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‘I was about to push the eject button on Asia’ – Genie Gurnani on quitting the agency business to join Vice

In an interview with Mumbrella's Ravi Balakrishnan, Vice's Asia-Pacific head of creative Genie Gurnani and managing director Aaron Pearce speak about the difference their company brings to marketing communications and why ad agencies are losing out

How did you zero in on Genie Gurnani as head of creative for Vice Asia-Pacific?

Aaron Pearce: “We had been looking for someone to head up the creative team for six to nine months. It was a frustrating search.

“There were over 1,200 applicants. People from the US wanted to come over and take the role – a change from the past, especially with creative, when it was always about going to New York.  We spoke to 20-plus-year veterans who were burnt out and said: ‘I want to change.’ But they didn’t really. They wouldn’t have been right for our business.

“We met younger creatives – super hungry, tenacious and invigorating but not experienced enough to take on a senior role in a business with multiple tentacles. We wanted a distinctive person who spoke to what the business was all about and had the brains and competency to do that.

“And so, we were stoked when we stumbled on Genie.”

Genie, why the decision to move to Vice?

Genie Gurnani: “I have been in Asia for three years before coming to Vice – all at very standard holding company agencies (Leo Burnett, Isobar and J Walter Thompson). After I took a break to be on Drag Race Thailand, I felt I needed a day job that was just as fulfilling. 

“It had to be or else there was no point in doing it. When the team at Vice first reached out, I was about to push the eject button on Asia. The agencies were behaving in a ludicrous way that did not make sense to me.

“Agencies seem to have forgotten our role: to show brands the way forward. To give them vision when they don’t have it themselves, to clarify what they offer to the world. To be the bold and brave people we are supposed to be.

“We went from partners to vendors to executors to factories. The whole industry has slid down the hill. It’s a very safe offering, especially in Asia.

“I have seen how Singapore agencies operate. They don’t know how to convince clients to do what they need to do.

“I think we underestimate how brave clients can be and our ability to convince them. It is a lot about servicing, serving and eventually clients don’t believe you anymore. Even if they pay you. 

“And they are desperate to do something big, loud and noticeable: to have an impact with a tiny budget. There is a disconnect between the clients and the industry that is supposed to deliver this to them.

“Once I spoke to Vice, I thought ‘Okay this is operating a little differently’. It is the kind of role where we guide, elevate and push. Within the first six weeks, I am sure our work has induced a lot of constipation or stomach upset in clients.

“Whether they say yes or no, they are sitting up at night thinking of what they have done and if it was the right choice. That’s the best place to be as an agency.”

How is it different from agencies?

Gurnani: “In standard agency practice, when you present a campaign, you go with three options: something safe, something middle of the road that you can live with and not be embarrassed at producing and the third – the actual idea you want to produce.

“Even this one cannot really be crazy – just the best of the three.

“Brands know who we are at Vice and where we come from. 

“If we don’t deliver multiple brave ideas that make them uncomfortable, we have not done our job. The expectations are matched. I feel we are the only gig in this part of the world that can give clients what we can do best and what they need most.

“Burger King’s chief marketing officer Fernando Machado has talked about how he believes his creative partners are ‘wild animals’. That’s how I felt when I got here: all of us from creative to account planning are wild animals.

“It immediately felt different from the standard agency. There, I felt I was a caged creature and I would massacre people inside the agency – metaphorically speaking. At least, as far as I could get, before the bars came down.

“The saddest part is how many people with creative agencies are dying in the system. There is a desperation – I’ve heard so many stories of people who want to leave the industry permanently.

“Here, we get paid and sell and make stuff we are proud of across Asia-Pacific. I initially wondered if it was a Singapore role, interfacing with MNC clients. But that’s not what it is like – every day is multiple video calls. My team sits across Melbourne, Jakarta, Seoul and Mumbai.

“This is also my siren call to anyone in the industry around the world who is desperate and sad and has so much creative ambition and spirit. This is the place to be.”

Can you tell us about your journey in advertising? 

Gurnani: “I started as a planner after a Masters from VCU Brandcenter, the Harvard of advertising in America. Research and thinking of people insights and human truths was interesting to me. I was working in the auto category and it was very dealer driven. Strategy was not hitting it enough. You had to find something great creatively to make the clients see it coming to life. 

