushing to complete the paint job.

But the smarter and most effective collaborator-creators would be like conductors of an orchestra. Think Zubin Mehta. A maestro who makes the myriad musicians in innumerable orchestras make the most impactful and sought after music. He does it not by pushing a favourite music piece or two. But by bringing together, first a strong understanding of the finest traditions of music, and next, an ability to understand the pulse of the audience and the changing hues of music, and then finally copious talent to coax a motley bunch of brilliant soloists to make magic for the audience.

So do you want to be the conductor that rules the canvas and orchestrates advertising and marketing magic for your clients? Or a mere cog in the wheel driven by a maestro conductor to execute and turn his vision into artworks, films and banners? Think about it.

(Ashok Lalla is an independent Digital & Marketing Advisor who helps clients use digital to accelerate brand impact and business growth. He tweets at @ashoklalla)

Satbir Singh wanted to start his own agency even before he landed his first job in Trikaya Grey more than two decades ago. So what made him take the plunge in 2016 with Thinkstr? “It’s a bit like love, you just know now is the time,” Singh candidly says, “The general ecosystem in the past 2-3 years has been very encouraging for start-up agencies. So I thought why not?”

Singh doesn’t claim to have a path-breaking model in his creative agency but is aware of his strengths. “While we offer 360-degree marketing solutions, Digital is our core offering. Opportunities come quickly and disappear as fast. The key is how quickly can you do what you do because what is topical today may not be topical tomorrow. Our size may be small but our turnaround time is really quick,” adds Singh, who started his agency with a two-member team last year and now has a total of 15 people on board.

Singh believes that independent agencies have a lot going for them. “The best thing is that I don’t have to make any Asia Pacific calls to take permission for every single thing I want to do,” he says. “Nobody doubts the quality credentials of a start-up because they are run by people who are known to do good creative work, be it Ashish Khazanchi or Aggie-Paddy, Raghu-Manish, etc. Once clients come on board, they realize that they are getting things far quicker than they would at a big agency. For example, we made three digital short films in 24 hours for one FMCG client, which is impossible for a big agency.” 

Talking of challenges, Singh says, “You don’t have a support system like teams handling HR, administration, finances... I have to don multiple roles - one minute I am the Creative Head, the very next I am the IT guy, the finance guy and just last week I was out buying air conditioners for the office!” 



Thinkstr’s very first project was giving shape to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambition for kick-starting the start-up ecosystem in the country. In terms of sheer size of deliverables and turnaround time, their bigger campaign was for NITI Aayog- DigiDhan Melas in the wake of demonetisation. Thinkstr organised a hundred on-ground melas in a hundred cities in a hundred days as part of the campaign. They also handled the digital campaigns for Glenfiddich, Indiatimes, and helped with the brand strategy for OYO Rooms. Thinkstr has also started an in-house production unit.




Founder: MG ‘Ambi’ Parameswaran

MG Parameswaran or ‘Ambi’ has spent more than two decades running FCB Ulka and it’s no wonder that even four years after stepping down as CEO, people still approach him as a custodian for brand FCB. He is quick to clarify, “My pact with FCB ended in March 2016 and in April, I started my own consultancy But even today, when people come to me, they think they will get FCB Ulka as a part of the deal!”


Ambi’s advisory assists brand managers from large firms to improve their strategic thinking capabilities and helps strengthen the brand teams of smaller companies. “Companies often come to me saying they have a good product but their go-to market strategy is not good enough. I help them map the market and give suggestions on the kind of selling and distribution system they need. Others need assistance in changing their positioning or advertising. I also help companies by providing new tools and techniques to work with. In most cases, when a client comes to me, he already has a creative agency in place, but might not have a digital or market research agency or PR agency. I help them identify such agencies, but I am not a pitch consultant.”

