He is a quintessential JWT suit, having spent 35 years with J Walter Thompson. Colvyn Harris recently bid adieu to the agency to start his own venture, Harris-Mint. He talks about why he left JWT after he was given a global position, and his views on the advertising industry
Akansha Mihir Mota & Roshni Nair | Mumbai | October 3, 2016
Having spent 35 years with J Walter Thompson, Colvyn Harris finally decided to call it quits. His name was virtually synonymous with JWT India. In January 2015 he handed over the reins to Tarun Rai as the boss of JWT South Asia (India, Sri Lanka and Nepal markets). Harris was given a global role at the agency as Executive Director, Global Growth and Client Development.
But he finally decided to listen to his inner voice. He stepped down. The initial plan was to travel the world but it somehow culminated in the birth of Harris-Mint – his quirkily named independent agency. And Colvyn Harris is back in business.
Harris speaks to BestMediaInfo about his decision to start his own company, his first client Wai Wai, scam ads, agency leadership, great agency leaders, and his passions apart from advertising. Excerpts:
What was the insight behind the name Harris-Mint?
That is a little bit of creative licence! Harris, as you know, is my surname, so I thought that was very unique and distinctive from my perspective and mint is about freshness, about ideas and about creating something new. It is about looking at a problem and finding its best solution. That is how Harris-Mint came along. The name might have connotations but mine are purely positive and not about what anybody else may say.
Why a shift from JWT and starting your own agency? Is there any particular reason for this leap of faith?
It is not a leap of faith. I have been in JWT for 35 years and enjoyed every minute. I have worked with some of the finest people and recruited most of those finest people. I have a stake emotionally in what JWT stands for. That was a moment in time and I did that for about 35 years but it was time to do something fresh. Initially, I thought I will just travel the world but that is not satisfying enough and I think my passion has always been branding, advertising and marketing. So I am using that in good stead now.
What have you planned for Harris-Mint that will make it different in terms of its offerings?
The big difference is that when you work for a large set-up, the people who have the experience and the ideas or the brain you trust for that brand or solution you are looking for, are not necessarily the people who work on that client or company. In my case, I am going to work. So, I believe that given my experience and the fact that I have worked with so many categories, people and clients, I have got a good grasp of what is required. Therefore, I felt that if I use that experience I will be able to provide a better solution, a curated solution. I work with clients and try and arrive at that part of the problem and then think of a solution along those lines. Therefore, I give client’s business or his ambition for his business some structure and that structure takes the shape of finally what you need to do, what the brand needs to do and, finally, it is about delivery. For example, if you look at an Uber app – you punch in where you want to go and then you see five or six car symbols moving around. I pick the two or three that can help me deliver on a problem, to a promise which I thought through with the client.
What is the story behind getting your first client, Wai Wai?
Wai Wai is actually a brand that has been around for many years. It is a market leader in Nepal and has a controlling market share of about 80 per cent in the north-eastern states, but is more like an underground brand. What I am trying to do is take that brand into a space in India and see how big we can make it. It is a well-loved brand because people know it; it is just that it has been a brand that hasn’t actively been advertised or marketed. So, my role now is to make it one of India’s best loved brands. It will take on all in the category and the dimensional change is what we are going to do from a strategic, positioning approach to the market. So, if Maggi has always been about ‘Mummy, I am hungry’, those mummies of ‘I am hungry’ generation are now 30 and 40 years old. So we are actually trying to disrupt the category and through that disruption we are going to do things that haven’t been done before. It is just a start and it is already creating waves. I think the only complaints we get is not about the work we have done but about how it is not always easily available, which is a good sign because that means it is going off the shelves.
What is the most important thing that enhances the client-agency relationship and why?
I think the most important thing is skill, team and the talent you bring to work on a particular problem. If you are doing a great job around a client’s brand, that is all he wants. So, in building a relationship the most important task is helping the client’s brand succeed. In that journey towards ensuring that the brand succeeds, there are a couple of things you need to know. You must get the right talent on the team, you must share a common vision as to what needs to be done for the brand, you must have trust in the client and, likewise, the client must have trust in you. If you get a couple of these fundamentals right, it makes for a relationship that is not short-term. The idea is not to get rich quick but to make that brand large, the rest follows.
Digital is the buzz these days. What are your views on it and how big is digital in India today?
There are two ways I approach it: there is mainstream or traditional India, which is the ATL space, and then there is the online or digital India. So I use two different sets of teams to work these two spaces. Digital India is in its infancy, it is starting off, the metrics are still being thought through or worked upon, the dynamics of what can be done is not easily understood. I think even the digital agenises themselves are going through that learning curve. But is it effective? Yes, it is, because you can actually know exactly who saw what, when, in which geography, and that gives you analytics, which mainstream media did not give to that extent.
I think about 8-10 per cent of budgets currently are on the online or the digital space. If you have an agile partner who is actually doing the buying, it is hugely dynamic and effective and cheaper. But if you have a lazy partner who doesn’t understand this space, who is happy throwing a lot of money and hoping the result will come, then I use a phrase quite often – ‘A fool and his money are soon parted’. I believe in the dictum of think frugal, be dynamic, creative, think your audience through, get your strategy right. Just saying I am on Twitter and Facebook is not a strategy. The strategy is when you use all this to a point and that point has to be an audience and it must connect in a certain manner which helps the positioning of your brand. It is a youth medium, so you have to be quirky; shareable values are great but engagement values are greater. So these are things that need to be looked upon and because it is in its infancy days, it needs a lot.
