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The Womb is our journey to respect brains, heart and balls, say founders Navin Talreja and Kawal Shoor

In an interview with BestMediaInfo, the founders of 1000 days old agency 'The Womb' said that making pitches to clients is akin to selling the souls and they only look for like-minded clients to work with and not for any industry leadership position

Kawal Shoor (left) and Navin Talreja (right)

The Womb, led by account and planning professionals Navin Talreja and Kawal Shoor, has taken a resolve to bring respect back to Indian advertising as both the co-founders told BestMediaInfo.com in a firebrand interview that The Womb was their journey to respect – brains, heart and balls.

The founders feel that the more creative you're in a meaningful way, the more returns clients get on their marketing investment. "Carvaan is a breakthrough. How often do you create a product as an answer to a communication brief," said Talreja, who's also an accomplished theatre actor.

This Mother’s Day, Carvaan came to the rescue of all the people who wanted to gift something unique and innovative to their mothers. The digital audio player was launched last year as a business solution created by the 2.5 years old creative agency ‘The Womb’ for the music company Saregama.

Besides Carvaan, the agency has some memorable campaigns to its credit. 'Fogg chal raha hai' is one such work by the agency that boasts of being run without a National Creative Director (NCD) or any creative head.

At the same time, both Talreja and Shoor also feel that creative may get you more clients but you can't retain them without good account management.

About the company's growth strategy and acquisition of new clients, Talreja said The Womb was fiercely independent and would want to be the same without any compromises.

"We should be able to say no to our clients. Will we continue our no-pitch approach? It is our fervent wish that we don't have to do that," he said. "We must get to the stage where the client needs us as much as we need them. At this stage, we just want to work with like-minded people and leave the industry leadership to others."

Excerpts:

What made you think that you can actually do without a creative partner to begin with? Did you think it was a risk or you thought it was an invalid point to even ponder over?

Talreja: To an outsider, it may have felt like a risk because the outside world goes on set paradigms. Even during our leadership days at Ogilvy, we worked like workers because we love to get our hands dirty. That meant leading, thinking and working on 40-50 campaigns a year. On many of them, we were working with CD (Creative Director)-level guys. Our learning was simple – most of the actual work in creative is done by the mid-level, as long as they are given a clear, inspiring and liberating brief. And many of those campaigns were blockbusters. So we were happy to start with a few sharp guys who were hungry to be independent. Guys who wanted to take accountability, and not hide behind so-called NCDs (National Creative Director).

On the other hand, many NCDs have their own ‘chaap’ on the work of the agency, irrespective of which brand they are working on. We didn’t want that. We wanted each brand to have its own voice, its own style. And if you see our body of work, it won’t look like it comes from one agency. And that is huge for us.

Did we think it was a risk? Well, we are first-generation entrepreneurs in our families, so everything was a risk!

But was not starting with a designated NCD a risk? No, as far as our ability to create work was concerned, but yes, there was a risk of perception – what would those who believe in standard structures feel? Thankfully the work that we did got us more work, and in hindsight, it shouldn’t have been any other way.

You boast about not having an NCD. But with one office, does the national creative director’s role make any sense?

Shoor: In our industry, designations mean nothing. People are everything. Designations are often a tool for talent retention. For this reason, and for those mentioned earlier, we are happy without an NCD for now.

We are extremely happy with one office, as we have no desire to become a large holding company. In the future, we are not averse to having a single creative leader. It really depends on the person. But right now, we are happy that our creative boys and our clients are happy with the work being done.

Which is a bigger turning point for The Womb - ‘Fogg chal raha hai’ or Carvaan?

Talreja: Both are important in their own way. For a new agency, it was crucial to get one famous, culturally intrusive campaign out very quickly – especially as we had chosen an NCD-less model For Happy Mcgarrybowen, it was their work on Flipkart, and for Taproot it was “Har ek friend,…”. Despite its rough edges, the huge popularity of ‘Kya chal raha hai’ reassured our clients that The Womb is not just a first-rate strategy and planning agency, but it can pack a wicked creative punch as well.

