Using creativity and capitalism, brands can work for socialism and leave the world a better place: Dheeraj Sinha

Terming 2022 a hockey stick curve year for Leo Burnett India, CEO Dheeraj Sinha believes that focusing on people, creating benchmark-setting campaigns and everyone at the agency putting equal energy into work, irrespective of the hierarchy, is the success mantra for the agency

Akansha Srivastava
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Using creativity and capitalism, brands can work for socialism and leave the world a better place: Dheeraj Sinha

Dheeraj Sinha

From winning 60 new businesses - including PepsiCo, Meta, LinkedIn and Adidas - this year, to becoming the ‘Agency of the Year’ at Goafest Abby’s and winning Grand Prix at Cannes Lions, Dheeraj Sinha, CEO Leo Burnett, South Asia & Chairman, BBH India termed 2022 the ‘hockey stick curve year’ for the agency in India.  

“Everything that we have been building for the past five years, fetched results in 2022. We garnered strong profits and surpassed our targets this year,” said Sinha. 

Sinha informed that out of the total businesses the 650-people agency handles, 70% are retainer accounts and only 30% are on project-basis. It’s also noteworthy that the agency was able to retain 95% of the accounts in 2022. 

While project-basis work accounts for only one-third of the agency revenue, Sinha said that Leo Burnett absolutely loves doing them as they act as instant combustion. He explained, “Project work is mostly for 2-3 months. Our job is done once we deliver the objectives. So many times, we have had a project-based relationship with the same client. We also have Leo Burnett Consult as an offer where we purely do strategy projects. We do a lot of projects purely on design and regional. So, taking on more projects is a big part of our strategy, and we actively embrace projects.”

The agency’s Mumbai office has been doing well historically. Adding to it, the Delhi office’s contribution to the revenue grew exponentially in the last 4-5 years and today Leo Burnett Delhi is possibly the largest agency in the city.

Sinha told that Leo Burnett’s decision to reinvent itself to a new-age agency has worked wonders for them. Now the agency earns 25-30% of the revenue from new-age clients like PhonePe, Spotify, Healthians and Amazon. 

Sinha commented, “Around five years back, we decided to position the agency as new-age by deploying more technology, creativity and data to solve the client’s business problems and not just advertising. With this positioning, we also started working with a lot of new-age clients."

Secondly, the agency’s focus on nurturing young talent has also borne good results. “We don’t just hire from campuses, but also promote a lot of young talent in-house,” said Sinha. 

In total, focusing on people, creating benchmark-setting work and everyone at the agency putting equal energy into work, irrespective of the hierarchy, is the mantra that has worked for Leo Burnett, said Sinha. 

He elaborated, “Everyone knows the strategy of running a successful agency, but the proof of the pudding is in the implementation of it. We invest in talent and that always delivers quantum growth. Creating spectacular work always attracts growth. As an agency, we focus a lot on energy. We are a very blue-collar agency, so everybody is involved in the work. There are no divas in this agency. There are no helicopter managers in this agency because clients pay us for the time of the senior most people. So, our seniormost people are involved in creating work and solving client's problems.”

Sharing details about a concept prevalent at the agency, named ‘the mutant DNA’, Sinha said, “For example, a person who is good at strategy, can also be good at data. A person good at design can also be good at UI/UX. Over a period of time, we have changed the entire talent profile at Burnett to what we call mutant DNA.”

Leo Burnett also has tie-ups with Harvard for the leadership programme, collaboration with D&AD for the credit programme and partnership with Steps Drama for the team-building programme. 

“I never for a moment felt that this agency is owned by me or Raj (Rajdeepak Das, CCO and Chairman, Creative Council, Publicis Groupe, South Asia). Both of us feel it's run by all 650 people. Everybody in this agency stands shoulder to shoulder and can take a bullet for anybody else. This culture is responsible for our success,” added Sinha.

Upon being asked if Leo Burnett is facing any headwinds of recession and international turbulence at all, Sinha pointed out that there is a bit of an impact of the current funding winter on some of its new-age clients, which is compensated by the boom in the consumer category brands.

He said, “Our portfolio of clients ranges across categories. We have clients across auto, BFSI, consumer products, new age, media, technology, telecom and so on and so forth. Thus far there has been no net impact of the recession.”

Start-ups have been huge contributors to India’s adex in the last  4-5 years. But with the funding winter and start-ups pulling their purse strings, does it have any impact on Leo Burnett’s business?

Sinha answered, “While some new-age clients are pulling their purse strings, at the same time, there are many new-age clients launching brands. We have so much interest from EV-based and health-focused start-up clients. In total, there will obviously be an impact of this but there won't be a net negative impact.”

In August 2022, the Publicis Groupe-owned agency also launched LB Regional, its specialised division for brands to maximise reach with national audiences by understanding region-wise insights. 

