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As an industry, we should aim to build Goafest as among the best in the world: Ashish Bhasin & Ramesh Narayan

With the biggest festival of the Indian advertising industry – Goafest – round the corner, BestMediaInfo met Ramesh Narayan, Chairperson of the Abbys awards, and Ashish Bhasin, Chairperson, Goafest 2017, to know the roadmap to make it stronger. Abbys signal the beginning of international awards, and many Abby Gold winners win at Cannes

Raushni Bhagia and Akansha Mihir Mota | Mumbai | January 2, 2017

(L)-Ashish-Bhasin-&-Ramesh-Narayan-(R) (L) Ashish Bhasin & Ramesh Narayan (R)

Goafest is the biggest home-grown festival of the Indian advertising industry and the Abbys is probably the only industry organised award ceremony in the ad world. While it has also been a favourite punching bag for many, the festival has a spirit that has tied the industry together. Most stayed with the fest to help it grow over the last decade. The few that chose to stay away also witnessed the growth of Goafest and the Abbys. No matter which side of the bench you are on, you just can’t miss Goafest if you are a part of the Indian advertising world.

In our recent article, ‘Top agencies to give Abbys 2017 a miss’, published on December 28, BestMediaInfo reported how Rediffusion Y&R has joined the bandwagon of non-participating agencies – Leo Burnett, Ogilvy & Mather and Mullen and Lowe Group.

Nonetheless, people have time and again taken pride in receiving the awards and being part of the fest. BestMediaInfo met Ramesh Narayan, Chairperson of the Abbys, and Ashish Bhasin, Chairperson, Goafest 2017, to know what is new in the festival this year and also to know their views on the controversies surrounding the festival. An event as big as Goafest can never be without its share of pinpricks and controversies, but the show has to go on. And it will.

Excerpts from the joint interview:

A few major agencies have announced their non-participation in the Abbys. Does that sound like disharmony within the advertising industry? On the ground or behind the scenes, what is being done to bring them back?

Ramesh Narayan (RN): Abby is the largest industry-wide advertising award. For last three-four years, the Abby has transcended a lot and it’s much more than just an advertising award. Instead of saying that a lot of agencies are not taking part, one should see how many agencies are participating. Then, you will be able to answer that a lot of agencies are taking part versus a few who are not.

If a few agencies are not participating today, we must look at the 145 agencies that participated last year to understand why they took part. So if you see four-five agencies on one side and 145 on the other side, what percentage would that be? All said and done, I will be the happiest man if all the agencies are a part of the Abbys.

While the entries keep on growing, if some major agencies aren’t participating, do you think the quality of entries will be the best? Do you expect a drop in quality and quantity of entries this year?

RN: Historically also, if you see, these big agencies have not sent any entries for the last four to five years. And one of the agencies interviewed in your article has not participated in the last 14 years. I don’t know why we are talking about a decade-old thing. None of these agencies have entered in the last three years but the entries have still been increasing every year. Last year was an all-time high and I am sure this year, there will still be more entries.

Ramesh-Narayan-100“Some of these big agencies have not sent any entries for the last four to five years… but the entries have still been increasing every year”

I recently met a creative person from the industry and he said a very nice thing to me. He said that ‘I am made of Abby’. I think all the people in the industry, including those who are not participating today, are made in the same mould of Abby. They have all contributed to the industry and the Abbys, got acclaim, fame and name on account of these awards. Even for the agencies who are not participating, I would say that they do a lot of good work and why should that work not be at the Abby.

The categories have not been increased exponentially; this year just one has been added. This year, I am keen on splitting digital into digital and mobile if everybody in the AGC agrees. It is not because of entries or money, but because that is the right thing to do.

The jury and judging methodology have always been questioned. How is the Abbys Governing Council doing to address this issue which appears to be the real bottleneck?

RN: Last year, I don't think there were any jury-related issues, if someone can point out I will be really happy to answer. Jury chairs are brilliant men, they are the best minds that we have, people like Agnello Dias and Prasoon Joshi. Do you really think these guys will come and waste their time if they felt that the process was wrong?

