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In-depth: Indian agencies shift focus on co-creating with clients

Evolving client demands call for sweeping changes in the ideas that creative agencies bring forth. The road of innovation, product designing, rebranding and business solutions that was less travelled is now being frequented more often than ever

Across the world, creative agencies are increasingly partnering with their clients beyond advertising solutions – providing business ideas or even product design solutions.

Leo Burnett’s Smartlife Poles innovation for HP Lubricants and the idea to create Bajaj V with the wreckage of INS Vikrant, McCann’s Immunity Charm, Ogilvy’s Safety Grip for CEAT and Savlon Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks and JWT’s Blood Banking App for Red Cross Society are a few recent exemplary works from India that describe the changing face of creative agencies.

Besides these, there is a plethora of business solutions, including Taproot Dentsu’s Adidas Odds and Times Passion Trails and The Womb’s Carvaan for Saregama, which affirm the increasing inclusiveness of agencies with their clients.

Co-creation with the client is a mantra that Indian agencies have now started embracing. The reason behind moving to product designing and other business solutions is that the world now needs creative solutions to stimulate growth in a way that traditional approaches alone cannot achieve. Experts say that brands have also opened up to third-party design thinking and are willing to have an idea collectives of sorts with their agencies. Also, at a time profit margins are shrinking for creative agencies, providing business solutions and product designing has open up additional business avenues and incremental revenue stream for agencies.

Santosh Padhi

Describing the change, Santosh Padhi, Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, Taproot Dentsu, said, “Product innovation is just one leg of what agencies offer beyond advertising solutions. They are giving their clients many other solutions, which increase their sales in more than one way and one of them is product. The other way could be suggesting their clients some additional features to the already existing products. Say, some agency comes up with an idea to add some fragrance into a detergent powder to solve the problem of bad smell from clothes in the rainy season. This is not product design or innovation but a business solution. These are very strategic ideas that are done for a specific period of time that actually plays a very important role for the brand.”

Product design solutions, as defined by Cannes Lions, are those that enhance the quality of life through their functionality, including problem solving, ease of use, ergonomics and product compliance with appropriate standards. Such solutions solve specific problem through production process and final design. If a piece of work is only to sell the inventory, that does not fall in product design category in advertising and is called pure business solutions.

A memorable product design and innovation work from across the globe is a German watch created with braille for visually challenged people. In Thailand, someone created braille ink for Samsung.

In Myanmar, kids used to cross the river to go to school and there was always the danger of the boat capsizing. So, somebody came up with an idea to create a school bag with stuff that keeps the child afloat in case of a boat mishap.

Australia has designed a product for rugby players for Samsung, which is a headband. It is a thin band on the head indicating the coaches about the players’ blood circulation and other health parameters as they keep colliding while playing.

Volvo Cars had come up with LifePaint specially designed for the cyclists who used to apply it on their clothes. Invisible by daylight, the unique water-based reflective safety spray glows brightly in the direct glare of car headlights making the invisible, visible. LifePaint washes off and does not damage the clothes. So a jacket with neon paint that glows at night would not be a product innovation. But an economical solution like this that can be used on any cloth is a product innovation.

Catching up with the west

While India has produced a lot of locally relevant and internationally acclaimed advertising work, it was for the first time that the country won a Silver Lion for Leo Burnett’s ‘Roads that honks’ campaign in the Innovation category of Cannes Lions 2017. Specifically in the product design category, McCann’s Immunity Charm and Ogilvy’s Savlon Healthy Hands Chalk Sticks won a Silver and a Bronze Lion, respectively.

Although there have been many contributions by the Indian agencies to brands in the past, the Innovation and Product Design Lions won last year clearly indicate that Indian advertising has evolved much and is catching up with the west.

Why is that India took years to reach this stage? Is it the disadvantage of being more of a consuming economy instead of being a production one? As Padhi puts it, “Many of the products are invented in the first world countries, whether it is car or electronics. All of it is exported to our country and we are a country that is not equipped to do that. It is not a question of why do not have innovation labs that UK, USA or Japan has. We have not been into product innovation. We are a home to sell these products as there are more consumers.”

