It is possible that an idea is truly big only if you can tell that story across any media vehicle. So what is a big idea for me is today changed from ‘Hey it’s a great script, a great TV film is possible on this idea’… I don’t think that way anymore and that is the only big change I have made in my mind. It’s big if it’s possible to tell the story irrespective of medium and format. It’s like saying people are not one-dimensional — I am different for different people, different circles. A brand can also be different for different circles of target audiences. You know we used to once say ‘what an opportunity to do a film’, but today I am not terribly excited about just the film… I am saying take an idea and let’s do ten things with it,” says SHRIRAM IYER, Chief Creative & Content Officer, TILT Brand Solutions, in an interview with 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, brands 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 Shriram Iyer, Chief Creative & Content Officer, and Rajiv Chatterjee, Chief Business Officer – Content & Production at TILT Brand Solutions, a creative agency that offers custom Strategy, Creative, Content, and Production services.
Shriram Iyer is widely regarded as one of the best creative minds in the industry and comes with great lineage, having conceived of marquee campaigns, such as those of Pepsodent, Axe, HSBC, ICICI BANK, and BBC World News among others when he started out at Lowe Lintas, Mumbai. Subsequently as President and National Creative Director of Mullen Lintas, he led the widely admired campaigns on Tata Tea, Bajaj Avenger, Too Yum, Voot, Havells, and Dabur. Shriram is an equally inward man, paying close attention to organizational/agency culture, something which he helped transform, both at Lowe Lintas and Mullen Lintas. His contribution to agency culture has been recognized as central to Mullen Lintas’ success within just 2 years of launch.
Rajiv Chatterjee began his career as a tea auctioneer, later joining Lowe Lintas, Bangalore, where he rose to Vice President by sheer dint of passion in work. Rajiv brings to the table equal interest and competency in both business strategy and execution excellence and has forged great partnerships across sectors. He counts among his relationships those most notably with Britannia, Fabindia, Fastrack, GoDaddy.com, ITC, Olx.in, Pernod Ricard, Policybazaar.com, Tanishq, Tata Tea, The World Bank, Vivo Mobiles, and Wipro among a host of others.
Welcome to the show, Shriram and Rajiv.
Sriram one good start point for conversation could be the founding philosophy at Tilt. One brand, many stories and what you say a stories liberate brands and given the times we have come to inhabit and challenges in communication. How do you effectively excavate more and more stories and tell them to a set of established medians how do we meld message and medium in any of multiple mediums and competing attendants brand Sriram?
Honestly I don’t think we only put the brackets on what should have been done earlier on… As agencies we were a little slow to adapt to changes that were taking shape in creative environment. I do remember a time some 8-10 years ago when we used to feel like look there is so much more we could be doing in terms of expressing ourselves and telling other kinds of stories for brands. So everything needed to go through the same mould so much so that we were pretty much used to as the agency formula. We used to put together a brief and subsequently reach a ‘great’ insight and translate it into a piece for television. Before that print was big so we did that for print and radio and suddenly we were sitting on just almost everything you can imagine — and suddenly there was a whole lot of media for you out there. You know like studying from your WhatsApp status and Facebook what’s on your mind everything is media and you can’t be saying the same story in the same manner across different media. So in our age it is liberating to know that there could be more than one way to tell a brand story.
So it’s like let’s not go jump into coming up with an idea for TV alone, let’s look at an idea for what it is and then see if there are more kaleidoscopic ways of putting it across. The only principle that I think we rely on now while applying ourselves to story-telling is a bit of a chicken and egg thing — you can do the story-telling and decide which media it should sit on, or you can just look at that beautiful media environment and say look this brand deserves to make its presence felt across all of these media vehicles available. Let’s arrive at a big idea that is truly big that it doesn’t rely on a particular form like it’s so today.
It is possible that an idea is truly big only if you can tell that story across any media vehicle. So what is a big idea for me is today changed from ‘Hey it’s a great script, a great TV film is possible on this idea’… I don’t think that way anymore and that is the only big change I have made in my mind. It’s big if it’s possible to tell the story irrespective of medium and format. It’s like saying people are not one-dimensional — I am a different Shriram for different people, different circles. A brand can also be different for different circles of target audiences. So it started like that and it was this thinking that has allowed us to experiment with form and media options. You know we used to once say ‘what an opportunity to do a film’, but today I am not terribly excited about just the film… I am saying take an idea and let’s do ten things with it! There is so much out there to do justice to it. So I think the most important thing is creatively liberating…
Shriram, how well is this understood in the industry how well is it understood by brands themselves? Is it being taught in advertising schools — this differentiation that one size doesn’t fit anymore?
