BBH’s Subhash Kamath on how to set up an agency in India

Subhash KamathIndia is an increasingly popular destination for international agencies to set up shop these days, particularly with a new prime minister promising economic reform and easier access for foreigns firms. AKQA opened an office in Gurgaon in July and Razorfish launched following an acquisition by Publicis Groupe last year.

So what does it take to launch a successful agency in India? Mumbrella was in Mumbai to ask Subhash Kamath, CEO and managing partner of BBH India, which launched in India’s commercial capital five and a half years ago.

First, can you give us a bit of background about the history of BBH India?

We started BBH India at the beginning of 2009. I was previously group CEO of Bates India. I’d been an admirer of BBH since I was an account executive. They’d built some great brands over the years, and I was attracted to their intellectual honesty and rigour, which is rare in this business. John Hegarty [BBH’s co-founder] has always been a big hero of mine. I was headhunted at Cannes. I was torn between a choice of continuing to do well at Bates, and moving into a new startup situation, starting from ground zero with a brand like BBH. It felt like a choice between building a monument and exploring the Amazon. But after talking to John [Hegarty], I couldn’t refuse.

What was the general awareness level of the BBH brand before you entered the marketer among clients?

It was low. The ad community may have heard of BBH, and some multinational clients, but local clients had not heard of us. So we couldn’t rely on BBH’s global reputation to bring in clients. We had relationships with clients such as Unilever, whom we work with elsewhere, but it was clear that for BBH India to work we needed to strike the right balance between a local and international client base.

Who are your key clients now?

We work with Unilever brands Vaseline and Magnum ice cream, Diageo brands Johnnie Walker and Vat 69, World Gold Council, Vespa, Red Bull, Skoda, Viber, a large NGO called CRY and a global mutual fund business DSP Blackrock. Our biggest local client is Marico.

How many staff do you have?

We’re now 72 people, but we will be 75 in a month or so.

Is it possible for an agency network to export company culture to India? If so, how do you go about it?

We’ve grappled with that question for the last five years. When we were hired the mandate was clear. While we want you to be BBH, they said, we don’t want you to be BBH London or BBH Singapore. They didn’t want us to import a culture. We wanted one that would benefit from the gene of the BBH, but be locally relevant in India.

Our culture is based around the primacy of the idea, and always approaching our work with honesty and transparency. We came from large organisations, and while we were there we lamented that we wanted to do things differently, to dismantle the traditional structures and not work in silos. We have created a flat, open structure, because hierarchy stifles creativity. People can’t whisper and hide behind cubicles here. Even the most junior people are interviewed by senior management. It’s a painful process, but we felt we have to do it to ensure we are creating and sustaining the right culture.

Also, when we started out, we wanted to stress that we were an agency that is about ‘responsible creativity’. It was a niche, because every other agency was creating scam ads. We took a stand that we wouldn’t do that. But more importantly, the part of BBH that works well for this market is the confluence of strategy and creativity. Everyone talks about it, but no one else is doing it. I believe we’ve got some of the best planners in the world. We’ve got some fantastic thinking minds, but we’re not in the business of producing indulgent creative work.

What’s the most common mistake that agencies make when they enter India?

You have to understand that India is not a singular market. It’s not just Bombay and Delhi. It’s like a continent of many different countries fused into one. It takes a long time for outsiders to understand the incredible diversity of India. Yes, there is unity in our diversity, but with such a complex cultural market, you need local understanding to really connect with consumers.

A lot of big campaigns in India don’t win at Cannes, because judges don’t understand the local context. Even when it comes to craft, India is a huge music market and every film is a musical; you can’t import the Western idea of craft and expect it to work here.

Even when it comes to dealing with Indian clients, things are very different, especially with homegrown entrepreneurial businesses. Relationships and trust form a much larger part of the way we work with each other.

What’s the most difficult role to fill in India? In much of Asia, planners tend to be hard to come by…

Planning and creative. India has a lot of good strategic minds, but sadly not many them are choosing careers in advertising. Really high quality planners are hard to come by. There are planners who are extremely good at thinking, but not motivating creative. To me, a great planner liberates creativity and there aren’t many who can do that.

Who are the most difficult clients to work with?

We steer clear of government accounts as much as we can. But more broadly, we’re wary of clients who don’t understand the meaning of a partnership, who are fishing only for campaign ideas, and who call 12 agencies in to pitch. The really good clients hire an agency with a long-term perspective.

What’s the most difficult thing about setting up in India, which is not famed for being an easy place to do business?

In our business, the biggest challenge is finding founding clients. You just need one or two of them and one or two people to get the ball rolling. You quickly realise that good work brings in more business. Other than that setting up is not difficult in India; finding an office is the least of your problems. And of course you do need initial capital, but not a great deal to set up an advertising agency.

The biggest challenge, though, is sticking to your principles. As Nigel Bogle [another BBH co-founder] says, ‘You are what you start’. When you launch you start with a certain point of view – the kind of company you want to create. That initial point of you will stand you in good stead as a brand. You should never take just any old client and any people just to bring in revenue.

Which agencies do you admire for what they’ve achieved in setting up in India?

Two names stand out. One has been around for a long time, the other is new. The well established leader is Ogilvy. When it comes to TV advertising, Ogilvy is many miles ahead of everyone else. Piyush [Pandey, the agency’s executive chairman and national creative director] and his team of creative people have created some brilliant work.

Of the newer startups, I would say Taproot. I have a lot of respect for Aggie [Agnello Dias, the founder, who featured in a Mumbrella hangout earlier this year]. They’ve done some great work for Pepsi and Airtel. Pepsi was a cricket related campaign, ‘Change the game’.

Airtel’s, called Har Ek Friend Zaroori Hota Hai, was based on the principle that every friend is necessary.

If you could launch BBH in India again, what would you have done differently?

We’ve set up only in Bombay, but we’re not in Delhi yet. I may have looked at setting up there earlier. I’m not sure geography is that important in this day and age, but Delhi is an important market in its own right.

Are you looking at launching there now?

Yes, I am. But I need the right clients and the right people. Over the next six to eight months, we’ll be looking to set up in Delhi.


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