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Environmental change is inevitable, best way to thrive is to create conscious & intentional changes: Govind Pandey of TBWA\India

In an exclusive interview with BestMediaInfo.com, TBWA\India CEO speaks about the need to adapt to changes, the future of Metaverse, the temporary and permanent changes in marketing and advertisement brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic

Govind Pandey

With the Coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc in day-to-day lives and businesses there has been a significant shift in the way in which organisations function. While the all-important question of survival looms large, adaption to the new-normal has become the need of the hour.

Environmental change is inevitable and the best way to thrive is to create conscious and intentional changes, according to Govind Pandey, CEO, TBWA India.

In a freewheeling interview with BestMediaInfo.com, Pandey also said that rather than avoiding or coping with disruption his agency embraces it and is always geared up for changes. He stated that in the modern world the external drivers of consumer behaviour have become a bit less important and its place has been taken over by spiritual consumption.

Further speaking about the future of the Metaverse, Pandey said that for it to be fully functional, “it needs a consistent economy and currency, easy travel between ‘ports’, a shared goods platform, a shared avatar platform, agreed system of belief/government. And that will take some time.”


How was 2021 in terms of revenue growth? Has TBWA India recovered from the Covid-induced crisis of the last two years? 

2021 was much better than 2020. Despite the economic challenges of a global pandemic, we achieved 100% of our new business targets. We pitched and won 14 pieces of new business entirely remotely, across the finance, automobile, healthcare, tech, beauty, retail sectors. We did not lose a single client over this period. In fact, we delivered on more client briefs. 

But Covid has pretty much forced everyone to take stock and reassess the new world out there. TBWA India is no different. Our advantage is that TBWA is the “Disruption Company”. Embracing change is in our DNA. New opportunities are born from the change and we are focusing on those. We are seeing signs that there are more and more takers for our “Disruption” philosophy. We all realise now more than ever that environmental change is inevitable and the best way to thrive is to create conscious and intentional changes internally faster. 

What are your growth targets for 2022 and how do you intend to achieve them?

2022 starts again with the uncertainty created by the Omicron wave. Hopefully, it is a milder variant as everyone is saying. The world now also has more knowledge of the virus and much better experience of dealing with it and working from home. We are hoping that our annual plans will not go through a significant variation. Within the frame of this new normal, I am quite reasonably but cautiously bullish on 2022.

TBWA is relatively a new network agency in India and we have been on the path of building a new kind of agency with a skill mix of modern marketing; Experience Design, Data-driven thinking, and tech-led innovations and utilities. We have invested in weapon, our data practice, and have also put together the pieces to deliver solutions using data, design, and digital. Our core proposition of creating intentional disruptive platforms, and culturally rich communication offering is working and is helping us to increase our footprint in Delhi and Bangalore, as we consolidate in Mumbai. Delhi now has Philips and Pladis and Bangalore has a significant TVS Motors relationship.

How does disruption continue to be in TBWA’s DNA? What are the various steps that the agency has taken which are disrupting the market and others are not doing?

This is an interesting question. The great part of TBWA as an agency is that we are not agonising about our identity perpetually. We are very clear about what we stand for. Disruption. That’s the vision. That’s our operating system. That’s what we are always aiming for. We may not always get it right but we do have a True North. Disruption as an ideology is fundamentally about having a good relationship with change. Rather than avoiding it, or somehow coping with it, we embrace it. We are always in beta as an organisation.

Because we embrace change and want to be a Disruption company, it automatically enables the DNA of a great Learning and Experimentation company. Learning is the rate of change of knowledge. Static Knowledge has a very short half-life now given the rate of change. We have to be constantly learning. We like to hire curious people who love learning. 

Again, we intrinsically believe that experimentation is the key to innovation. We all feel we know more than we do and we have the right answers. At the current pace of change that’s just too ambitious and untenable, we believe we should try more things, throw more darts by reducing the cost per dart.

Keeping the changes in our business in mind, this year we have upgraded our core problem-solving system to DisruptionX – which helps us articulate a Disruptive Growth Vision, design Disruption platforms, and execute Disruptive Experiences that combine seamlessly to deliver a greater share of the future. We want to evolve from being a brand custodian to a growth custodian, and that means having technical and data chops along with a sharp strategic design. 

We have a collective of seasoned thinkers and designers under Disruption Consulting that primarily helps craft the 2.0 of businesses. Designing growth narratives. Helping businesses scale with intentional disruptive platforms. DXD (Design by Disruption) is an identity and experience design unit. WEAPON is the newly launched Data Practice of TBWA\India.  TBWA Backslash is our cultural tracking and insight studio that spots signals of cultural evolution in India, as they happen. All this is helping us be better problem-solvers and also makes us a more interesting organisation with a freshness of seeing.