I am not so sure it’s been taught but I have a feeling that it’s an inevitable understanding that agency folks are coming to. There is no way of moving forward if you don’t start to implement it — you can call it whatever… it’s not a patented tool or it’s not a piece of machinery. It’s only ‘understanding’ that we have chosen to call it for ourselves. That understanding is critical and for everyone as they go along and maybe if you are a more malleable agency you can quickly keep changing the pieces around and do things more effectively. But if you are part of a large monolithic network agency type structure these things take a while to permeate the system and become a culture. In the end it’s not a science, it should be a culture only because it is still a creative business and just like we can live and breathe one or two ways of storytelling we should be able to live and breathe another fifty! It’s going to have to be that organically implemented only because it’s not a physical tool — it’s a way of thinking.
Right, I concur…
I am hoping that if there are universities and places that are in touch with current realities I am sure that in their own ways they are probably seeding it you know.
You have at Tilt launched earlier this year StudioT, where as you say the objective is “to solve the challenges of creative asset conformity, quality, and efficiencies that brands face when they engage with multiple specialists”. Could you shed more light on the idea of creative asset conformity?
So it’s really quite simple because as Shriram was saying because there are so many stories to be told across so many different media and each media comes with its own kind of conformity for that landscape. It is critical that someone kind of understands the entire long tail of asset development, so basically we started StudioT because we saw that many a time there was a slip when the creative asset shifted from one agency to another. Asset could be in terms of ideas, it could be in terms of visual identity, it could be in terms of you know the way a brand projects itself and because there were so many different mediums to kind of put yourself out there. We felt that perhaps a consolidated kind of outfit that would help develop the asset right across from the film down to what your hashtags should be — that really was the idea of starting StudioT.
You speak about the criticality of “every element of brand communication having the same levels of quality, impact and ‘brand-speak’”. To pick up from where Rajiv left, how do we ensure communication embodies the same levels of quality and impact in whatever medium we choose…
I think that creators cannot be sitting in silos… Let the same core team manage it so the people who own the idea should also be the experts on every other medium that’s available — which is really going back to a culture where all the creators are all the people needed and responsible for the job and are pretty much involved in it upstream. I think that loss of consistency happens when it it’s treated like some kind of assembly line where the upstream guys have nothing to do with the downstream executive. So, I mean in my head I have sort of simplified it — it is that there is no upstream and downstream anymore, it’s just all this one big continuum and everybody is an expert on pretty much everything within that pool so there may be some people who have a specific skill set so they will go run with that but the core of the idea and the core of what needs to be done for this particular brand should not get diluted and should not get siloized.
I think we can guarantee consistency because typically as agency folks we are trained with you know obsessing about tone of voice about what’s right and wrong in very nuanced ways we seem to know what is right and wrong for a brand to do, say, speak, feel you know and I think that gets lost the moment you know you turn this into a turn key assembly line kind of process. So, I think in a way we are crunching it all back, we are all sitting under one roof knowing exactly what’s going on with this brand and every medium we are able to course correct.
Rajiv, I wanted to just pick from where just Sriram left about what is right and what is wrong probably sometimes the brand themselves may not be aware. How would you decode that ‘not knowing’, how would you decode what is right and what is wrong when it comes to as you said asset conformity?
So actually let me just briefly touch upon what Shriram said earlier — that is if we imagine a brand as a human being we have a fairly consistent idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. And you know there is that saying that “nothing is right or wrong, only thinking makes it so”. But you know if you do a certain action then you come across as a certain sort of person and I think that same principle applies to brands as well. Therefore, like Sriram had mentioned earlier, having worked on a brand for a reasonable period of time and having been in touch with the consumer because that’s really where its starts — I mean it’s always the consumers first — it becomes imperative to kind of set your guidelines in the sense that ‘I can be funny but I can’t be obnoxious’ and I know a lot of brands that have sort of tipped over… the world has become very unforgiving about both people and brands and, therefore, I think being very clear in your head about the area that you operate in is critical.
How do you negotiate this area with the brands and how do you manage this area of conviction or convincing a brand as to what is their brand?
I mean that’s pretty much principally what we do… We work with the brand owners and we can arrive at what the brand should be about and what the product is about because the brand can’t be too far away from the product, given the question as to what are the consumer needs that you are actually addressing. I mean you may have a great brand proposition but there may be very few consumers that actually care about it. So, therefore does it make sense to put out millions of dollars in marketing if actually nobody wants to buy your proposition… At Tilt, early on we set down that part of what is it that we want to be known for what is the path that we want to follow.
