What has fundamentally changed is the idea of connectivity and connectedness surrounding co-creation where if a consumer is truly connected to you then the consumer kind of co-creates with you, co-creates content… it can be any kind of co-creation, co-creation of feedback, co-creation of some kind of an input, or simply co-creating by buying your product, or by repeatedly buying your products. I feel that it’s literally coming to fruition because of the fact that brands have fundamentally changed their top-down approach to a more talking-to approach,” says ANIL NAIR, CEO, VMLY&R in an interview with K. G. SREENIVAS, Editor-in-Chief, Creative Brands.

Welcome to The Future’s Here special series hosted by Creative Brands. The Future’s Here showcases leaders and thinkers 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 ANIL NAIR, CEO VMLY&R India. VMLY&R is a global brand experience agency that seeks to synthesize creativity, technology, and culture to create connected brands. An innovative thinker, integrated solutions crusader, and believer in sustainable business growth, Anil oversees VMLY&R’s India operations, driving growth and building on the agency’s integrated service offerings across creative, technology, and data services. Prior to joining VMLY&R India, Anil was the CEO (Digital) and Managing Partner for L&K Saatchi & Saatchi India. Anil was part of the founding team at Law and Kenneth (L&K) Communications in 2002 and was recognized for his role in helping build Law & Kenneth Communications from the ground up into India’s largest independent agency, prior to its merger with Saatchi & Saatchi in 2014.

EXCERPTS:

Anil, I was thinking what could be that point of inflection or provocation to start our conversation today… so I went back to an interview, where you say, “As an agency we bring the right brain and left brain kind of an approach to business problem solving.” Today, given the times that we have come to inhabit, can you reflect a bit more on that foundational statement?

So Sreeni, traditionally we have always been you know a certain kind of business, where the business side looked at business problems and then they came to advertising agencies to tackle the creative side of things. We were the dream merchants, the mavericks who took on a business problem and then and hopefully came back with something magical that has built many a brand in this country. Times are changing and one of the primary reasons for this is the emergence of the digital economy. The advent of digital, the advent of data, the advent of the fact that you know e-commerce, for example, has literally mandated that we have the combination of our right and left brains, the combination of creativity and technology, a combination of data and commerce — so a lot of them are melding together in hitherto unknown combinations in that sense. And that is the beauty of the time that we live in right now so everything that we know of brand building as it existed till now continues, but the magic of this now lies in pouring like one measure of data, one measure of commerce, one measure of you know platform thinking in that sense, some kind of digital transformation… This new formula is what you see at play right now which brands and organisations not just in India but around the world are coming to grips with.

To take this forward, you have always, in fact, spoken about marrying data and creativity which is what you just spoke about. Could you possibly illustrate with an example in order for our audience to understand the world of insight mining, branding, and consume experience, experience being at the heart of it all?

Like you rightly said, the core of it is the consumer and in more ways than one we have always said that the consumer is king but I feel that in today’s time, s/he is elevated to emperor. The world begins and ends with the consumer or customer in that sense. What do I mean by that? Your customer is today leaving an imprint right from the time that s/he starts looking for your category or your brand… all the way to researching it, all the way to creating choices in his or her little mental blackbox. From that point you know, the referrals, talking to peers, coming back multiple times leading to some kind of an action — this goes on s/he is literally able to refer brands. Willy-nilly the customer leaves a breadcrumb trail of data and insights which in earlier times was difficult to measure or capture. Today, thanks to the digitization of the world, it becomes easier for us to be able to track these customers, track their behaviour, track the little pivots that the customer is doing in their journey towards consumption. Brands that manage to create an ecosystem to be able to kind of capture these data, clean these data, massage these data, derive insights out of it, not just as a one-off act but like muscle memory within the organization, use techniques like artificial intelligence and machine learning to literally derive insights on scale are the organizations that I feel that are going to completely derive the benefits of these new signs in that sense.

Today, thanks to the digitisation of the world,
it becomes easier for us to be able to track these customers, track their behaviour, track the little pivots that the customer is doing in their journey towards consumption. Brands that manage to create an ecosystem to be able to kind of capture these data, clean these data, massage these data, derive insights out of it, not just as a one-off act but like muscle memory within the organisation, use techniques like artificial intelligence and machine learning to literally derive insights on scale are the organisations that I feel that are going to completely derive the benefits of these new
signs in that sense.

