THE FACT is the commercials were not too many because many brands wouldn’t produce or would cut back production budgets… I don’t think you wouldn’t really make much headway anyway because for your customers and consumers it’s a global crisis and survival is paramount… you want to ensure that you and your family, your society, your neighbourhoods are safe. And brands need to co-exist and communicate in that same rhythm… So to me if I would have to tell you, it’s about ‘solve’ not ‘sell’. You know you need to solve, but a brand can’t solve every problem but you can be empathetic, you can show how you can try and comfort customers whatever your product may be,” says RAJIV MENON, Chief Executive Officer, Ogilvy Sri Lanka, in an interview with 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 Rajiv Menon, Chief Executive Creative Officer, at Ogilvy Sri Lanka.

Rajiv Menon has been in the business of distilling ideas… distilling the essence of brands, people, and situations. Rajiv’s practice has been beyond tradition and convention — something that has defined his body of work over the last three decades in the industry. His has been sociology and anthropology in action in the business of communication.

Rajiv has shaped the destinies of several brands in India, South East Asia, USA and UK for clients ranging from global Fortune 500 companies to Indian public sector giants to SMEs and entrepreneurs. And across categories as diverse as FMCG, banking and insurance, automobiles, telecom, hospitality, beauty, airlines, travel, IT, healthcare, mutual funds, durables, fashion and accessories, real estate, media, education, social causes and rural welfare.

K. G. SREENIVAS: How you are doing in Sri Lanka?

Rajiv Menon: It’s been a great journey here. I have just completed three years, it’s a beautiful island, a lovely set of people, very warm, and very hospitable. And I am trying to create some advertising here.

KGS: Sri Lankan could be conducive to that sort of creativity and engagement with brands and ideas and situations…

RM: Oh yes! It is. In fact, most islanders here have this beautiful, laid-back feel about themselves, not that I don’t mean there are not industrious but the fact is, this is something that we don’t really have in India where we are all running about in a rat race! Sri Lankans know we need to live in the present to enjoy the future. In India, as I see we are always thinking about the future! So here I think it’s been a charming lesson — of first enjoying today, for tomorrow will come and we shall enjoy that as well. So that’s the nice, beautiful, emotional underpinning for a whole lot of work that happens here. There is a beautiful undercurrent of humour as well, which again springs from this beautiful ‘chalta hai’ attitude. Like we have back in India. So that’s been a very beautiful thing which has also helped in terms of the resurgence in an island which has had a whole lot of natural calamities and wars.

KGS: From what you have just said, the island country is entirely contrary to being insular. It’s a very cosmopolitan, very modern, very competitive society.

RM: We have the core tradition operating alongside a contemporary mindset. You will find a lot of modern ways of doing things but you also have the very very core traditional values.

KGS: Rajiv, what has utterly changed in the last few months? Do we see a departure of sorts, breaking the continuum in the world of advertising and communication globally as it were?

RM: There has been a change of course. In fact, if there is one word that has been most commonly used has been the word called ‘unprecedented’ and everybody — from country heads to anybody and everybody keep using that word as a consequence of the magnitude of the problems. Now, if you look at it globally, a lot of brands have cut their spending and as economies are tanking big time everybody is now really looking for somebody to help out. Everybody is looking for a bridge over troubled waters as Simon & Garfunkel wrote way back over forty years ago. So changes have been unprecedented. In more ways than one, in Sri Lanka, I see this whole digital trend coming through. In terms of marketing and communication, digital has always been an arm even in Ogilvy where we have our own separate company called Ogilvy Digital.

So the small-time operators and
the neighbourhood stores started doing home deliveries. In that sense, it was a seismic shift in the way they conducted their business. The results were obvious — the bigger, better-known brands were not available, while smaller, local brands came into their own. So when it came to the daily bread, the brand name no longer mattered for you had a family at home to feed. You needed the bread,
the brands didn’t matter.