M G Parameswaran

M G Parameswaran, Brand Strategist and Founder, Brand-Building.com, recounts how Indian agencies have in the past worked with client teams to generate new ideas for products. “It is well known that the idea of putting stripes on toothpaste (Signal from Unilever) was an idea from the agency. Similarly the idea for the Lifebuoy handwash came from a focus group that was done by the agency. There are probably many such examples in the annals of advertising history.”

On why we are witnessing more of product design and innovation ideas from Indian agencies now, Ambi said, “Of late the complexity of creating products has increased. Competition has increased. Hence specialist firms that use techniques like Design Thinking have been called to do idea generation, rapid prototyping, etc.”

Purely product design may not be the only thing an agency does, rather they are providing many other solutions to their brands, which was not the scenario five to eight years back.

“In the last couple of years, internationally, brands are expecting the agencies to play a bigger role. At times I have seen, agencies are now coming and proposing small or big products or a dual product to achieve success. In India also, things have started moving in that direction. Clients are not taking 100 per cent of what the agencies are suggesting but they are taking part of it and integrating them in their marketing and strategy product,” observed Padhi.

Kawal Shoor

Kawal Shoor, Co-Founder, The Womb, said, “I don’t remember any serious innovations that have happened in the past. In a few industries, we haven’t seen product innovation in the last 20-30 years. When did detergents and soaps really innovate? To my mind they are fatigued areas.”

Is it that brands are more open to the ideas from their agencies now? To this, Padhi said, “If an agency gives an idea which the brand feels worth, it will certainly take it with both hands. Product idea is very limited, but adding value to the product or the strategy or the sale has been happening.”

“As long as you are solving a particular problem of a client, I don’t think they would say no to it,” added Shoor.

New thinking

With time, the culture within Indian agencies has evolved and so the new thinking has replaced the old approach of advertising, which was largely to create communication around brands and looking at their problems from that lens. Now, the agencies proactively talk about holistic business solutions using fast developing means and mediums. The focus has grown on partnering clients and solving problems closely.

Senthil Kumar

Senthil Kumar, Chief Creative Officer, JWT, India, said, “At JWT we believe in pioneering creative solutions that solve marketing problems and at times gigantic human problems and resolve them with not just effective communication but innovative products and process solutions. Our creative people are trained to think beyond the brief and have the courage, curiosity, creativity and capability to build innovative products for all our clients and partners.”

Prateek Bhardwaj

Prateek Bhardwaj, National Creative Director, McCann Worldgroup India, and the man behind the award-winning ‘Immunity Charm’ campaign, believes that true innovative solutions are produced when the creative agency truly understands the client’s culture and business and when the client puts all his faith into the agency. He said, “Innovations come out of deep understanding of the brand, business and culture. The stronger the partnership, the more immersed the agency is, the easier it is for the client to back the innovation.”

“Take the Immunity Charm, for example, where we created an innovation on a traditional bracelet to help boost immunization rates in Afghanistan. That came out of really digging deep into the problem. Once we recognised the traditional biases against vaccines, we realised that a regular ad campaign wasn't enough. The Ministry of Public Health, Afghanistan, backed our product idea to the hilt, because we had really invested in getting our cultural understanding right,” added Bhardwaj.

Navin Talreja

Navin Talreja, Co-Founder, The Womb, said, “A creative agency gets a brief for the brand’s problem. A response to the brief is really up to the agency. Typically, an agency tends to go back with an advertising idea. Our approach is to keep it very agnostic of any medium and format and find the best solution to the problem.”

Innovations for awards?

There has always been a feeling that innovative ideas or advertising pieces are mostly done to win awards.

Ambi cautioned that one should not confuse genuine new product ideation with ideas created for award videos. He said, “Those are not sustainable in the real world. What is done for awards has no economic logic. So it is not viable in real life. There is a remote possibility that an award idea goes mainstream. But that is a rarity.”

Shoor added, “The question really is, are you developing something to solve a particular problem or to grab an opportunity because we have seen a few little innovations mainly to enter awards? We want to stay as far away from that kind of thinking. The innovation has to be beneficial for the brand and ideally also for the business.”

Disagreeing with both Ambi and Shoor, Padhi said, “To do a small ad and activation for awards is possible but to do a product innovation for awards is not an easy thing as it takes a lot of resources, time and money to come out with a great piece of innovative product.”

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