In fact, this brings us to the question of digital, but let’s take a pause here. You spoke about customer being not the king and the queen but the emperor or empresses herself. I am thinking back to Gandhi, when he said, “Customer is king in your premises”. I was thinking does that definition, that primary definition of the customer continues to be relevant. But this is civilization of synapse where Gandhi spoke about customer being king and today customer being king. Do you see a fundamental, ideological shift in understanding who the customer is and customer continues to be the primary concern of businesses?

It’s a fantastic question. The customer is the customer is the customer and will continue to enjoy primacy at all times. But what is interesting is that a lot of other things around the customer has changed. So the context has changed, the content has changed, possibilities have changed and, therefore, the attention span of the customer has changed. So the customer continues to be as demanding as the customer is right from when it was during Gandhi’s time to today. But I feel that there is some kind of content and information overload in today’s times which makes it that much more important for us to kind of gravitate towards the right kind of customer, deliver him brand content in the right context, and hope that you know the customer makes the right choice and commerce. This is where I feel there has been a shift so that you know the customer remains the same. Yes, the world has changed, the fundamental choices have changed but also the ecosystem around the customer has changed which is kind of necessitating this discussion we are having.

So we move from Gandhi to digital innovatively and you have said often that digital is not a medium but it’s a way of life particularly from the customer point of view, the experiential point of view. Now do you think that both creators as well as consumers regard it as a way of life regardless of the fact that digital is a ubiquitous phenomenon, it’s all around us… a medium that runs our life today?

Yes, again an interesting question I would harp back to Gandhi here. You know if Gandhiji was alive today I think he would be one of the most social-media savvy persons. You know someone who would literally be able to mine this medium to its fullest possible because he did most of the things that we do today at a time when there was absolutely no connectivity, no technology. He managed to take simple ideas like Satyagraha and non-violence and spread it among so many people and that too people of such diverse backgrounds, states, and kinds of geographical regions in that sense.

So, I believe from a metaphorical perspective there is something to learn from you know that philosophy that you spoke about. Coming back, therefore, to this ‘way of life’, you know the question that you asked — the reason why I feel that when we started off with digital and as we compared digital to television, radio, and outdoor — I don’t blame us for having regarded it that way… that’s human nature, in that sense we lean towards convenience and and ubiquitously this medium has seeped into many many aspects of life.

Digitization and the use of
digital technology and platforms literally have begun to kind of either create an alternate reality or a hybrid reality where we use both offline and online technologies today with the end goal which has made our life
more and more convenient.

Prime example for me is the adoption curve that we see — you know so this medium allows people to use and discard in the sense that it’s a very open source of medium. There is you know no central body dictating what people need to consume or how people need to use it but it’s an organic inside-out adoption mechanism that people are kind of using to endure this medium. I will give you a classic example — my grandmother, you know, she came to Bombay and she is very very technologically un-savvy to the point that she realizes that you know may be skype is a very good way for her to be in touch with her grandchildren in the US. And you know she literally jumped through many technology hoops and curves to adopt skype because skype was convenient to her at that point of time. Many of us have suddenly adopted delivery services, many of us, you know, overnight have let go off black and yellow taxi and suddenly adopted these radio taxis and Ubers or the Olas… So, in that sense, digitization and the use of digital technology and platforms literally have begun to kind of either create an alternate reality or a hybrid reality where we use both offline and online technologies today with the end goal which has made our life more and more convenient.

Do you think while this is ubiquitous as we speak it has such a powerful influence on each and every action of ours on a day to day basis. Do you think digital is understood inasmuch as probably it is obscure to a lot of us? Does it continue to be largely top driven… In fact, interestingly you said once how the operating system probably hasn’t changed?

You know, this is where I wanted to pull back to the industrial economy which lasted for you know so many years, multiple centuries. I believe, in the absolute minuscule early period of digital economy — and right now it is the handover period — the world that used to run, the societies that used to run on manufacturing economies, labour, factory workers, you know, now is the part of the knowledge economy, the digital economy. You know many of the constructs are now being questioned, thanks to the pandemic as well. The classic one being work from home — the other one being the ability to remote work and therefore the opportunities that is kind of thrown up. It will take a little time before there is complete understanding of the medium as it seeps down to every citizen and strata of the society. In that sense, till then, I believe that there would be two kinds of things happening — one is a top-down infrastructure driven adoption with the government kind of putting the infrastructural inputs to ensure more adoption and, second, a very very bottom-up adoption which is based on things like language, which is based on things like geographical distances specially in countries like India on the fact of convenience or commerce.

