Stressed or happy? A reality check on creative leaders who turned independent

While talent has been leaking from advertising agencies for over two decades, people who left their jobs at global ad agencies tell the truth

Akansha Srivastava
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Stressed or happy? A reality check on creative leaders who turned independent

What do Aalap Desai, Malvika Mehra, Niket Kumar, Soumitra Karnik, Pallavi Chakravarti, PG Aditiya and Virat Tandon have in common?

They all left their high-paying leadership roles in creative agencies to venture into entrepreneurship and establish their own setup or turn independent consultants.

While the talks of talent leakage from advertising agencies have existed for over two decades, the pace has only picked up in the last 2-3 years.

Niket kumar

Niket Kumar, the former Leo Burnett EVP and now the Founder of Unconventional, conceived the idea of launching a marketing talent marketplace during his sabbatical in 2022, following his tenure at Leo Burnett.

Kumar believes that Covid-19 and financial security have a major impact on ad agency executives to launch a venture of their own.

He said, “Whoever is alive has defied death in some way or the other. Perspectives have changed, and priorities have changed. People have realised the importance of being able to live and to be able to do things that they really would want to do and the way they would want to do it.”

He went on to say, “A critical mass is attained before a nuclear reaction starts. People have been tired of the ad agency system for some time now, but are able to step out of their comfort zone taking the punt after attaining a certain level of financial comfort and backing.”

Similarly, noticing the rise in independent talent post-Covid-19, the former heads of Mullen Lowe Lintas, Amer Jaleel and Virat Tandon joined forces in August 2023 to launch Curativity.

Curativity is an ecosystem that brings together and organises independent talent in one place and helps them work directly with marketers.

Virat Tandon

Speaking to, Tandon elaborated, "Research indicates a significant surge of 13 times in independent talent post-Covid. Following IT and Edtech, marketing and advertising stand as the third major contributor to white-collar gig workers. Recognising this trend, we saw an opportunity to address industry challenges and launched Curativity."

He further commented, “Nowadays, clients don’t go after big agency names but the talent associated with those agencies. The talent also doesn’t remain at one place. Good talent is not confined to staying in one place. A lot of them also turn independent after realising it can be financially more rewarding to work independently with clients without working under agency pressure. It’s not just creative talent who are turning independent but also strategy, research, design and whatnot.”

Drawing from over 20 years of experience on both agency and brand sides, Kumar positions Unconventional as a platform that addresses brands' needs of product (strategy, creative and production), talent and ethical partnerships that traditional agencies often do not fulfil.

Sharing why he left the ad industry, Kumar said, “I felt that ad agencies are not doing justice with the marketing requirements in terms of talent. We now lack passion. Everything that the ad industry has been doing is to either keep the clients superficially happy or to win awards. Now I have pride, pleasure and self-satisfaction in the work I do. I had lost all of it in my agency life.”

Overall, the decision to launch their own ad agencies and become entrepreneurs can be influenced by a combination of personal, financial, and professional factors, as well as the unique opportunities and challenges present in the A&M industry at any given time.

In an interview last year, Santosh Padhi, Chief Creative Officer, Wieden+Kennedy told that the senior leadership should be blamed for the talent moving out from the established ad agencies as we increasingly focussed on business over creativity.

Soumitra Karnik

Soumitra Karnik, who spent over two decades in global advertising networks before becoming an independent consultant a couple of years ago, now values the freedom, creative autonomy, and fair compensation that come with his newfound independence.

He said, “There is a sense of confusion looming over the ad agencies. The ad agencies who earlier used to be the bastion of creativity and innovation are now run by accountants rather than visionaries. These accountants don’t have an understanding of craft and creativity. The truth is that the money will flow in automatically only when you have better and bigger ideas. The services provided by network agencies have become convoluted. They are calling themselves marketing consultants, digital or integrated ad agencies while hesitating to embrace their identity as ad agencies.”

Karnik went on to say, “For creative individuals, the pursuit of numerical targets is secondary to fostering creativity. Consequently, they often find themselves leaving ad networks due to creatively stifling environments. Moreover, it's not just the creatives; even those in account management roles, passionate about creativity, are departing from traditional ad agency networks.”

In April 2022, Gautam Reghunath and PG Aditiya, former employees of Dentsu Webchutney, took a bold step by launching their own agency, 'Talented.' Since its inception, Talented has been making waves with its innovative work.

At Cannes Lions 2023, the duo had the opportunity to share their journey on stage. Aditiya highlighted the factors that led them to break away from traditional agency norms and establish Talented, citing issues such as inadequate compensation, burnout, long working hours, hierarchical inefficiencies, and more.

Reghunath expressed his belief that the current landscape presents an opportune moment for independent agencies. He emphasised the relatively low capital required to start an agency and dispelled the misconception that agency business models are limited. He also noted the structural deficiencies in leading agencies, which have created openings for new players like Talented.

