careers, creative, industry

Note To Self

Over the course of my eleven-odd years in advertising and digital marketing, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the greatest bosses one could ask for. They’ve taught me not just how to do better ads, but also about how to be a great boss. So, every now and then, I find myself recollecting – and scribbling down – their words and deeds, trying to constantly teach myself how to be a better leader. Here are some of the notes I’ve written over the years – from my bosses to myself.

First: don’t worry about the boots you’re stepping into. You’ve been hired for a reason. Either you’ll continue where your predecessor left off. Or bring a new, much-needed perspective to things.

Be happy with what you’ve inherited. Change comes later.

Not every role needs you to change things around.

Give yourself time to judge the people you’re working with. Understand them first, form opinions later.

Spend time with each of your team members in your first couple of weeks. Have several meetings – with the whole team; art; copy; ACDs; ACDs + teams. Understand how they work and what work they do. Allow them to decide how they work, so long as it isn’t too out-of-sync with the way you work.

Get to know your team at a personal level. Have those non-work conversations. Every day.

Remember your own ambition: to build India’s best digital creative team.

Lead by example. Don’t waste a minute of your day. Work harder, think smarter.

Remember your principles:

  • Every brief is an opportunity to do great work for a brand. Aim for a great idea in every piece of work that crosses your desk.
  • Chase perfection in execution. Every word of copy, every element of art.
  • Every post, every tweet, needs to be perfect. Be ready to pick fights about this.
  • Aim to crack a beautiful idea every time. Something that people have never seen before. Something that’ll blow their minds.
  • Corollary: Sometimes the simplest ideas work best.

Compromising with yourself kills greatness. If there’s even the slightest hesitation in your mind, speak up. Take work to the client only when you’re thoroughly convinced by it. You aren’t here to win a popularity contest – you’re here to do great work.

When you’re assessing work, be frank. Be honest. Be brutal. But be constructive. Your team looks to you for the solution. Provide it.

You’re in digital marketing. And more often than not, you will need to move the client along to where you are. Be ready for fights, heartbreak, disappointment and long hours. You’re getting paid to deal with that kind of shit.

Don’t get trapped in your cubicle. Get up. Move around.

Shut the lid of your computer when you’re working on something. Twitter won’t do your thinking for you.

Get out of office to brainstorm more often.

Follow your own creative process. (Below is mine.)

  • Re-read the brief.
  • Do some research online. Soak in the world of the brief.
  • Make the words collide. Don’t stop making the words collide.
  • Refer to the Wall Of Tech.
  • Think visually.
  • Your idea needs to make people laugh or cry or whoop or feel ashamed – basically, evoke an emotional response.

Find inspiration around you. Open your mind to people, culture, design, technology, art.

The quickest solution isn’t necessarily the best. Wherever possible, take the time to think through your actions.

Put yourself in your client’s shoes when working on a brief. But don’t keep those shoes on for too long.

Drink lots of green tea at work. It calms you down. And reduces your cholesterol 🙂

Keep the focus on the work. But remember it’s talented, motivated people who can give you that. Focus on the people and the work will take care of itself.

Stay calm. Don’t yell. Unless you absolutely have to.

Praise in public. Criticise in private.

Don’t overdo the praise. Avoid the superlatives. Because when you then use a superlative, it’ll mean so much more.

When you’re interviewing a candidate, interview them like Google would. It’s easier to wait three months to find the right candidate than to hire the wrong one in a month.

Try to get people to work during office hours. Rather than before and after them. Creative people get inspired by the life outside the agency doors. And deserve to enjoy their personal lives too.

Be strict. Don’t be rigid and inflexible.

Your door always needs to be open.

You succeed when your team succeeds.

You need to protect your team.

Trust your team to get the job done. But be ready to step in at any point if things go wrong.

Collaborate. Get to know tech, media, search and everyone else. They’re just as special as you think you are.

Delegate. But always know what’s going on.

Run a weekly job stat meeting with the team. And daily ones with the ACDs.

Continue to give credit where it’s due. You don’t need to be seen as the writer on every job. And remember, your name appears on the credits by default – so make sure the work is brilliant.

And, lastly: if you’re not having fun, then you’re not doing it right.

