Ohri speaks at length to BestMediaInfo about his plans for FCB Ulka, his long journey and problems facing advertising agencies. “We are not chasing the money. We are chasing capability, quality of work and how we want to be positioned in the market place,” he says
Akansha Mihir Mota | Mumbai | August 29, 2016
Ever since Rohit Ohri, Group Chairman and CEO of FCB Ulka, hit the road, the agency has experienced the winds of change. Ohri has been a catalyst in bringing in popular brands such as Vero, mid-day and Santoor under the agency’s belt. An advertising thinker and strategic leader, he is also driving organisational efficiency.
After a 21-year stint in JWT, Ohri joined Dentsu Asia Pacific in 2011. He moved on to FCB Ulka in January this year. Ohri was singularly responsible in taking JWT Delhi as the country’s largest branch office in terms of business. It became the jewel in JWT’s crown under his stewardship. In his next important assignment, Ohri assiduously built Dentsu as a force in Indian advertising. He has been blessed with long-term vision and an eye for growth and expansion.
BestMediaInfo.com caught up with Ohri last week in his Mumbai office for an extensive interview. Excerpts:
How has FCB Ulka performed since the time you joined the company?
FCB Ulka is a pretty solid agency. The previous leadership had left it in very good shape. My task was only to build on strengths vs create strengths and that was a very different challenge from my last job. The big mandate was really of transforming a creative product. That is something we are working on and changing to some degree the systems and processes in the organisation. The first priority for me is to create a good creative culture. We have some great clients and brands to work on. So, the opportunity for us is really there and we just need to grab it and take it to the next level, and that is something we are working on. We are chasing the best quality product and the rest will follow. We are not chasing the money. We are chasing capability, quality of work and how we want to be positioned in the market place.
What is your primary focus and target?
My target is to create the most distinct creative culture which facilitates the best of the creative work. For me that is the most fundamental and most important thing to do. It has to be a place where ideas thrive, where ideas are taken to the client with great deal of enthusiasm and energy. Ideas are like energy. You can drain that energy or make that energy bigger. In the right kind of creative culture, that energy magnifies manifold and the ideas become big and different.
How do you define the FCB Ulka way? Are you trying to build a different culture at the agency?
One of the things we have done is to create the whole philosophy around the brand and what will the brand actually stand for and that is really what we are going to take forward. FCB stands for ‘first create behaviour’. We have stood for it for very long. When you look at advertising, people say let’s first give information, that information will change attitudes. It is when the attitude changes that behaviour will really change. What we are trying to do is to reverse it.
In many ways we are challenging the convention of advertising. We are saying that first create behaviour. If you create behaviour first, then you will be able to shape the attitudes over a period of time. Today, consumers are not looking at advertising for information anymore. That information is always pervasive around them. There are many other ways to collect information. Every product is reviewed by 500 people and the consumers are relying more on that. Many years back, we used to read the newspaper for a review. Today on Facebook, when a movie is released, ten of your friends would have already reviewed the movie! And today I trust my network of friends more than anything else.
The important thing for an advertising and marketing brand is of creating a mechanism which helps people to create behaviour first. To my mind, that is the best place to start: to create the behaviour is fundamentally very important.
“I think fuddy-duddy is a harsh word for the agency. FCB Ulka’s culture is never been to talk about achievements”
One of the most successful campaigns was ‘Dirt is good’. What it did was that it changed your behaviour. Earlier, a mother used to stop kids from playing and doing things that caused stains on clothes and that was a particular behaviour. What you do is that you tell your mother that it is only if the child goes out that he/she learns, and so don’t stop them. I changed that behaviour first and because I changed that behaviour, my attitude towards a detergent completely changed. I changed the behaviour of mothers reacting to clothes getting dirty.
Do you intend to take the acquisition route to expand FCB Ulka like you did at Dentsu?
The whole idea is not to expand but to look at building capabilities. Acquisitions will not be about scaling up and becoming large. I have heard a lot of people saying it’s a race to become number one and two, but that’s not the game I want to play. I want to play the game of quality and the game of being the most sought after agency in the marketplace, and not the largest.
What are the expansion plans then?
We are looking at the digital capabilities and activations as the possible way to build upon. There is nothing concrete as of now, but we are speaking to people.
I think now is the right time to talk to you about the agency’s perception of being a fuddy-duddy agency. In what ways have you tried to change the perception of the agency being old-fashioned?