Both Reghunath and Aditiya voiced frustration with the industry's status quo, particularly regarding stagnant salaries and insufficient staffing within agencies. Reghunath, as CEO, lamented the bureaucratic hurdles that hindered timely decision-making and fulfilment of promises to the team.

Having worked in network ad agencies throughout his career, Aalap Desai took a leap of faith in December 2023 to launch his own ad agency tgthr.

“Before tgthr, very often, I was stressed, anxious and unhappy. These emotions are simpler to handle because all of them are negative. After tgthr, I am always stressed and anxious, but I am happy. Probably the happiest I’ve been in my working life. Herein lies the strangeness of the feelings because one of them is a huge positive. Going independent is by far the most satisfying decision that I have ever made,” said Desai.

Going back to the ‘fundamentals’ of creative agencies

Pallavi Chakravarti, Nishant Saurabh, and Anand Murty quit DDB Mudra in 2022 and established their own agency, 'Fundamental', in 2023. The agency's name reflects their commitment to returning to the core principles of creative agency work.

Pallavi Chakravarti

Chakravarti expressed her concern, stating, "It's disheartening to see many individuals becoming disillusioned within the industry and continuing solely for financial stability. Larger agency setups often suffer from bureaucracy and overextension, with senior leadership sometimes disconnected from the hands-on work at grassroots levels. Clients recognise this, impacting the overall quality of work."

She continued, "Nevertheless, there are those like us who aspire to cultivate a work culture and creativity reminiscent of our early days in the industry."

Driven by their vision to uphold the fundamental expectations of creative agencies, Chakravarti, Saurabh, and Murty launched Fundamental and it’s working fine for them.

Creative freedom and work-life balance

Creative freedom is one big factor for creative leaders to move out of legacy ad agencies and launch something of their own. The urge for independence and creative freedom has led to the formation of platforms like Curativity, Script Room and Unconventional.

Aalaap desai

Desai commented, “By going independent, we have unlocked creative freedom and evolved to become truly better creative in the past six months. The last time I felt so much for the work was when I was a starry-eyed junior, and everything was new. Nowadays, that newness has come back and it is making our work better for our clients and for our teams. In our small way, we are happier, more productive and satisfied.”

Another reason behind people turning away from ad agency setups is the freedom to choose which clients to work for and maintain work-life balance.

Malvika Mehra

With over two decades of experience in traditional ad agencies, Malvika Mehra reached the pinnacle of her career as a National Creative Director. In a time when independence and entrepreneurship were not common pursuits among creative professionals, she took a bold leap by launching Tomorrow Creative Lab in 2016.

Mehra attributes her decision to a desire for work satisfaction and a passion for building brands from scratch. "I established Tomorrow Creative Lab as a comprehensive solution for clients," she explained. "Previously, brands would seek design services from one agency, and activation from another. Creative agencies were only approached for communication."

She went on to say that turning independent gives a choice to manoeuvre through the clients one wishes to work with. Later on, her agency Tomorrow Creative Lab joined hands with Dentsu to expand the scope of business.

“But again, I went back to being Chief Creative Officer and we started doing a lot of advertising and less design pieces. After turning independent, it gets difficult to adjust back in an agency set up,” she explained about her departure from dentsu India in 2020.

Following a stint as an independent consultant, Mehra briefly ventured into the startup realm with Good Glamm Group in 2022. Reflecting on the experience, she remarks, "The startup world wasn't what I had envisioned, prompting my departure."

Having explored the dynamics of running an independent agency, working with startups, and holding senior positions in traditional agencies, Mehra finds fulfilment in consulting. "While terms like growth and freedom may sound appealing, personal development is equally significant," she asserts. "Work goals have always outweighed financial goals for me. As a consultant, I am relieved of the burdens of managing teams, and salaries, and can selectively engage with clients."

For Karnik, after initial hiccups, independence as a consultant has worked out great for him. He said, “I have the freedom to select my projects, set my own schedule, and establish fair pricing. This is totally opposite from the way traditional ad agencies function, where the undercutting starts right from the beginning and by the time business comes to the agency, it’s no longer viable. Because the business won is at such a low cost, the agency can’t hire more people for the account and mount the pressure on the existing employees.”

On top of it, Karnik said that being independent helps him work directly with the decision-makers. “It is no longer a Chinese whisper that comes to you after 16 people,” he added.

Work pressure in creative agencies touches an all-time high?

The financial strain on ad agency leaders has compelled them to implement cost-cutting measures. Among these measures, downsizing the team has become a common strategy, resulting in overworked employees.

Kumar from Unconventional explained, “Agency retainer fees seldom see an increase. Consequently, to bolster profitability, the focus shifts to reducing costs, often resulting in team downsizing. Balancing the demands of sustaining current operations with the imperative to secure new business only adds to the mounting pressure.”

Kumar concluded, “It is wrong to say that the ad industry needs to wake up and smell the coffee. In fact, the industry knows that the coffee is smelling and what it is smelling like needs to be addressed.”

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