Q&A with Lowe India creative chief Balki: Bollywood doesn’t take the ad industry seriously


R. Balakrishnan, better known in adland as Balki, is chairman and creative overlord of one of India’s largest advertising agencies, Lowe Lintas. He’s also a Bollywood film-maker with three movies to his name, all of them starring the biggest TV and movie personality India has ever known, Amitabh Bachchan.

In this interview with Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks from his office in Mumbai, Balki talks about the relationship between Bollywood and adland, why the role of the regional ECD is dead, why there are so few successful expats in India, who he respects among his peers, and why he doesn’t enter award shows.

Have some of India’s most high profile ad and media men been around too long? Does India need an injection of new blood?

New blood is needed every year. There is not a ceiling for their development. The creative departments of agencies such as Ogilvy and Lowe are now headed by young people. But the issue is not about young or new, it’s about who’s the best for the job at the time. If there’s someone who can do the current job better than you, that’s a call to be made by senior management. If you’re adding value, that’s what makes the difference.

Who do you rate among your peers in India’s ad industry, which is not short of talent?

Piyush Pandey

Piyush Pandey

I’ve always admired Piyush [Pandey, Ogilvy India’s national creative director and executive chairman] and his brother [Prasoon Pandey] who’s a film-maker. There are a number of other film makers who are also good ad people, such as Amit Sharma from Chrome. I admire the two national creative directors we have at Lowe, and Ogilvy’ creative directors. And there some very talented people at other agencies such as Taproot, McCann and BBDO.

How do you manage a career in both advertising and Bollywood? How do you find the time to do both?

I don’t make many films. The one that comes out in February is just the third one I’ve made. The other two came out in 2007 [Cheeni Kum, which grossed US$3.9 million at the box office], then 2009 [Paa, a film about the impact of a rare accelerated ageing condition on the relationship between father and son, which won Amitabh Bachchan a best actor award at the National Film Awards].

The trailer for Cheeni Kum

The trailer for Paa

So it’s been five years since I made my last one. My next film [Shamitabh] is all consuming, but the team here is doing an incredible job so I’m not concerned about taking time away from the agency.

Is there much crossover between the art of film-making and advertising? How do the two industries interrelate?

There is far less crossover than there could be. Bollywood doesn’t treat the ad industry seriously. But the ad industry treats Bollywood very seriously. There is more scope for the ad industry to influence Bollywood, because Bollywood needs fresh thinking. They are not mutually separate industries. Both are about ideas, thoughts, writing, images, perceptions and telling stories, so they have much in common. I’ve never felt that when I’m making an ad or a film I’m working in two different fields. When I make a film, I think of it as a long ad that takes a year to make.

Bollywood gets some criticism for being too formulaic, in both its storytelling and style of execution. What’s your view?

There are lot of film-makers trying to break it. But the thing is, we’re such a vast country, and directors are too scared to experiment with films that they feel have to appeal to the whole country, with the budgets they have at their disposal. There is a lot more experimentation at a more local level, for audiences within cities.

How do budgets for Bollywood films compared to advertising budgets, relatively speaking?

Ad budgets are much bigger. Not so much the production costs, but the media. Clients like Idea, our cellular client, spend more than most feature film productions on ads. Bollywood is still a relatively small industry.

Unlike many other markets in Asia, there aren’t many expats in India, either running agencies or in creative departments. What are your thoughts on why this is? And does India have less of a talent issue that elsewhere around the region?

There is a talent crunch in India because of the huge volume of work there is to do. But the issue isn’t so much to do with that; India is very difficult market to really understand. Expats can’t just come in and flourish. Many have tried. Few have succeeded. The language of communications, and the emotions used in our communications are just so different. Which is why juries at Cannes don’t award Indian work, because they don’t understand it.

If you want to do clutter-busting advertising in India, it has to come from someone who understands the culture. The same is true in South America, where there are also very few expats. That doesn’t mean that people from overseas can’t work in those markets. But it’s harder for them to get a true sense of what moves people.

How about Charles Cadell, now the regional president of McCann, who worked at Lowe India for three years as CEO. How did that work out in your view?

