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Aspiring to work on marquee brands is a trap: Navin Talreja and Kawal Shoor of The Womb

In an exclusive interview with BestMediaInfo.com, the Co-Founders of The Womb, talk about the agency's growth story, long-term brand building over short-term performance marketing, the differentiated role of creative and effectiveness awards and much more

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Akansha Srivastava
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Aspiring to work on marquee brands is a trap: Navin Talreja and Kawal Shoor of The Womb

Kawal Shoor (left) and Navin Talreja (right)

Having grown exceptionally by 100% last year, The Womb, the eight-year-old independent advertising agency, has maintained a healthy double-digit revenue growth percentage in 2022. 

In an exclusive interview with BestMediaInfo.com, Kawal Shoor and Navin Talreja, Co-Founders of The Womb, said, “Our growth this year is significantly higher than the industry growth. We just want to keep scaling at the pace we are already at. If we grow at the same rate next year, we will be very happy.”

In one year’s time, the agency has also added new businesses like Truecaller, Piramal Finance and the premium cream portfolio of Britannia to the bouquet of existing clients like Sebamed, Fogg, Rio Pads, upGrad.

In 2022, along with increasing its workforce from 50 to 85 people, The Womb was also awarded the title of the ‘Independent Agency of the Year’ and the ‘Agency of the Year’ (Bronze) at the APAC Effie awards. The agency is also among the top three independent agencies in the world according to the WARC Effectiveness Awards in 2022.

Chase good work and not numbers

While meeting or exceeding revenue growth targets is a dream for any agency, Talreja shared that both he and Shoor come from the school of thought of not going all-out scrounging for business. 

He said, “We don’t plan so much about hitting a certain number of revenue and profits. We don’t think that way.”

Shoor added, “We are more of a boutique and not about spreading the funnel or the net wider. We don’t have to report our earrings to some network. Overall, our endeavour is to find a way to get good work out that can’t be ignored, and is liked by existing and potential clients.”

Would getting acquired ever be on the cards?

So many times it happens that to scale up, network agencies tend to acquire successful independent agency set-ups. In the recent past, even The Womb founders were involved in one such conversation where they were presented with an offer for acquisition. But they declined the offer because there wasn’t a cultural match. 

Talreja further said, “We will sell, but to the right partner, who values and respects the fact that we are a company which is in a consultative mode for clients and also does creative work to ensure they get growth. They should be comfortable with us not pitching as long as we bring them the growth targets they want to give us.”

Shoor then commented they would always be open to more such conversations even in the future. He said, “As an entrepreneur, we have learnt to never run away from conversations because you never know what opportunities they can create. Whether it is to sell the company, onboard partners, acquire new talent or clients.”

The agency finds working on marquee brands a trap

Generally, any independent boutique setup would aspire to work on big accounts like Unilever and P&Gs of the world one day, but The Womb co-founders want to create brands that others may want to work on eventually. 

Shoor said, “That’s a trap. We seek out problems and not brands. The issue to work with more marquee brands is that very often they seek out incremental work and we are not into incrementalism. If they don’t have a big problem, it’s likely they won’t come to us and we are pretty much okay with that. We want to create case studies for tomorrow and they can only be done if there is a problem big enough.”

What gives sleepless nights to The Womb founders?

While achieving targets is a regular pressure everyone faces, one thing that gives sleepless nights to Shoor is to be able to keep the work quality levels high as they give more and more responsibility to the next line of leadership at the agency.  

He commented, “We have targets but we don’t fret about them. Our biggest endeavour is to create a bunch of people who will continue to create work that makes all of us proud and better than us. Every new generation needs to do work better than the previous generation. Building a team that outlasts tomorrow’s challenges is a bigger issue rather than chasing numbers, awards and work.” 

For Talreja, not getting caught up in the commoditisation of digital advertising and experiential marketing is one of the biggest challenges. He commented, “We need to maintain the Womb level of quality in everything we do, be it digital or even activations and experiential work. We look at solving business problems in their entirety. We have always maintained that The Womb is a behavioural change company and it takes a more strategic view of brands through a 360-degree lens rather than doing one of the activities.”

