“The foundation of an agency has to be very strong. Agar daal gali hi nahi hai, toh upar se kitna bhi tadka maarne ka koi fayda nahi,” believes Santosh Padhi, Chief Creative Officer at Wieden+Kennedy India, who has been focusing heavily on building a strong team and culture in the process of agency’s resurgence in India since the time he took over the helm in March 2022.
“2023 was all about bringing stability to the agency that makes clients trust us more. While money is important, we didn't focus on money and creativity last year. Our core focus was to onboard great talent,” said Padhi in a freewheeling interview with BestMediaInfo.com.
In 2023, Wieden+Kennedy India achieved its highest revenue in the 17 years since its establishment in India.
“However, I refrain from labelling 2023 as our best year solely in terms of financial success; for me, the pinnacle is marked by creativity, not monetary gains only,” he added.
While in 2024, W+K will be charting its growth trajectory, Padhi said that they won’t be adopting a mindless aggressive approach at this point.
Explaining more, he said, Our approach at Wieden+Kennedy is grounded in earning the client's trust initially so that we can push them to do great creative work.
“Unfortunately, the timing is not right. We, as an industry, don't know where we are headed with the proliferation of several mediums. The lifespan of all the campaigns has been reduced. Therefore, there seems to be a little restlessness in the industry. Understanding the mindset and vision of the brands we work with is paramount. Therefore, we should take a measured approach, gradually pushing for more creative and cutting-edge work as we gain a deeper understanding of our clients' perspectives.”
2023 is the base on which you will build 2024. What are the things that you did last year keeping this year’s growth in mind?
In 2023, Wieden + Kennedy India achieved its highest revenue in the 17 years since its establishment in India. However, I refrain from labelling 2023 as our best year solely in terms of financial success; for me, the pinnacle is marked by creativity, not monetary gains only.
In the next 1-2 years, one can get to see some of the best people and brands wanting to work with us.
While money is important, our priority wasn’t only money. Our core focus was to onboard great talent.
We opened our Mumbai office. Simultaneously, the Delhi office underwent significant transformations. We lost individuals who did not align with W+K's evolving narrative.
2023 was all about bringing stability to the agency that makes clients trust us more. Jio 5G and Hero Vida are new brands in the market. We have been investing a lot of time in setting the brand vision and understanding the market. We just don’t want to overnight create work to win at Cannes Lions.
W+K India has a lean team and as brands keep coming, we keep on hiring people who are right for those brands. The foundation of an agency has to be strong. Agar daal gali hi nahi hai, toh upar se kitna bhi tadka maarne ka koi fayda nahi (No matter how many spices you put in food, if it is not properly cooked, spices don’t matter). However, I concede that ‘tadka’ is a must in our industry to make noise.
That means Wieden+Kennedy is ready for its growth story starting in 2024
We won't adopt an overly aggressive approach at this point. Presently, it's a period of resurgence for both us and many of our brands. I might have advocated for more daring and innovative creative work if we were with another well-established agency. Our approach at Wieden+Kennedy is grounded in earning the client's trust initially so that we can push them to do great creative work.
Unfortunately, the timing is not right. We all know that currently, the industry’s focus is slightly hazy. We, as an industry, don't know where we are headed with the proliferation of several mediums. The lifespan of all the campaigns has been reduced. Therefore, there seems to be a little restlessness in the industry.
We must acknowledge this reality rather than dismiss it. Understanding the mindset and vision of the brands we work with is paramount.
Therefore, we should take a measured approach, gradually pushing for more creative and cutting-edge work as we gain a deeper understanding of our clients' perspectives.
Nowadays, agencies have started offering integrated services: media+tech+creative. They say clients demand integrated services. How well-placed is W+K in offering integrated services?
I believe we are living in a super-specialist era. To illustrate, if a campaign requires face detection technology, I would opt for a company specialising in that technology rather than a company with a broader tech focus. I don't think globally W+K has a consolidated offering set up in any of our offices. Our reputation is built on creative ideas, and in a world where many claim to do everything, I find such claims to be unfounded.
Today, it's extremely important for creative agencies to stand for the big creative strategic idea. While the trend globally leans towards numerous small ideas, the absence of major brands launching campaigns akin to "Open Happiness" and "Thank You, Mom" is noteworthy. The people who have done such big campaigns in the past should push their respective clients to create campaigns rooted in big ideas. Short-term, small idea-based campaigns work for a shorter time and lack the depth, insight, reality, truth, and bigness for long-term brand building.