Ramesh-Narayan-100“Piyush Pandey is a very dear friend and I was really glad that he was there at the Goafest last year. If he meant that a lot of awards are given away, I must tell that our jury is actually so stringent that there was no Grand Prix last year”

I always joke about one thing: ‘The Sun always rises in the East’. The Abby signals the beginning of the international awards. It is the first award to take place in the year among the global advertising industry. Also, many of our Abby Gold winners win at Cannes. Do you think that if our jury was faulty or the process was wrong, the same work would still win at Cannes? I always believe that good work will always stand out and you cannot put a man or his work down.

What is better – a compact jury or a big jury?

RN: You have a compact jury at D&AD and a big jury at the Cannes Lions; which one do you think is better? Many of these agencies who aren't participating at the Abbys take part at Cannes. Also, Spikes Asia, Adfest – how many jury members do they have? It really doesn’t matter. Each one has its own strength and the main point is whether you have individuals who are capable of examining work and saying what it is good or bad. We believe that, and I think it is a no-brainer, we have the best names in the industry at Abbys. We have opted to have a larger jury and it's not about good or bad.

Do you think anything can be done to bring these non-participating agencies back?

Ashish Bhasin (AB): It is a large industry with about 70,000 people directly employed in advertising. It is not possible that all 70,000 will behave in the same manner, else it will be utopian. Ramesh Narayan is an optimist and believes that one day the whole industry will come together, but I am quite sure that some people will always be unhappy no matter what. There were a few issues that were raised a few years back. But transformation has happened in the last two to three years; it has not happened by accident, it has happened by design.

Ramesh-Narayan-100“Jury chairs are brilliant men, they are the best minds that we have, people like Agnello Dias and Prasoon Joshi. Do you really think these guys will come and waste their time if they felt that the process was wrong?”

Third party auditors are in. The process of judging has gone digital. Hundreds of steps are taken to make sure these issues are left behind. Seeing the trend in the last two-three years, we have had the maximum number of award entries and delegates last year and we hope to beat that and the same is the case with top speakers and good quality sessions. The complete festival is an industry event, including Abbys.

This is all done, paid for, co-ordinated and volunteered by the industry people. There are no paid employees handling this. Have you seen the uniqueness in this? Unfortunately, we're all governed by the baggage of the past and we are missing all these things that are happening.

AAAI is an industry body. With some leading agencies opting out of the fest, are they weakening the industry body? After all, it is said that the industry is bigger than the agency, howsoever big it may be.

RN: If you see that 99 per cent of the industry is with the event and believe that it is fair, then there is a reason. Last year, the entire process of uploading entries except four categories was done online. This year around, all the categories are done online and even the shortlist will be done online. Every year, the processes are evolving and technology is an enabler. At a great cost, AAAI and The Ad Club are putting all the efforts.

AB: It is not easy to digitise all 4,500 entries. It takes lakhs of rupees to do that and this year around we will be putting the shortlists online for a week. KPMG will audit it through a four-member team. We are doing whatever is humanly possible to make this as transparent and fair as possible.

RN: We will keep the shortlists online for a week and if there are objections about any of those, we will pass them onto the jury when they sit down for the final rounds of judging. How much more transparency are we expecting? Even I didn't know about the winners till the time I reached Goa the last time. Abbys and Goafest are industry events. They are done for the industry and by the industry.

Are agencies insecure of the newbies? Goafest has given recognition and reputation to a lot of start-up smaller agencies. Is it a smaller agencies versus biggies game?

AB: One has to see a bigger picture. There is a revolution in advertising. Many advertising agency groups have not realised this but we are out of the era where advertising was a 100 cc press ad and 30 second TVC. Many creative heads and agency heads have grown up in that era. There is an unlearning that has to happen which says that it is a part of advertising but that's probably not enough a part of advertising with digital, e-commerce, social media with consumers being 24x7 on. It has been democratised as hundreds of digital agencies are controlling the future of large brands. The whole ecosystem has changed.

Ramesh-Narayan-100“Many of our Abby Gold winners win at Cannes. Do you think that if our jury was faulty or the process was wrong, the same work would still win at Cannes?”

RN: Abbys and advertising have evolved a lot. For example, digital -- it is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. Even in Abbys last year, we had 614 entries in digital; it is huge compared to the total 4,000 entries. Hence, we must see which are the leading agencies entering their major work in this field today. A lot of large agencies -- JWT and DAN -- are huge entrants. So I don’t think the large groups are insecure. Ultimately, everyone has grown on the back of an Abby.

