SUBHASH KAMATH is CEO and Managing Partner of BBH India. Beyond that corporate descriptor lies a deep thinker and one of the top advertising professionals of the country, having served in key strategic and leadership positions at Ogilvy, Grey Worldwide, Ambience Publicis, and Bates before helming BBH. An “eternal optimist”, as he characterises himself, Kamath has knocked back a little over 30 years into his calling of creating campaigns that he believes should genuinely build a brand. A music aficionado, Kamath, along with ad guru Prabhakar Mundukur, Shalini Gupta of Inox Leisure, and Rajeev Raja of BrandMusiq, recently reprised “It’s a wonderful world”, one of jazz music’s greatest creations, rendered by Louis Armstrong, on behalf of the India Chapter of the International Advertising Association to help spread the message of a brighter future. In an interview with our Editor K.G. Sreenivas, Kamath exudes the same positivity when he says, “I believe communication will play an enormous and critical role in the process (of rebuilding). That’s where the advertising industry can contribute hugely. Not just for brands and marketing communication, but in building social awareness on critical issues. We have fantastic talent to do that, which will be in even more demand then.”
“You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core, like a quite healthy man who all of a sudden feels his temperature shoot up and the blood seething like wildfire in his veins…” — Albert Camus, The Plague
Creative Brands: So here we are. Unprecedented times now, unpredictable times ahead. Throw into the potent mix some relentlessly vengeful data — deaths and casualties, unemployment, poverty, displacement, and a deepening economic vacuum. What are your thoughts — what’s your axis of thinking about what the future holds for all of us?
Subhash Kamath: There is no doubt that these are terrible times for all. And nothing in our past experience could’ve prepared us for such a situation. The human suffering and tragedy, especially amongst the underprivileged, is indeed a much bigger issue to address than the economic one. I sincerely pray that governments across the world will focus on that.
But I am also an eternal optimist, y’know. I genuinely believe we’ll get over this one day. As George Harrison sang, “It’s not always going to be this grey, all things must pass… all things must pass away”. But in the meanwhile, we must stay safe and help each other as best as we can, in these times of need. We have to remain strong and healthy to rebuild our world.
CB: For people, brands, and (creative) communication, these are shape-shifting times — quite likely irrevocably so. All known and tested notions of communication and branding are likely to be spun around, turned inside out, stood on their heads. Are we headed into a brave new world?
SK: That change had already begun, much before Covid. With the digital revolution, and constant innovations in technology, many established paradigms of brand building and communication had started to be questioned and newer ideas had already started to emerge over the past decade. The brand world really follows the consumer world. So, if the consumer is emerging a brave new person, our ideas need to be brave and new too. I don’t think Covid would be the biggest catalyst in that context. However, post-Covid, newer emotional, yet more fundamental human themes may emerge; to do with hope and optimism, health and hygiene, staying connected despite being distanced, caring for each other, being more socially conscious than individually focussed. We could see brands riding on those cultural themes. And technology will continue to aid that.
Q. For every known principle, thing, or theory, string or otherwise, things are not likely to be the same ever. So this is the time to be present in the future. So digital it was, that many said to stay relevant, meaningfully, on the other side of the pandemic. Given the economic conditions, even digital spends are expected to fall to record lows. What is your assessment of digital?
SK: Digital is here to stay. In fact, the current Covid situation has shown the huge reliance of humanity on digital technology. Thank God we’re all living in this age where technology is helping us remain connected, communicate better regardless of geographies, consuming entertainment and content despite sitting at home and helping us look after each other. Digital advancements are helping us even in the world of health and modern medicine, diagnostics and analytics. And these are just a few examples. In the current situation, there would obviously be low spends, as businesses are hit hard. But that will change once this is past us. I also believe, thanks to digital, working from home will become a way of life in the future. Leading to better productivity amongst people and more savings in business establishment costs.
CB: This near-apocalypse has brought into sharp focus everything that we had taken for granted — consumption, wastefulness, extravaganza, environmental plunder, stress, anxiety, and a general lack of concern for the other. In more ways than one, it’s likely to transform every known paradigm of life. It cannot be business as usual. Where do you think the business of ‘life’ and the life of ‘business’ can converge and seek balance?
SK: Yes, this is a huge change we’ve seen. For 32 years, I have always had two different ‘zones’ to navigate daily: my home and my work place. That has totally converged in the current circumstances. It took me some time to get used to it, quite frankly. I don’t even realise when the weekdays have ended and when the weekend has begun! But we’ve really learnt to make the most of it and become more efficient at it too. I have begun to enjoy the WFH environment as it lets me be more flexible with my time and allows me to learn newer things. Sure I do miss the world outside and want to get back to it as soon as possible. But there are many positives as well. Things will continue to evolve rapidly, and we have to adapt to that, not resist it. As Bob Dylan sang, “He not busy being born is busy dying..”
CB. Any meaningful (economic) recovery seems improbable in the near future. Many have prophesied that it can get worse than 1929 — that gold standard of recession. The pandemic and the recession will together leave in its wake large-scale structural, financial, social, and political wreckage. How do you see the way forward for the advertising industry and brands to play a meaningful role in an effort that will necessarily have to be a collective one?
SK: Post Covid, the task will be one of rebuilding nations and economies. That’ll be a huge and daunting ask. It’ll need the entire society to collectively work towards it, not just the governments.
I believe communication will play an enormous and critical role in that process. That’s where the advertising industry can contribute hugely. Not just for brands and marketing communication, but in building social awareness on critical issues. We have fantastic talent to do that, which will be in even more demand then.