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Creative people should never think they are the last word, it's the consumer, says Prasoon Joshi

The CEO and CCO of McCann Worldgroup India, Chairman of McCann Asia Pacific, who is also now Chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification, speaks with about the constantly changing face of advertising and his life experiences

Prasoon Joshi

In an interview with, the CEO and CCO of McCann Worldgroup India and Chairman of McCann Asia Pacific, Prasoon Joshi, who has been recently appointed as Chairman of Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), said his new role will be a great learning as it will help him grow as a creative mind.

A man of many talents, Joshi –a national award-winning lyricist, author and screenwriter – said a unique thing in his career has been that whatever he did on the sidelines as a creative interest became his profession.

Talking about the challenging times advertising agencies are facing in terms of reducing profitability, he said agencies need to partner with clients to understand what the consumer wants and profitability will fall into place on its own. "If an agency is just a supplier of the client, it will vanish. Our job is to evolve ourselves as per the changing behaviour of consumers and suggest it to the client as well," he said.

Joshi said the challenge for agencies is not just creating differentiated content for clients but also to try innovative ways of delivering the message in a very complex and cluttered environment.

On the mushrooming of digital agencies, Joshi said the concept of a digital-only agency is a misnomer and at McCann he's had same creative teams for all mediums. "Having separate agencies for different mediums is a very narrow thinking. You require a communication partner that can get you experts in different areas."

Known for path-breaking campaigns such as 'Thanda Matlab Coca Cola', Joshi has always focused on delivering the message through simplicity and avoiding flowery language. He says the purpose of advertising is to drive consumers to the shop and ensure sales and if a simple piece of information is doing it, why would you want to complicate it.


You have been roped in to play an important role as the Chairman of CBFC. The post has become a punching bag for filmmakers. How do you intend to deal with the criticism?

It's an honorary position and I am hoping to make a positive difference. The role is to guide the fully functional staff at CBFC, which is headed by a CEO.

Taking on challenges in our evolving society and during the times when content from different streams is converging, I think it's going to be a great learning and will help me grow as a creative mind. Whatever criticism comes my way, I'll deal it with open mindedness, humility and inputs from the minds ones respect.

However, professionally my commitment to lead McCann stays very much intact.

People call it a tough time for advertising agencies. How big is the challenge?

The challenge agencies are facing is no different than what any other industries are going through.

For the advertising profession, the challenges are defined by the changing behaviour of consumers.

Media habits of consumers have become complex. Earlier, it was very easy to think of an ad interrupting a consumer between his/ her favourite television series or a film. Those were very simple days where the consumer had a simple lifestyle and you knew that the messages were delivered when you interrupted.

Now, look at the complex world we live in today. Every individual is a journalist or a content creator who can broadcast any piece of information on social media and manages to find a following. Hence, it becomes very difficult to compete in that kind of a space.

Today, people are consuming content in a very complex manner and we have the challenge to deliver our messages in this cluttered scenario.

The agencies are finding it challenging and experimenting with various things like developing content and trying different innovative ways to deliver the message.

This change will definitely give birth to new revenue streams and it will also make certain ways of making money obsolete. Now, it is happening more often because we are going through a huge revolution of the connected world which no other generation has ever seen before us.

Is this change responsible for reducing profits?

It will be unfair to speak only about profitability unless we dive deep into what is happening to the profession. The business of communication gets impacted by the way our consumer’s life evolves.

The core of our profession is consumer understanding and we should never lose sight of the fact that consumers still want brands, information, transparency and someone to simplify their lives.

Brands come with thousands of options in front of them but they gravitate towards one. Because consumption is not just a physical need but also an emotional, aspirational and psychological need. There are various layers to the consumers’ need and hence advertising and brand building play various roles there. While you tell the consumer about your product and pricing, they are also interested to know about the feel. The challenges and need for the brand building will always be there and profitability will fall in place if you understand your consumers’ needs well.

While the need of brand building remains important, the ways have changed. We are in the business of what the consumers want and how (way) they want it. If consumers want the product to fulfil a certain requirement which is more than what they were seeking earlier, that too is a part of our challenge.

As a result, agencies are designing products according to the consumers’ need which are suggested to their clients. In such a complex time, our business is not simple. We are providing solutions to our clients’ problems. If our clients’ problems are getting redefined, we are also redefining and restructuring ourselves accordingly.