It will take a little time before there is complete understanding of the medium as it seeps down to every citizen and strata of the society. In that sense, till then, I believe that there would be two kinds of things happening — one is a top-down infrastructure driven adoption with the government kind of putting the infrastructural inputs to ensure more adoption and, second, a very very bottom-up adoption which is based on things like language, which is based on things like geographical distances specially in countries like India on the fact
of convenience or commerce.

I believe that there will be both bottom-up and a top-down adoption — somewhere it will meet in the middle as and when the market matures. I am beginning to see you know in markets like South Korea, markets like China where they are at a much advanced stage of adoption. India is going through its own cycle but I am very very bullish, given our youth demographic, given, you know, English as a common binding language across and generally given the love for content amongst Indians. With our general curiosity as a nation and our Diaspora that is spread all over the world I believe that we are in a good place to be exploiting when the sweet spot happens which is not too far away.

In fact, as you say this digital revolution is still in its infancy, but what does it portend for civilizational change? For example, we sit at home and at the press of a button on our mobile phone we carry out banking transactions, we order food and we don’t even step out. Things have changed so much in our day to day life, as a creator, as an imaginative creative content creator, what do you think has digital done to us from a civilizational perspective?

I believe digital is rewiring us as we speak in more ways than one — in some really really core areas which is interaction with each other, interaction with the ecosystem, interaction with society, interaction with the basic Maslow’s hierarchy of needs… the way we live, the ways we travel and what is even more interesting Sreeni is how some of these services are offering into something else, so you know what started off as may be social media network is now offering into something else… something started as a peer to peer messaging network is now becoming lifesaver for example. But where I feel true traction and true momentum will get big is when fundamental areas get affected, for example, medicine, access to medicine in a large country like ours, politics, and giving people a voice, and decentralising that voice across the country, thanks to digital. Education, you know, in a country like ours where it is still challenging to get the right kind of education.

Where I feel true traction
and true momentum will get big is when fundamental areas get affected, for example, medicine, access to medicine in a large country like ours, politics, and giving people a voice, and decentralising that voice across the country, thanks to digital. Education, you know, in a country like ours where it is still challenging to get the right kind of education.

Given the competition I would really see digital flowering and maturing when it starts affecting things like remote medicine… you know India still doesn’t have a healthy doctor to patient ratio, so digital can actually change that game with doctors being able to access that many more patients and vice versa. So at least basic conditions can be attended to, which in turn will make our people healthier, which in turn will kind of get them to give more input to the nation and its economy. You know a lot of it goes back to my favourite example of wolves being introduced into the Yellow Stone and they saw that just by the introduction of a wolf you know some 40 other species and a lot of the other ecosystems kind of prospered and thrived and that is where I feel those tipping points in digital can happen. What we are using right now is still superficial, vanity digital if you will, which is important but I see digital affecting our lives even more fundamentally.

Anil you have been a consistent advocate of brand connectedness and co-creation by customers as it were. Can you reflect on this twin idea of brand connectedness and co-creation at some length?

I just feel that you know and this is the story that I heard somewhere which is, you know, if somebody likes your brand they will buy your brand, but if somebody loves your brand, then the person will talk about your brand and kind of ensure that person is the ambassador of your brand and you can see brands like that. And you know when there is a high degree of brand love — the kind displayed almost as if they are defending the brand and that for me is the core of this connectedness because we are human beings at the core of it and one of the basic fundamental thing that drives us is the need for belonging and the need for connectivity. Brands at some point had a slightly top-down approach to brand building not because they didn’t want to do otherwise but because they wanted enough medium and touch points for them to do that. I feel that the entire thing has become that much more democratic and today brands can talk to customers rather than talking down to customers. And, more beautifully, brands can talk to customers while customers are talking to other customers so literally it’s like joining a campfire.

Brands at some point had a slightly top-down approach to brand building not because they didn’t want to do otherwise but because they wanted enough medium and touch points for them to do that. I feel that the entire thing has become that much more democratic and today brands can talk to customers rather than talking down to customers. And, more beautifully, brands can talk to customers while customers are talking to other customers
so literally it’s like joining a campfire.