The pandemic conditions also meant that you had to wait for the essential services to really come over to your doorstep, which normally happens in larger communities or condominium. But what happened in the case of ordinary households catered by small-time traders was interesting. These traders decided to go online because as they had curfew passes — in Sri Lanka instead of a lockdown there was a curfew — so they could deliver to your homes and that really helped a lot because the bigger chains had a tough time with the heavy volume of orders crashing their systems. Besides, inventory management was becoming a problem because factories were also shut down. So the small-time operators and the neighbourhood stores started doing home deliveries. In that sense, it was a seismic shift in the way they conducted their business. The results were obvious — the bigger, better-known brands were not available, while smaller, local brands came into their own. So when it came to the daily bread, the brand name no longer mattered for you had a family at home to feed. You needed the bread, the brands didn’t matter.

So when it really comes to circumstances such as these, the product is what matters, the brands don’t matter, for I’d rather buy whatever is available because that’s what I need. So, a lot of these small unknown brands got into the kitchens.

KGS: So you think these brands have come into their own during the crisis they made themselves felt, known, and experienced alongside the bigger traditional brands?

RM: They were brands that probably did exist — at least I had never heard about them and I had colleagues of mine who said that they were using XYZ brand of bread which even they themselves hadn’t heard of before. So the thing is, these brands came to the fore because they were available and they were made by small-time bakers supplying their products to the small stores. But these were the brands that were filling up the small stores and these stores, in turn, were filling kitchens and stomachs — and that was most important really.

KGS: Can we extrapolate this experience globally of the emergence of small brands on the back of such an opportunity?

RM: Well, they did come to the fore during that time. Now it all depends on how they are really going to sustain their operations and how loyal customers would really be to them. But I would think when a brand comes into your life when you needed it the most — like ‘a friend in need is a friend in deed’ — that’s what really matters. So, I think they would continue to be in play — they won’t disappear so quickly as long as they maintain quality although customers can be fickle. So it’s like when the biggies come in, you typically walk into the large superstore where these small brands may not find space. So now it actually depends on how invested they are in themselves and touch an emotional chord. But I can tell you these brands can still do quite well but I can’t really tell you how well because biggies obviously have bigger purses.

But the most important aspect I would say for brands is that when the chips are down people are looking for communication, they are looking for survival you know they won’t give a damn to which ad is playing on TV. So, yes, there has been a proliferation in media in terms of numbers, but the fact is the commercials were not too many because many brands cut back production budgets. I think a lot of brands wouldn’t try to sell, you wouldn’t really make much of a headway because for customers and consumers there is a crisis out there where survival is paramount. You want to ensure that you your family, your society, neighbourhoods are safe. Brands have to co-exist and communicate in that same rhythm. You try and sell and you could be seen as being opportunistic! If you ask me I will tell you it’s about solve not sell. You know, you need to solve. A brand can’t solve every problem but it can be empathetic… you can show how you comfort your customers, whatever your product may be.

We did that for one of our clients here. We did actually two low-budget campaigns, showing just their logos — we just played around with their logo and we released the first set when Covid had just set foot in Sri Lanka and curfew was imposed. At that time, it was all about wearing masks, washing your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds, then about using hand sanitizers, and keeping social distance. These were the new norms and we had to educate people. So we just did a simple animated campaign where there was some sanitizer falling off, somebody washing their hands, and everything metamorphosing into the brand logo. So, it was a simple campaign where it was all about taking care.

The campaign was for an insurance brand — the message was ‘we want you to be safe and secure’, which in turn was also the DNA of the insurance company. That’s what a policy is expected to do. Here a brand actually got into a different mindset at that point of time at least. Ceylinco is the biggest life insurance player in Sri Lanka and their tagline is ‘Relationship for life’. At that point of time, that relationship was all about ensuring that you were safe. So we wanted to tap into that idea, meaning there would be a time for you to buy the policy and that time wasn’t now.  