Explaining with an example, Talreja said, “There are agencies which do an activity, create case videos around it and win awards. Our game at experiential, activation and digital is to ensure growth happens for clients. It’s more strategic in nature. Of course, the quality of the idea has to be great if it has to stand out.”

The Womb’s stint with experiential marketing

The agency has recently ventured into offering in-house experiential marketing and activation services and onboarded Social Street’s co-founder Mandeep Malhotra to do so. 

When pointed out the amount of corruption that exists in experiential marketing and how they intend to ensure transparency and credibility while working in this space, Talreja said that all their clients respect them for their integrity. “Till the time you have the right intent, you should be fine,” he added.

What do agencies need to do to stay relevant? 

Talreja pointed out that given the rise of fragmentation and specialists cropping up, the industry has stopped thinking about big ideas and is now more into chasing small ideas.

“If you look at the subjects the people are obsessing over, the shocking lack of strategy and big ideas in the last 2.5 years is glaring in its absence. Everyone is talking about new media, Metaverse, interesting touch points, consumer journeys, 3-4 screens and e-commerce. All of that is important. But what are you going to put on them?”

He went on to say, “We have left behind the era of the big ideas and are into small ideas. Maybe it’s perpetuated by clients or the senior agency people’s fascination with all these new concepts and the FOMO of being left behind if they don’t speak this language.” 

But do we have to continue to live with the growing fragmentation and the era of small ideas?

Shoor answered, “Great stories will always have a place in people’s lives. There are phases in society when great stories diminish and then make a comeback. There are phases when the quality of writing goes down and then it comes back. We are hopeful.” 

Talreja added, “It’s not impossible to create great ideas and stories. If you focus on the bigger issues, opportunities, growth for clients and the right intent, great work will come out. It might sound philosophical, but that’s the only way we know to work.” 

Shoor further commented, “Many times, marketers are also caught in short-term deliverables. The more senior clients ask for big ideas, the more we’ll get there. That virtuous cycle needs to get started by senior clients.”

The secret mantra of creative effective work for clients

Having a strategy and business background, the agency founders are absolutely clear about their existence –  to solve problems that lead to growth. 

Talreja said that the agency is always meant to serve the brand’s business purpose. Everything else an agency does for clients, whether it’s a great creative idea, script, or execution, is only a means to an end. 

He further said, “We have a creative team of 25-30 people, who are all very clear on the need to do clutter-breaking work grounded in a strong strategy that will ensure growth for clients. Creativity is a tool to serve the business purpose.”

Creative and effectiveness awards need to be looked at from different lenses

There are so many campaigns that are high in the creative quotient but lack long-term effectiveness and scalability. Many of them end up winning international awards. Some creative agency professionals justify creating such campaigns in the name of celebrating creativity and also manage to sell the idea to the client. But is it even the right approach?

To which, Shoor answered, “Creativity is a very misunderstood word. It has been used by different people with different meanings. If something affects your heart or moves you in any manner, whether it makes you shop, cry or laugh, that’s creative work.”

Giving an example, he explained, “Who can say that Bob Dylan is more creative than the Beatles or vice versa? Dylan writes work that gets appreciated by a few. Beatles creates work that gets appreciated by millions as it’s simpler and more popular. Similarly, one can never say RRR is less creative than some of the films that get screened in festivals.”

He further emphasised that creative awards should liberate ideas from effectiveness just the way it is in other industries like fashion and automobile. On the other hand, effectiveness awards should focus on the efficacy of work over creativity. 

He commented, “Creative awards should be an R&D world for ideas where people can show cutting-edge ideas without having the pressure of them performing in the market. Effective work should be presented in effectiveness awards.”

Although he went on to add that effectiveness awards have gone on to become ‘scams of today’. 

He said, “So many times, agencies share events and activation-led case studies in awards through which they show six months of sales improving. It has been happening for 3-4 years now because the agencies are realising that effectiveness awards carry a little more weightage nowadays than just creative awards unless it is Cannes.”