Ambi mostly operates alone or ropes in a team of experts as per the requirement. He has a host of clients ranging from soft drink majors to healthcare brands, but he doesn’t get to go to town with the names, or put his work on display like a creative agency can! “Invariably, consultants can’t talk about their clients,” he says, adding that there is an increasing need for consultants to fill the void that ad agencies have left. “Earlier, agencies invested a lot in account planning and strategic planning. Just as a media agency is a strategic media agency, creative agencies are meant to be strategic creative agencies. But creative agencies today are just restricting themselves to creative work, for which they only need a brief from the client, nothing else. Agencies in the good old days used to question the brief and did their own research on it, sometimes proving the client wrong. My question is, if more and more agencies are only seeing themselves as providers of creative, then who is providing the strategic sounding board to the client? That is a big opportunity for brand consultants.”


Founder: Colvyn Harris

Former JWT boss Colvyn Harris started his own brand consulting outfit, Harris Mint, a year ago. Talking of its role in the brand ecosystem today, he says, “I work with clients and businesses on a consulting assignment where I interact with the CEOs and owners to arrive at what their brand should do. The traditional consultant stops at the point where he has etched out the roadmap, but in my model, I go out to help them deliver too.”

Giving an example he says, “If I want a film made, I approach a scriptwriter and a director individually and not their companies. In an ad agency, there is a VP, an AVP, an account director and two-three others in the structure. At Harris Mint, there is nobody other than the writer, the creative team, and the person who is shooting the video, which means I can do the same job for the client at one-third the cost.”

Harris is currently working on a handful of projects ranging from Pharmaceuticals to Real Estate clients. One of his biggest projects was with Nepal’s Wai Wai noodles during its India launch. “Going past Maggi’s ‘Mummy, I am hungry’ proposition, Wai Wai reached out to its TG of 18-24-year-olds sans baby talk. We also highlighted that Maggi is not ready to eat, but just ready to cook, while Wai Wai is truly ready to eat. The company is opening a chain of 100+ quick service Wai Wai restaurants in India to bring the experience alive. That’s the roll-out strategy,” Harris says.


Founder: Ronita Mitra

Marketer-turned-entrepreneur Ronita Mitra types away feverishly on her laptop, sitting in a coffee shop at a Bandra club, in between meetings with clients and her ongoing hunt for office space. Even before the website for her newly launched strategic marketing consultancy Brand Eagle is up, she is already consultant for two consumer goods companies. Mitra, who has worked at companies such as Vodafone, ICICI, Johnson & Johnson, Castrol and Marico, says, “I have good experience in strategic thinking for very large brands from a very early stage of my career, and now I want to take this expertise to a larger world by impacting the journey of other brands and businesses. My consultancy offers business solutions through deep-rooted and intrinsic consumer insights along with the spectrum of the marketing strategy – segmentation and its sizing, opportunity mapping, marketing mix and brand identity development to bringing it all alive through an actionable marketing plan.”

Mitra is open to working with experts from different spaces.  Talking about her current projects, she says, “I am working with two consumer goods companies, I can’t name them because that will have repercussions on how competition responds. The first one will take anywhere between six to seven months for completion, the other one is at a nascent stage. But what I am doing for the two brands is strategic marketing at a very fundamental level. It involves market assessment, primary and secondary research, understanding the consumer needs, target audience, pricing for the product depending on competition, and value proposition; and finally the communication.”

Founder: Vandan Chopra

Living up to its name, ‘Foolish’ arrived with a bang on April 1, 2016, trolling advertising bigwigs such as Prasoon Joshi, Agnello Dias, KV Sridhar amongst others in a campaign that went viral. It was an innovative call for recruitment on social media and not surprisingly, they were flooded with applications. Founded by Vandan Chopra who prior to this ran an advertising firm called Adept Media Solutions, Foolish’s leadership team comprises Gagan Arora, the Corporate Head and Sangeeta Subramaniam, Creative Director.

Explaining the theory behind the name, Subramaniam says, “There is a quote we often use at our agency – A fool did not know that it was impossible, so he went ahead and did it anyway. When you are called Foolish, it is a challenge in itself. Only a person who is absolutely confident will be comfortable calling himself a fool. The name is working well for us as far as getting business and fresh talent is concerned.”

Elaborating on their work, Subramaniam says, “We don’t want to focus on just one part of the client’s business like TVC or Outdoor, we want to be a brand solutions agency offering everything from logo to fliers to ads and tell them what mediums to target. For example, we were handling social media for a top sports brand in the country today, but weren’t too happy doing it. We backed out because we would have rather worked on it end-to-end, offering 360-degree solutions. It is very difficult to understand the brand ideology and where it is headed if different agencies are handling different things.”