(Shriram): Also you know I just wanted to add to it — the responsible brand custodians at the client end seem to intuitively know what their brand should be about. Very subtle things about the tonality and pitch seem to be coded into the brand managers who also accept that in execution when you take that leap, we need to make sure that it’s in sync with what he already knows or is sort of secretly professing, because the one thing that the brand manager can’t do is execute. He has a vision but he is relying on us to execute it right… I used to think we were the ‘ideas guys’, but today I am quite convinced that we are just executing an idea the marketing guy has — he just needs a voice that is responsible enough to be in sync with what he already knows what the brand is about. He just needs someone to articulate it, for I think that us taking the entire credit for it is wrong!
(Rajiv): I always say it takes a great plan to buy a great campaign, but it’s impossible to do a campaign without a really sharp marketing mind on the other side of the table.
(Shriram): It’s fascinating because I have seen on occasion when you are struggling to put together those set of words to explain what he already knows… If you sort of preempt it, it’s like we stole the words out of his mouth… that, yes, is what my brand is all about. All he did was his to struggle to say it and we said it first, it’s probably just that!
Rajiv, further on in this collaborative sort of continuum, one quick question as to where does the consumer fit in when we talk about co-creation — a lot of those big brands do that, be it Unilever or an IKEA, where do we fit in the consumers, where do we get in his or her perspective in designing an experience, in designing a product?
I would feel that that’s the very core of why we do any sort of marketing because there is something in the consumers head and you have to do that due diligence to find out where that head is and how your product can address something that’s most fundamental to the business we are in and, therefore, like I was saying earlier if you think you have a great product and a great marketing plan, there are enough and more chances that the consumer will say ‘I don’t need this, you have gotten I all wrong’. There are enough examples in marketing within India and abroad where you know something that seemed like a great idea to market with agency folks kind of creating a disaster when it went to the market because consumers said ‘we don’t want that, thank you, but no thanks’.
Rajiv, your very recent work on Cred was conceptualized and executed by StudioT on the Wild West American frontiers ethos. Can you tell us something about the creative interpretative route you took and about the conversations you had with the client with regard to your interpretation…
(Rajiv): Well, I will answer half of that question and let Shriram answer the other half. The brief from the client was very simple. The product is aimed at people who own credit cards and that as you would know is a very miniscule part of a population. The vision was to make it an aspirational kind of a members-only sort of brand and, therefore, the part to where the advertising was heading was fairly clear. It’s not that we kind of went into it stating we have to make a Wild Wild West kind of commercial, but let Shriram explain more of that.
Shriram: So there was this idea about a well-travelled, say internationally exposed audience, and the idea was to attempt a story within that framework… At the briefing, I recalled incident in my life where you know I am travelling on a highway somewhere in the US and I bumped into a fellow Indian who runs a store. All of us may have seen it. The deglamourised version of the story is this where you bump into a fellow Indian who is successfully running a store somewhere abroad and there is a bit of joy in that… Now the idea that we already had was to say it pays to be good — because the conscientious credit card using customer believes in paying bills on time and that you are bound to be rewarded and which is what Cred does — reward you — for promptly making payments.
On one hand, there’s story of bumping into a fellow Indian, on the other, there was this old story I heard about a store somewhere in New Zealand I think that doesn’t have anybody running the store. All it has is a jar at the counter… the customer walks, in picks up what he wants, puts whatever money he thinks is the value of the product into the jar, and walks away. The counter is unmanned, there is no CCTV, and yet fundamentally people are good… I genuinely believe that left to themselves people are good so we just married the two elements — of that little experience of bumping into a fellow Indian and the jar at the store counter and arrived at the story and then Rajiv had this brilliant idea that you know what the guy who runs the store ought to be Jackie Shroff! We ended up adding a bit of swagger to goodness. I think goodness otherwise is seen as boring and dull in our world, but our conscious decision was to creatively blend goodness with swagger and that’s really how that entire look of slightly retro-ish feel store in the middle of nowhere American highway complete with Jackie Shroff sporting a pair of big Serpent came about and fell in place.
(Rajiv): The thing was that when you think of the good guys you think of side parting and you are buttoned up right till here and besides that good guys wear the fanciest sunglasses… they can also wear a Cowboy hat, you know, and they can go on this wild ride. You don’t have to be a bad boy for this and that said they have just as much swagger of the kind we have put out there!