Then, of course, came Carvaan; a result of a hungry and trusting client, a complex problem, a diverse team, and multiple, open conversations over months. Carvaan is a breakthrough, not just for Saregama and The Womb, but hopefully and eventually for our industry. How often do you create a product as an answer to a communication brief?

While you call Carvaan a product design, it falls under business solution as per the definition in the Cannes Lions glossary of categories. How would you react to this?

Shoor: The question reveals the paradigm within which our industry is supposed to operate. In theory, we take delight in mantras like ‘design is marketing’, etc. but are often scared of design solutions to marketing problems. Carvaan is a design solution that is taking songs to those who are longing to listen to them. In a way, Carvaan is the ‘medium’ of listening that the elderly so missed. So yes, it is a product that is solving a business problem.

How is creativity at The Womb different than the rest of agencies?

Shoor: For us, creativity is not an ad that comes out. Of course, it is one of the things. But we want to bring creativity to every step of the process – to the questions we ask, to the articulation of a client’s problem; to the way we do research, to our approach to solutions, and even to how clients should increase marketing ROIs.

Creativity is a spirit we deploy. It is a beautiful and powerful servant, and never the master. That has to be the solution itself. But in the same breath we also want to state that a solution that is not creative may work, but will never give the right ROIs. There is nothing complicated about the relationship between creativity and effectiveness – the more creative we are, in a meaningful way, the more returns our clients get on their marketing investments. We are clear that effectiveness is the goal, and creativity is the shortest journey to take you there. Wasn’t this how it was supposed to be anyway?

Different agencies have different mindsets for pitch. As you claim that you have got all of your businesses except one without pitch, is it because of your account and sales skills? Will you continue with the current approach on pitches?

Shoor: The way we’ve got our businesses is a truth, easily verifiable, and not a claim. And these are not clients who have come to us for a project. These are retainer clients. And many of them are entrepreneurs. And we’ve continued to work with them for years, so there must be something we’re doing right, right? In fact, in our industry, the saying is that creative may get you new clients but it is good account management that keeps them back. Despite not pitching, we have our own way of engaging clients before they start working with us. What we don’t do is share solutions, as they are our only currency. There are some who agree with the way we see things, and some don’t. And that’s fine with us.

Talreja: Will we continue our ‘no-pitch’ approach? Look, we are a young company, and fiercely independent, and no one dictates how fast we should be growing. That’s working, and we’d love to keep it that way. Our personal belief is that a pitch is akin to selling our souls, and it is our fervent wish that we don’t have to do that. Won’t it be nice if a client woos an agency for a change? We have been, and it feels good.

Kawal Shoor and Navin Talreja taking awards at the APAC Effies 2018

You also claim that you charge more than established agencies at a time when clients are not ready to pay? Isn’t it a case of going ahead with only those brands that pay well?

Talreja: Of course it is. It is our prerogative. All premium brands do that, don’t they? The approach is also strategically useful – people who pay well, respect your inputs. We choose our clients as much as they choose us. And who says clients are not ready to pay? Even at Ogilvy, during our time, the better clients who extracted great work were the ones who actually paid well. Clients who can be shown value, do pay.

What largely do you credit to when it comes to having created what you call path-breaking work?

Shoor: Okay, we’d really hesitate to call our work ‘path-breaking’. But how many new agencies, in their first 1000 days of existence, have created not one, but two culturally intrusive pieces of work – ‘Kya chal raha hai, Fogg chal raha hai’, and Saregama Carvaan. Both completely different, both already famous. Are we happy with what we’ve done till now, no, not at all. We rate ourselves 4 on 10. There’s such a long way to go. However, the credit for some of our better work goes first to like-minded clients, who trusted us with their problems, and then to a first-rate team that’s so diverse in skill, but so aligned in what we are trying to do. Our business depends on random conversations and unexpected sparks that fly and our ability to catch them and mould them. That is what we do well, I think.