Talking about the growth of LB Regional, Sinha said, “Every client right now is trying to win in regional markets. Regional strategy is not about advertising alone, it is about market insights in those regions and helping clients win those markets. We have mounted a huge 2,500 sample size study in understanding how consumer behaviours in various categories are different across these regions. Now we have worked on regional products with many clients including Spotify, PhonePe, so on and so forth. There is a huge demand from clients  for that product.”

According to Sinha, in 2023, India would be producing more globally competitive and benchmark-setting work. He also shared that the industry would see a lot more contributions from data, commerce and long-form content, along with brands’ focus growing on regional pockets. 

He said, “Firstly if we look at the work that Indian agencies and marketers are doing, they are now best in class globally. India's performance at Cannes Lions this year was testimony to that. Secondly, the language of how you solve a client's problem will also change a lot. We will see a lot more contributions from data, commerce and long-form content. Publicis Groupe has a lot of these capabilities in a very deep way. Thirdly, our industry will focus on winning India ground up.”

Sinha then went on to add that in today’s time, the palette of creativity has increased dramatically, unlike in the past when the focus was on print or TV pieces. “We can do product design, use data, solve a problem using technology and do long-form content. It has become important to collaborate with the world outside and be open to embracing new influences. It is not just about burying your head and focusing on the craft. It is important to go out and see who can help you do something better.”

Along with doing great business, it's also important to see how one is leaving the world a better place. “Using creativity, the power of brands and capitalism, we must focus on how these brands can also work for socialism and leave the world a better place. With initiatives such as ‘The Missing Chapter’, we are hopefully going to impact some percentage of the 23 million girls who fall out of our education system. With projects such as ‘Roads That Honk’, we are actively reducing accidents in hilly regions.” 

A few times when brands pick up social causes as part of purpose-driven marketing, they tend to face a backlash if the intention is not communicated properly in campaigns. Social media police even call them out on their marketing gimmicks in the garb of creativity. Therefore, what should brands keep in mind while treading the purpose-driven marketing route?

Sinha answered, “Firstly, we need to be authentic. Authenticity doesn't need to be explained, that's the beauty of authenticity. I do not recommend any brand to take up a topic for the sake of it. It has to be a real human problem that you genuinely feel about it. Secondly, the brand or the brand’s category must be linked to the problem. For example, if there is a problem with period education then sanitary pad brands have to take that mantle. Mobility brands must solve road accidents. We must first act around that problem and then create ads on it.”

He added, “In a market such as India, we have such huge gaps in gender, access to education, poverty and food. I don't think these problems can be solved alone by public expenditure or by charity. So, we have no choice but to get capitalism to work for socialism in our country.”

There are so many campaigns that are high on 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 managing to sell the idea to the client. 

Sharing his opinion, Sinha said, “We are very clear that we only create work which moves the needle for clients' businesses. We never do work only for awards. Even when we won the Creative Agency of the Year award at Goafest, we won it for 17 clients across categories. Typically, an agency enters one campaign across categories.”

We remember so many campaigns from the past. We recall and cherish them to date. Cut to today, it has become really hard to create something that is remembered forever. What are the reasons that we are not able to create work that is remembered by all and becomes a story to share with future generations? 

He said, “Earlier we used to create advertising-led campaigns, which consisted of jingles, lines and ads. They were played on Doordarshan or at the most on Zee TV and Star TV. Today, the bulk of creativity is in solving problems. We are no more limited to only writing a jingle. The definition of how marketing functions has changed.”

Recently, we have started hearing many serious cases of corruption in the industry, which include kickbacks, bribery and billing for campaigns that never took place. Isn't there an urgent need to stop this?

Sharing his thoughts on the topic, Sinha said, “When I took over Leo Burnett, I built an agency we didn’t have and are now proud to be part of. It’s important to build the right working model in-house before I go out and preach.” 

The industry for a long time has been demanding compulsory pitch fees from brands. But no rule regarding it has been implemented in India until now. Sinha said that he’s been part of pitches where brands have paid for them, “but that amount hasn’t been signed to respect our time and efforts. Therefore, I am not sure if a pitch fee is even a solution,” he said.  

On the personal front, Sinha believes in giving back to advertising through the dissemination of knowledge. He is associated with the IAA and Unicef – Voice of Change initiative for sensitive gender portrayal in advertising. He also runs a podcast- titled ‘Speakeasy with Dheeraj Sinha’, which is his way of ‘adding knowledge and creating conversations for the people in the industry’.

Publicis Groupe Spotify data BBH India Leo Burnett Dheeraj Sinha commerce Rajdeepak Das PhonePe helicopter managers blue-collar agency Healthians and Amazon Young talent mutant DNA LB Regional Capitalism socialism