AB: While it is the best and largest fest in Asia already, we should aim to build it as the most respected and the best among the world. One should be very agile and adaptive as an industry. Tomorrow, augmented reality or robotics may become big and we must be able to adopt and adapt to the changes.

A direct question. Are you planning to address the boycotting agencies’ suggestions to improve the judging process? Is there any plan to meet these agencies to thrash out the differences once and for all?

RN: Over the last few years, quite a lot of good suggestions were made by our own creative fraternity and almost all of them have been incorporated. The awards’ governing council, which has representatives from all agencies, decide on the jury. We would love to have the guidance and suggestion and they don't even need to give a call to us. We actually ask all the leaders of the agencies to give names who do they think in their organisation can be on the jury.

Ashish-Bhasin-100“There were a few issues that were raised a few years back. But transformation has happened in the last two to three years; it has not happened by accident, it has happened by design”

AB: We would love if everybody comes and participates. It is ultimately an industry event and for me, everybody is equal here -- my agency, any other agency, big agency, small agency. Everybody has equal rights to enter and there is a process through which someone will win and some will not. If somebody had pointed out this fault in the jury five to seven years ago, I would still have had sympathy but now there is no reason for anyone to be upset. How much more transparency can we expect once the shortlists are put online for a week? If somebody studied the things that are being done and told us that maybe this part could have been done better, it would be very constructive and would be in the right spirit.

RN: I would urge all to look at last year’s jury, which has the best people from the Indian advertising industry. If they are not fit to judge, then who are? If you have any names then tell me.

Whatever you may say, there is an impression that the number of Abby awards is far too high and the reason is that the effort is to keep as many agencies happy as possible.

RN: Ask about Cannes and then they will answer. Why do they all go to Cannes when hundreds of categories get hundreds of awards? In fact, last year, I had to tell the jury members to be a little kind because I realised that the year prior to that, there were hardly any gold given. These people (jury members) are very strict and you cannot really influence them. The jury’s word is the last word. It is not the AAAI, AGC or the Ad Club; it’s a group of 12 wise men who decide what’s good or bad; then all of us have nothing to do with that.

AB: Do you think you can tell a person of the stature of Prasoon Joshi or Agnello Dias to really judge an entry in a certain manner? They have their own standards and none of us has ever tried to interfere in the last two years at least. Any jury process has an element of subjectivity. People with that level of experience and achievement are in a much better place to make that judgement.

Piyush Pandey is a tall figure. The other day, in our story, he commented that the Abby awards are being given out like ‘laddoos’. What do you have to say?

RN: Piyush is a very dear friend and I was really glad that he was there at the Goafest last year. If he meant that a lot of awards are given away, I must tell that our jury is actually so stringent that there was no Grand Prix last year and just one ‘Best of show’. It proves that the jury believed that it is not enough of the best work.

Ashish-Bhasin-100“We guarantee you this is going to be a Goafest like never before, in terms of scale, quality of speakers and even work”

AB: This festival is about celebrating creativity and advertising. One should be there in a celebratory mode with the celebratory attitude. Just consider how, for these three days in the year, we come to work together, to celebrate good work and our industry. I would only urge that the senior most people should come and see how the complexion of the industry has changed and participate in this whole process because people will gain a lot from everybody’s experience.

While putting together creative event, why is it that the Goafest committee has no creative minds in it?

RN: At least 15 years back, the AAAI never had creative people because none of them were called Managing Directors or CEOs. Now that is not the case here and hence it is up to the agencies to nominate the creative heads.

AB: The AAAI is an Apex body of all advertising agencies. Each agency nominates one person to represent at the AAAI with the only criteria being that person has to be of certain seniority -- be it the creative or planning side. Now, the Goafest committee is pulled from the pool of AAAI and the Ad Club.

The speaker sessions are mostly from fellow industry heads. Don’t you think that the industry folk will be more interested in listening to global heads and creative heads?

AB: About 70 per cent of the speakers are global speakers this year. More than global, what we are aiming to do is not to make the industry very incestuous. There is no point in us listening to us. Why is it that only a global head has knowledge? There is a lot to learn from speakers who are outside our industry as well as from people in other creative fields, in leadership fields, etc.

