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Hiring from mainline will help Medulla push healthcare creative boundaries: Praful Akali

The agency recently roped in a few people from mainline agencies to raise the agency’s benchmark in healthcare advertising. caught up with Praful Akali, Founder, to understand its journey so far, competition, challenges and focus areas

Akansha Mihir Mota | Mumbai | March 2, 2017


How often does one hear about people joining a healthcare creative agency from a mainline one? Not often. Medulla Communications is trying to break the stereotype around the working model of healthcare creative agencies in India.

The agency created a flutter when it set India’s flag flying high at the Cannes Lions Festival last year and ever since it has not just been able to attract talent from mainline agencies but also clients. The agency works with clients such as Novartis, Sanofi, P&G and Johnson & Johnson and is growing at a rate of 60-70 per cent annually.

Praful and Amit Akali Praful and Amit Akali

Right mix of mainline & healthcare advertising

Recently, Medulla strengthened its creative and planning team by hiring talent not from healthcare agencies but from mainline.

Subash Franklin joined as Senior Director - Consumer Healthcare from DDB Mudra. He has 15 years of experience and has worked with JWT, Ogilvy, OMD and Fountainhead. Ritu Sinha, with an experience of 12 years in advertising, has joined as Creative Director. She has worked with Ogilvy, DDB Mudra, Contract and Capital. She won the Cannes Young Lion Competition in 2008. Abhinay who began his career with Leo Burnett joined as Creative Director. With over 11 years of experience, Abhinay has worked for Evolution Bureau in San Francisco, Grey and Ogilvy, Mumbai.

Commenting on his joining Medulla, Franklin said, “Praful Akali’s vision for creating strong healthcare brands by combining strategy and creativity coupled with his background as an ex-client is what made me make the switch.”

Abhinay said, “Medulla has been setting benchmarks in healthcare communication, I want to push it further, and that’s why I am here.”

Sinha said, “I am new to healthcare so it is a huge challenge. But then, a new challenge just brings out the new you. So I am up for it.”

Amit Akali, Chief Creative Officer at Medulla, summed it up saying, “Hiring from mainline advertising will help us push the creative boundaries in healthcare. We are excited to have them on board.”

(L-R) Subash, Ritu & Abhinay (L-R) Subash, Ritu & Abhinay

Talking about the recent recruitment at the agency, Praful Akali, Founder and Managing Director, Medulla Communications, said, “We have realised over time that healthcare doesn’t have the required talent of art and copy that we wanted to build at Medulla. Instead of looking at healthcare advertising folks, we wanted to recruit mainline advertising people willing to come into healthcare. We didn’t want ‘chalta hai’ guys. We didn’t want people who have not done very well in mainline advertising coming in healthcare as backup. We wanted real talent to come in and add value to healthcare advertising.”

The eight-year-old agency is now around 60-member strong. Amit Akali (also Praful Akali’s brother) is Chief Creative Officer and also runs his own agency, What’s Your Problem. Amit joined Medulla about three years back and made the announcement official two years back.

Praful Akali, explaining Amit’s role at the agency, said, “Amit puts about 20-30 per cent of his time here, exactly as the role what a CCO of a large organisation would do. We can’t afford all his time and we can’t also have all his time. I support What’s Your Problem from the strategy and business perspective.”

The agency has a three-member creative team consisting of copy, art and healthcare advertising. Vinayak Shinde, who has an experience of about 20 years, is the healthcare expert at the agency and has been with the agency for five years. Akali calls Shinde a ‘Quasi-doctor’.

Hiring mainline creatives: The risks

“People don’t attempt this much because these are very expensive resources in comparison to healthcare advertising. Another question was that can these resources add value to healthcare advertising? They might not necessarily understand it. Whether mainline advertising people work hand in hand with healthcare advertising was the second big risk. The third factor was that while having a three-member leadership team, the operational cost would also go up,” said Akali.

The Cannes effect

After the Cannes win, around four to five companies came on board bringing seven to eight brands to the agency. Akali said, “Clients now have enough confidence to give us the freedom to do the kind of work we love to do. What has been important for us is also to use the credentials and for that we have to do a lot more above the line advertising work than we have been doing in the past.”

“Suddenly we have been able to use the credentials that we got at Cannes to kind of build the team. Obviously, not all of that has happened in the last six months or last three years. A lot of it has come to the surface and people have been noticing us in the last eight to nine months after we won at Cannes. We have been able to amplify and talk about the progress we have made as an agency. People like you are willing to listen to us. People like Ritu, Abhinay and Subash are willing to join us. We have been getting more clients and people on board.”