What worries me more is the fact that this is more of a perception than the reality. If you look, the agency has built many strong lasting brands like Nerolac, Tata and Mahindra. There is a lot of work that the agency has done for the brands that are successful in the marketplace and has built strong client-agency partnerships. I think fuddy-duddy is a harsh word for the agency. The culture in the organisation is never been to talk about the achievements and that is why you don’t know enough about the people there. Therefore, there is a feeling of a bit of an old school agency. This is the perception that has been formed. The truth is there is still a lot of capability that the agency needs to build and especially in the digital space. Building those capabilities and having a complete holistic approach to brand-building will change the perception. The source of fuddy-duddy is to do a lot while being in the traditional media. I like to change that fuddy-duddy image, not with just talk but from our work. Our work should say that we are today’s new age.
At Dentsu, you were the CEO - Asia Pacific, and now you are Chairman and CEO at FCB Ulka. What is the difference in the roles? Is it easier here as you are taking care of just the India operations?
Both jobs had different challenges. At Dentsu, the challenge was about knitting the Asia-Pacific Network. Here it is about building the agency, giving a new direction and writing a new chapter at FCB Ulka. Broadly, I would say both the jobs were interesting and exciting. They have their own challenges. Obviously, working in my own ground where I know people and have connections is easier.
In February, you hired Swati Bhattacharya from Dentsu and now you brought Surjo Dutt to take care of the Delhi office. Then you hired Debarpita Banerjee. What different qualities do they bring?
Swati brings in intimacy. Her favourite philosophy is to create intimacy with brands and consumers. How do you look at consumer and brands insights? She finds very human connections with brands and consumers. Her work has a lot of heart and emotion, relevance and connection. I think that is something truly unique. Surjo joined us from Sapient Nitro, where he spent the last one and a half years looking at building advertising capability. For him, that was a huge learning ground. From a creative perspective, he is a much better-rounded creative director today. Debbie joins us from National Geographic. For five years, she was the head of marketing there. What she brings is the whole new understanding of content and what’s the importance of creative and branded content.
At Dentsu and now at FCB Ulka, you have shown an inclination to fall back on your old JWT colleagues. Any reason?
Quite honestly, the interesting part of it is that at FCB, I am working with a larger team. We are talking about a 700-people team. The head of strategy from Mumbai is Saad Khan. He has earlier worked in an agency in Europe. The head of strategy at Delhi has come from Mindshare, with whom I have never worked before. The head of creative whom we just hired at Bangalore is Mahindra, who comes from a fine arts background. Earlier, he set up his own studio and was doing exhibition of fine arts across the world. I have never worked with him before. It’s a very unidimensional way of looking at it. Out of 10-15 odd people I have hired, four to five are from JWT, which is but natural as I have spent a long period there. It is an agency that has great talent. I am chasing real talent and calibre and where they come from is immaterial.
Do you think talent acquisition and remuneration is a major problem and the industry has no solution for it?
It is a problem facing the industry for sure. A lot of these problems have been created by advertising agencies themselves. If you look at yourself as a service provider, then the clients will always have the option of curtailing the service he wants and which he doesn’t. If you position yourself as a service provider, then the client will choose services from the numerous ones you have to offer. The whole thing is that it reduces and shrinks the role of the agency. The agencies need to look at themselves as manufacturers and say we are the manufacturer of ideas and not a service company. Agencies have been delivering as a service industry and that is the biggest problem. We are in the business of creating ideas that transform brands and businesses. There is a factory where we have people who are in their minds creating thoughts and ideas. The moment you look at yourself as a service provider, you are doing a big disservice to your agency and to the industry.
“If you look at yourself as a service provider, the client will choose the services, which shrinks the role of the agency”
Why are clients being able to unbundle the industry? The moment you unbundle the agency, you reduce the sphere of influence of the agency. You also reduce the remuneration. If you go to buy the product from the market, you don’t say that no matter the product is made by 500 people, actually this product can be better made by 20 people. Please come back and create this. Today the clients are telling the agency that I don’t need 40 people to make this ad, I need 20 people. How do they know? If you are buying soaps from two factories, why one doesn’t say that we can buy soaps from one factory. We don’t ask manufacturers that. So, why are we opening up this whole thing to the clients because we say we are a service industry? If we are a service industry, then the client will choose. That gives him power over the agency’s way of doing business.
Do you think time has come now for people to start considering advertising as a manufacturing industry? Isn’t this concept in conflict with the philosophy of creativity?
I think globally the industry needs to become a manufacturing industry. I think this is repositioning the agencies need to do. We need to be treated as a manufacturing industry.
In a world of consumer control, content overload and fragmentation, how do you define advertising? How has the definition of advertising changed for you over time?
The truth of the matter is that the more things change, the more they remain the same. It’s a very contrary point in advertising. I have read a lot of people talking about the fact how advertising has changed and will never be the same; advertising is dead, TV is dead, digital will be everything. If you see the reality, what people are consuming online is video content. Video content means that there is a story that is being told to the consumers. In many forms, you are only telling the story. How different is the storytelling right now? What has not changed is that we are talking to human beings. The core of the business has not changed. Only the manifestation has changed; like where will the video be seen and how the video will be consumed. All these have changed.