Ashish-Bhasin-100“There is a revolution in advertising. Many advertising agency groups have not realised this but we are out of the era where advertising was a 100 cc press ad and 30 second TVC. There is an unlearning that has to happen”

So there is the industry conclave, which typically are people from the industry; the speakers in the knowledge sessions and leadership sessions are mostly the motivational or leadership speakers. People who are from different creative areas and relevant to us, we want to learn from them. I am keen on bringing a lot of digital emphasis on the global speakers too, and not just the people who are creative directors and planning heads.

Last year, I think one of the most interesting talks was by an army person who spoke on team spirit. We are planning to have sports personalities to tell us about teamwork and leadership. Last year, Rajdeep Sardesai’s interview with Arjun Ranatunga was a brilliant session. Advertising is not only about artwork and 30 seconds. People who have built digital businesses at the age of 15 and 17, there is a learning we can get from them. Last year, there were quite a few good sessions and this year we're going to surpass that. This might be the first time when we don't know how to accommodate and we might have to close gates as there is a physical constraint.

There is a feeling that increasingly the Goafest is becoming a big jamboree of three days of fun and frolic and less of serious learning opportunities for the young professionals.

AB:  Sometimes, yes, it is sad to see people coming there and not even seeing the work which is exhibited. Last year, we even incentivised people to see work. There’s a camera that captures people watching work and these people were given money for watching work at the award ceremony. A lot of youngsters were forced to go and watch work. There was such a big exhibition area and this year it's going to be even more prominent and bigger.

I think the young ones are enjoying within themselves a lot and I have no problem with that but I want to ask them to not miss the good speakers and the sessions. Sometimes when they are missing from the session, they are losing a lot of learning. Ultimately it is up to the individual and we can't force them. I will ask the journalists also to attend as many sessions as possible.

We have also tried that the delegates who are coming should have a complete experience, which includes interactivity, interaction with people, fun and games because that's the spirit of the festival.

What was the idea behind introducing the Champions of Excellence this year?

RN: The purpose of this particular award is that at the end of the day, whatever great advertising you see has to go through the client. An advertising agency may have the best idea of the world but if the client refuses to take it forward for some reason, the idea dies. But then, you have clients who will have faith in you and will tell you that if you believe in a good idea then just try it out, and that generates great advertising. We wanted to honour and celebrate this client. So, the agencies will nominate the best clients.

Do we need better content planning, in terms of the session schedules, speakers and topics?

AB: We have a speaker chairman this year, Jaideep Gandhi, and he has his own team advising him on the same. This year we started that process much earlier as we already have had meetings at the creative directors about it.

RN: We always have a town hall for major discussions about the awards. But this time, Ashish suggested that we must also crowdsource the content ideas, the topics of the sessions and also gather suggestions about the speakers. This was to understand which areas do the attendees have a skew for.

AB: We realised that the industry folk are interested in knowing the global digital trends and we're trying to bring some experts in that area.

Is the fest losing its sheen owing to the Abby controversies?

AB: The festive gathering has more people every year. This year too, the festival will have something for everyone -- for those who want to gain knowledge; those who want to see good work and those who want to network with the industry people. There was no controversy at Abbys last year and we are building on the positivity of the last two years. It is all very positive and is going in the right direction.

Ashish-Bhasin-100“Do you think you can tell a person of the stature of Prasoon Joshi or Agnello Dias to really judge an entry in a certain manner? They have their own standards and none of us has ever tried to interfere in the last two years at least”

I guarantee you this is going to be a Goafest like never before, in terms of scale, quality of speakers and even work. We are going to launch a creative campaign too for Goafest. You must have already seen the creative campaign that we launched for the Abbys.

When will Goafest go back to the beaches of Goa?

AB: Coming back to beaches will probably be difficult now. It's because the quality of technology and the quality of presentations has gone up. That kind of infrastructure and WiFi speed is difficult to get outside. While it sounds very romantic to take it to the beach and we would love to do that but it might not really happen. Today, we are going to need as much bandwidth in Goafest as large offices of the large organisations because WiFi is something that everybody needs. This year, we will have Sundowners -- young local bands playing as the backdrop of the setting sun in the open air. There is a good mix of in-and-out environment. We are going to drag you to the beaches. We are possibly bringing the beach in.

Do you think that the controversies might dent the image and strength of Goafest?

RN and AB: Where is the dent and what was the controversy last year? These are the same agencies which haven’t participated for last four years.

AB: We are doing a damn good festival with a damn good award show. Our sole motto is to put up the best award show in the best possible way for India.

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