How can an agency maintain or increase profit growth in such a cluttered environment?

Different agencies manage their costs differently to maintain profit. Some invest more into creative, some in client servicing, while some structure their deals differently. It is true that advertising agencies are facing challenges in terms of profitability but it is not something unusual because every time we go through a big change, we face a lot of challenges. We are in a constantly evolving society, which will continue impacting us. Even in science, the theory you read 10 years back becomes obsolete with new inventions. In medical science, the medicines considered the last word in a particular disease used by a whole generation is called harmful and obsolete after some time.

Why do clients feel that agencies are not adapting to the change fast enough?

We have constantly redefined the way we work. We are partners to the clients in reaching out to the consumer and also the medium between the client and the consumer. If the clients could spend two to three hours with every consumer, they would not need us. The fact is that the client cannot advocate its products and services to millions of consumers on its own. They need to convince a large number of consumers and hence, they convince us to come on board.

Clients are not facing challenges only with agencies but with distribution, pricing, taxation and other issues too. Anybody saying that agencies cannot provide a solution is absolutely a misnomer. These could be people who do not have a great relationship with their clients/ agencies. I can tell you on behalf of McCann that we have fabulous relationships with our clients and it is because we are in it together. We see the challenges and find the solution, together. We do not blame each other.

Are agencies investing in the skill sets in the area of programmatic, artificial intelligence, affiliate marketing, etc., because this is what clients need now?

When television advertising suddenly became important, people thought advertising agencies will start producing ad films and will have studios. But agencies don’t have studios and they have still given best advertising solutions to their clients. Without investing in camera, editing and any other production-related areas; they have been delivering best solutions. If the mobile phone becomes the biggest tool, it does not mean we should manufacture it.

Because of the paradigm shift in consumer behaviour, not only agencies but media houses are also getting redefined. People get up in the morning and say they know the news and they go through the newspaper for more than the headline. Newspapers are now meant for analysis. Every industry is going through this change. People now go to a doctor after acquiring a lot of information on the diagnosis and medicines.

When a profession gets redefined, it is important to understand what value can be added to the consumers’ life. Most of good clients with long relationships do not doubt what the agency does for them. They tell us their need and expect us to suggest on the same. If you are not proactive, not partnering with your client and merely remain a supplier, then you are in problem.

If content creation or expert involvement is a challenge for the client, we present it to them. If understanding of the complex digital landscape is a problem, we offer them the solution. The ultimate aim is to be able to provide a solution to the client without losing sight.

Some people claim that creative agencies have a fixed pattern such as bringing an emotional campaign in a year and then a humorous campaign in another year and again a quirky one next year. How do you respond to that?

We don’t think like that. We are there for our brands and we do not devise our strategy to make us feel good. If the need of the brand is to connect emotionally, we go for it. It is not so simple to decide what game we will play. It is brand building and we are driven by the needs of brands and consumers. Even if it is boring or tiring for us, we will do it. My message is very clear to those who want to join us that we do not decide what we want to do for the brand. Our job is not to play games at our whims and fancy. That will be detrimental to a brand if it starts depending on the moods of the people who are creating ideas for them.

Many advertisers say that even if emotional ads offer good a consumer connect, they do not sell. Hence, they have started focusing on functional ads.

I don’t agree with that and I don’t think there is any hard and fast rule. I think relevance is very important. Whether the campaign has to be emotional or functional, it entirely depends on what your brand needs are. On the other hand, I would definitely listen to the people, who understand their brand and consumer very well, telling us the need to connect with their consumers emotionally at some stage.

You are one of those very few people who do not crib about clients?

It is because we are in the same boat. We are not here to counter purposes. My relationship with clients is such that they call me anytime and suggest that the creative could be done in some other way as well. I do the same thing if I feel the need to tell them why they are not doing something which should have been done. The more the sharing and communication between the client and agency, the better the brand’s health would be. Whenever we work in closed rooms, nothing comes out but working together, we have cracked great ideas. I hugely value the relationship with clients and McCann is built on this relationship which is responsible for all of our works.

Too much of defining your relationship with clients does not work. I have no problem if a client comes with a line or a copy saying can we do something like this. I would not throw it out saying that I know poetry and writing. Creative people should never think that they are the last word. We have to listen to more people.

