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If you want to be among the top five creative agencies in the world, you have to transform yourself: Saurabh Varma, CEO, Leo Burnett, South Asia

In an honest conversation with BestMediaInfo, ‘Taskmaster’ Varma, who believes that the young generation can transform India in a much faster way than anticipated, talks about his journey at the agency and shares his expertise in advertising

Akansha Mihir Mota | Mumbai | November 14, 2016

Saurabh-Varma Saurabh Varma

“If not now, when? If not you, who? And I think this is the mantra for us at the moment. I think there is no better time to make a difference,” says Saurabh Varma, CEO, Leo Burnett, South Asia.

Varma recently completed a year in his new and bigger designation as CEO of South Asia region at the agency. He looks after seven offices across four countries. Before that, Varma was serving as the CEO, India, at Leo Burnett since 2013 and earlier Chief Strategy Officer for APAC region at the agency With over 18 years of experience in the advertising field, Varma has worked with The Greenhouse, Publicis Ambience and TBWA before joining the Leo Burnett family.

In his free time, Varma loves to read novels that take him to the fantasy land. He also likes to play golf. Other than this, he loves to spend time with his family, especially his daughter who teaches him a new thing every day.

It is under his leadership that the agency has a vision to be counted among the top five agencies in the world by 2017. In this course of action, Leo Burnett has won several awards, including Cannes and Spikes and also managed to bring some of the best brands under the agency’s umbrella.

In a candid conversation, Varma talks about his role at Leo Burnett, the agency’s style of working, his views on the current scenario in advertising.

It's almost a year now of your promotion from a national level CEO to the South Asia CEO of Leo Burnett. Is your new hat more powerful, stressful or enjoyable? How is your new designation treating you?

The last one year has been great fun. In this time we have finished the acquisition in Sri Lanka. We have also strengthened our affiliate relationship in Bangladesh. I find this very exciting because you get to work with many different cultures. You get a sense of the challenges in every market. It is always exciting to solve many different problems.

Was this move a larger planned one? First, you were the Chief Strategy Officer (South Asia) then CEO (India) and now again CEO South Asia. Was it a well-planned move by the company?

I was already playing this role six months before we actually formalised the title. For obvious reasons, India being the biggest country in the sub-continent, it just made sense to formalise it with just one person and it was always the part of the plan. We had to do few things so that the announcement had some meaning because it is very easy to have titles. We had to put together our plans to consolidate our operations in Sri Lanka. We had a minority stake in Sri Lanka, which we convert into a majority stake. We had an affiliation in Pakistan, which did not work for us and changed. We moved from one affiliation to another affiliation, which was a stronger company. In Bangladesh we had to revive our affiliate agreement. We had to add value to the business for us to have one team. We had to do some work before we formalise this entire role.

When you took your new role, you told the world that you want Leo Burnett to come under top five in the world by 2017. How well placed is agency in this regard?

We are very far away from where we need to. Like Leo Burnett said, ‘When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.’ This is the first year that we have started our journey with regards to when I said top five agencies in the world; it is a very measurable goal. It is measured by the Gunn Report. We had just two opportunities, one is Cannes and the second is Spikes. At Cannes, we really did well where we had multiple shortlists. We have done very well with the Bajaj V. At Spike we had a bigger success. We had success across three different brands: HDFC Life, OLX and Bajaj. We had a total of 15 shortlists at Spikes. We were the second most awarded agency in India in our first year of entering Spikes with three gold, two silver and one bronze. We had more shortlists as a single agency than whole of Saatchi across the region. I think it is a good start, but we have lots of work to do. I know we have a deadline, but it might take us a little more time. It is a goal, where both Raj (Chief Creative Officer) and I are working towards aggressively.

Do you intend to acquire any smaller agency in near future to attain your set of goals?

No, I think what we need to do is to transform Leo Burnett itself. This is not about acquiring more agencies. We are by far one of the most creative agencies in the country and our job is to transform ourselves and measure ourselves to global standards.

Asking you straight here, what was the idea behind hiring Rajdeepak Das, such a young mind, to take care of a senior level post and the post that Pops held when he was at Leo Burnett?

Of course! If your ambition is to be in the top five creative agencies in the world, you have to transform yourself. If you look, most creative agencies that are very good at making recommendations to clients are very bad in transforming our own selves. For us the big journey was to transform ourselves first. When you say I want to be in the top five creative agencies in the world and you look at the kind of work they do, you needed somebody who understood media, technology and creativity at the same time. We needed somebody who was new age and somebody who has the ability to transform the whole agency and partner me in doing that. We pretty much met everybody who we thought could play this role and finally we felt that Rajdeepak Das was the guy best suited for this role. He has come on board as a partner to help us in this journey of transforming us to become the top five creative agencies in the world. Hiring somebody with much more experience is always an opportunity, but if you have big ambition, then you need to do something like this. A lot of people at that point of time felt that it was a risk and it was a mistake, but you meet Rajdeepak Das and spend 10 minutes with him and you would know why it was the best decision in your life.

Saurabh-Varma1 Saurabh Varma

What is 'Integration Manager' designation at the agency?

We have always had account management. The problem with the word account management is that it has lost its ability to understand specialisation. For us, what we are trying to build is a hospital model, where you have many different specialist services on offer to solve the client’s problem. The question is who is going to invite these specialists to come on the table to solve the client's problem. You need somebody who understands these issues and then find the right specialists to come on board to solve the problem. That is what the job of chief integration officer is and does. The integration manager is essentially responsible on his business solving the problem by deploying many specialists. He needs to understand specialisation to begin with.