Does that mean offering integrated marketing communication services is not a sustainable model for creative agencies?
The creative agencies offering integrated services are only doing it for business. I have worked for big network ad companies with multiple agencies working under their umbrella. If one takes a deep dive, there is a lot of ego in their systems. While network advertising companies do offer the services of their specialist agencies to their clients, often, their agencies are not aligned with each other.
Businesses don’t flourish where there is no creative freedom. Specialist agencies, whether in PR or digital, enjoy profit margins of around 200%, whereas network agencies struggle to reach 20%. While some clients opt for integrated solutions to avoid the hassle of dealing with multiple agencies, the provision of integrated services does not necessarily translate into delivering the best creative work. Our international folks (W+K) keep on producing great campaigns for Nike without having everything in-house. When required, we partner with the right people who are hungry to excel at what they do.
Do you find it easier to call a spade a spade because your current position in the industry has granted you a sense of fearlessness, or has this candidness always been a part of your character?
The industry's progression is apparent. It has given me everything. It will be unfair if I don't take a stand when it needs the most. Maybe with not so much conviction and clarity, but I have always expressed myself if something pinched me. With time, one gets better, more blunt, and more honest. Being blunt and honest is a bitter medicine but surely works and is needed in every creative industry.
From time to time, discussions arise regarding pay disparities between junior and senior leadership. How does Wieden+Kennedy address this issue?
The concept of categorising individuals into juniors and seniors is somewhat elusive to me. I prioritise the value of the work itself. If someone can produce work that truly creative, inspires and resonates with people, I believe in compensating them based on their merit rather than confining raises to a fixed percentage increase from their current compensation. It’s the combination of work, culture, brands and environment that should be considered, There has been an instance where individuals opted to join Wieden+Kennedy at a lower salary, foregoing higher pay from their previous employers, often startups or companies going public. Despite the reduction in salary, they chose to work with us, driven by the prestigious brand name of Wieden+Kennedy.
Do you believe that financial pressures have compromised the quality of creative work in creative agencies?
Absolutely. In numerous instances, money has taken precedence over culture, people and work. The irony is that exceptional creative work inherently attracts both talent and financial success. A prime illustration of this is the Gut agency, which, after producing outstanding work, was acquired last year, making its founders immensely wealthy. People forget that we are here in this industry to have fun and to do great creative work. A creative person in an agency should focus only on creativity and not finances, which is the job of the finance department. But these days, so much pressure is put on creative people to also take into consideration the finances of the company and are asked to never say no to clients. Some of the basic principles at ad agencies have gone haywire. I strong believer in creative products. this is the only reason I am still sticking around to my beliefs. I am standing with the industry with my set of beliefs during the time it needed the most.
We are problem solvers and creative problem solvers, Creative minds shouldn't succumb to nonsensical client creative interference. After all, if they were well-versed in creativity, and creative storytelling, creative agencies wouldn't exist. The partnership between brands and agencies is what gives birth to big brand ideas: brands articulate their problems, and agencies creatively solve them. However, over time, a lack of trust has eroded into suboptimal creative output. This is quite evident in the work that we have been seeing in recent years.
You've said that you want to stay in the industry during the storm. Both you and the industry have given each other a lot. How far can you go to give back to the industry as it stares at a father figure?
Although retirement could have been an easy option, the industry has given me a lot of love, courage, and learning. I would love to return as a creative person even in this life as well as the next life. I've actively contributed to the industry by serving as a judge, teaching at art colleges, and offering feedback on portfolios that individuals send my way. When engaging with students at colleges, I strive to inspire them to consider a career in advertising.
In the face of the industry's challenges, my stance is to advocate for and perpetuate the core values that define our field. Crafting impactful work by harnessing profound human insights remains timeless, especially in the current digital and technologically-driven era that often veers towards impersonality. Human stories retain a lasting appeal, and I am committed to contributing my part as long as I am with the industry.
Right now, I feel very optimistic, given the growth of mediums where we can tell human stories in different ways. Furthermore, there's a significant influx of capital from both startups and major corporations eager to build their brands. The global spotlight on India's growth story presents immense opportunities, but it also brings forth heightened competition. Standing out can only be achieved through consistently delivering exceptional work.
Has W+K done enough to enter into Cannes, Effies or Abbys this year?
No, let’s be honest. While we’ve produced solid brand work, they might win at most some local awards but not at the international level, especially where the world is applauding big, wonderful social larger-than-life brand ideas. Having said that, we might add a little ‘tadka’ to our work in coming years.