Brands are now joining these various campfires that are lit around and that is for me what is fundamentally kind of changed — the idea of connectivity and connectedness. The second piece is co-creation where if a consumer is truly connected to you then the consumer kind of co-creates with you, co-creates content it can be any kind of co-creation, co-creates feedback, co-creates some kind of an input, co-creates by buying your product, or by repeatedly buying your products or shows loyalty, I just feel that you know it’s literally coming to fruition because of the fact that brands have fundamentally changed their top-down approach to a more talking to approach.

Anil what are those intangibles in this co-connectedness — is it possibly to do with the ethics that the brand espouses or the consistent quality that delivers or the value that it delivers. What are those intangibles you think play a critical role in this co-connectedness?

You said the most fundamental thing that is required, Sreeni, which is, in the past you know a brand kind of had a strategy — say through a few pieces of content on television and then a few months later you kind of measured the impact… this entire process took anywhere from three to six months to a year. Back then you got back and you did another campaign, you measured equity over a period of time and the brand grew but there was still a distance between the brand and the consumer. The only way I could connect with the brand was to buy it off the retail shelf and that was the end of it. Today what is happening is because of its ubiquitous nature and the fact that I can reach the brand and the brand can reach the consumer at the speed of thought almost, it is really really important that brands show their real authentic side even as consumers have this little detective meter which checks if the brand is authentic enough. It is difficult to fake it because you put yourself out there, you know you are there every day posting something on social media, you are changing your products on your market place page, you know there are people writing about you. Well, you can outsource this to an agency but the point is you know if there is a drop in the authenticity and if these things aren’t well defined and well articulated I believe that consumers have got their bullshit metre on to be able to kind of catch it and move on to brands that show a higher degree of authenticity.

Tell us something about what you call scalable content and connected commerce, I believe these are also closely linked organic ideas of what we just spoke about?

Yes, brands need to stop looking at them only as producers of the product but also as producers of content that is related to the product as well and most of the brands at VMLY&R we kind of connect with, one of the things that we do is try and create content creation muscle in these brands — essentially a set of skills, strategy, and investments that the brand may be able to make use of. That is to say that I am not just a producer of the product but also the producer of the allied content that goes along with the product that I make or the brand that I make. This needs to be always on investment, always on attitude, always on mentality that more and more brands are kind of adopting. What this also does is actually opening up an opportunity, Sreeni, of allowing commerce at any point of time.

You know that the traditional thought process that I need to go to a retail shop to buy something is over. I can be bought at any point of time, I can be bought while somebody is surfing social media, I can be bought when two friends are chatting on WhatsApp, I can be bought while I am searching for something else, I can be bought when I am watching a movie on the Netflix

You know that the traditional thought process that I need to go to a retail shop to buy something is over. I can be bought at any point of time, I can be bought while somebody is surfing social media, I can be bought when two friends are chatting on WhatsApp, I can be bought while I am searching for something else, I can be bought when I am watching a movie on the Netflix… so the point is brands need to be ready to sell at any point of time that the consumer wishes and which is where for which we need great content and we need different kinds of content and therefore these two points that you raised which is you know scalable always on content and connected commerce both of them are interlinked.

To move further towards the question of structural changes in the industry, last year saw a number of mergers and acquisitions in one sense leading to a consolidation. In fact, although across the industry people have spoken against consolidation, given that greater consolidation brings in greater integration, bringing to the table a large number of capabilities for both agencies and brands as well it isn’t a contentious thing. What do you think would be the long-term of state of play in light of this consolidation and integration?

Sure, anybody who has stayed long enough in this industry knows that we go through these cycles of consolidation then specialization and back to consolidation again. Now I feel consolidation has been dictated by the consumer and, therefore, it’s kind of an almost urgent demand. It’s become an imperative today to put the consumer at the centre and kind of create a connected consumer journey and, therefore, multiple talents and multiple skill sets come together to be able to deliver that. There is another way of doing that you bring multiple partners on board and each of kind of play together to do that — that’s also a model and many people follow that model as well but more often than not I believe that you need a bit of a fireplace approach where you keep the consumer at the centre — with the various consumer personas, the business problems that the brand is facing, you know the competition that is happening and then create a cross-functional team of experts. When I mean experts, this could be data experts, this could be platform experts, this could be insight miners, search professionals, creative experts, publishing people, social-media content people, connections people, all of these people need to kind of come together to solution in a way which is seamless and which is why this recent bout of consolidations that you have seen.