Rajiv were you able to track the progress of this communication and the feedback thereof from the industry, from people, consumers, and of course Cred?
(Rajiv): So anecdotally we, of course, heard very very good things about it and if you see any of the cast members and their own social handles you will also see a lot of positive response so I would like to believe that there has been a very positive response…
(Shriram): The other interesting thing is that the founders and marketeers were both breaking every rule we used to stick to… So like the work they did for IPL that involved Govinda and Madhuri Dixit — the tonality of it is completely different from what they subsequently did, so we realised that there’s room for that too. So being a purist is also out of the window today. There is a whole new thought process that doesn’t believe in a consistent voice… rules are beginning to fade away as we move forward… You know we are surprised it took us this long because anyway we think of ourselves as purists where your brand needs to speak the same voice and must have the same nature of storytelling and all of that. On television here is a brand that goes and does extremely different styles of storytelling and yet is successful. I mean time will only tell how it adds up and what wonders it does but it’s quite shocking in one way and pleasantly so.
Shriram, in an essay you wrote in January 2019, you said: “We live in a time when brand loyalty is probably at its weakest. However, content that evokes emotion, stirs up discussion, generates social commentary is still king and can still create loyalty. Given the way today consumers are consuming content and making decisions on purchase, marketers are beginning to realise that advertising content today cannot be that one magical coin that you insert into a slot machine…” Before we address the substantive part of the question — that content is king — the operative part is critical, that brand loyalty has been the weakest, something probably also aggravated during the current year. What is ailing brand loyalty and how could you address it from the content perspective?
One is I think that people are also spoilt for choice — today in e-commerce for example we keep looking for deals, so that has changed the landscape fundamentally. There is greater deal-seeking mentality and I think the more you think deals the less you think brands… In such an environment I think even the big brands struggle because suddenly that whole perception of what a brand means to me has really gotten diluted. What is content going to be? The answer to this in my head is that content is still the conduit loving a brand and brand love is something that you can get a big premium on if we succeed in getting it right. I am getting this entire content game right for a brand like let’s say Redbull —I have no reason to love RedBull because I am not a consumer of it but I love RedBull if I think about energy drinks, I also love it because of RedBull TV, so RedBull TV for me is RedBull and every brand’s presence online across multiple platforms and the world of assets that they are creating has become the brand… now all the more given video and video traffic opportunity to create love for a brand through its content.
There is evidence of it pretty much all over the world… I don’t know why but I am always on RedBull TV looking for the next big video they put out and they have created a personality, they have created a character and pretty much unshakable… now it’s like those videos and the emojis that they have created that occupy my mindspace. Earlier I thought that it used to be there and then it got diluted and people didn’t know how to manage content for the brand and now slowly as the dust is settling, I feel like we are able to harness content better. For us Dream11 is an example. There are all kinds of fantasy brands out there but we have managed to call out a voice, we have managed to own gully cricket and we have three Seasons… we are seeing that it is a preferred brand you know because of what we are doing with the content. So there is hope for me stick to brand content — I think probably only the significant conduit left. Again can I like prove this scientifically? Perhaps not, but I am sure data guys can call out the numbers.
(Rajiv): When you do a 30-second commercial it goes out there and sells the product preposition or a brand preposition — people know that it’s designed to get you to spend your money but when you do content I mean there is no direct relationship, there is no transactional value to that. But you create a very very favourable disposition towards the brand and therefore the next time you need that category and you are probably going to buy the brand.
Rajiv, from the brand side, brand owners need to as you say a better understanding of ROMI through a series of customized creative offerings, while on the creative side there is the imperative of blending both the right and the left brain — culture, belief, and attitudes on one hand, and consumer behaviour and consumption data on the other. So advertising is a serious act of communication couched in sociology and data analytics. How do you look at the evolution of advertising not only as a craft but also a science?
Sreeni, brands are increasingly focussed on ROI and today it is possible to measure ROI more accurately than say 10 years ago. There are enough tools in place there are enough practices to kind of help you get that data. The fact that more and more clients are getting digitally savvy I think plays a big role in clients wanting to because they know it is possible, so once they know it is possible everybody is kind of talking that language and that wasn’t there. I mean I remember when I started out it was a far wider kind of thing, such as secondary sales data, primary sales data, wholesalers and all of that and that would determine what the return was on the dollar we spent in building that brand or doing that particular campaign. I think the turnaround time for that has become very quick and therefore people are far more focussed on that.
