October 22, 2019
“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” —Vladimir Lenin
2019 marked Dentsu Webchutney’s ascendance to becoming the top creative agency in India—and in Asia. In defining the future and defying the past of the advertising industrial complex, we have surprised ourselves and the rest of the industry. What I hope to offer is some insight into how our most successful office in Bengaluru works. Dentsu Webchutney is fundamentally open and, by my eyes, this openness is best represented in our Bengaluru office.
Of course you’d expect someone from the company to say that. Of course, there’s more to it than jaded biases. The thesis follows: if digital media has always been touted as the future (as this mystical, cataclysmic event) this year it matured to become the present in a rather sobering and understated manner. Unknowingly, our journey to the summit began four years ago in Bengaluru as our agency began toiling on capturing the upside on our biggest insight yet.
Two years ago, I covered my first six months in advertising, describing the (happy) culture shock of arriving in an advertising agency that sounded a cut above the public perception of the sector:
The opportunity is enticing: we help shape the internet & media on it, while also defining use cases; this endeavour requires patience and irreverence. Instead of falling in love with the goal (as university education “imparts”), there’s value in learning to fall in love with everything that supports the outcome.
Being technically-inclined, the opportunity to communicate the effects of technologies is a gratifying challenge. In the last year, adding Google, Uber, and IKEA to our roster along with stellar creative contributions with long-time partners has given us a large creative & strategic canvas.
New challenges continue to define our daily work. We were made for this. The Bengaluru outpost started operations in 2015 to take advantage of a new wave of consumer brands. The singular mission is to push the envelope for creative applications of technology for disruptive companies. No creative agency really understood technology companies or the internet tidal wave. It’s core to how we operate. It led to a dizzying number of additions to agency culture, like remote work. Now we work less like an advertising outfit shooting down briefs and more like a lab concocting new ones for ourselves. This uncanny readiness to fail as a group resulted in a new creative standard we can’t wait to surpass.
Everything about digital advertising and marketing is nasty. People don’t trust it, the science is duplicitous, platforms are self-serving, if anything, and all our premonitions about it are wrong. And yet! And yet! People spend more time online, growth continues unabated, and advertising proves anti-fragile.
All things considered, Dentsu Webchutney is in a unique place, well positioned to take advantage the future. Digital-first and creatively-led, we want to be experts in a changing world. Expertise isn’t justified by shipping memos to clients and publications claiming to understand what will come next (we don’t.) The focus is instead on actualising its potential. It’s a humble recognition of the inevitability of our media ecosystem, where a billion users usher explosive new use cases. This model predicated on changing ourselves as technology evolves has proved to be robust.
Success isn’t fully understandable after the fact. But I can postulate. I’ve seen us place a premium on the thinker-doer. It’s the kind of person who can go all the way from thinking to doing the groundwork for a project. This means is that people aren’t just good at thinking up ideas, but they’re responsible for its end execution, too. Thinker-doers find themselves working on exciting new projects to figure out the nuts and bolts of a system, all the way to realising the project. Our predisposition towards talent native to the internet keeps us on our toes, they skew young, ambitious, and possess a willingness to break barriers. Full-stack.
This new way of working enables breadth: junior writers have the breadth to think of anything from a social media post all the way up to the next mega-budget brand campaign. It means our copy heads lead ORM responses on occasion. It means our strategy teams sometimes double down on account management, and account management adjudges creative output. It might even result in a 28-year-old ECD. Sound like the upside down? Welcome.
Ambidexterity in skills flourishes on large-scale projects. Ideas have an incubatory period when we debate, argue fiercely on our vision and direction for the project. Every participant in the room has to contribute. Once we set course, each individual function iterates, with its expertise, to reach the desired end point. At a smaller scale, say daily work, it allows disparate teams to stay on the same brief: let’s do something that makes people smile and have fun. People learn early to be anything but possessive about their roles. Swiggy’s Voice of Hunger saw people outside the brand contribute out of the campaign’s potential to scale.
Reaching the end point isn’t guaranteed, natch. Approvals, production partners, budgets often curtail the scope of certain campaigns. We’re lucky to work with our marquee clients in this regard. They are ambitious, open to ideas, and realise this new way of working is essential to keep their brand ticking.