What are the few things that Covid-19 has permanently changed in your approach towards marketing and advertising? 

Difficult to say what is going to be a permanent change. And we are still in it, hopefully not in the middle but towards the end of it. So, things are still changing. The impact of phase-two was far deeper and visceral than the first lockdown, which itself was so unnaturally sudden and universal.

I think different age groups responded to it differently. Broadly, everyone is increasingly looking for hope, remedies and anchors. There has been a collective introspection.

For the relatively older lot, it is a bit of a reset. Getting in touch with what is truly essential and fundamental for me. Everyone reconnected with primary level needs, for food, clothes, shelter, safe indoors, social love and belongingness. The socio-economic pyramid crumpled and flattened pushing everyone to survive based on essential requirements. Health, well-being, and food were seen as the chief essentials for the happiness of family and society in those times. Health and healthy choices, ‘Health is wealth’ Consciousness has gone up. 

External drivers of consumer behaviour such as personality type, brand image, status, which earlier used to be prominent drivers became a bit less important and will be for a while at least. 

There has been a conscious shift towards spiritual consumption. In view of the loss of work and shortage of regular income, reconnecting with the timeless wisdom of spending within limits. “Jitni chaadar ho utne paanv pasaro” was revived. ‘santosh is param dharam’. Frugality, voluntary simplicity.”

The younger generation has become even more conscious of the fundamental truth that humans are a part of the overall ecosystem and not superior to nature. Sustainability and climate change are more on top of our minds. Organic living, local smaller brands became more popular. Of course, the world has become more digital than ever, across India and Bharat. E-commerce and digital adoption have accelerated.

Several cases of corruption/malpractices in the world of advertising came to the fore in 2021. I’ve been told that such practices are deeply embedded in our industry and mostly prevail everywhere. Even clients are aware of these things. But it’s a vicious cycle and there's nowhere to come out of it. Can there be a way to put a full stop to this? Or do we learn to live with it? 

I am not necessarily aware of any dramatic corruption that came to the fore this year. I am not sure if I will say that these practices are deeply embedded in our industry. Of course, there are bad apples, as we are part of the larger society and we have some of the ethical issues that we face as a society. 

I feel as an industry, we are pretty close and a solid reputation is a significant currency of doing well in business. So, anyone dealing in corrupt practices gets found out quickly and is dealt with accordingly by the fraternity. A large number of the agencies are globally-owned. And there are all kinds of checks and balances at multiple steps. Good internal governance, transparency, integrity are the norms. 

What has culturally changed that we need to be further cautious when devising communication strategies? Asking this question because every now and then we hear cases of brands being trolled for their advertising. 

Culture creates brands and brands shape culture. This seems like an oxymoronic statement, but it’s true. The primary role of brands is commercial but they need cultural capital to grow. The Overton window is shifting, and brands need to know the role they want to play. To create cultural capital, do they want to create communication that tests the boundaries of mainstream acceptability or do they want to steer away from that and use other means? We are in an era where politics is a significant part of the culture, and becoming even more significant over time. Communication themes have to come from a place of considered intent and not look like naive accidents.

Do you think awards are losing relevance as most of them are happening virtually and there are so many of them now? How should an agency go about entering awards? 

Yes, there are too many award shows and they will have to adapt to survive. The compulsive virtualisation is temporary until the pandemic ends. We’re sure that once things are back on track, just meeting up with each other will compel the industry to resume the real. But there will be changes. Awards will never lose relevance in the creative industries. They definitely will continue, but not all of them in the form they're in at the moment. On entering, one needs to be discerning and see what best serves the company’s and client’s objectives.

How to prepare a good winning case study to impress the jury? What are the key ingredients that make a good award-winning case study?

Well, Tell a story. Get to the idea within the first 10-15 seconds. Let the case study reflect the personality of the idea. An interesting problem to solve, an insightful and fresh idea, a memorable third-party endorsement and oodles of personality.

If the fundamentals of a campaign are sound, clear and honest, then you have a good case. Then, one only has to clarify the thinking in a way that builds context for an outsider. The simple connection of the solution with the impact. Reverse engineering the case from the results can get you a mention but not the real recognition.

We have to make a case for the fact that creativity drives effectiveness. Work that makes an impact on the marketplace and culture. We've gone into this weird world where to win awards, juries are kind of encouraging awards for a certain kind of work, so therefore more creative people produce it, and they give it more awards. Instead of: “here's a great ad for selling paint.”

Do you think Metaverse marketing is the next big thing or is it just a new marketing gimmick? Should we embrace or fear the virtual times ahead? How should a marketer prepare oneself for the AI/VR-led times ahead? Can metaverse-induced communication outshine the traditional way of communication, which continues to be effective until now, at least in India for sure? 