But as a start-up would they have the manpower and resources to handle the 360-degree mandate? Subramaniam, who currently operates from a co-working space in Mumbai, providing support to their established office in Delhi, replies, “When we won the InvestIndia account, we put in place a team of 20 people who will only be handling that account. We will expand as we win more business. But we don’t want to be a 400-strong organization, and would rather be a small group of disciplined experts. We want to do ‘unsafe’ work. We want to go back to the client and say this is not how you should do something, let’s do it this way.”

After he launched Triggerbridge – the unagency - which aims to find ‘solutions for brands at various life stages’, S Yesudas, former MD of Vizeum, switched from formal suits to wearing Modi jackets all the time. Ask him why and he chuckles, “Heading an ‘unagency’ had to come through via my appearance too!” Yesudas believes that the typical advertising agency models are collapsing and the need of the hour for brands is not ‘market to consumers’ but ‘market for consumers’ which is essentially the difference between a transaction and transformation.

He explains, “If a company wants people to buy their products, it will work better if it can align people with the purpose of its brand. Then, each one of them will become the brand’s ambassadors and bring in others too who will help the brand reach the vertex - the peak of the brand journey. And in this journey from pride to purchase, the relationship just doesn’t end after purchase. We create four interventions on the pride-to-purchase path through content, data, technology and design.”

Digital thrust forms a core area of the agency’s expertise. “Digital is supposed to be an intimate, non intrusive experience, yet the way advertising agencies have used it wrongly running behind likes, buying impressions to be most intrusive; all of them forced people to install ad blockers. Advertising agencies are going to lose their businesses to IT consultants such as Deloitte, IBM and Accenture if they don’t change their thinking on Digital. Marketing investments on Digital amount to a billion dollars in India today; by 2020, it will be a $4 billion business. But not more than 30% of it will go to advertising, the rest will be about creating experiences, building communities and transforming lives. This is an area of focus for Triggerbridge,” Yesudas says.



Triggerbridge worked with Godrej & Boyce for seven months through a ‘transformational’ process, understanding their B2C and B2B business and sensing the opportunities for Godrej to align with the changing imagery of the brand. It then created a vision document on the basis of which agencies were invited to pitch for media and digital duties. After marketing Godrej to the agencies, Triggerbridge will help pick an agency which suits this vision and then work with them in future to execute it. Triggerbridge is also working with Blackberry’s, Vikatan Group from Chennai, Winning Moves, Hafele, Awfis and 24Mantra. They are also amongst the 29 collaborators of Pops’ .hypercollective. 

Resources Go Beyond, started by Brijesh Wadhiya and Manoj Sinha in 2016, recently turned their focus to experiential marketing by getting on board Farhad Katgara (earlier the Business Group Head at GroupM’s Dialogue Factory). The three founders have a long-standing association with Leo Burnett, and it is during their stint there that the idea of starting an independent research-based marketing solutions agency first came up.

“I didn’t want to sit there just chasing revenues, as opposed to using my resources to create an experience which will make the consumer fall in love with the brand,” says Katgara. “Today, corporate activations everywhere have become a one-off activity largely reduced to a concept brief in the conference room. When you try to execute that one brief across 29 different States where people have varied mindsets, everything falls flat. So our focus is not just on the execution but research and evaluation of the effectiveness of the activity as well. If you give me a brief to distribute fliers, I won’t just distribute it to anyone and everyone standing at the station. Instead, the consumers will be broken down according to their mindset and handed the flier with an explanation why it makes sense for him to read it. The result will come back to the client in the form of market sales.”

At the moment, Resources Go Beyond has a team of 17 people, but a network spread across 19 States. The very new RGB team is already working on six floating briefs from clients, and is hopeful about winning a good number of accounts. But as a start-up agency, RGB faces its own set of challenges, as Katgara says brands haven’t yet understood the benefits they offer. “Nobody, including my previous employer Dialogue Factory, is doing research when it comes to activation and that is our USP,” he says.