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creative, digital, industry, trend

What’s Dead, And What’s Not

It’s become fairly fashionable in digital circles to pick on trends and describe them as ‘dead’.

And if you were to listen to every doomsayer out there, you’d probably believe that the digital marketing world was populated by brain-eating zombies.

Fortunately, to misquote Mark Twain, the rumours of certain deaths have been greatly exaggerated. So here is my take on what’s dead and what’s not.

The Digital Dead

The Digital Agency Is Dead

Doomsayers here, here and here.

Well, there’s no question digital agencies are the need of the hour. Unfortunately, not every digital shop has the ability to really think from a brand and business point-of-view. Most are still in the ‘engagement’ business, and spend their time coming up with different ways to give away iPads on Twitter.

The challenge is that the independent digital agencies in India have become acquisition targets for mainline agencies. Given time, mainline agencies will probably begin to truly integrate digital thinking into their mainline processes. Which means that digital shops may end up becoming nothing more than digital production houses.

The big “Unless…” here is that integration may happen the other way around. Where the digital shop may integrate video production, PR and event capabilities. They may start thinking from a brand and business perspective. And suddenly, they’ll be eating into the mainline pie.

Verdict: The digital agency isn’t dead…but unless they change their medication quick, they will pass on peacefully in their sleep.

The Full-Service Agency Is Dead

Obituaries here and here.

Sure, they’re coming under pressure from digital shops right now. But see above. Eventually, integration – whether driven by traditional agencies or digital agencies – will win out – from a creative, brand, business and economy point-of-view.

Verdict: The full-service agency is visiting the doctor regularly, and the pills are bitter, but the long-term prognosis is still good.

Email Marketing Is Dead

Eulogies here, here and here.

Yeah, look. As much as I choose to send most emails I receive straight to the bin, I have to admit that email marketing is far from dead. Gmail tabs notwithstanding.

Yes, open rates have dropped. But here’s another way to look at it. I was recently tracking Open Rates and Click Rates across a bunch of brands, and sure enough, they’d all declined to some level after Gmail tabs. However, Clicks Per Unique Open were up. Which showed me that I was engaging with my most meaningful customers.

Across all our brands, email marketing continues to drive conversions, cross-sell and up-sell. Based on smart analysis, segmenting and targeting. And it’s working for our clients.

Verdict: Alive and kicking. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Real-Time Marketing Is Dead

Evidence here, here, here and here.

Oreo screwed us all. What started as a single, beautiful (if opportunistic) tweet has snowballed into a flood of desperate attempts to capitalise on news. What Amul did in India on hoardings decades ago, brands are doing now on Twitter and Facebook.

And, let’s face it, 99.95% of all real-time marketing tweets are crap.

They’re a force-fit. A desperate attempt by a brand to sound cool and ‘with it’ by jumping on to an event that the brand might have absolutely no connect with. An event that may not even gel with the brand’s personality. And with creative that will most likely suck.

Verdict: It’s alive, but I wish it were dead so that brands could focus on what’s relevant to them and their audience.

Social Media Marketing Is Dead

Opinions here, here and here.

My take here is really simple. The last great innovation I saw on social media was Skyrec (Google it). Right now, I see brands busy spamming News Feeds and Timelines with “engagement posts” and, worse, contests. (More about that here.) It’s still driving clicks to e-commerce, but…

It’s become a numbers game instead of a quality game. Instead of following a funnel from broadcasting to narrowcasting, brands and agencies are sticking to broadcasting. 5 million fans? I have 10 million. And 30,000 Twitter followers to boot. Fuck you too.

Most importantly, Mark Zuckerberg has proved thrice in the last two years what I’ve been saying for a while longer – that social media cannot be owned media. Because you, as a brand, don’t set the rules. First, Zuck reduced the reach of Posts and made advertisers spend money to reach an audience they’d already spent money to acquire. Second, he introduced Timeline, and put paid to all those Facebook apps brands had spent crores creating. Thirdly, he gave image posts the maximum reach last year – and, this April, chopped that down, sending social media managers into a tizzy.

Over time, Facebook will become a brand’s RSS feed. And Twitter will become a brand’s influence marketing platform, once (if) agencies realise that contests are doing sweet fuck-all for a brand’s image and bottomline.

