The first thing is that you have to understand the client’s business challenges and the solutions you provide — creative business ideas and not just creative ideas. You need to think what the client is going through, you need to be in their shoes to try and understand what are the big challenges that they are facing. So, thinking about business ideas and helping clients apply those is critical — a through-the-line approach. It doesn’t matter where you are doing it, you are still solving a client problem and question is how best can you provide that solution,” says INDRAJEET MOOKHERJEE, President, Dentsu India, in a conversation with our Editor-in-Chief K.G. SREENIVAS.

Welcome to The Future’s Here special series hosted by Creative Brands. The Future’s Here showcases leaders, thinkers, and trend setters from the creative industry, namely advertising, media, communication, and branding. My name is K.G. Sreenivas and I am Editor-in-Chief of Creative Brands, a portal that covers the global creative industry and economy. Today, we have with us Indrajeet Mookherjee, President, Dentsu India. Indro, as he is popularly known in the industry, has had a remarkable career, having done the top circuit of Lowe Lintas, Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, Rediffusion Young & Rubicam, and TBWA in India and Indonesia. Before he returned to India as Executive Vice-President Dentsu India in 2016, he was the Managing Director of Soho Square, Indonesia, which is part of the Ogilvy group. Indro was elevated as President recently.Some of the top brands Indro has worked with are Unilever, Nestle, Mondelez, Heinz, Adani Wilmar, Arvind Brands, Cathay Pacific, Himalaya Herbal, Sab Miller, Suntory Garuda, L’Oreal, MRF, Jos Alukkas, Geojith.Indro, welcome to The Future’s Here, where we look to the future to be present today — here and now.

Indrajeet Mookherjee: Thank you, Sreeni. Delighted to be here, thank you very much for having me.

K.G. SREENIVAS: Indro, in 2016, when you joined Dentsu India, you said and I quote, “This is now an exciting time for communication business in India, rules being rewritten and Dentsu India has been in the forefront leading this change.” In four years, how have things changed, today as we stand in 2020, how do you look back at those four years before we come down to what exactly is happening today?

INDRO: I think the last four years have been pretty exciting. At the time when I joined the agency our dependence on certain categories, our dependence on certain clients was significant and what we managed to do is over the last couple of years opened the agency into other sectors. And the other thing that we have done is that we have also looked at new disciplines so we now have our own digital agency called Dentsu India Slingshot. We do work in brand consultancy, we do work in design, so apart from you know traditional work that used to happen over some of the large clients that we had, we are looking to do work across the stream. It’s more kind of through the line than any one particular discipline. The other thing I think which is kind of very core to what we do at Dentsu India is that we believe that you know the dreams of every marketer whether large or small are the same — to be successful. And you know we have partnered large multinationals, we have also partnered startups, so at the end of day it’s about you know making dreams come to life. We are equally adept at managing large businesses and also smaller businesses and there will now be a host of them that we have partnered over the last four years to kind of help them grow. So that’s something that one has seen over the last few years.

KGS: Indro, in fact when you took over as President, you said you are faced with the new normal where we see a significant paradigm shift. A shift in the way brands present themselves and come across. In fact, today, as we speak the pandemic has forced a turning on its head every assumption and notion that we have known in the creative sector. Indro how do you visualize this schism as the new paradigm?

INDRO: As you said, the pandemic firstly got all of us to think about how we are going to manage in the new times. There are a few things that are emerging very very clearly. The first thing is, the traditional agency, the digital agency, and the Out Of Home agency are all merging and I think today communication is neither ATL or BTL, but Through the Line. The second thing is how communication has become media agnostic — so you are thinking about ideas not necessarily for print or TV but you are thinking of the idea first and then looking at choice of media. The third thing which I think is happening is the emerging distinction between essential or nonessential. So as a person, as a brand, as a service, everyone’s going through the dilemma whether are you going to be in this set or are you going to be in that set? So if you are going to be in the essential set, you have to reinvent yourself and you have to re-skill yourself to be relevant to today’s time. If you are not, you would be non-essential.

Brands, consumers, companies
have to be fitter, have to actually kind of walk the talk and look forward to the new normal. The more you keep pushing and going against the grain, it’s only kind of going to work against you. You got to adapt to this, so that you are better off
in the long run.