Charles Cadell

Charles Cadell

Charles was a good manager and a good guy. He wasn’t a typical expat. He has lived most of his life in Southeast Asia. He’s travelled around, and lived in this region for a long time, and he understands the difference in approach needed in this part of the world. He also has Indian roots – I believe his grandmother is Indian. He understands the nuances better than most, and fundamentally he’s a very openminded guy. You won’t find many expats like Charles.

What are your views on scam, an issue that Mumbrella has covered a lot in recent weeks?

Well, we don’t enter awards. If the global team thinks our work is worth entering, then they’ll do it on our behalf. But we don’t enter awards. We don’t approve of how awards are judged. The advertising industry needs a credible awards show, but thasn’t cracked it yet. There’s a purpose for creativity. When judging the jury should focus on working out if an idea will work in the real world and how it solves a marketing problem. You may love an idea, but it might be completely wrong for the problem you’re trying to tackle. An idea should make a difference to a client’s business, not be a solution for someone else’s brand. If you see an ad on TV or on YouTube, you know who’s behind that idea, and so do clients, who by the way don’t care about awards.

So what’s the secret to creating great work on big brands, which seems to something that a lot of agencies in Asia are struggling with?

No clients want bad work. Agencies should not try to do work they think is good, but makes no commercial sense to the client. Some advertising people want to be recognised by their peers for their work. But most are wary of people who want to do good work without really understanding what the client really needs. The idea of what an agency wants and what a client wants is too often completely different.

What are your views on Big Data? John Hegarty, the co-founder of BBH, thinks that it’s a “nonsense” and that great creatives have an instinctive understanding of what makes consumers tick, so don’t need research.

I agree with Hegarty. Good creative people have an instinctive understanding of the world they live in. The job of advertising is to lead a consumer, not to follow him. We should be setting consumer trends and persuading people to follow them, not the other way around. But I don’t fight data, nor do I question its value. People will use the comfort of data to arrive at a thought and reassure them that a creative idea works, and that’s fine. Sometimes it’s useful. Most often it is not.

What are your priorities for the next 12 months at Lowe?

That all of our brands get their quota of great work. But more importantly, I hope that we can pay people more than what we’re paying them now. The ad industry needs to look at its economics. Agencies like Lowe and Ogilvy are still complaining about not being able to pay creative people what they understand to be the right wage for what they do. As an agency, you have to ensure that ideas are worth a lot more. You need to make clients understand that they should pay more for a good idea than for a bad one.

So what does an entry level creative tend to get paid in India?

About two and a half to three lakhs [Indian rupees] a year. Which is about US$4,000 a year. It’s not good. Nobody can realistically start work in India on less than US$10,000 a year.

So in your view, clients are still not valuing the ideas that ad agencies produce for them?

Some clients have taken the issue on board. Not enough, but quite a few have.

Like quite a few Indian advertising and media executives in India, such as Piyush Pandey at Ogilvy and Sam Balsara at Madison, you have stayed at one company for a long time [Balki has worked for Lowe for 20 years]. Have you ever tempted to go elsewhere?

The agency you work for doesn’t really matter. It’s the people. Why would you want to change your friends? People work on tackling a problem for a client, which has nothing to do with the agency you work for. Not that no one has their fair share of disillusionments with their agency. Everyone has that. But you get passed that, and you realise that the people you work with every day is what really matters.

Have you ever been tempted to take a global role at Lowe?

Four or five years back I was offered a global role, which would have meant sitting in an office in London. There are two reasons why I thought that would not be a good idea. I believe a global creative director can do very little in any agency. India is the only place that I understand very well. And moving would mean I could no longer make films.

So tell us about your next film.

It comes out in February. It’s called Shamitabh and stars Amitabh Bachchan, who has been all of my films. He’s a lovely man and a great actor.

What’s it like to work with the biggest star that India has ever known?

There are huge stars in India that are bigger in terms of their box office clout. But Amitabh is 72 and if he walks into a room every other star fades into the background. In India, he’s like Sean Connery, Robert De Niro and Clint Eastwood rolled into one.

I’ve noticed that Amitabh Bachchan’s face is on more or less every billboard in Bombay. With respect to the great man, dare it be said that he’s overexposed?

The value of a celebrity in advertising depends very much on how you use them. You could say that Amitabh Bachchan has been overexposed for 40 years, but there’s something in the man that is rare. India won’t have a star like him for a very long time. He has a natural gift that you don’t find in many people.


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