‘Public service is not just charity; it’s now a brand building tool’ – Prasoon Joshi of McCann Worldgroup

In an interview on the sidelines of judging Adfest 2019 in Pattaya, Thailand, McCann Worldgroup India CEO and Asia-Pacific chairman Prasoon Joshi speaks to Mumbrella's Ravi Balakrishan about getting brand purpose right

How has your experience as jury president for audio and film categories at Adfest 2019 been?

“I consider it a learning experience; a crash course in seeing some of the work from across the region in just three days.

“It’s something you may not be able to do, otherwise. And then, you benefit from the minds who critique the work. I go back richer in knowledge of the kind of creative being made and how innovation is becoming a part of the process. Some of the ideas are not just creative, but life changing.”

Are there any broad trends?

“There is a lot more long-form content. It’s almost like short story writing.

“Also, people want their brands to be a do-gooder. They want to consume brands that are helping or are connected to a cause.

“Earlier, we believed public service was compartmentalised and an area for NGOs. Today, brands are extending themselves not just into public service as charity, but as a brand building tool.”

There have been recent instances like Gillette where such cause-related ads had a very polarising effect. So, how do you walk that line?

“If it is a gimmick and a publicity stunt done only for advertising, I would discourage my clients from going that way.

“We live in a connected world and people have more ways of knowing what you do. And so, a brand will have to be transparent, consistent and truthful. Such brands will prove the doubters wrong, even if there are questions in the short term.

“However, a social concern that is trending should not lure a brand into making that its purpose.

“In social work, certain issues take precedence and get discussed to a greater extent every year.

“But a brand’s purpose should emanate from what it does. And not from ‘this is a cool thing to say today’. Companies can make a significant change in the lives of people. But that needs to stem from how they have has defined themselves.

“Also a company should ask if it has the social sanction to bring up these issues. There are certain questions and comments you would take from your wife or a best friend, but would be offended by, if they came from someone you were not as close to.

McCann Worldgroup India has had a good year with the Delhi office topping WARC’s list of creative agencies for effectiveness. What is the secret sauce?

“Whichever award you consider — and we have won at the Cannes Lions, the Jay Chiat Awards and the Effies, to name but a few — the product has come from something we call ‘manthan’, the Sanskrit word  for ‘churning’.

“The concept is to create a constant churn of ideas for our clients.

“During the sessions, everyone is given a new name. No one works on the brands that are usually assigned to them. Someone working on Coca-Cola will have to work on (Indian consumer goods company) Marico, L’Oreal or Perfetti, for instance. The challenge is to study the brand and say what you, as a professional, believe a client ought to be doing.

“For some cases, we give the brief days in advance. For others, people have just two days to come up with ideas and make a presentation.

“It is not necessary that every client will get a solution from this approach. But these are out-of-the-box ideas that a client has not asked for. We take the ones that win a unanimous vote, to the client.

“I used to conduct these myself every three months or so. But now it is done on a monthly basis by our creative leaders.”

That’s interesting considering how agency people always tell us how time-strapped they are.

“People are not being judicious about their time, if they say that. I have take on so many projects and roles: writing films, lyrics, a book, local and global roles within McCann.

“I am here judging an award show but I’ve also been on three video meetings with clients. Even my clients understand that judging is important for me, to grow as a professional.

“You have to create that balance and find innovative ways of living and making time for your family. If you want to do something and have the true desire, you will do it. 

“I take joy from work. It leaves me with less luxurious time, but I feel happier this way.”

So, is ‘manthan’ a way to restage proactive work? Or bring more discipline to how it is created?

“’Proactive’ is a much-abused word and a synonym for scam.

“There is a lot of thought that goes through the process, right down to the briefs. Many ideas produced by the process have won effectiveness awards. It is not just about clever gimmicks.

“The ideas are mostly brand building solutions or platforms and not about creating a single poster or print ad. What we are seeking is to excite clients and infuse new life into brands.”

Given your regional mandate, will you be replicating this idea?

“I have shared the thought with our global management. Now that the culture is built in India, I would definitely like to take it to other places.

“But there have been such experiments in other offices. It may not be called ‘manthan’, but our global CEO believes in getting our clients the benefit of a large network.

“We have an open culture in McCann where briefs of a global nature and can be worked on by talent in other geographies.

“Unlike many agencies, we don’t work in a compartmentalised way. We are hand’s on: I still write the lines and was working till around 3:00am with my team in Delhi a few days ago. If the work ethic and culture is good, many things get solved.

You have to live the culture, though, and not just have it written out as a credo. It cannot be imposed.

Recent changes in the industry indicate we are living in a time when individual agencies and their cultures are not considered as relevant as before. How do you see this?

“What do we stand for eventually? This is not a sausage factory. Or a slot machine where you put in a coin and get an idea.

“You need real people to think of real emotions that connect with real human beings.

“Every client wants fresh ideas that go against the formula. That’s what is unique about our industry and what I love about it. We have to create a culture and scale it up to have a great role for individuals and not machines. Half the process is defining the problem. But the ideas come out of thin air, when you have a state of mind and culture to create.”


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