When I mean experts, this could be data experts, this could be platform experts, this could be insight miners, search professionals, creative experts, publishing people, social-media content people, connections people, all of these people need to kind of come together to solution in a way which is seamless and which is why this recent bout of consolidations that you have seen.

To further this discussion, could you reflect on the VMLY&R experience about coming together, the marriage of between two formidable agencies, as it were, and while you brought together great capabilities to the table how did you manage the internal cultural change, internal creative change, how did you synthesize that…

You know I was not there when these things were happening but it is the case that cultural cohesion between two entities needn’t necessarily happen. You know both these organizations have that little cultural magnetism for almost seamlessly kind of coming together. VML which was a 20 year old agency and then you add Y&R which was a much older agency — one was a technology, data, commerce focussed one, the other one was a like a classic kind of agency in that sense. One level is this cultural melding that I spoke about and the second big piece I feel, Sreeni, is empathy because you know, you need to kind of look at the best what the other can bring and figure out how best I can use the talent and the skills that entity brings to for that person’s benefit and also for my benefit and I believe that the empathy quotient that exists with VMLY&R has also added to the reason why you know there is almost a single seamless organization called VMLY&R around the world in very quick time.

Can you tell us a campaign or two that is very dear to your heart for either aesthetic reasons or ideational excellence or commercial consequence? It could be within your agency or any other campaign that has really sort of touched you and you thought ‘this is a great campaign’?

Sure, I would like to pick three and you know there are hundreds of really beautiful campaigns all over the world and I would be doing injustice to pick any of them over the other and which is a reason why I will play safe and just pick up a couple of old ones from last year or year and a half from VMLY&R because I think I will be able to kind of articulate and explain better. One of them is something done by our Polish agency by my counterparts for a porn magazine which I thought was really beautiful. One of the creative people, I think, was one day going through the classified newspaper ads and realized that the oldest porn magazine in Poland was up for sale for a pittance… so they all pulled together and they bought that porn magazine and then they literally defined the problem — which is the entire thing of objectifying women, the male gaze, and the whole bunch of issues that come along with porn. So they created a campaign something called ‘The Last Ever Issue’ where they got a whole bunch of progressive feminist writers and they deconstructed and reconstructed that porn magazine and put it back out there. Obviously the target audience were the men who bought into the magazine to realize that there is actually a message in the medium. This campaign went on to win a whole bunch of awards globally and continues to inspire.

The second one — I will tell you the common thread between these three — the is what we did for Wendy’s in the US. You know Wendy’s doesn’t do frozen beef, many of the other QSR joints did that. How do we kind of communicate this message to this new you know tomorrow audience? So what we did was to showcase their favourite games — we had freezers put up which these gamers could go and destroy and through gaming we communicated a message which traditionally would have been a TVC or a press ad.

The third one is what we did locally in India is right at the start of pandemic for Colgate where we realized that you know there is a whole bunch of dentists network that Colgate has access to and a whole bunch of people who were during the early part of pandemic struggling at home with toothache or other oral care problems. We said why don’t we kind of convert both of this and get some synergies going. We created what was called ‘Dentist for Me’, which was a platform where you know we got dentists to give live consultation to patients who needed their service. The common thread, Sreeni, in all these three campaigns is the changing idiom and grammar and syntax of advertising — you know one doesn’t know where advertising ends and the act starts, where creativity ends and technology starts, where communication ends and culture starts and that for me personally as a student of advertising is the greatest takeaway whether it’s done by VMLY&R or whether it’s done by some really brilliant agencies all over the world. For me culture changing work, sustainable work, society improving work is what we as an industry should focus on.

So, this  my last question: You spoke about the essential dharma of advertising, advertising in one way is the zeitgeist — the spirit of the times. At the same time, it is also informed by societal change in more ways than one. Do you think advertising at a deeper level is sociology in action?

I totally think so — we are both the problem and the cure at the same time and we need to be aware of that and the advertising industry needs to own up that responsibility. As the practitioner of this craft I believe that advertising has in many ways contributed to society over the last hundred years or more… It has also been an accelerator because it’s truly accelerating and many a time it’s been like a run-away car going out of control and we have seen the deleterious side effects on society, on environment… It is important to consider what we bequeath to the future generations… I am nobody to sit in judgment on what is happening but I believe now it’s our responsibility to create this sustainability ethos, this inclusivity ethos and use our creativity and skills to be able to also bring the balance that the world desperately needs.