Work at digital agencies isn’t compromised any longer now if it’s digital first. This used to be a handcuff. Now it offers optionality. Everything is digital first. We have the depth to pull these off, with digital natives, folks with ATL backgrounds, and hybrid creatives outside advertising’s purview. The challenge du jour is to excavate new expectations from the digital and physical worlds.
This drives the agency to stay on the move too. Internal, company-defining initiatives are thought up by individuals, only to see its effects ripple across the company organically. Top-down mandates are rare. The predisposition is to think of solutions rather than dream up problems to which we have answers. We never feel big despite doubling in size every year.
Growing pains remain, to be sure, but people have felt keen responsibility in creating value above all. Organisations are perfectly pathological and aren’t without their shortcomings. Chart-topping heights revealed the breaking point to get there. People doubled- if not tripled-down to achieve these wins, and their own priorities now take precedence. Pathological resistance to bigness brings a responsibility on our future growth to become more of ourselves before becoming one of “them.”
Our latest experiment, The Ad Fellows, welcomed its first participants last month. In an industry that lacks appropriate mentorships and training, we took up the challenge of building a world-class internship program for anyone. The internet is open to anyone and so are gates to any industry. To realise the potential, we formally set course for this challenge in India. We far exceeded our wildest ambitions: 80% of entries were outside advertising, with 60% of them from non-metro locations. Applications exceeded internal expectations by 60%. Sreenath took a bold step by taking a sabbatical from a job in IT at Infosys. Surabhi abandoned math for rhetoric when she left her Chartered Accountancy studies for The Ad Fellows.
A penchant for learning follows work other agencies might consider bread and butter. Instagram and Twitter have emerged as the most interesting destination for earned media, and our ears are close to the ground. We have a deep sense of optimism that organic content can have an outsized impact on a brand’s business performance. We’ve delivered sixteen hacks on Instagram in the last year, had two massive TikTok campaigns, and seen our earlier social hacks turn into official platform features (notably, shopping on Instagram.) This fastidiousness to follow up on platform features turned a new feature like audio messages into a Cannes Lion-winning campaign. On another project, a leading politician was interviewed based on our research leading up to the Indian General Elections. These wins serve as credible proxies of understanding media for ourselves.
Strategy and planning teams are organised to bring depth into every single large-scale piece of work we produce, well in advance. One distinct example stands out in my time here. Over 2017, I spent months chasing down everything from new user paradigms, available APIs, and scouring App Store reviews to understand emerging use cases and frustrations with voice UIs. Its future impact in India, with typing challenges became obvious. When the time to incite shopping for a 200+ million Indians with deals and discounts came around in September 2018, we helped ship Hagglebot. An uncompromising product, our learning over many months extended Google Assistant’s API and tested the limits of what was possible on the platform, setting the benchmark for voice applications. According to Google, Hagglebot was the third-most used action in India. Keeping your eyes on the bleeding edge and build the bridge so the rest of the world can catch up can pay off. We found amazing partners and friends in Google Zoo to bring this to life.
This bridge is key in a world where the future is an easier sell than the present. Through our history we’ve realised that infatuation with one particular technology or medium isn’t a sustainable working model for an advertising agency. Before others publicise initiatives such as blockchain, VR, or any other acronym as a “game changer” and make it a part of their sales decks with a 100-person team, we invest in our current talent to really get it. It means we’re pragmatic about growth; it means we’re not desperate for it, and it means we can put our heads down on real solutions rather than window dressing our core competence.
When the future inevitably arrives, it looks measurably different from what’s prophesied. That’s when leadership teams drive the message downstream. Every couple of years we encounter defining moments in our the way our industry works. 2016 was the year of branded content. 2015 saw influencers. 2013 welcomed social media’s emergence. Calculated growth ensures we are never too far from reinvesting in capabilities for the future. Benefits accrue, as in the case of our media division, which now plans campaigns with strategists and creative teams.
There’s no secret to being innovative at Dentsu Webchutney. While the rest of the agency world hallucinates over its charmed saying, “the idea matters,” we’re trying to refine that to “the idea, its application & distribution matters.” It’s taken a while, and we’re continuing to learn in the process of this grand unraveling of the internet with its onslaught of information abundance.
What comes next? I don’t know. But we’ll keep our ears to the ground, take the high road when it’s inconvenient, and raise expectations of what’s possible for everyone around us. All while being nimble, maintaining our circle of competence, and looking for great people to expand our horizon.