Opinion

Bates CHI & Partners’ new Singapore creative honcho Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar on the art of storytelling, lessons from Piyush Pandey and what glory should really mean for creatives

Sagar MahabaleshwarkarSagar Mahabaleshwarkar moved from Mumbai where he was chief creative officer of Bates CHI & Partners to Singapore about a week ago to run the agency network’s creative department locally, and also to boost Bates’ creative product across Southeast Asia.

In this interview from Bates’ office in Singapore, the Indian national talks to Mumbrella’s Asia editor Robin Hicks about the influence of the legendary Piyush Pandey on his career and his approach to storytelling, the challenges he faces in adapting what he’s learned in India for Southeast Asia, and the value in proactive thinking.

Sagar, rather like me, you’ve just moved from one of the world’s most intense, energetic and exhilarating cities to… Singapore. Do you feel that to be creative, it helps to live in an intense environment like Mumbai’s or Hong Kong’s?

Yes, Mumbai is full of energy and madness. And here everything is so well organised. But you don’t you need craziness and chaos to be inspired as a creative. You need to identify in a brand and in a consumer’s mind where there is conflict, and work on resolving that conflict through creativity.

Tell us a bit about your background.

I’ve been with Bates for just under five years. Before that, I was with Rediffusion Y&R for three years. And before that, I spent 15 years with Piyush Pandey [executive chairman and national creative director of Ogilvy & Mather India and South Asia, and arguably Asia’s most distinguished creative director]. I’ve always been an Ogilvy boy, and in a sense I always will be. I saw the place grow from 15 to 250 people. That journey with Piyush was an incredible experience for me. He didn’t just teach me about advertising, he taught me how to live life.

In what sense do you mean he taught you how to live life?

Pandey

Pandey

Piyush is one of the best storytellers I know, and he taught us how to tell stories of our own. New ways of communication will come and go, but how you tell a story will never go out of fashion. That’s what we leaned from him. He taught us to tell the stories that you see in day to day life – to write about the things that you yourself have experienced. He was conscious of not creating lots of Piyush Pandeys, but in developing creatives who were individual storytellers in their own right.

When Mumbrella caught up with Pandey in Mumbai in August, he talked about how travelling across India during his time as a cricketer had helped him develop an understanding of the country that he used to shape his own approach to storytelling. How have you developed your own approach?

I’ve lived in three different states in India, and I know seven languages. I guess that has helped me in the same way that Piyush grew to understand India. That’s how you pick up stories – when cultures start to mix. A lot of storytelling comes from how you connect and learn new things about different cultures. I’ve stayed in Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra [of which Mumbai is the capital city], where I was born.

I went to Gujarat to play cricket until I was 19. At that time, before the days of Twenty20 [the short-form version of the game], cricket wasn’t to be taken seriously as a career option. Cricket was also why me and Piyush connected. A lot of the stuff he talks about and implements into his creative team comes from cricket. We used to play together for Ogilvy’s team. He played for that team for 25 years or so.

Which work are you most proud of?

Three commercials for Tata Motors – two of them for the Safari Dicor and the other for Suma Victa – and one for Amaron Batteries.

Tata Safari Dicor ad from 2009:

Tata Safari Dicor ad from 2008:

Tata Suma Victa ad from 2007:

Amaron Batteries ad from 2010:

So how do you intend to adapt what you’ve learned in India to the Southeast Asian context?

Before I took this job, I thought to myself if I can do my job in three different Indian states, why not in Singapore? I will be working with key clients, wherever they want my experience and guidance, to see what sort of stories we can come up with. I will be spending 70-80 per cent of my time in Singapore, and the rest in key markets such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar [where Bates recently won one of the region’s most exciting creative briefs, to launch telco Ooredoo].

The biggest question for me, I think, is that at the age of 43, can I unlearn what I have learnt? I’m in a new country, in a new set up, with new clients. Can I adapt? Can I update my skills? That’s a beautiful thing about my new job – the differences in the landscape I’ll be operating in.

In India, the way media is consumed is very different to elsewhere in Asia, and it’s changing dramatically. TV is still very influential, but it has become more regional with Hindi as the key language, whereas print has become more local, with many local language newspapers holding sway; TV plays to the heart, print plays to the mind. And now digital is opening up a whole new world, and we’re discovering new formats all the time. Suddenly, the 30 second TV ad is not that important anymore.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for you?

Mayo and Mahabaleshwarkar

Mayo and Mahabaleshwarkar

The toughest thing for me right now is spending time away from family. They will join me later once I’ve set myself up here. Work-wise, everyone, particularly David [Mayo, Bates CHI & Partners Asia’s CEO] is hungry for one thing – to do great work. That agenda is not different from mine. We want to tell stories in a modern way and connect with people. That’s the thing we’re looking for – creative conflict and to resolve it in contemporary way. And we’re looking for clients who can help us to do that.

What do you make of the quality of creative work in Singapore?

From what I’ve seen over the last eight to 10 years of Singapore work, quite a lot of it is proactive work or scam – clearly created with awards in mind. But I want to produce a different kind of work. I come from place where the work you do for clients should win you metal. It is work that wins at Cannes – and also wins at the Effies [an advertising effectiveness awards show]. That’s why Ogilvy India is a great agency – it produces work that wins at both.

But I would say that proactive thinking and briefing is critical for brands. As a creative, you should be looking for conflicts that you want to resolve, not just waiting for clients to brief you. As I would say when I briefed my people in Bombay, if you look for an interesting problem, the chances are you will find interesting solution. That’s proactive thinking in my mind.

There’s one thing I want to underline. Many creatives like to count the awards they’ve won. I’ve never done that and I’ve no idea how much metal I’ve won. For me, winning an award is just two and a half minutes of glory – the time it take you to walk to the awards podium and back. Piyush used to ask us one thing: will this win at Cannes? But what he was asking was, is this the best you can do? Or can you push yourself even further?

Now on to scam. You can debate it both ways. If an ad ran only once, it should still win a creative award, which is about creative excellence not effectiveness. Am I saying that scam is the right thing to do? Of course not. But if you’re trying to resolve a problem with an interesting creative solution, and an entry adheres to the rules, there’s nothing wrong with that. To my mind, creative awards are like Formula One racing [a metaphor also used by the global creative chief of Lowe in an interview with Mumbrella in Cannes]. Do you see an F1 car running on the road? No. But what F1 does is tells you the level of engineering the motoring industry can attain. And that’s exactly what creative awards are – they’re the R&D of our industry. The best day of my life would be if I win a Grand Prix at Cannes and the Effies for the same campaign. And there are brands that will buy that sort of work. Apple is one of them.

Some people defend scam by saying that conservative clients, particularly in a market like Singapore, won’t buy adventurous creative work. What’s your take on this?

How difficult clients are – not buying creative work that will win awards, applies to any country. It’s really about how you take them along with you, and show them that you are you trying to solve their problems through creativity. Creative glory is a great motivation, as it sets new standards for their brand.

What are you ambitions for your first 12 months in your new role?

One of the reasons why David [Mayo] and I started taking about me moving to Singapore was to get the standard of creative work higher, to take it to the next level. That’s a big challenge. It’s not like we don’t have the clients to achieve this, but it’s about getting the right people to work on the right brands, and get the creative product going and the right kind of creative culture. The question I will be asking of everyone is, did we join this industry just to win at Cannes, or because we believe in the creative work? It’s the work you see on the street that you’re proud of that should make you want to be part of this industry.

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