How did the induction of anthropologist within the agency take place – planned or it just happened and then you held on to it?

Shoor: The desire to hire more people from the social sciences has been very deep and long. Those who come from a background of humanities and social sciences bring completely different and complementary skill sets compared to the inordinately high business orientation of traditional Indian planners. They speak the new, and we seek the new.

Talreja: We had two clinical psychologists and one anthropologist when we were all of 10 people. The anthropologist came in quite by chance, but that’s how things go. The fact that she won the ‘Campaign South Asia Planner of the Year’ last year was sweet vindication of our thinking.

 

Planning is the backbone of your agency and hence attracts maximum focus. Have you identified weak areas on which the agency needs to work?

Shoor: We’d like to believe that eventually, we become known for our innovative solutions. Planning and creative are just ways to get there. Like a classic new product, we as a product may be first rate, but have not build the necessary awareness in our journey to become a brand. We need to broaden the funnel, so to speak. Our work is doing some of that, but we need to do a lot more.

Why do you feel that the advertising industry or specifically creative agencies have lost respect?

Shoor: Any transaction or relationship that makes both parties happy, over time, is likely to be an equal relationship. And in such a relationship, both equally strongly want to be in it. When that happens, they stretch for each other.  Trust, respect and fun follow. Tell me, how many agencies can say no to clients? How many clients worry that their agency might say no to them? We have to have the courage to say no more often, and the brains to still explain our stand lucidly. Balls, heart and brains in equal measure. We must get to a point where we believe that clients need us, as much as we need them. And then put that belief into practice. That’s all. There is no rocket science. But as they say, the simple is not easy.

While you intend to win that respect back for the industry, it might not be enough if you work alone. Hence, shouldn’t the efforts be made on the industry level also?

Talreja: We have never wanted to pass our personal experiences as global theory and industry gospel. The way we are built as people, we can’t operate if we don’t have the freedom. Our desire to be able to say no is creating an ability to do that. This is our journey to respect – brains, heart and balls. Someone else may have their own way of getting there. At this stage of our company, we just want to find like-minded clients and create honest, new work and leave the industry leadership to those who aspire to it.

Carvaan has won at many awards forums. How do you expect it to perform at Cannes?

Talreja: Carvaan is our precious little baby whose worth will not alter one bit irrespective of what happens at Cannes. It has already won people’s hearts. We’ve entered Carvaan in a couple of categories more out of curiosity than out of ambition. But to answer, we think it stands a decent chance if they decide to recognise brilliant simplicity, and real work.

Will Indian creative ever catch up with the developed countries? If so, how?

Shoor: It is true that in crafting of ideas, especially in films, we aren’t world-class yet. And there are many reasons for that. For instance, how often have you heard an Indian agency swing three months of production time for an approved script? The ones that win big in the West are painstakingly crafted. But we’ll get there.

But when it comes to ideas and stories, that is a different thing altogether. They often need to be super-cultural. ‘LaLa Land’ didn’t work well in India, and Padmavat won’t work well in the West. You look up Bob Dylan’s 10 best songs on Billboard or The Rolling Stones, and I can bet that as an Indian, you may not relate to at least five of them, because they are so local, so contextual. Some of us might, but then we made an effort. And it’s likely that those who connect with Dylan think in English. So imagine if Dylan’s songs were entered in a competition here in India, and they competed with songs by Gulzar. And imagine the jury is largely Hindi/Tamil/Urdu-speaking South Asian. What do you think will happen? Will Dylan not winning here make him a lesser writer than Gulzar?

Talreja: Advertising is part of the larger media culture, so why do we expect Indian advertising to work equally well here and then there at Cannes? We get paid by clients to make their brands culturally significant in their market, which is here. Everything else is a bonus. So for us, Cannes is important more as a global melting pot of ideas and connections, rather than as a stamp of approval for our work. Thankfully we don’t suffer from a complex.

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