Also, from an agency standpoint, social media management is pretty much a loss-making proposition. Lots of man-hours, piss-poor retainers, ultra-easy to screw up. So yeah, it’s not exactly a bed of roses.

Verdict: Yeah, social media is dead, and I’m kicking the corpse on the way out.

Content Marketing Is Dead

Tears shed here and here.

Again. It’s a question of creativity. Most of the content going up on brand blogs and websites is repetitive, redundant and boring. There’s no newness, no novelty, no differentiator. Often, there’s no focus on a brand’s tone of voice. Most content is just clutter.

But, that said, we’ve just begun to explore content marketing. And, every now and then, brands like Red Bull will come along and do a space jump and content marketing will once again be the new darling of the crowds.

Verdict: Content marketing is alive, but just a toddler, and needs some hand-holding to grow up.

Banner Ads Are Dead

The shortest take yet. Yes they are. When was the last time you clicked on one, eh? Or failed to get annoyed by a pop-up, a pop-under or (that new darling of publishers) auto-play video?

Verdict: Save yer money, cut the life support, let banners die. And look for more organic ways to engage.

This kind of a topic sort of demands a poll, so I’d love to know what you think.

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creative, digital, insight, mobile

From Big Ideas To Little Ones

We’ve grown extremely used to clients – and indeed, Creative Directors – asking for the Big Idea.

The Big Idea is the sacred cow of advertising. The rock around which campaigns – and agencies – are built. Businesses are won and lost, brands are built and torn down, careers are made or unmade, by that elusive Big Idea.

These are the kind of words we bandy about to describe the Big Idea:

What is a Big Idea?

How we describe a big idea.

Jaago Re, What An Idea Sirji, Daag Achhe Hain, Open Happiness, Real Beauty…these are the kind of ideas that we identify with as Big Ideas. The kind of ideas we’re benchmarked against, the kind of ideas we’d kill to come up with.

They’re gargantuan. They go viral. They’re loved, they’re hated, but they’re universally spoken about. The media picks them up. Celebs tweet about them. Inevitably, they become part of popular culture and lingo. (And the agency’s showreel.)

But when it comes to digital, the world of software-driven marketing, there may be a different approach.

When it comes to agencies trying to develop a great app for their brands, they might want to start by identifying a small niche. A small problem, left unresolved.  A small opportunity to do something better than someone else has. A small gap in a market that nobody may have noticed.

Little ideas which may not sound earth-shattering, but which turn into brilliant, useful, engaging, entertaining apps.

We’re seeing app developers take this approach, and churn out apps that fill small gaps and suddenly become the de facto solution. And brands need to follow.

Some already have.

Pampers’ Hello Baby Pregnancy Calendar took away the need to visit a baby website to track your unborn child’s progress.

Walgreens, the local pharmacy, removed the need to manually set prescription reminders by automating them and allowing users to order through the app.

ColorSmart, by paint company BEHR, allowed you to choose paint colours to compliment an existing colour in your room, and held interior design angst at bay.

A really brilliant one was Chase Bank’s Quick Deposit feature on their mobile app. Which eliminated the need for a user to go to a bank to deposit a cheque. All the user had to do was scan the cheque number and details, verify the amount, and VOILA! (A great example of digital transformation as well.)

All of these are based on real human truths, and sound like little ideas, almost not worth doing.

Yet, they stand head and shoulders above the ruins of failed branded apps.

So the next time you’re trying to crack a branded app, put away the pressure of the Big Idea, and focus on the little one. Try and solve for the real problems, the ones we moan about in the privacy of our minds.

You might find truth in the old adage, “Less is more.”

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careers, challenges, creative, industry

Confession And Inspiration

Advertising is supposed to be the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

But somewhere down the line, you tend to forget exactly how much fun it can be.


It begins when you allow yourself to get sucked into the quagmire of briefs, deadlines and client issues. Before you know it, the term “fuck-all” has become a part of your daily lingo.


“This is a fuck-all brief!”


“How can I crack a great idea with this fuck-all deadline?”


“What a fuck-all client! He just doesn’t get it!”