Here a brand actually got into a
different mindset at that point of time at least. Ceylinco is the biggest life insurance player in Sri Lanka and their tagline is ‘Relationship for life’. At that point of time, that relationship was all about ensuring that you were safe. So we wanted to tap into that idea, meaning there would be a time for you to buy the
policy and that time wasn’t now.  

We did a second campaign when the schools had just reopened in early June, around the time when companies were also opening up with the lockdown and curfew being called off. Life was slowly getting back to normal, so we called it our post-Covid campaign and in the same style again because the budgets were really low. So we said let’s animate the same way. In it, the story played around the idea of a family coming together during the lockdown through the voice of a teenaged daughter who says how life was so beautiful in the last three months and how she saw dad helping mum with the cooking, and how her little brother actually would wake up early and do his own little bits around the house… and how she understood the value of her a little act of her granny’s — of putting away a little coin into a little piggy bank! She says how they would tease her, calling her thrifty, that but now how she knew the value of each coin! But that the biggest thing was the joy that family had with the schools reopening, dad’s going back to work, and mum’s getting busy, and with that she hoped this bond she discovered in the last two and a half months would continue. You know that became the logo and ‘relationships for life’ — we didn’t talk about any policy!

KGS: May I ask you to hold the thought there. To a larger question Rajiv: over the years you have worked across mediums, industries, and brands across regions, some award winning works to some mind-transforming films, brand-redefining campaigns, the journey has been quite remarkable one over the last 30 years to a creative mind such as yours. What is the role you see for yourself in messaging and branding?

RM: This is a pretty heavy question really. I believe that we have all come up with certain experiences as we go along and that’s why you have the corporate ladder. If there were a corporate elevator then it would have been a lot easier, faster, way quicker but as we go along we kind of have to keep learning. We are still learning even today. I am still learning everyday and the thing is, I feel you need to keep giving back and I spend a lot of time even in my daily work trying to mentor teams, you know guiding them along because I have been fortunate enough to have worked in several markets, have worked with several brands across the globe, and there is always new learning with newer consumer behaviour pattern. At end of day, we are all human beings, we all relate to certain stimuli but then we all relate to stimuli depending on the culture, the ecosystem that we live in. So those are obviously new inputs.

Consumers are growing continuously, their needs are growing, brand needs are also growing. So communication keeps changing. The lower middle classes would like to be middle class, middle class would like to be upper middle class — so you see this beautiful growth that’s happening in society. With aspirations growing, people switch to different brands, so as you move up Maslow’s hierarchy you also have brands strategically placed everywhere. I am not even getting into the self-actualization stage, but as you keep growing aspirations are growing, so the needs of advertising and communication are growing too. So you have a whole lot of the younger generation who is actually coming along and I tell people it’s best to start imparting whatever you know of whatever for you keep learning and, in turn, help them grow a lot faster actually than the times, I remember, during the pre-internet days long before Tim Burners-Lee had invented the world wide web!

Consumers are growing continuously,
their needs are growing, brand needs are also growing. So communication keeps changing. The lower middle classes would like to be middle class, middle class would like to be upper middle class — so you see this beautiful growth that’s happening in society. With aspirations growing, people switch to different brands, so as you move up Maslow’s hierarchy you also have brands
strategically placed everywhere.

The world is completely different today. I have this very pet quote of mine which is ‘leadership doesn’t happen in a day, it happens daily’ and you know you keep learning, you keep teaching, you keep leading and I see my role largely getting into those forms. While of course the newest brief still gets me really really excited as we are grow younger every day, I like to keep transferring this energy to a whole lot of people who engage with me, be my own creative team who are like my family, or the larger teams which are the management, or even our clients as well. So, it’s the mind… it tastes like whatever you marinate it in. So my job is to keep marinating every day!