Likewise, with regard to consumers, there are some categories that have actually taken off — case in point being brands in the e-com space. A lot of consumers are taking recourse to grocery shopping online, for example. There are other categories where we see deferred purchases, whether it is holidays, automobiles, homes… so those are currently in the non-essential sector, but hopefully over time things will improve. But what we see is that this is the new normal. There are new things that are actually being shown to brands and clients and I feel that this presents an opportunity in itself and it is a time for all of us to take stock and look at things afresh. The other thing that, you know, is with respect to the large offices spaces — today most of us are actually working from home! You have, you know, large corporates who have built 40,000 – 50,000 sq feet of space. Now, what are you going to do with that kind of space? So questions like these need to be answered. Brands, consumers, companies have to be fitter, have to actually kind of walk the talk and look forward to the new normal. The more you keep pushing and going against the grain, it’s only kind of going to work against you. You got to adapt to this, so that you are better off in the long run.

KGSIndro, just to further the point about being effective, being intuitive, and, most importantly, being able to demonstrate true partnership with your clients, given the new circumstances, how do you go about defining and redefining the new client-agency relationship, as we speak?

INDRO: I think Sreeni, the first thing is that you have to understand what the client’s business challenges are and, therefore, the solutions that you provide would be creative business ideas and not just creative ideas. You need to think what the client is going through, you need to be in their shoes to try and understand what are the big challenges that they are facing. For example in the automobile sector, we have a situation where customers are not coming to the showrooms because of social distancing. Now, how do we reach out to the customer? That is an intervention as an agency we would suggest to our client. So, thinking about business ideas helping them solve those — that’s No.1 and No. 2. Something akin to reinventing the wheel. So, like I said it’s the through the line approach. It doesn’t matter you know where you are doing it, you are still solving a client problem and question is how best can you provide that solution. That’s what I would say is true understanding and you know walking along with the client because these times will go by and only those agencies who actually stood by their clients in these tough times will be remembered. Likewise, it applies to clients who stand by their agencies in times like these.

So, like I said it’s the through
the line approach. It doesn’t matter you know where you are doing it, you are still solving a client problem and question is how best can you provide that solution. That’s what I would say is true understanding and you know walking along with the client because these times will go by and only those agencies who actually stood by their clients in these tough times will be remembered. Likewise, it applies to clients who stand by their agencies
in times like these.

KGS: We were talking of integration, greater integration within the agency itself you know. Alongside, we have seen an expansion in the role of agency viz a vis its clients. You just talked about how agencies are now looking to partner clients in developing their businesses and ideas of businesses. How do you push that idea further? In fact, you see, the agency’s role is increasingly becoming that of a consultant.

INDRO: I think nobody understands the brand better than the agencies themselves and we are truly the brand custodians. I think that’s what separates agencies from custodians. Point No. 2 — for us it is through the line from conceptualization to the last mile in terms of execution and I think that’s what a true agency is. While you know there are consultancies I don’t know whether they are able to go through the whole piece. But what an agency brings to the table is actual understanding of the problem and conceptualization of the idea and executing it, while carrying out any course correction that may become necessary. So, I think that’s what we bring to the table.

KGS: To push that point further a little further: Do you think in the coming years agencies will also sort of, if not entirely, replaced by a full-time consultant, say like a PriceWatersCooper. Do you think such consultants will sort of fill that space?

INDRO: I think there will be a nice co-existence of both — a harmonious co-existence of both. Like I said that the understanding of the brand is what agencies bring to the fore. We are traditionally the brand custodians and that will continue so I think it will be a nice mix. Agencies need to kind of look at what consulting agencies do and bring that side too on the table and therefore have a kind of nice mix between, for example, data and creativity and trying to find nice balance between the two.

KGS: Indro, during the ongoing pandemic, the digital medium came to the fore. If you have a closer look at it, do you think it has been effective or is the digital medium being understood clearly by both clients and as well as agencies?

INDRO: I think, you know, we have been talking about the digital kind of coming into the mainstream for the last couple of years. So that’s been happening across brands and marketers for some time now. What this pandemic has managed to do is to accelerate the decision of a lot of clients. Some clients were already ahead, while those who were lagging have adapted to the new kind of environment. But what I would say is that at the end of day it still needs to be a balance between for example television and digital. What television does is to build desire — so the way I look at it, it should be like a TV-plus model. Television is always you know for the long term — you may still get short-term gains using digital, in a sense, more transactional. But I think if you are looking to still build awareness and get to know your consumers, television continues to be a very important medium at the top of the funnel. At the same time, digital today is becoming measurable and is, therefore, becoming very very important. So I would pitch it at you know like a 60:40 or 70:30 in terms of say TV versus digital but, fundamentally, if you are not able to kind of let consumers know what the brand is, you are not going to be relevant. I believe marketers need to find a nice balance between their short-term objectives and long-term goals.