(Shriram): I mean they are able to accurately measure efficiencies like never before you know. I think TV is still is largely difficult but the digital medium you know what’s working or not — it’s like a mirror you put out a piece of work on a brand and you know whether it’s working or not may be by end of the day. And then you can course correct and put something out again and see how that works and the differences is good enough for you to pivot. The decisions have become life-based on very clear sort of indicators.
(Rajiv): Also Sreeni I think advertising has always been a blend of planning an art and what to say, which is based on sociology and psychology. There is a very scientific way of finding these out, you know there are processes and all of that and of course you take that requirement and then you transfer that into the how to say it? And that’s where the creative magic happens.
(Shriram): The fundamentals are not going to go away.
Rajiv: I am the big believer in the overlapping of art and science because science for me is art and art itself is science. I think that debate is hundreds of years old, but my personal opinion is that they are interlinked in a very very strong way and advertising is just one small example there…
Shriram to you can you possibly name three of your most favourite campaigns from HSBC to BBC or your recent ones?
My favourites now are our recent works. I really, truly love our work on Dream11, I particularly like what we are doing on FlipKart. We are currently in the midst of doing some little things on Lever which is also nice. Yeah, but from my older work I like Pepsodent, I still love BBC, OLX was close to my heart. Somethings are very close to your heart, Havells is like too close to my heart, I mean I don’t need to work on it for the rest of my life to continue to be in love with that work. The thing is that some brands allow you to put a little bit more of yourself into it you know. And our training is that not every brand should be you, every brand should not smell like you. But some brands allow you the opportunity to put a lot more of yourself into it, but otherwise it’s Dream11 for me that would be my top favourite right now… And then, of course, there is great work that other agencies do which we keep seeing.
There is thin line to walk where you want to put something more of you into the campaign?
(Shriram): Some brands actually allow you to do so, some brands just allow you to dig into your memory… Like for me Dream11 is so beautiful because it takes me back every time to our cricket-playing days as kids. Every incident is something that has happened to one or more of us at the agency, you know while playing cricket. So it’s easy, it’s a deep well to drop into, the stories keep coming and you have been through each of those ads yourself in your real life!
On the business side must have some spoken about it but what to your mind emerging contours of the client agency relationship given the times we have come to inhabit lately? What are the emerging contours?
(Rajiv): I think, Sreeni, more than ever I think clients are looking at a rock solid partner and I think a lot of the efforts that we have made are to partner them across the marketing funnel. I remember hearing stories of agency-client relationships in the 80’s and 90’s where you couldn’t tell who was the client or the branch manager on the table but I think those times are now coming back. I think there are also a lot of newer clients — founders for example — who would also like to constantly jam and evolve like the product itself. I also think that partnership depends on us having a very strong point of view on your client’s business and your client’s marketing efforts. At Tilt, where we are trying to collapse the different silos, that’s also a very critical part for us to kind of internalize and so Shriram and I are basically a hot line away from almost all our clients.
Shriram, you have paid lot of attention to agency culture, you continue do that, tell us about the salience of the idea of agency culture which I think closely relates to what Rajiv just spoke about.
We were in our third year last year — so for two years we all were like this bunch of people where we knew what each one of us was going through, we all knew what briefs were live, we all knew who was stuck where… and then this crazy pandemic happened and we all started working from home. We said ‘hey, work from home is you know just like Covid has forced digital transformation’. May be work from home is the way forward except that now when we did come back to the office after a whole year we realised there was no substitute for that at least in our business. May be the IT guys, may be someone else… but the rest of the world can afford to work from home. I just don’t think that there is any substitute for a bunch of people coming into workplace every day and attacking problems… Banter is hugely underrated I think. I think this business is still about great quality banter you know. We are not saving the world, we are not doing anything terribly significant. It’s a job like any other but the process require people to be genuinely on point enjoying it and sort of being a little on the ball and having somebody quickly to just bounce it off to check if they are on the right track. And this whole exchange of ideas is oral, it’s still a very primitive culture…
I think despite all advances that we may have made we still thrive on this whole primitive form of talking to each other and exchanging ideas. And it grows and then like everyone’s personality is out there, the workplace becomes like beautiful you know a ‘bubble of happiness’ and wit and all of that and that becomes your culture. It’s no major thing as long as you are a good human being, coming in without baggage and insecurity to the place we are going to be good at what we do… I think it’s happiness that is the culture of the agency, there is no other. And banter is the only way to arrive at big ideas. If you boil it down it’s just that… Of course, it’s science, it’s due diligence and big data and all of that, that has come into our lives… but, in the end, culture is still a few people sharing dabbas.