Prioritising democracy over bureaucracy to spur 'good work' is the new black for creative agencies

Several prominent leaders of the Indian advertising industry emphasised that while bureaucracy in the agency ecosystem is a thing of the past, for creativity to foster there must be an actual cultivation of flat and open culture, a good client-agency relationship based on mutual understanding and even taking the bullet for the team at times!

Shreya Negi
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Prioritising democracy over bureaucracy to spur 'good work' is the new black for creative agencies

After showing an impeccable performance at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for two consecutive years, it is clear that the Indian creative agencies are in it to win it, creatively, even if that means bringing their brazen selves to turn the page, or in some cases, even burn the book of “bureaucracy”.

When one hears the word bureaucracy, the one thing that really pops up, almost at first thought is the word “Designation” and that’s what ex-Dentsu Webchutney’s PG Aditiya and Gautam Reghunath’s Talented.Agency has shredded to the T, in just one year of its launch, as they call their creative mavericks “Creatives”, without any suffix or prefix, and maybe that’s the secret ingredient behind them bringing home both- the Elephants and Lions, for stellar work, in their debut year.

Pooja Manek

According to Pooja Manek, Founding Member and Creative, Talented.Agency, while everyone takes designations too seriously, historically, job descriptions tend to be perceived too lightly, today, which shouldn’t be the case, because the implementation of what one does as an action is what actually drives the system forward. In fact, the designation is merely a by-product of the JDs!

“At Talented, we've let go of the lengthy designations because we realised that it is a job description that actually sets the tone for what you're supposed to do, versus what you're supposed to be so that all of us, across roles, have an open jumping board for flexibility as well as people know clearly what they’re supposed to do in the system."

Further, she also pointed out that this decision of Talented in itself is a signal to the clients that the agency treats all the creative people at the same level and that each Creative’s voice matters equally, contrary to the typical hierarchical structure that we have made and bifurcated ourselves into. 

Also, in her views, bureaucracy exists only because there is a lack of clarity on what people have to do or a little knowledge of how one can contribute, which is why sometimes people tend to not approve in the first go or find faults for the sake if it, because they don’t know how else to contribute.

“If each person in the creative team knows that their primary role in the system is to be creative, they will pay attention to the craft or even the process of creation or detailing, and only then bureaucracy won't stand a chance because everyone will know particularly how they need to contribute in the system,” she said.

Moreover, she also shared that when onboarding a client, Talented, unapologetically, presents to them a deck that's called “How to get the best of Talented” because the agency believes that it's not just about signing them up, but also about knowing how to get the best out of the Talented Team which obviously goes beyond conversations around money, deliverables, scope of work, etc.

“Post pandemic, there has been a refreshing drop of pretence as clients today are trying to be more honest, authentic and act as partners rather than just donning the ‘client’ hat, despite being subjected to the troubles of layoffs, budget cuts, etc. which have made way for some great client equations. And that coupled with things like culture, flat hierarchy, openness and the democratisation of autonomy with the elimination of the rehearsed robotics of having to present a 100-pager deck with a lot of schbang, has paved the way for good work as we're now spending more time in thinking the idea and selling the same, which means talking about the idea instead of making one show out of it,” she added.

Rajdeepak Das

Coming to the agency that won the title of “Creative Agency of the Year 2023” at The Abby One Show Awards this year, followed by winning big at Cannes Lions 2023, Rajdeepak Das, CEO and CCO, Leo Burnett (South Asia, India) and Chairman, Publicis Groupe (South Asia), stated that there’s not as much “bureaucracy” in the ad industry as there is an agency or brand structure, which is quite essential as well because it not only helps in getting approvals but also helps one understand who will take the bullet or stop the flooding when required. However, in some cases that can be linear based on the leadership, but it’s true that bureaucracy exists everywhere, including an individual’s home, family, etc!

“In an industry like ours, bureaucracy only happens in the absence of a ‘good idea’ because at the end of the day, the industry is as good as the person with a good idea and if one has a good idea, then he/she is the one running it or is the boss that day. But, eventually, it’s all comes down to the culture.

Throwing light on the openness in the agency structure at Leo Burnett, Das stated that the reason why the agency has created multiple “good ideas” for not one or two but a plethora of “firing” brands such as Spotify, Bajaj, HP, Whisper, Oreo, Airtel, Pepsi, etc. is not a one person structure but the freedom given to people when it comes to expressing their ideas because when only one person discusses the idea or handles an account, only he/she will talk about that account, but when multiple people talk about various accounts, there’s freedom of speech for ideas and then if an idea is good, everyone obviously rallies for it.

“In fact, Burnett is a lot of things as a lot of the senior management is most democratic by the way, making the agency democratic overall- which at times is a pain, but the rest of the time a lot of decisions have been taken by the people for the people because if we really want to run a big ship, then we have to have the power to distribute it power it,” he opined.