The attitude you develop in your formative years is the attitude you take with you into your middle years. 


At some point, you realise that your Creative Director is being paid a lot of money. And you start thirsting to reach that same level. The journey is forgotten – all you think about is the end destination. You lose the Zen, the ability to focus on the here and now, and life suddenly becomes about hitting a target. And whining when someone hits that target before you do.


Along the way, the nature of your work changes. Gone is the edginess, gone is the humour, gone is the youth. You end up trying to play Creative Director when you’re not ready to yet. You may not notice. But your bosses do. And in that process, all you do is push that end goal further and further away.


The time comes when you manage to put out a significant piece – or pieces – of work. Or you take a path less travelled. A couple of jobs later, you’re where you wanted to be. The designation. The salary. The cabin overlooking the sea. A bunch of bright young people reporting in to you. And the ego boost to go with all this.

Then you find yourself in a rut again. Caught up in “senior management” things. Targets. Results. Client relationships. Processes. Evaluation. Playing mentor. Board meetings. Visions and missions. The whining begins. Again.

Slowly, it begins to feel that your job profile is, very simply, to deal with shit.

Where’s the fun in that?

Sound familiar?

A few days ago, I finished reading Dave Trott’s Creative Mischief.

Creative Mischief. Available on the Kindle store: http://amzn.to/NrBh2p

Dave Trott is one of those names you’ve seen in the award books fairly often. A former CD at BMP, he’s now at CST The Gate, a London-based agency with a global presence.

Creative Mischief isn’t the best primer on advertising there is. But it is by far the best primer on the attitude you need in the advertising business.

It’s exactly what you need when you’re feeling mentally jaded at any point in this exciting, fun, dirty, all-consuming, incestuous, joyful, overworked, underpaid, vain, glorious industry of ours.

It’s certainly reminded me of the mindset I had when I joined Lowe fresh out of college. It’s made me think, once again, of how much fun this business can be. It’s made me want to feel the fun again. No matter how long it takes. No matter what stands in my way.

It’s made me write this blog post. And, for the first time, write on this blog as the Creative Head of Jack In The Box Worldwide.

To all those young men and women in my team, I say this:

Find the fun in your job.

The fun isn’t about joking with your teammates and colleagues, or downing a beer with the boss on the terrace. It’s about the fun of coming up with an idea – under extreme stress, for a tough client, without a clear brief – that’ll solve a business problem. A headline that’ll make people laugh or cry. A web design that you’ll be proud to show off to your mom. The process is fun. The idea is fun. The joy is infectious. You just have to want it to be.

If you can’t find the fun in your job, maybe this isn’t the job for you. Maybe you’ll be happier doing a similar job in another agency. Maybe your fortune isn’t in advertising. In either case, I will be very sorry to see you leave. But I will be the first to encourage you to find something that makes you truly happy.

Don’t crib. About deadlines or briefs or clients. Look at it this way. Somebody out there is giving you the license to get creative by developing a campaign for their brand. Without them asking, you’d never have gotten the chance to show off your creativity. Yes, you need time and clarity to create the work, you need support to sell the work. But remember: the shit will always be there. It will only increase as you grow up. Whining won’t clean it up.

Don’t get bogged down by rules and restrictions. Yes, your work will always need to be on-brief and on-brand. You can’t do a sob story for Happydent. Or an adult joke for Surf. But ask yourself, “What are the boundaries and how far can I push them today?” If your idea isn’t doing that, push harder. Boundaries only expand when you push them. If you don’t, they’ll close in and strangle you.

Don’t knock the mundane processes. Job lists and job status meetings exist to make relatively unimportant tasks mindless and easy. Every ounce of your attention should be devoted to one thing and one thing only – pushing that boundary to create the best work you can. Work that solves the problem and makes you happy. Make the job list the mundane, not the job.

I could go on, but I’d rather advise you to buy Dave’s book. It’s the best $9.99 you could spend. 

Happy people = happy work = happy clients = happy people.

We all have big dreams. For ourselves. For our company. And we can only achieve them if we’re happy while achieving them.

And if I seem to be forgetting these thoughts at any point in time, you have my express permission to whack me over the head and remind me of them.

Let’s do this.


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