Agencies are led by CEOs of two backgrounds – either from client servicing or creative. We have seen JWT being led by you for many years, now by Tarun Rai. Then we have Rohit Ohri leading FCB Ulka. We also know of agencies led by creatives, like Ogilvy headed by Piyush Pandey and McCann led by Prasoon Joshi. Which works best for an advertising agency?
It actually depends on people. If you had a person like Piyush or Prasoon or Agnello Dias, they are actually the life-blood of an agency. So they are front-end people who either drive the brand or run the business but that type of people are not easily available and there is a limit to how much that one person can do. Now, I was blown away on Sunday when Total Recall on Times Now did a story on Prasoon Joshi, and all the lyrics tracks he created for cinema. I don’t think anybody in India has done that and when I heard so many people speaking in admiration of what all he has done, you realise his skill – and talent cannot be duplicated.
The agency business has two parts to it; one is the creative product which is the most important thing from a client’s perspective, and the second is the person who actually runs the agency. So, if an agency CEO is from an account management or client management background and he keeps his focus around great creative talent or whatever that particular agency does, that is great because there are only so many great creative directors. The creative person is the most important aspect of an agency because that is what makes a difference in the marketplace. So, what a client actually buys is a creative solution to communicate his brand or the promise around that brand.
JWT was the biggest ad agency at one time – and JWT Delhi was the largest agency branch office in India among all agencies. All that changed suddenly during the last part of your tenure. Ogilvy is the largest agency today and JWT Delhi is not the crown jewel anymore. What went wrong?
JWT is many things but if you compare creative agency to creative agency, Ogilvy has done well because it has a great leader. They are known for their creativity and nobody can take away the fact that they have been known as the most creative agency in India, they have won all the award shows. In our model, we still rely a lot on strategy, we still believe great strategy leads to great creative, we may not win all the awards but definitely it impacts all the business. There is an anecdotal story that talks about three barber shops and they ask each other who is larger. All of them claim they are larger than the other but to find a common yardstick is not easy. The simple yardstick is looking at money and in that space Sir Martin Sorrell is the best person to tell you who makes more money and who doesn’t.
Let’s come to scam ads. Please share your views on this contentious issue.
I disagree with scam ads. As much as people think it is the Olympics of fake work, I don’t think it is right. I think that scam ads are those which are created with one single purpose – to win awards. But it can put you in great trouble. I still say do great work on your client’s brands and nothing prevents you from winning awards then.
In March 2013, the most controversial scam ad ever hit the headlines – the Ford Figo scam ads by JWT entered for the Creative Abbys. The industry felt you made Bobby Pawar the fall guy. Would you like to put the record straight?
It is not about a record. Actually he carried the responsibility even though he may not have done the work. Unfortunately, that happened. Right or wrong, there was a client in the mix, some things remain confidential, but there was a client in that discussion and a decision was taken and that is how it ended.
Let’s come to creative leadership again. During your time, after Bobby Pawar quit as Chief Creative Officer, you appointed three NCDs at JWT with no singular creative boss. That’s quite unusual. It’s like a company led by three CEOs or three marketing heads. What was the rationale?
As I said earlier, it is not easy to find great creative leaders. We didn’t have a choice. We felt that each office of ours was large enough to warrant leadership at the level which allowed them to spend a dominant amount of their time on clients. It is not like jam that you can put across 100 toasts. You have to see what role one creative leader can put across 300 people in creative. So it was a very practical solution to an issue where there was nobody who could have risen to that role. We couldn’t find anybody who was far superior to the three we had and among the three we didn’t think that anyone was so good to be the boss of the other two. We didn’t want to lose any of them because they were good people. So it was a very practical solution.
To go back to the beginning of your professional journey, what brought you to advertising?
Passion. The simplest thing for me to do was to join another company, either on the client’s side or in another agency. But some things are led by passion. I am passionate about the creative work, I am passionate about clients and their brands. Insightfully, I think about the ambition clients set for their own brands and business. Then I try and make sure that the team I create around that client, brand or business is the best solution for them. I have always wanted to be in advertising. I have no regrets as to how my career has progressed. I think the satisfaction you get from working on large Indian brands overall is a good thing.
If given a chance of rebirth, what would you like to become in your new life?
I think I have been fortunate so I am not going to say that I now want to become Nelson Mandela! If I were given a choice of a rebirth I would probably do differently some of the things I did. There are elements of people or traits of companies which today you wish you had done. So, if you ask me who would I have liked to be, then I think from the perspective of sheer ingenuity and ideas Google is what I would like to be like. From a design perspective I think I would like to be like Apple, and from an understanding technology perspective, I would like to be like Microsoft, and would like to have Richard Branson’s personality dimension. I think that is how I would like to be reborn.
What has been your biggest learning in advertising?
You can follow or pursue a passion and never have to work again in your life. With what the digital world is doing now, people having fun with technology, we have done that. You could spend a day watching movies and it was legitimate. Those elements and passion of advertising is something which I think is the best thing that could have happened and I would do it again and again.
Is there anybody in the industry you look up to? Any person outside industry you admire?
All the people who run all these technology companies I mentioned. I don’t admire just one person; that would be too unidimensional. I admire many people.
What do you do in your free time?
Motorcycling is my passion. I swim. I am making a digital platform now, so it is a bit of passion right now.
Any interesting thing about you that no one knows or you have never mentioned before in media?
It is all there. Google does it all for me.