“So I made a switch in three months to creative. I bounced around from agency to agency and climbed my way up.

“Every step of the way, I wanted to do more. A lot of people wait around for the perfect job, but that does not happen. You must claw your way there little by little. The ambition is to make work that’s famous – not always award winning but in headlines.

“Anything we create that is written about is the biggest achievement. Because it means someone who judges work daily, thought it worth writing about. That, to me, means more than industry people judging award shows. That’s the ambition and it has not changed.

“Juniors are very idealistic, kind of stupid and impulsive. I have kept that spirit going and have made expensive choices in terms of changing jobs, breaking leases and jumping cities and countries.

“I put myself into weird situations and steep learning curves. I have moved to jobs I had no business doing but did anyway, because why not? That is the junior spirit: why stay safe? If I go bankrupt, I go bankrupt. If I don’t have money for rent, I don’t.

“You can divide people into two categories from a work point of view. If you are afraid of not looking good on the job, you will stay in the same place and only try to climb the ladder you are on. You won’t make weird jumps.

“If you are afraid of being embarrassed by the story of your life, you start doing crazy stuff in the day-to-day so the bigger picture looks different. 

“They are both driven by fear but that’s the way humans are. It depends on what you are running away from. I am lucky that in my case having a boring story is a bigger fear.” 

How did you first start working in Asia?

Gurnani: “I was transferred from Seattle to Hong Kong while working for Publicis. I wanted to be that famous global chief creative officer who has worked on six continents. 

“Also, I didn’t want to be stuck in America. Even before Trump took office, I felt like a foreigner there: being Indian, gay and a drag queen. 

“Agencies there are very Caucasian and one specific note of culture. Many are very heartland and safe – white picket fence America. The more creative ones that are interesting have a narrow version of normal and everyone fits in. I have spoken before about how ‘culture fit’ is the opposite of diversity.

“No matter what I or Cindy Gallop say, people are not fucking listening. I wanted to go somewhere a little wild. With more openings in terms of opportunities to change stuff.

“When I moved over, I did find the opportunity in Asia, despite some creative stifling. You get to be in front of clients right away. You don’t have to be a CCO to present something.

“You can be entrepreneurial and make your way. Whether they buy the work or whether the strategy people want to get into it with you, is not always guaranteed. But the chance to climb faster is here.

“If I am going to feel like foreigner, I thought I may as well do it somewhere interesting and with lower taxes. It is more interesting in Hong Kong or Singapore and being able to travel to the Philippines, Japan, Korea and India for work.

“Regardless of what they say, when American creatives say: ‘let’s go abroad’, 99% of them mean London. It’s usually a couple about to get married – one is a planner and the other a creative. London because they speak English there, it is mostly white and comfortable. 

“So, I decided to go somewhere else. Most people in Hong Kong speak English, but it is still foreign and different. You go downstairs and there’s nothing you recognise. I love that feeling.”

You spoke of feeling shackled in previous roles. Was that a relatively recent development?

Gurnani: “Of all the jobs I’ve had, this one has been the most liberating. 

“TBWA Los Angeles was a great place since the whole philosophy was about disruption. I took that wherever I went. I was at Publicis Seattle and while it was not the sexiest ad market, there were chances to do great work. I loved the work I did on Mattel and T-Mobile. 

“It’s very traditional – they make Super Bowl ads – but there are good opportunities. I have realised that if the culture is right, you can make it work. But you need people pulling in the same direction. After I left the US, I hadn’t felt that. I worked in a bunch of agencies across Hong Kong and the only time that spirit came to life again was when I was leading pitches.

 

“We had 13 creatives, account folk and planners and we would work on a pitch for four months. That’s when everyone got into it.

“But on the day to day work, everyone knew we’d lost before we started. I said: ‘Can we bring the pitch feeling to this?’ Because when you do pitches it is so pure – like uncut cocaine – very powerful and nobody is there to adulterate it. 

“Nobody says that’s too strong or too interesting. There are 50 reasons why clients can say no – budgets, timing, previous global alignments or relationships. The best thing is to create work that you believe in. It needs people to be passionate and, in those environments, the business is still alive. 

“Something goes wrong with traditional agencies, once the pitch transitions to an AOR. It changes or goes downhill. I am not sure why. Consultants tell you why you lost but nobody is there to analyse why you lost even when you won.