Resources Go Beyond is an experiential marketing firm with a research thrust; and it also provides the client evaluation of the activity conducted. It has worked with brands like Castrol and Imagica, and is providing support to bigger agencies like Dialogue Factory as a strategy to stay afloat in the first year or so.

Karma, launched by the DDB Mudra Group, is tailor-made to cater to start-up companies and promises a quick turnaround time for solving client’s problems. Its stated USP is to provide 24/7 support to young brands, to deliver within 48 hours if required, and to give start-ups access to DDB Mudra’s stability, power and resources minus the hierarchy that is traditionally known to cause delays.


According to Sanjay Panday, Business Partner, Karma, “In the next 10 years, India’s growth story is not only going to come from the Unilevers and the Tatas, but also from the start-up space. Even a new brand coming from a large company will in the early stages need a flexible team that can work with them on a 24/7 basis, almost becoming a part of the creation of the idea. For them, a large agency won’t make sense, at least in the beginning. Karma will cater to these clients.”


For Karma, whatever is required for a project is easily at hand within the Mudra house. For example, if a client needs digital expertise, Karma can get in resources from 22Feet Tribal, its digital agency. Going forward, Karma aims to contribute to at least 10-12% of the revenues of DDB Mudra West.


There are no hierarchies at Karma; instead, they have client partners, business partners and strategy partners. “That brings in a sense of equality and ownership, because most of the youngsters who enter the business today need a boss they can talk to, and not just one they can take instructions from. So we are helping the New Gen creative minds work with the New Gen client. It also empowers them to take quick decisions. Before we get into a pitch or contract, we inform clients that this is our model, and they love it,” adds Panday.


Karma’s model has got a competitor in FCB Ulka’s Bushfire, which too caters to start-ups. Considering that the informal announcement of Bushfire came much before the formal launch of Karma in March 2017, one can’t help but give Bushfire the benefit of doubt. But this does not worry Panday. “The rate at which the economy is growing, there is going to be enough space for both agencies to operate. So, I don’t see any competition,” he says.



Karma’s clients include Brand Factory, SOTC and Shree Plan Your Journey in Mumbai; as well as Arvind Infrastructure, Chartered Speed and Electrotherm in Ahmedabad.

Bushfire, which was earlier a small Customer Relationship Management (CRM) division for FCB Ulka, was given a make-over around six months back as an ad agency for start-ups. Surjo Dutt, NCD of FCB Ulka and also NCD, Bushfire promises to live up to the agency’s motto – Create epic shit without bullshit. “Currently, nine people work for the agency, each of them multi-skilled. So, we have copy-writers who are also film directors and art directors doubling up as photographers. The dream is to build a small, tight, fast moving team of hybrids,” says Dutt.


Bushfire handles both Digital as well as conventional media. In Dutt’s words, it is not equipped for ‘marketing strategy war games’, but can expertly pull off everything from Packaging, Branding, Design, Television, Radio and Digital activations for brands.


Having the FCB banner behind it gives Bushfire an advantage, but it also competes with the mother company, because brands still have the option of choosing the FCB Ulka services over Bushfire. “We already have three clients who are at the base level of their marketing journey, just beginning their business. That’s most exciting for us because Bushfire has start-ups as 80% of its mandate. About 20% of our services are targeted at specialized projects from big and established clients, that have established ad agencies on their roster, but are on the lookout for agencies to do quick projects with a differentiated approach and to achieve disruptive communication results.”


Bushfire promises a turnaround time of anything between an hour to a year depending on what the client wants. Their fee structure is like a menu card at a restaurant - you pay for what you pick, which means prospective clients can pay them by the hour, day, week or year. That clearly makes the project more economical for clients. Dutt’s quirky explanation is: “In long term relationships, clients have to pay retainers every month or hand out a huge commission. Simply put, when you go to FCB Ulka you marry the agency, but when you go to Bushfire it’s a one night stand.”



Formally launched in April, Bushfire already has three clients on board. Its USP is quick turnaround time, and offering economical services - clients can pay by the hour.


Feedback: Category: Impact Feature Volume No: 13 Issue No: 51













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