Saurabh Varma Curated
CEO of Leo Burnett Group India.
CURATED BY :
Is considering industry growth figures important for an agency?
Size cannot be equal to performance. For me, it is whether people engage with or share the content we create. And whether it ultimately leads to brands winning in the marketplace.
What would be your words of wisdom for young professionals who look up to you?
Start with the blessings you have. Everyone has them in abundance. You need to find yours. Put all eggs in the same basket. Go ‘All in.’ Accept failures. Learn. Don’t take your success for granted. Be paranoid about your own growth and learning. Remember 20% of you will be redundant every year if you don’t transform yourself Words of wisdom: Seek simplicity on the other side of complexity. .
Who are the icons that have inspired you to grow and strive for excellence?
Growing up my biggest icon was Subhash Chandra Bose. To this day, ‘Kadam, kadam badaye ja,’ remains my everyday motto. In the modern era, Mukesh Ambani is my hero. To imagine an India where everyone has an equal opportunity because of data is truly revolutionary.
What does a day in the life of Saurabh Varma looks like?
My day is guided by the paranoia I feel for my organization and for myself. I want Publicis to own the Power of One in India. This means relentless transformation in our business. At a personal level, I am paranoid about my own transformation. Knowing that 20% of me will be redundant every year is a powerful motivator.
How does your team pitches to a certain client?
We don't want to pitch a lot. In fact, we want to pitch very little. I think agencies often forget how much potential revenue there is in their existing clients. Our focus is organic growth. Going forward, our focus will be less on 'pitching' and more on 'prospecting'. There is a big difference between the two. Pitching is when you get invited for a pitch and you're one of five agencies competing for a business. Prospecting is when you create value for a client - even though they might not be your client - and ultimately win the business, maybe even without a pitch. The chances of winning a client are far more through prospecting than pitching.
Leo Burnett has been criticized for being too skewed towards awards. What's your take on creative awards?
I love awards. I think celebrating what we do is very important. We're all in this business to create, and then celebrate, great work. Having said that, I'll add - I am absolutely against scams. I am very clear that if this great work does not happen for our real clients, to solve real problems, it is useless. And it is not going to happen on my watch. You will not see Leo Burnett creating anything which is not for a real brief, to solve a real problem.
What are the changes you have made in Leo Burnett 2.0?
We believe the narrative is changing - it will no longer be about the 30 second spot. Leo Burnett wants to create 'trans-media storytelling'. We will create participative work, work that consumers can play with and share. It'll mean new people, new processes, transforming the way we take briefs and transforming the way we work. For me it is frustrating to hear agencies say, 'I have a digital agency'. It implies the main agency does not do any digital work. This is where the rest of the world was five years back. India needs to transform. Some countries are quicker. Say, the work that comes from Australia is a great benchmark to have. Across APAC, every country is in transition. India is behind the curve. Having said that, I think India will skip a few phases like it always has; we'll go through the transition much quicker than other countries. But the Indian advertising industry has still not 'integrated'.
How has the change in strategy impacted your other arms like Orchard and Indigo?
First, we’re united by that single ambition, which is to be among the Top 5 creative agencies in the world. Second is the function of deciding what the unique purpose of each company is: What is the leadership we need in that country and how we’re going to grow. If you look at Indigo, we are blessed that it’s a build agency. About 18 months ago, we were only a Mumbai agency. Today, we are one of the best holistic digital agencies in the country. For us, Indigo has been a unique growth story, but that’s only one part of it. The second part is integrating it with Leo Burnett as a network. Till 18 months ago, there were hardly any shared clients; Indigo and Leo Burnett had their own sets of clients. Today, we have integrated across the board on clients for whom we do multiple things, from search, social and retail to activation and ATL. There are teams from Indigo, from our park shopper unit, from activation unit all working together seamlessly to create solutions.
Are you looking at hiring more talent?
All the time. With our growth we need to continuously find new talent to join us, and like I keep saying, talent is what we call the ‘Positive A’ types.
How have you performed on people, product and profits all together?
I’ve already mentioned one part on the people front. The other part is, if we look at our teams across the board – the business directors, strategic planners or creative leadership team --. there’s a new team in Bengaluru, and a new leadership in Delhi. All of this is a function of knowing we need people who are digital by blood and understand modern paradigms. The industry is full of prima donnas, especially in India, but we’ve steered clear of them. One of the keys to driving integration is a focus on people who can collaborate with each other. So we’ve hired what we call the 'Positive A’ types – those who have the ability and guts to deliver, and also have a positive spirit about them.
What were the changes or reinventions you did after joining Leo Burnett as a CEO?
In 2013, we were already the Creative Agency of the Year, but our benchmark was India. We were not looking to become the best in the world. Now we are. If you don’t refocus on a new strategic mission, on a new ambition, you will become complacent and not move forward. That’s why the need to reinvent. For us, this journey is a function of three things -- people, product and profits. Profits are critical in the overall scheme of things, because our belief is, great creativity across centuries has only happened when you have prosperity. On the people front, we’ve made some significant changes. When I joined, everybody wanted a sense of comfort as far as creative leadership was concerned. There were some standard names floating around in the market, and everybody advised us to go for them.
How has been the journey so far in these 18 months at Leo Burnett ?
It’s been 18-odd months but it seems like a lifetime. For us, the journey always starts with a shared belief and common purpose for collaboration. If you ask any of the leaders or youngsters who have joined us, in the last 18 months, we’ve managed to make sure everybody understands what our shared belief is. As an organisation, we want to become among the Top 5 creative agencies in the world by 2017. Once you have that overall vision, it's about having a clear strategic roadmap to get there. And that is a function of structures, systems, people, the talent you hire, how you brand yourself in the marketplace and the kind of product you create. In the last 18 months, we’ve been very focused on our growth strategy, which is around integration and specialisation. Integration is not equal to generalisation; it’s not an idea that travels across different media. True integration is when you have a bunch of specialists working together to create magic. We’ve been focused on building our specialist pillars one by one, making sure they have the ability to work with each other. Every client wants integration, but not at the cost of not having specialisation.
Where do you think the problem lies, when it comes to being a successful advertising agency?