“We could have easily focussed on getting more business and not building on people. Getting right people on board and clients is like the completion of my dream when I set up Medulla,” he added.

Narrating his Cannes experience, Akali said, “We had people from developing countries like Italy, South America, Asia-Pacific countries coming and meeting us at Cannes and telling us that they were happy to see that not an agency from the US or UK, but an agency from India has won the Healthcare Agency of the Year award. We were almost mini celebrities there. People stopped us on roads and wanted to click pictures with us.”

Challenge is focus area going forward

The biggest challenge for the agency was to differentiate itself in terms of credentials and capabilities. To do that as a self-funded agency was another challenge. The agency is now aiming to get more consumer healthcare brands on board and do more of television and print advertising. Today Medulla is not just known in India but also abroad. The next agenda is to get more international clients on board.

Akali said, “To break out of the clutter and produce world-class work in India was very tough. Now that we have got the credentials and capabilities, the challenge for us is to get business that supports those credentials and capabilities. These include getting more clients on board who would invest more in consumer advertising and, therefore, grow our revenues as an agency both in India and internationally.”

Mainline agencies no competition

A lot of mainline agencies such as Ogilvy CommonHealth and McCann Health have also come up with their healthcare arms. DDB Mudra also started with a separate arm, which has now merged with its main agency. Contract attempted to start a healthcare arm but could not succeed.

Akali said, “None of them have clearly been able to do globally award-winning work, the way we have been able to. We have clearly differentiated ourselves and clients.”

Need for healthcare creative agencies

Healthcare advertising is one sector where the target audience includes doctors, dieticians, gym instructors, nurses and pharmacists. Akali explained, “I don’t know if you have noticed it, in the entire category of antacids and cough syrups 45 per cent of sales of certain consumer healthcare products are influenced by pharmacists and chemists sitting over the counter.”

The regulations in the sector are far deeper. Therefore, advertising in the sector also involves greater knowledge about its functioning. Along with the creative and strategic understanding, one needs scientific understanding also. The insights are far deeper. Healthcare is one category which requires high involvement and low value and, therefore, it’s a unique category.

Understanding healthcare advertising TG

There are three kinds of clients that healthcare advertising deals with. One kind is typical pharma and medical devices clients who predominantly communicate to healthcare professionals.

Akali said, “There we have clearly been established from day one. Those people typically pay less to the agency and therefore you are competing with fewer agencies and you are able to show value to what you charge for them.”

The second group of clients is consumer healthcare brands who only advertise to medical professionals, like  GSK Consumer Healthcare, Johnson & Johnson, Neutrogena and P&G. A lot of consumer healthcare brands reach out to doctors, dieticians, pharmacists and gym instructors. Also, a lot of these consumer brands invest in influencers programmes.

The third kind of clients constitutes consumer healthcare brands which do advertising for consumers. For example, when like Benadryl Neutrogena do healthcare advertising on television, print and radio, such brands invest a lot in consumer advertising.

Akali said, “For this type of advertising, brands generally struggle because for reaching out to consumers directly, they have probably been using Ogilvys of the world and all the biggest mainline advertising agencies. The clients feel the need of a healthcare expert as his insights would be deeper and the understanding would be more. This sort of expertise is difficult to find in a mainline agency.”

Medulla Communications is the only independent self-funded agency that has been able to break through consumer healthcare brands, but with great difficulty. Consumer healthcare brands generally tend to give the account mandates to the mainline agencies. It has been a struggle for healthcare agencies to pitch themselves against the mainline advertising agencies.

He further said, “When I was at the client side eight years back, I struggled with this problem as a client. I felt that the mainline advertising didn’t really get the healthcare advertising. Healthcare agencies didn’t have the abilities of a mainline creative agency in terms of planning and strategy, ideas, in terms of execution of ideas at copy level, etc. I felt the need and that is why I stated Medulla in the first place. When I started Medulla, I felt talent does not exist in healthcare advertising. At that time I wasn’t in a position to pull in talent from mainline advertising.”

“I think finally we have a package for which a consumer healthcare brand would not choose an Ogilvy because we already have folks from JWT, Leo Burnett. A lot of clients have come on board and are coming. Now the idea is to consolidate the work for this particular team. We have made the investment upfront and now I want the clients to come on board,” Akali concluded.

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