He further said that effectiveness awards should take the real pressure with regards to not just communication and brand but also how it impacted business in some manner. He thinks that the harder metrics like top-line growth, penetration, driving loyalty and charging a premium are not found in many effectiveness awards. It’s mostly affinity, consideration, brand love, likes and impressions.

Will corruption, kickbacks and bribery be the norm for the industry?

Recently, several serious cases of corruption in the industry have surfaced, which include - but are not limited to - kickbacks, bribery and billing for campaigns that never took place. Isn't there an urgent need to stop this or will the industry have to learn to live with it?

To which, Talreja answered, “One can’t live with the lack of integrity. Dishonesty cannot be the way of life. One of the reasons our clients and partners come and work with us is because of the high levels of integrity we have. It’s the question of priorities and how much is enough because there is no end to greed. Whatever prevails in the larger society will naturally reflect in our industry as well. If money is the driver and it's a big part of your ambitions, then naturally these things will happen.”

He also said that agencies need to be upfront and vocal about the various charges to the clients. Any marketer would be ready to pay for the expertise an agency person brings to the table, according to him. 

Collaboration is the key

While several creative agencies launch various specialised divisions in-house and emphasise building martech and adtech capabilities, The Womb believes in collaborating with companies worldwide rather than building everything in-house. 

Talreja said, “When we started as a boutique company, we were very clear that in today’s day and age there is no need to build everything from the bottom up in-house. While adtech and martech are great, we can always get the best partner on board if an idea needs that capability. The client will be willing to pay for it. Also, if you are not open-minded to working with anybody in the world to add value to the client, you start getting restricted in the nature of ideas shared with the client. Your vision is limited to the talent you have internally.”

The agency is traditionally perceived to have a strong hold on strategy and creativity, but Talreja emphasised that it equally creates new-age digital work as well. 

He said, “We are possibly going to have India’s biggest digital campaign come up in six months. It’s just that we don’t have 45 people in-house working on digital and creating social media posts for brands and charging them hefty. A creative agency owes to the client not only a great idea but also the best execution. We only need to learn how to collaborate with the best partners around the world. When collaborating with production works for TVCs, why can’t it work for digital?”

Long-term brand building over short-term performance marketing goals

A few days ago, Les Binet, author of the book ‘Marketing in the era of accountability’ and renowned marketing effectiveness guru, wrote on Twitter that “Both Facebook and Google tell me that they are pivoting away from attribution modelling towards econometrics for evaluating effectiveness…Econometrics is less skewed towards performance and reveals the importance of brand activity. The rise of attribution is one of the reasons why marketing has become so short-term, annoying and ineffective. Will a more balanced approach to evaluation help businesses rediscover the power of great, creative ads that people actually enjoy? Let’s hope so.”

Sharing his opinion on Binet’s Tweet, Talreja commented that the whole area of performance marketing is coming under question and revealed the importance of brand activity. “For the last 15 years, Facebook and Google have been promoting attribution models, short-term returns and performance marketing. But now even they are emphasising on the importance of long-term brand building.” 

He added that the industry needs to stop this petty conversation. “We should focus on creating bigger ideas and collaborating with the best partners in this world. That’s what you owe to the client. Everything else is rubbish.” 

Shoor, however, remarked that we must find a healthy balance between performance marketing and brand-building exercises. “At times, the balance gets skewed towards trendier things. Our conversations should be largely on strategy and big ideas. On the other hand, we rarely talk about it. That’s a little bit of a disservice happening to our industry. That is why our industry is going downstream. Not just India, this is the issue plaguing even the West.”

The A&M industry needs to step up to attract top talent

According to Shoor, the A&M industry needs to work hard and spread the good word around advertising to attract top talent lost to adjacent competing industries. He said, “Many talented people want to write films and create YouTube content. Younger people are attracted to the glamour and success of new media. We aren’t doing a good job of getting the young people enticed. We have become an industry of small things. Big ideas and campaigns need to be discussed in the media to attract the good talent, we are losing to other industries.”

Info@BestMediaInfo.com

independent agency strategy effectiveness Kawal Shoor The Womb Navin Talreja revenue APAC Effie Marketing Growth big idea
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