Notably, Leo Burnett’s office also imbibes the same values and therefore has a no-cabin structure so as to ensure that people feel at home and thereby not shy away from presenting or sharing an idea!

Also, in Das’ viewpoint, it’s important to understand that everyone has a strength and that as a leader, one needs to know how to utilise the talent pool properly, by not just getting the right people but also designating the right things for them, instead of micromanaging things, because if there’s alignment in people, the biggest of projects become successful, and that there is no way we are waiting and getting killed by hierarchy.

“When one asks for permission, chances are quite high that they will never get it, but if you ask for forgiveness, a 50% chance is that one will get it. Also, a very bold marketing friend of mine once said that as marketing people, you have the power to take a lot of decisions and that it is something that people should understand today because that is what they are essentially getting paid for,” he said.

Vistasp Hodiwala

Sharing his views on the organisational “bureaucracy”, Vistasp Hodiwala, Founder and Chief Creative Officer, Underdog, and Co-Founder, Centrick, also struck a similar tone and stated that it's not as much about organisational structures as it is about the people in those places because even large organisations routinely churn out quite good and inspiring work owing to the fact that the people in charge there know how to handle creativity.

“Yes, many layers of approvals do have the potential to dilute the work but, equally, it can be argued that wiser heads can also sharpen the same piece of creative, hence it does come down to the luck of the draw in some sense,” he added.

He then also opined that while it’s true that a lot of people are “control freaks” and have a set way of doing things, when that happens too often, the really good people just leave the place because at the end of the day, we all must remember that it's a people's business and the creative output is directly proportional to the quality and wisdom of its gatekeepers!

“I know of a certain agency where almost every film brief required a mandatory jingle if it had to find approval from the CCO and that the whole thing had become a bit of a joke in the agency; making people move out to do their own thing, eventually, despite the agency's stellar reputation because they realised how stifling it could get,” he anecdotally shared.

He also pointed out that even though the general output of digital campaigns suggests that mediocrity is everywhere, the way to get past that is through constant education, failing which one needs to bite the bullet and forego the business rather than compromise with the culture of the agency itself and that he himself had to take some of those brave calls in the past. 

“We had one client who was the leader of that category but the constant iteration and pointless meddling ensured that our team was getting no joy out of handling that particular business. Well we had to take a call and politely let go of that business, and we were a lot happier for it,” he stated.

Jagdish Acharya

That being said, in the views of Jagdish Acharya, Founder- Creative Head, Cut The Crap, “bureaucracy” exists, but is more the exception than the rule as it exists where insecurity thrives, where the CMO, CEO or the owner entrepreneur decides on his/her own yet wants to be indulged through a hierarchy of people down the line because in such cases, the rest of the team is only double guessing the decision maker without adding any value and passing random judgements on creative.

“We choose to work with clients who respect creative people and creativity and we can afford to do so because we are a small team that’s focused on brand-building campaigns that require mainstream media, which being very expensive, requires the top management to generally stay directly involved and ensure that the creative does not get ping-ponged too much,” he said.

In his experience, it’s not really the structure or bureaucracy but the limited creative judgement of the decision maker- both at the agency and client, that stifles creativity. Having said that, a client we used to handle looked at every creative from the point of ease of understanding and it was the same which led to simplistic no-brainer creative.

However, another multinational brand that we handled suffered from a lack of creative genes in the parent company, for they believed that every decision by the consumers is based on logic, which thereby resulted in formulaic ads, he emphasised.

Further, he also stated, “Good creative happens because of the client’s creative quotient(CQ) and CQ of the agency but necessarily in that order.”

Sandeep Goyal

According to Sandeep Goyal, Chairman and MD, Rediffusion, the creative agency which has made its way through the ups and downs with an unwavering commitment to creativity in the past 50 years and many more to come, the agency doesn’t face any issues with regard to red tape for it is a “very-flat” agency with no unnecessary designations or big titles wherein he, who is the Chairman and MD of the agency, often works with junior art and copy resources, which in itself is an ensurement of the fact that there is no real hierarchy in the agency set up.

Not only he, but also Kamlesh Pandey, the Chief Creative Mentor of Rediffusion, would earlier work with, and still continues to do so with the youngest art directors of the team and so does Gullu Sen, the Rediffusion CCO who is known to have created wonderful campaigns with young talents like Shiva Mohanty, Nitin Suri, and Tutu Ghosh- all youngsters at the time, without any ego or hierarchy.

creativity Talented creative agencies Rediffusion creative Leo Burnett empowerment Trust freedom autonomy Centrick Underdog flat structure organisational hierarchy bureaucracy openness democratisation presenting ideas Cut.The.Crap