“Becoming number one and two, that’s not the game I want to play”
We get confused by the tree and the roots. The roots have not changed. The leaves fall and come again. But that doesn’t define that this has become a new tree. The tree is the same. We are still talking to human beings and not to the ones morphed into alien species yet. The most successful stuff that you have seen online, kept and saved, these will be the human stories. There will be stories of great valour, determination and human insights. Something that is connected with you emotionally and that’s what you are going to share. The future is not really digital and creative agencies separately. It will all come together behind a powerful idea. I think the unchanging value in this ever-changing world. If you hold these unchanging values then you will never fear the winds of change.
What brought you to advertising? I am asking this question because you have gained education in commerce. Now after so many years, do you think that your commerce and finance sector knowledge has helped you in your advertising career?
Not really. Actually earlier I had applied in a creative agency, Response, in finance in Kolkata. The head of the agency told me that I can be very good at accounts management. In the beginning he asked me to join as a management trainee. There I worked across different functions and after that if I wanted to go back to finance, I could have. After working for some time I realised this is a good place to work at.
What according to you are the campaigns that you have worked on that have helped you carve the progress chart of your career?
The big campaign I did for Pepsi is ‘Ye dil maange more’ at JWT. The other one is ‘Mera number kab aega’. People still remember and talk about them. These campaigns have become a part of advertising folklore.
What is your all-time favourite television commercial?
My all-time favourite commercial is the Sachin and Shah Rukh Pepsi commercial.
How do you balance work and personal life?
I strongly believe the most important thing for people is to lead interesting lives. If you have to create interesting communication and have to create interesting things for brands, then you need to live an interesting life. I am very clear that I have to balance things between my work life and personal life. I am really passionate about theatre and I actively participate in it with my wife. I like spending time with my family. It’s not that I am just doing one thing and forgetting about the rest. If you want to find the time, then you will.
“In many ways Bollywood is ahead of advertising. Advertising is a plain shadow of Bollywood”
What do you do in your free time?
You must find interesting things to do. Because when you discover your passion, you kind of bring that passion into work. Somebody asked me once how theatre helped me in my work. One of the biggest reasons that I have seen success in my professional front as an advertising person has been a lot to do with theatre. Fundamentally, in theatre you imagine yourself to be somebody else. In advertising you are writing a piece of communication, you are thinking of a strategy for somebody else and for that you have to be in his shoes. That really helps. When I am presenting an idea, my training in theatre helps me to present the idea very well. A lot of your presentation skills are marked by your training in theatre.
What word of advice do you have for young professionals in advertising?
One simple straight line to say in this respect is that ‘lead interesting lives’. If you lead an interesting life, then you will produce interesting work and follow things that you are passionate about.
I am sure there must be people who look upon you as their mentor and role model. But who has been your inspiration in life and work?
At different points in time, there have been different people. I have got a lot of inspiration from the clients. The biggest influence in my life has been a client I have worked with in Pepsi, Vibha Rishi. I learnt a lot from her. Pepsi at that time was the most desirable brand to work on. She gave a lot of trust and freedom to advertising agencies. She helped me grow professionally and as a well-rounded advertising executive.
In today’s advertising, do you feel Bollywood has an overbearing influence on creativity?
Twenty years back when I started my life in advertising, it used to be ahead of Bollywood. Bollywood was stuck in the genre of masala. Today, Bollywood is ahead of advertising because it is doing newer, contemporary themes which advertising is not daring to do. Whether it is about sexuality or breakdown of families, they are adopting bold new themes like Vicky Donor. In many ways Bollywood is ahead of advertising. Advertising is a plain shadow of Bollywood.
Do you see in the foreseeable future the return of the single unit, a compact agency where creative and media co-exist?
I don’t think that will happen quite honestly. I asked this question to Martin Sorell once and he said, ‘Sorry, but the toothpaste is out of the tube’! The good thing is there are still some agencies which work like that. The FCB Group has media integrated into it. Lodestar is a part of the FCB Ulka group. That is great wisdom and readiness for what the future will bring in.
As a diehard Calcuttan, tell us why the original home and nursery of Indian advertising has gone completely off the radar?
The reason is that all the clients have moved out of that city because of the climate and the previous government that didn’t create a conducive work environment. A lot of the business has migrated. Most of the big clients have shifted apart from ITC which is still there. Everyone has left the city. The biggest brand that has been there for many years moved its marketing to Delhi – Bata was synonymous with Calcutta for the longest. Calcutta has not seen big multinationals coming in there.