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I do not support using causes for award purposes, says Ajay Gahlaut of Ogilvy & Mather

In a freewheeling interview, Gahlaut talks about Soho Square’s leadership, pitches, creativity in the times of digital, art and copy directors and the next line of leadership at Ogilvy & Mather

Ajay Gahlaut

The man behind the iconic polio campaign, KFC ads, and Seagram Imperial Blue’s funny commercial, Ajay Gahlaut, Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy & Mather North, heads the creative functions at the agency’s Delhi office. But Gahlaut believes in keeping a low profile as he thinks work should speak for oneself. Gahlaut is known for his witty social media updates and statuses.

Gahlaut has shifted between McCann, Rediffusion, Saatchi & Saatchi and Ogilvy & Mather throughout his career since 1994. He finally settled at Ogilvy & Mather’s Delhi office with the belief that it is very difficult to find a work culture like Ogilvy & Mather anywhere else. caught up with him to know more about his thoughts on advertising, creativity in the times of artificial intelligence and machine learning, agency-client relationship, pitch fees, advertising for cause. Excerpts:

Have you been playing a dual role as creative head of Soho Square too? Is your involvement with Soho Square going to remain same?

I’m designated as Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy Group Companies North so Soho Square is a part of my mandate. I will continue to work wherever I’m required to.

Won’t a dedicated leadership strengthen the agency?

Of course, we have creative leadership in two Senior Creative Directors – Dalip Daniel and Preeti Koul Chaudhry. They independently lead the creative functions of the agency and I occasionally guide them.

We have seen Mullen and Lowe working as separate entities so that the two arms can compete in businesses, what will it take for Ogilvy and Soho Square to work like that?

Soho is a conflict management initiative from Ogilvy. Therefore, it has a separate office, separate team and separate leadership. Different agencies work in different ways and Lowe has decided to go this way. On the other hand, we have been very successful with the structure we have.

What role does a creative head play in keeping the office/unit profitable?

At Ogilvy, we are very careful that we give our clients the best possible creative solutions and creative directors are not burdened by any sort of numbers. However, being the creative head of the office, I have to keep commercial viability in mind for every creative project we take up or deliver.

What if a client asks you to work on something which your creative conscious doesn’t allow? Do you refuse?

You can’t refuse to work on anything. There could be disagreements with the client over the idea and the brand’s requirements and we try our best to deliver within the defined parameters. On the basis of relationship between client and agency, one always convinces the other and this is how it works. Things are rarely black and white when one says either ‘my way’ or ‘highway’.

Where do you stand on charging your prospective clients for pitches?

It is a great concept because agencies work very hard from ideas to presentation. We have a specialised skill-set basis which one decides about its creative agency. It existed and still exists in some cases and I’m all for it. Currently, market forces are dictating so that pitch fee does not become a norm.

On the other hand, how do you react on companies like RB charging agencies for participating in pitches? After all companies follow the tender route and deposit earnest monies to get a government contract.

To my knowledge, it was a unique case in itself and was simply ridiculous, leaving a very bad taste.

While Delhi is increasingly becoming the hub of a few largest spending clients, do you see the advertising hub shifting to the capital anytime soon?

There is greater growth in Delhi. Mumbai has matured as a market but will continue to be the hub of advertising.

Discussions around Artificial Intelligence and Robots taking over creative functions have started in some parts of the world. Have you started discussing it in India too?

Human creativity and human intelligence is a hard act to follow and I don’t think that is going to be very easy to crack that anytime soon.

Agencies prefer long term association with clients while off late we have seen the trend of project-based associations. Isn’t it better both ways?

I would again say there is no black and white in this also. Production houses also work on projects and maintain high profitability. What is the harm if agencies also earn in a similar fashion from short-term relationships with the brands? At the same time, long-term associations allow you to get associated with the brand very closely and you become an integral part of that brand building process.

Considering the changing concept of the brand nowadays with consumers having more power with them, projects are quite viable for both brands and agencies. It also throws new challenges with every new project and what better than that could be exciting for a creative person. That is the joy of the creative business where you talk about different things every day.

Do you see enough youngsters within Ogilvy or across agencies, who could become Piyush Pandey, Ajay Gahlaut and Rajiv Rao, or there is a dearth of talent? How is Ogilvy tackling this issue?

There is no dearth of talent in Ogilvy and we have been very blessed with a lot of young talent who can take any charge at any given point. Ogilvy is the centre of advertising excellence. In Mumbai, our ECDs Kainaz Karmakar and Harshad Rajadhyaksha are the next line of leadership at Ogilvy.

Traditional agencies have almost married their digital divisions. How has the thrust on digital changed your thought process?

You can’t deny that digital is a huge part of everyday life now and agencies have to follow consumers wherever they go. But one thing that will never change is that storytelling irrespective of the channel or medium. To engage with consumer you will always require creativity. Digital has made our job quite exciting and given us more tools to use our creativity.

The creative head of Delhi’s largest agency office and still you manage to stay low profile.

I believe that our work should speak for itself and us. As we say in cricket let the bat do the talking. I get the kick if my work does wonders. For an example, our work for Mother Dairy Cow Milk was such a huge success that it became a Rs 700-crore brand quickly. That is the power of advertising and that is what gives me satisfaction.

You are pretty much active on social media too with your witty and creative tweets. Does it help anyway?

Writing used to be a very solitary thing and one got appreciations only when he or she was a famous writer. But with social media, it has become a performance art like any other form of art. Social media has given you a set of your own audience. I have learned so much about what people like by writing on social media and the insights gathered help at your work as well. I call it fun learning.

We do not find many people with art background at top positions in agencies. Why is a copy person preferred over an art person and would the trend change?

Our National Creative Director Rajiv Rao is an art person. Cheil’s Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar is from the art background. Even Sonal Dabral is an art person. In my view, it’s not that only copy or art background help grow up to high positions. What requires is creative excellence with leadership acumen irrespective of what stream are you from.

How much do you believe in agencies taking up a cause and carrying it forward long term for real results? After all, we have seen a lot of PSAs from Ogilvy.

As communicators, we have a great deal of influence and we must take up causes that could bring some positive change in society. I’m fortunate to be a part of polio eradication campaign that sustained for a long time and did its bit in the eradication of polio from the country. I do not support using causes for award purposes. I’m for taking up real causes that make the real difference.

Can you name the five next creative gurus of India?

There are many people but only time will tell. I’m not naming future creative gurus but personally think many people including Kainaz Karmakar, Harshad Rajadhyaksha, Amer Jaleel, Arun Iyer, Rajdeepak Das and younger creative talents have the capabilities to guide the industry.

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