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AI-driven creativity, influencer and content marketing will rule 2021, says CLA's Sajan Raj Kurup

In an interview to BestMediainfo.Com, the Founder and Creative Chairman of CLA talks about the impact of the Covid downturn on business and creativity and shares his predictions for 2021

Sajan Raj Kurup

Creativeland Asia (CLA), a leading independent creative agency, is investing in business through technology and stronger consumer intelligence and insights at this juncture because going forward, tech is going to play a quantum role in commerce and fulfilment, says its Founder and Creative Chairman Sajan Raj Kurup.

“We have aggregated a team out of Austin, Texas for this. There is also a strong need to understand how consumer preference, purchase behaviour and market outlook has changed through 2020. We are also on the way to set up a Consumer Insights and Intelligence unit,” Kurup said, adding platform-inclusive is the way forward and not platform-agnostic.

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During the lockdown, the agency created some most talked-about campaigns, including Godrej Expert Rich Creme video featuring Karan Johar and campaigns for Perfetti and Pizza Hut.

Kurup said there have been budget cuts across the board due to the pandemic-induced downturn. "I am incredibly thankful for the camaraderie and commitment the entire team has responded with through these times. We are learning and improving every day. We are changing and reinventing every minute," he said.

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He also predicted that AI-driven creativity, influencer and content marketing will be key trends next year and remote working and talent engagement will continue to dominate.

Excerpts:

How was the festive season and IPL for CLA in terms of business recovery?

After the initial lull, we have seen business pick up and stabilise. We are seeing strong growth in digital and technology. But as we say, business goes and business comes, but the mind stays. We have tried our best to collectively ease the impact this time has had on our minds. Crisis, as they say, is a terrible thing to waste. All I would say is that nothing has gone waste. We are only learning from it and making ourselves stronger and better.

What sort of an impact has the pandemic had on creativity?

There are two parts to this. One pertains to the messaging and the other to execution. As far as messaging goes, empathy and simplicity took precedence over hard-sell. As far as execution goes, there have been huge learnings. The production workforce has been the frontline warriors of the creative industry. The meticulousness with which they have ensured shoots go on — remote video feeds are set up, people are tested and every standard of safety is kept — is admirable. They have been most disciplined and clockwork at resuming shoots. On behalf of the entire creative industry, I applaud their initiative and courage at keeping work afloat. I would also express my gratitude towards clients who have understood and allowed us to take on the cost of testing and protective gear into the production budgets. Through the lockdown and unlock phases, we have shot 47-odd films. I really think it has been an extremely collaborative team effort pulling off some of the shoots. And I do think we have all come closer pulling of some incredible challenges together.

What has been the impact of Covid-19 on business?

Unreal times come with unreal demands and expectations. And, I have also seen unreal effort being put by clients and their brand partners to meet that. This ‘time’ has been a collective attempt at making things happen. The ones who have reacted less and responded more to the situation have manoeuvred the situation more efficiently. We have had our share of experience and situation. There have been budget cuts across the board, but I am incredibly thankful for the camaraderie and commitment the entire team has responded with through these times. We are learning and improving every day. We are changing and reinventing every minute.

The concept of a workplace, through the last eight months, has changed forever. And, in my opinion, that is the biggest challenge that needs to be managed. Covid or not, vaccine or not, WFH or not, remote working is here to stay. The work culture and work protocol have changed forever. For us, the focus has been on laying SOPs and protocols for the way we will work. Even as business picks up and normalcy slowly returns to the new normal, the lessons of frugality and efficiency we have learned through this time beckon a refresh in thinking. We are learning to be more open to a different, tech-enabled way of working, which is more contactless, yet connected.

How has the recovery been?

The retail, F&B and entertainment category did take a beating through the lockdown. A lot of advertising spends of clients in those categories have been enough and relevant for creation and engagement keeping the situation in mind. Yes, I do see traction again now. One look at the streets of the city you live in will tell you that India is on the move again. I do foresee a few brands from these categories benefitting from a streak of hedonism and revenge buying. 

What will be the agency’s focus areas for 2021?  

While we are investing further in our business through technology and stronger consumer intelligence, we want to meet each other face to face in 2021. 

Do you think being platform-agnostic helps from an agency's point of view?

Platform-inclusive is the way forward. Not platform-agnostic. The number of smartphone users in India is expected to reach 760 million in 2021. India is the only country where Netflix launched a mobile special plan given the consumption pattern in our country. One in every three Indians is expected to shop through their smartphones. This audience spends every waking hour either on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. This behaviour has called for a revision in strategy to accordingly use tools to influence the buying habit. The major factors driving purchases have now moved to research, customer reviews and influencer recommendations among others. Platforms are evolving and are getting more defined. Understanding them deeply will yield much more than being agnostic about them. We have been preparing and have executed a few campaigns during the lockdown which were not conventional ads but a newer, smarter way of reaching the target audience on Instagram. CLA has been making a few strategic investments and ramping up expertise for some time now.

What are the key trends that would dominate in 2021?

Stronger influence of technology is going to be there. I see marketing leaning a lot more on AI and technology to understand consumer behaviour and sales.

Influencer marketing will get stronger. I see this as a more authentic way to connect with consumers. The online version of word of mouth publicity is here to stay.

Content marketing will be preferred as against pure play advertising. A more organic and strategic approach here is sure to see a higher number of conversions, compared to other methods.

Remote working and talent engagement will continue to dominate. I see fewer marketing people opting for a five days a week in-office job. I know I am calling this a bit early, but I do think this is going to be a game-changer.

There are a lot of conversations around social commerce and focus on customer experiences. How prepared is the agency on this front?

The foremost focus at CLA is on tech and consumer intelligence. More than ever before, we feel an investment in technology and consumer intelligence and insights at this juncture should go a long way. Going forward, tech is going to play a quantum role in commerce and fulfilment. We have aggregated a team hubbed out of Austin, Texas, for this. There is also a strong need to understand how consumer preference, purchase behaviour and market outlook has changed through 2020. We are on the way to set up a Consumer Insights and Intelligence unit. 

The agency’s work for Godrej Expert Rich Crème featuring Karan Johar was highly appreciated as its concept was unique in the time of the pandemic. Tell us about a few other interesting campaigns the agency did this year.

One great standout pieces that we did during this time was the Godrej Expert Rich Creme video featuring Karan Johar. The thought came from Sunil Kataria, CEO, GCPL and the brand team. We got the execution bang on. Everything about it was perfect. It began with Karan posting on Instagram his lockdown look — grey hair. We got him to colour his hair himself and film the simplicity of the process and the transformation it brought about. And we got him to post the video, with a young new look, on his birthday — a day that signifies you’ve gotten older. The video was a raging hit: 12mn views and counting.

Among a few, two other campaigns stand out for me, one for Perfetti and another for Pizza Hut. Early this year, putting on masks had given rise to a problem that no one could have predicted. After wearing masks for some time, the air inside would begin to smell and it would get pretty uncomfortable. Center Fresh picked up this insight and together we created a campaign that made people aware of the problem. And the solution was simple...pop a Center Fresh mint and stay fresh behind the mask. We collaborated with influencers like Sanya Malhotra, Vikrant Massey and Aisha Ahmed and #StayFreshBehindTheMask became an even bigger success. The film picked up a slew of awards, including Gold at the Mobexx 2020. A big applause to Shankar Iyer from Perfetti and the CLA Gurgaon team for pulling this off.

Pizza Hut’s set of films required us to take a very empathetic take on WFH and food decision. Again a topic that was relevant through the lockdown through which eating out and ordering in suffered majorly.

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