Aren’t creative agencies pushing the envelope of creativity too hard?

Purposes of ads differ from time to time. Sometimes it may intend to just inform about the brand. If your product or brand already has a certain level of excitement, all you have to do is just to share the information. I am not there for creativity’s sake. It is not necessary that the ad has to be written in a flowery language just because a creative person is involved. It actually takes a lifetime to understand the value of restrain. Sometimes you don’t have to write so much because a simple piece of information can do the trick. The purpose is to drive consumers to the shop and ensure sales and if a simple piece of information is doing it, why would you want to complicate it.

Are you in sync with the conversation around artificial intelligence?

Artificial intelligence is a work in progress and has a great future. Sometimes it may scare you how machine intelligence and algorithm can almost create something which could go out of our control. Technology will redefine what we do today. At one hand, it gives me a green picture of the world where technology will become so powerful that it will be able to decide for itself, on the other hand, being a believer of human being, life, relationships and emotions, I feel that technology is good as long as it is under human control. If technology takes precedence over us and starts controlling us, this is something I would be worried about. In my view, ideal situation would be that human should never be a slave of technology.

How well placed is McCann in terms of technology?

We are very well placed. Nobody is perfect and I think we are far from perfect. In the beginning, we used to have a digital team but for last many years, we have removed the distinction between digital and creative people and everybody in McCann needs to be digital savvy. We are highly media agnostic when it comes to ideas and that is how our new generation of McCann people are. You don’t need separate digital skill sets as long as you are not talking about hardcore backend technology experts.

Then why are so many digital agencies mushrooming around?

Digital agencies are a misnomer and you do not require them. You require communication partners. Did you require film agency when films came? Did you require print agencies when print came? This is a very narrow thinking. You require a communication partner that can get you experts in different areas. Nobody is expert in everything hence we bring a film director to shoot the film. Similarly, there are digital functions like writing algorithms and programmes which could be done by experts as and when required. So, we are investing in a big way in data and technology and other streams and that is a continuous process. We have doctors in our healthcare streams. We are about providing solutions to a particular problem and whatever it takes, I’ll do that.

After winning 16 out of 40 medals, how well are you going to invest at Cannes Lions going forward?

We have always supported Cannes Lions. I have even chaired the jury twice. We have cherished winning awards. We are not going to relook at it. We always believe in good work and celebrating ideas at such festivals and we will continue doing that.

Arthur Sadoun has decided not to participate next year while Martin Sorrell raised concerns over RoI. Your comments.

We have never had a confusion that what the awards stand for. For us, awards are the celebration of ideas.

Why not the same trust in Goafest then?

Well, when you say celebrating ideas it does not mean that you go everywhere. If you start listing the festivals across the world in a year, you would get tired of just listing them. We have limited budgets and we have to pick and choose. We are not averse to industry festivals and we have participated in the past. It is just that we have not sent entries for a few years but we have sent our people. At McCann, the decision of participation is taken by creative people and we do a very fair voting on that and abide by the decision without going into the reasons. We have nothing against any festival.

Which is your all-time favourite ad film?

My favourite ad film is Argentina Airline’s Shadow ad and I’m fortunate that I worked with the person who wrote that. It is one of the best stories advertising people have told. It’s the most beautifully done story that gives goose bumps. It makes you emotional, makes you attached to the brand and develops respect for the brand.

Besides this, there is a long list of piece of works which I like. Fearless Girl and Immunity Charm this year are close to my heart. A few years back we had done Dabbawala campaign.

How do you manage time for writing?

Here in our advertising profession you have to express your brand. But sometimes a creative person feels like expressing himself or herself. When I come home and I feel I want to express myself, I find platforms where I can express myself. It is poetry, music, film writing and articles through which I express and it is an individual choice. The only unique thing is that what I do on the other side ends up becoming a profession. It is not that I have planned it. I’ll continue writing even if I do not find a publisher or a film.

What is one thing that makes a creative person a creative leader?

Anything that gets stuck gets rotten. Especially, advertising moves with life which is ever-changing. Never think that there is only one answer to a problem. I don't confuse myself as a creator, one is the wire not the electricity. We can only see it differently from different views or angles. Creative people have a vantage point to see and present things differently. I would reiterate that nothing is the last word and there is another way or possibility out there. Every creative person is unique so listen to their point of view.

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