“Frankly, I feel the sim­plic­ity of be­ing an agency is lost”

The Brand Reporter - - INTERVIEW - ash­wini.gan­gal@afaqs.com

Vineet Bajpai, 39, for­mer Group CEO, TBWA In­dia, and present day chair­man, Magnon Group, has writ­ten his de­but fic­tion novel ‘Harappa – Curse of the Blood River’, a blend of his­tory, mythol­ogy, re­li­gion and crime. It took him two years to write it. This is Bajpai’s third book; ex­ist­ing (non-fic­tion) ti­tles in­clude Build From Scratch, The Street to the High­way and The 30 Some­thing CEO.

Bajpai set up Magnon, a dig­i­tal agency, in 2000; it was ac­quired by TBWA after 12 years, giv­ing birth to Magnon\TBWA. Magnon, we learn, has pulled in clients on the back of Bajpai’s books: “...sim­ply be­cause they read my busi­ness books and wanted to do busi­ness with the au­thor...” Edited Ex­cerpts from an in­ter­view with Ash­wini Gan­gal:

You’ve writ­ten three busi­ness and man­age­ment re­lated books. What prompted the de­sire to veer to­wards fic­tion?

Cre­atively ex­ploit­ing In­dia’s rich his­tory, mythol­ogy and her­itage has been a missed op­por­tu­nity. Harappa is an ef­fort in that di­rec­tion. When we read books writ­ten by bril­liant western au­thors like Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code, An­gels and Demons), we love them. The way a con­tem­po­rary thriller is writ­ten around the Knights Tem­plar or the Holy Grail is ab­so­lutely mind-blow­ing. But it com­pels me to think about the con­tent that can be cre­ated around the mys­ti­cal past of In­dia.

A book like (Brown’s) In­ferno takes you on a mys­te­ri­ous trip based on the western clas­sic Dante’s In­ferno or The Di­vine Com­edy. But why hasn’t a book ever taken us on a fan­tasy ride through, say, the great war­rior-saint Parashu­ram’s bat­tle with Sa­has­tra­bahu Ar­jun, the Ksha­triya king with a thou­sand arms? Why hasn’t a book ex­plored the dark and ter­ri­fy­ing nar­ra­tives of the Garuda Pu­raana?

The work that is be­ing done (around our her­itage) can hardly be called fic­tion. Au­thors are writ­ing about es­tab­lished and revered char­ac­ters like Shiva or Rama or Sita or Karna, and are sim­ply rein­ter­pret­ing - or even mis­in­ter­pret­ing! - well-known fig­ures. But the char­ac­ters in Harappa are all sculpted afresh.

You were 22 when you quit GE In­dia to set up Magnon, an agency you con­tinue to run. What, to your mind, has been the big­gest change in the agency busi­ness since then?

Frankly, I feel the sim­plic­ity of be­ing an agency is lost. When we started as a small but ef­fec­tive dig­i­tal agency many years ago, we did not work in a com­pli­cated en­vi­ron­ment of re­sources vs cost vs com­pe­ti­tion vs build or buy vs ven­dor vs de­liv­ery vs pro­cure­ment...we worked with clients as close strate­gic ad­vi­sors and part­ners. Clients did not treat us as ‘ven­dors’. We were their sound­ing-boards.

But now dig­i­tal has brought in harsh mea­sur­a­bil­ity. With mea­sur­a­bil­ity comes con­tempt, per­haps? Sud­denly the world of ‘gut cre­ativ­ity’ and sub­tle consumer be­hav­iour (anal­y­sis) has given way to cold an­a­lyt­ics and proof-of-de­liv­er­ables. It threat­ens to take the cre­ative ‘purist’ from the busi­ness of advertising.

And has the ‘the client’ changed too?

The client has changed in both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive ways. The pos­i­tive as­pects are her sharp eye on ev­ery dol­lar spent and the bang-for-the­buck ap­proach.

The speed at which bright brand man­agers, mar­ket­ing heads and CMOs are ab­sorb­ing the nu­ances of tech-based advertising and its em­pir­i­cal na­ture is daz­zling. But any de­bate with your agency on the mer­its of advertising ex­per­tise is dras­ti­cally counter-pro­duc­tive. Mar­ket­ing has to be dif­fer­ent from advertising – both are spe­cial­ist zones. The day you feel one of them can out­per­form the other... will take away the soul from the client-agency part­ner­ship.

Be­fore Govind Pandey took over as CEO of TBWA In­dia last Jan­uary, you ran the agency for close to two years. What was that ex­pe­ri­ence like?

Re­ward­ing. As a young en­tre­pre­neur who built a dig­i­tal agency from scratch, cre­ated value around it and sold ma­jor­ity share to a global pow­er­house like Om­ni­com, I was liv­ing any advertising/dig­i­tal en­tre­pre­neur’s dream. And then the op­por­tu­nity to be the Group CEO of a lead­ing multi­na­tional net­work at the age of 35 was a ter­rific plat­form.

What’s your take on the mat­ter of pres­sure of busi­ness on agency folk?

The ever-in­creas­ing pres­sure and em­pha­sis on the bot­tom­line and re­lent­less cost-con­trol by pro­cure­ment teams at the client’s end are com­pelling agen­cies to squeeze more from lim­ited re­sources. This man­i­fests it­self in the strain on agency ex­ec­u­tives.

The prob­lem is com­pounded by what can some­times be a re­gres­sive ‘agency cul­ture’. Why should ad ex­ec­u­tives be over-worked at all? If other ser­vice-based busi­nesses like soft­ware com­pa­nies or law firms or in­vest­ment banks can evolve into well-struc­tured, met­rics-based work­places, why can’t advertising?

Here I feel some agen­cies - and lead­ers - take pride in the chaos, which will even­tu­ally dam­age the qual­ity or prof­itabil­ity of the cre­ative out­put.

Many young agency ex­ec­u­tives want to write books. What ad­vice do you have...

You don’t have to write books on the things you know. As fic­tion writ­ers, you can write on the things you can imag­ine... one man com­bat­ting a hun­dred ser­pents, a woman fall­ing in love with a stone... it’s up to you.

Se­condly, re­mem­ber over 1 lac books are re­leased in In­dia ev­ery year; 95 per cent of them don’t sell even a thou­sand copies. The mar­ket­ing part is - un­for­tu­nately - more crit­i­cal than the writ­ing part. I don’t want to name writ­ers here, but they write garbage in the name of fic­tion or mythol­ogy, and then spend `2 crore mar­ket­ing that trash. They are the best-sell­ers of to­day.

So if you are plan­ning to write, plan to mar­ket as well and mar­ket­ing will take money, whether we like it or not. ■

“Dig­i­tal has brought in harsh mea­sur­a­bil­ity. With mea­sur­a­bil­ity comes con­tempt, per­haps?” VINEET BAJPAI

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