KGS: While on the subject of marinating, I was thinking about disruption. Let me take you back to your United Breweries campaign. To innovate is to disrupt. To disrupt is to recreate. To recreate is to redefine. Your oeuvre and grammar are replete with the idea of disruption. Your campaign for United Breweries — Drink Responsibly — has been one such, with multilayered messaging and deep social impact. How did you redefine/revisit the client’s brief? Can you talk about tell us about how did you get to the nub of the brand when you said ‘Drink responsibly’?

RM: ‘Drink responsibly’ is something all global brands do talk about because they want you to consume them. But you need to be careful, for you cannot be driving after drinking. We should not be creating chaos in our happy surroundings at home. So that’s something brands has been talking about but when we actually were working on this — it was about 12 or 13 years ago — and the idea was to do a drink responsible campaign in a market such as India and how do you get people to really act upon a conversation. So everybody knows ‘drink responsibly’, you keep seeing it everywhere, you keep seeing the commercials that kind of end with words drink responsibly. It’s actually a blind spot when you actually start drinking those words just kind of fade away. You know all about it. With the kind of literacy levels that we have in India, everybody knows about it but how do you get somebody to act upon it. So I was trying to do some research and you know a lot of fabulous ideas come from insights, and those insights come to you if you really care to mind them.

You know some of which are on the epidermis — you know there are those basic consumer behavioural patterns that kind of go through but don’t you really want to get under the skin and try and find out. You will know where to mine it. You know a lot of domestic violence erupts from drinking and there were some alarming statistics showing how men after drinking go home and abuse their wives. I can’t recall the numbers because the campaign happened more than a decade ago. The other question as \how do you communicate that in a manner you are not using a surrogate because a liquor brand really can’t talk about it. So you typically have music, drinking water, carbonated water and all of that for a product that’s anything but that and everybody knows it. That kind of a hog wash is not going anywhere when you say ‘drink responsibly’ — that is not really going to percolate anywhere.

Rajiv Menon’s ‘Drink Responsibly’ campaign for United Breweries at Lintas.

By the time of your third drink the
coasters are adequately wet and then what you see is a battered woman with a black eye staring back at you! It’s a terrible visual that you behold and at that moment I think however high you are, all of that could have just kind of collapsed within because it hits you home very hard, very deep, most importantly, through an action that you yourself initiated. So it’s your action that actually created it, which actually metaphorically means your drinking action is going to lead to abuse probably in the next hour and that’s the genesis
of the whole idea.

So you had to get into consciousness in some form, so how do you get into that consciousness? That was the first challenge. Secondly, when a person is not sober, getting into the consciousness is a lot more difficult because his mind is also not there in its place and he is in a merry space, floating somewhere, and then getting into him is going to be even more difficult. So that was the challenge we had! So we hit upon the ‘coaster’ — the bottle and coaster share a brotherhood, for your bottle is always on a coaster. So the whole idea was what we could do with the coaster that could drive the point home as effectively. So we had this image of a woman, a battered woman, she had a black eye, and she was printed on the coaster, and we just put a white film on top of it and that film was something like you have various kinds of films today in the printing process, where when you print you have some which react to heat, you have some which react to water. when anything wet is placed on it that film starts dissolving. You start seeing whatever is below because it’s transparent.

So these were plain white coasters when this chap starts drinking with his friends — as the beer bottles and whatever he is drinking it’s full of ice or it’s chilled that’s kept on the coasters and as the water starts getting seeping into the coaster the upper layer starts disappearing, so at one point of time as he is waiting for his drink and then he kind of looks down he starts seeing the semblance of some woman there. You really can’t see some parts which are not adequately wet enough but are still white. And then slowly you start seeing that image appear. By the time of your third drink the coasters are adequately wet and then what you see is a battered woman with a black eye staring back at you! It’s a terrible visual that you behold and at that moment I think however high you are, all of that could have just kind of collapsed within because it hits you home very hard, very deep, most importantly, through an action that you yourself initiated. So it’s your action that actually created it, which actually metaphorically means your drinking action is going to lead to abuse probably in the next hour and that’s the genesis of the whole idea.

[TO BE CONTINUED…]