But I think if you are looking to still
build awareness and get to know your consumers, television continues to be a very important medium at the top of the funnel. At the same time, digital today is becoming measurable and is, therefore, becoming very very important. So I would pitch it at you know like a 60:40 or 70:30 in terms
of say TV versus digital

KGS: Under the circumstances, on one hand we have the essentials, say food. We have, on the other hand, let’s say automobile — we spoke about it few minutes ago. Two different sectors, two different requirements. What is your take?

INDRO: Like you said, the essentials will obviously dominate everything we do. But, interestingly, we have seen traction even in the automobile category. So, with some of the data that is available you will see that a lot of automobile companies have seen traction in the entry level segment. A lot of consumers are looking to come in but they are coming in at the bottom of the pyramid, not necessarily the premium kind of models. But they are looking to kind of come in. So there could be some traction during the festive season. The sluggishness has been because consumers are not very comfortable you know travelling in a shared kind of mobility.

KGS: What sort of conversations have you had with your clients? They would have sought some sort of reassurances from you in terms of repositioning their brands and reaching out and communicating effectively.

INDRO: Most importantly, what we urge all our clients is to stay on top of minds — brand recall. It has been historically proven that brands who stay on top of mind are brands that are remembered. Secondly, is that find a nice balance between what your purpose is and how do you kind of actually implement it on ground. So, you may have a philosophy but make sure you don’t get carried away and that is kind of actually manifest in what you do. The third thing in terms of actual business is where we can help our clients to engage with direct-to-consumer model in the new normal, because that’s becoming more and more important. So, these are some of the things we have been kind of dabbling with — lots to learn as we go forward but you know these are some of the things that I constantly keep telling our clients. That you shouldn’t lose sight of what your brand is, so build around that but don’t jettison all that you have got and built over the years.

KGS: Indro, let’s come back to what you had said earlier — maybe you could shed more light on that — with respect to integration. How are you going about bringing together, say digital or marketing or creative and how have sought to put together a more integrative communication strategy for your brands and businesses?

INDRO: Dentsu actually has multiple specialists within the Dentsu Aegis network, so typically we have the brand lead, who actually is the interface between the client and the agency and it is the brand lead who actually pulls in the specialist skills and works in a collaborative fashion to try and ensure that the entire consumer journey is managed seamlessly by different agencies. We have been working very successfully with a couple of clients with this model because fundamentally it’s the brand lead who understands and knows the brand and pulls in specialist skills, whether its digital, experiential, or shopper marketing while keeping in mind what the brand stands for and how it can be deployed across all touch points.

https://youtu.be/HJjh-g-sDeM
The Toyota Glanza campaign#LetsGoHatchin, helmed by Indrajeet Mookherjee.

KGS: Tell us something about your favourite campaign?

INDRO: I think top of mind right now, Sreeni, is a campaign that we developed last year for Toyota. Now, Toyota has been in India for 20 years. Toyota has been positioned as a very premium brand that caters to consumers in a certain segment — the older consumers as it were. We have some stellar products in the Fortuner and Innova etc. Last year, we had the opportunity of launching Toyota’s first cross-badged model — the Toyota Glanza. It was a challenge because it was a cross-badged product (with Suzuki) and the challenge of reaching out to younger consumers who the brand had not reached out to in all these years. So, I must tell you that we are very happy that this June, we had record numbers and we have very clearly kind of noted the change in terms of being relevant to younger consumers while we continue to take care of the older segment. But the Glanza campaign which was built around ‘go hatching’ was an extremely successful campaign despite some tough times. That’s one campaign that I would say is top of mind.

KGS: What has been different in your experiences in Indonesia and India? Of course, it’s been four years now but in terms of work culture or perspective what has been different?

INDRO: So, I think there are lot of similarities. The fact that you know with large populations and growing economies, you know digital is something that is being adopted both in India and Indonesia. In terms of communication, I think from what I have seen and been part of, Indians love emotion and that’s something which is the center-pinning of all the work we do. In some of the work that we have done in Indonesia, it’s largely more functional as it were because if you are a washing powder then tell me how beautifully you wash and it’s kind of ends over there, as opposed to something which is more deeply grained.

KGS: Indro, one final question — more from an academic perspective. Advertising is more like sociology in action because you try to understand people, you understand their instincts, you understand their needs in the pyramid of desires. What is your take on your idea of advertising and communication?

INDRO: Sreeni, I think what we do is we help present brands to the world and at the end of day the decision to like or love actually depends on the consumers. But I think what we do is to build on brand love. Great brands are built through great campaigns over the years, and, you know, I have been very privileged to work with some very formidable agencies with some very formidable brands and you know that experience and understanding is something that will last you know. There are some campaigns you still talk about, says some of those campaigns dating back to the 80’s, that’s what kind of make great brand advertising, that’s what makes the great brand, and, you know, people will remember you for generations to come.