What is the core reason behind the merger of Publicis iStrat and Indigo Consulting?

It is quite obvious. What we are trying to do is to put in all digital in the centre of Publicis Communications. What we are simply trying to do is to build a digital powerhouse, which can service our clients across Publicis Worldwide and Leo Burnett. It is best to accumulate all the resources, all the power in a centralised fashion rather than have many disparate functions, which might be servicing our clients. Clients today want the best specialist functions and if you don’t have that at play, they are not going to use you. What we are trying to do is to put all the services in the specialisations that we have at the centre.

Where do you think the Indian advertising industry stands at the international level? Would you like most of the people say, it's a long way to go?

I think we are great storytellers. I think we are stuck with what we were doing 15-20 years back. We are not able to comprehend that how technology, media and ideas can come together to create the modern narrative. I think that is really the opportunity for India. It essentially means that we need to take some bold decisions and give young people a chance to do new kind of storytelling.

So you believe that young people can bring about the change?

I believe that is the hope for India. I think young people will transform India much quicker than we anticipate. Our future is young people. We have the largest contingent that goes to Cannes every year. If you look at the team that goes to Cannes, they are mostly young people. They are young people with one or two years of experience in the industry and are not the veterans. We are all investing money behind the veterans because veterans already know what needs to be done. If the young people have the right exposure, they actually lead the transformation effort within the agency.

Saurabh Varma with the Charging Bull Saurabh Varma with the Charging Bull

If you have to list three things needed for a better client-agency relationship, in return to get a good creative product, what would it be?

I think agencies need to understand the difference between selling an idea and solving a problem. They seem like the same thing, but they are actually infinitely different. Clients don’t care about ideas. Clients want agencies which can solve their problems. I think that is a big difference between client’s expectations and where most agencies are. In India, if you go and talk to any creative person, they will tell you they have great creative ideas and clients don’t buy it. The truth is that they are not solving clients’ problems. When you solve clients’ problems, clients buy great ideas. If you ask me fundamentally, we have to start with the problem. Once you have identified the problem, then you need to understand that how are you going to solve it. If you ask me, it’s not about three things, it’s about one thing: Understanding the client’s problems. We are not spending enough time to understand client’s businesses and their real problems. Most of the time clients understand the marketing problem. They don’t know the human problem behind the marketing problem. That journey is the journey that we haven’t travelled by length. I think agencies of the future will serve extraordinary amount of time defining the problem, rather than solving the problem. The moment client reaches us with a problem, we immediately start finding the solution, rather than spending time to define the problem and that’s where the big emphasis has to move.

What according to you are the challenges that the advertising industry faces and any set of solutions if you have?

The challenges are quite obvious that we don’t transform ourselves and become meaningless. I think my solution is change everything. My belief is that we have to be brave to make changes. As long as we completely transform ourselves, we’ll be alright. I think we have great future, clients have complex problems and they need our help more than anything. I think agencies need to do what they ask clients to do, which is to transform themselves. Many agencies even today have copy and art desks. I think it’s a redundant methodology, which still exists today.

A lot of advertising veterans say they never plan things beforehand and no strategy and planning has been their course of life, yet they have by God's grace and presence of mind, managed to attain success in life. Do you actually think that without future planning and strategy, one can attain goals? I am asking you this question because you have spent most of your career in planning and strategy.

A lot of creative people are great strategists. My belief is that the harder I work, the luckier I get. When you say it happens by God's grace, you have worked so hard that you move through complexities to find the simplicity. It has taken years of efforts to get there. I don’t think it can happen without going through the complexities. You have to embrace and dive into the complexity before you get to the simplicity. For, many great creative leaders have years of experience in embracing the complexities. They have observed and lived life and had many experiences which is why they have an answer like that.

(L-R) Rakesh Hinduja, RajDeepak Das, Saurabh Varma and Dheeraj Sinha (L-R) Rakesh Hinduja, RajDeepak Das, Saurabh Varma and Dheeraj Sinha

Who is one rising star/young soul according to you in the industry?

Rajdeepak Das is a superstar. He is young and leading one of the best creative organisations in the country. I think there are many young people in the industry who have an incredible future. Arun Iyer is a fantastic talent, Sajan Raj Kurup does great work. Harshad and Kainaz at Ogilvy do fantastic work. Jigar Fernandes is doing some great work. They are ones who are going to be the industry’s future.

Why is the word 'taskmaster' synonym specifically to you? Isn't it a job of anybody at your position? How would you characterise your management style?

I am decisive and don’t beat around the bush. I am black and white. We have a very open culture. Anybody can talk to anyone. We are very non-hierarchical. We have a lot of conversations all the time. But once we decide something, we just go ahead and make it happen. We don’t beat around the bush and for that I am called a taskmaster. It’s a good title to have.

How do you deal with work stress? Please don't say that you don't take stress. Your statement here can be a word of advice for someone else.

I enjoy the stress and love it. This business is about chaos and managing the chaos to the best ability we can. It’s about solving problems every day and if you don’t like problems, then you shouldn’t be in this business.

A word of advice to young aspiring advertising aspirants...

I don’t have a word of advice but an invitation to join this exciting business that has ever existed. The opportunities for youngsters are incredible in today’s day and age. It’s not just about writing scripts but making things. It’s about designing a product and creating a platform where people can come and engage with. It’s about making a game for people to play with. It’s about creating content for people to share and pass on to. It’s about having fun, technology, using digital media. It’s about using everything to solve clients’ problems. I think it is the most exciting job in the world. That is why it is a great time to be in this business.

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