“The beauty for us is a lot of project-based work: if they like it, they buy it and we make it. New business is the lifeblood not just in terms of money but spirit. 

“I want to pitch forever. We can win along the way, but it means our claws will stay sharp the whole time. Instead of winning something and being stuck in a bubble for 40 years.  We have to go out of the cave and hunt every day.” 

What are some of the assignments Vice is currently working on or has worked on?

Gurnani: “We are developing new products for an alcohol brand which is quite cool – I can’t say which product or for what market, other than it is for a very modern world and audience. 

“We are challenging the category. Clients trust us with product brand and identity development which opens up new business.

“We are also working on pitches – we have almost secured a project for an airline that is product oriented but transforms the type of content that goes out into the world.

“Airlines are one of the most lifestyle categories out there. But much of the stuff they put out is functional but in a bad way. We have some very bold gritty content for luxury spirits brands that is coming out soon. It is very contrary to their history as a brand.”

Pearce: “Globally, ‘Address The Future’ was great for us along with Q, a gender neutral AI-bot. 

 We have been doing a fair amount of work for Budweiser on culture-based platforms. Also the Close Up work we did with Unilever for the ‘Free To Love’ campaign.

Lost Loves | Adithi & Umar | Closeup #FreeToLove

Close Up “Lost Loves”Agency: Vice AustraliaProduction House – Firecracker ProductionDirector – Ashish SawhnyProducers – Harsh Dave, Meeta DaveExecutive Producer – Shalina SulaimanAssociate Producer – Saisha KapurDOP – Archit Patel2nd Cam DOP – Jitendra BorhadeProduction Designer – Smriti WadhwaCostume Stylist – Krisna Krishnankutty & Pranav SoodHair & Make-Up Artist – Nalini Fernandes Line Producer – Ashwani Mishra Directors Assistant – Pallavi Malhotra1st AD – Dev Rohira2nd AD – Joseph DominicProduction Boys – Mahadev Shinde & Team

Posted by Firecracker on Friday, 23 November 2018

 The world of network agencies that both of you have come from is changing quite rapidly. What do you make of these changes?

Gurnani: “Some of those combos can work. VMLY&R is a good example. Y&R was suffering for many years. VML was doing some nice work in different markets like the US and Singapore. It can work because they put the right people in the right place to lead the charge.

“Some other combinations may be less successful. I have been through the shuffling at Publicis merging the agencies together – separating and then merging them again. Before that, it was Ogilvy…it is a tough thing to predict. 

“Creatives like it because you get to work on more brands. But at the same time, you are supposed to do a lot more production, execution and servicing style work and not idea-led assignments. Despite being in a new age agency world now, I do feel bad for throwing some of the success and wins from the standard agency world. 

“In the press around the time of the Wunderman Thompson merger, JWT was celebrated for things like ‘a famous jingle 40 to 50 years ago’. And this one campaign in the 1980s that everyone remembers. 

“That is not the best it did. Brand agencies like JWT have done good work for many years. It’s very sick to me that they’d put a direct digital agency in front of that name. It is pathetic. They were not the ones who made creative happen. They did direct EDM marketing.

“Why is that the main thing? Just because it is more profitable? Is that what we are going to go for now? Of course, everyone wants to make money, but you can earn it creating great stuff too. 

“Agencies did that for years. I mourn for the greatness of where that creativity came from. Now, the people who have a chance to get out and do something else, have the responsibility to do something different outside the system.”

Pearce: “You could turn this discussion into a four-day workshop. You don’t have to be Nostradamus to see where some of this is going. People need to be smarter, more innovative. As they look at the careers ahead of them, they should be careful about the decisions they are making.”

But Vice has had its own problems, hasn’t it with the layoffs earlier this year?

Pearce: “Even Vice has gone through and continues to go through disruption. Globally, there were changes that were made. 

“A lot of digital media businesses have gone through that. When you look at Vice, we benefited from many lines of business. None of which dramatically holds all the income compared to the other.

“When you bring it back to advertising and marketing, big agency holding companies have a challenge – especially the ones that have only really competed on price and have dropped and dropped and dropped.

“It is a dangerous time for a lot of those businesses. They need to be smart or they will die a real quick or a slow death and it won’t be fun for anyone involved.”

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