I do think Metaverse is the next paradigm shift. The basic idea of the metaverse isn’t complicated. Put simply, the metaverse includes any digital experience on the internet that is persistent, immersive, three-dimensional (3D), and virtual. In some form it is already here - A communal virtual space within digital environments (i.e. - gaming, social, AR, VR, etc), where people are able to consistently explore through different ports. It is an update on social connections, how we interact with each other.

It is still in the making and how it will turn out only time will tell. For it to be fully functional, it needs a consistent economy and currency, easy travel between “ports”, a shared goods platform, a shared avatar platform, agreed system of belief/government. And that will take some time. 

Brands will find their place and balance the risk-reward equation. Doing so requires grasping what is possible, and the companies that are leaning in fast can offer inspiration and act as test cases. There are plenty of brands taking full advantage of the gaming part of the metaverse with branded experiences that are essentially virtual and immersive sponsorships. 

Think about how much your target audiences/customers are spending time in the metaverse and calibrate your speed of attack appropriately — brands focusing on younger demographics, for example, probably don’t have the luxury of sitting out the metaverse for long.

Our agency team in Singapore is already formulating a point-of-view on how the brands should show up in the metaverse and when it might make sense. It is all very exciting and one should start exploring it sooner than later. A new world will have a first-mover advantage.

What are your key observations about the Indian advertising industry in the last two years and what are your suggestions to help the industry to remain sane and top of the game? Also, what is one thing which you think is now a farce and unnecessary in advertising and we should let go of it? 

One of the great things about advertising is that it is about the future. It has that relentless 'what's next?' attitude. But smarts lie in knowing not just what’s changing but what’s not. You learn from history how to navigate the future. And this business will always be about idea and creativity.

It isn't a science. There will always be human, irrational storytelling that trumps rational defences. Therefore, when digital comes along and says you can measure everything, everyone jumps up and down with joy and thinks, why waste money on advertising? And that's where we are. And that's why you haven't got great, great brands being built.

The role of creativity will always be crucial. However, as agencies, the way we define it needs to move beyond just advertising. I like the way the new got integrated with the classical, closer to home Nissan’s Big Bold Beautiful performance campaign  .

The idea of “digital marketing” is a farce in a world where everything is digitised. Today, even TV is now digital as OTT becomes widely adopted. Outdoor and print can deliver digital experiences. So, just the way we don’t have TV marketing/print marketing, let’s junk “digital marketing”. 

How has the role of a Chief Strategy Officer changed over time? What are the new skills which are inevitable for a strategist to have?

We need to keep revisiting the fundamentals of our business. Brands recruit creativity in the service of building more valuable brands. And businesses recruit branding to create more valuable businesses. We sometimes forget what serves what. Strategy is central. 

Growth is first on every business’s job list. And driving that is becoming more and more complex. Finding, converting and keeping customers is becoming more and more complex. 

Chief Strategy Officer of today is someone who can find the best frame to understand problems from a first-principles point of view - what are we solving for. Collecting the dots and connecting the dots in a way that action is possible. Clarity. And inspiration. Sense-making and possibility-creation. 

Given the fragmentation of the kind of strategies, a CSO’s role is becoming one of a deep generalist. There has to be at least one core area of deep strategic expertise and a working knowledge of the width of dimensions in play.

Being able to visualise and be able to inspire creative solutions that lie across the entire marketing journey. To drive creative briefs that deliver solutions that lie at the intersection of data, culture, technology and design. This is how agencies can best navigate this change and evolve to become creative growth partners for the client. 

Nowadays, most marketers demand performance-led marketing leading to immediate business results. They expect each marketing activity to drive business. According to you, is it even the right approach? Has performance-linked marketing overshadowed just the brand-building exercises? 

Advertising has classically focused only on the top of the funnel. There is an increased focus on short-term accountability with an increasing fascination with Performance marketing, and the CMOs are increasingly being questioned on return on brand marketing. CMOs face the dilemma of choosing between the effectiveness of the long-term benefits of Brand Marketing and the short-term efficiencies delivered by Performance Marketing. Under pressure from their CEOs and CFOs, CMO’s feel that they need to make a choice between one over the other.

We love these dichotomies in our business – brand vs performance, traditional vs digital.

emotional vs rational, creativity vs technology, art vs science, intuition vs data, differentiation vs distinctiveness.

We should believe in the Genius of “And” not the Tyranny of "Or". Long-term growth is built on short-term growth. The two are connected and feed off each other, and one should have the two working in harmony and balance. Brands should be aiming to create long-term communications engineered for immediate success. Advertising that, in the words of the great Jeremy Bullmore, sells ‘both immediately and forever’.

You should target everyone and then zoom in on specific groups to close the deal. You need to look at both the top and bottom of the funnel to work out where to focus.


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