Matt Eastwood, Global Chief Creative Officer, J Walter Thompson, spoke to BestMediaInfo.com in Singapore on the future of ad agencies in an environment where finances are always stressed, the importance of the Indian market for the agency and the strong female leadership that JWT India has. Eastwood said that JWT India not winning at Cannes for the work done for The Hindu was both disappointing and weird. He said the creative work coming out of India always surprises him.
Where would you rank India in the creative sphere? How strong is JWT India compared to the rest of the world?
Creatively, India is probably one of the top 10 countries in the world. India had the best year at Cannes Lions, which is fantastic to see and I think it's growing. JWT, as a network, has clearly been in the top 10 (going up and down at times) in the last couple of years. I am always impressed by the work that comes out of India. India is good at technology and emotional works.
You are one of the few people who say India is good at technology.
I believe so. One of the most exciting things that we as a company dealt with is the work we did with Red Cross – the blood banking app. It was a great mix of technology and the human idea. In fact, it might roll out across the country. All the coding for that fantastic idea was done locally from Bangalore. Another reason I like India is because you can achieve things.
Despite the many good things you have to say about India, why didn't we see JWT India participate in Cannes on a bigger level?
It keeps fluctuating. This year, yes, it was disappointing. I agree that we didn't have that kind of volume of work as we had in last years. We did some very good work for The Hindu and I was quite shocked when it did not win. I do my annual Cannes contender showcase for the network and we analyse the prospective winners. I thought it (The Hindu campaign) was a beautiful piece of technology and innovation, along with human idea and engaging piece of communication. The work was entered but it didn't win.
Is it that the jury at Cannes has pre-determined bias against India?
I don't think so. I have sat on many juries and on the jury there this year. I think Cannes as an organisation is away from biases. I am not sure if you have seen their computer programme that measures jury’s reactions. They are pretty sure that there are no country biases/ network or regional biases, because they can track and see if people are constantly voting against the same country. I don't think there is a bias at all, because as we started out, India as a country did better than many others. I think there's more scope for work.
Another thing that is also said about Cannes is that the Indian work doesn't get any global exposure prior to Cannes, as the other work gets. So sometimes while judging you get pleasantly surprised because you have not seen it before and also because it's a great piece of work and it stands out.
So, what is the way forward? How can we amplify our work and make it visible at the global level? People upload their work on ‘ads of the world’ but is that enough?
I think it's not enough. The things that affect the Cannes jurors are not necessarily trade press but also the traditional press. I think trade press is good for getting industry coverage but jurors are looking more at what sort of coverage do they get on the mainstream television/ newspapers. Then it is worthy of discussing whether it should win an award or not.
Then, it is very difficult for Indian works to appear on mainline TV or print. Even India’s big news does not find a place on these platforms, so ads are definitely out of question.
Sometimes, it is tough because a global first or a national first in India are not that new for the rest of the world. I come from Australia so, we are used to that. Something that strikes us in Australia doesn’t strike at the global level.
Having sat on many juries, I always walk away reminding myself that it is so damn difficult to win awards at Cannes. It is like walking through a field of burning coal. For a start, you have to have at least 70 per cent of the jury say yes for a work – that’s more than half. That’s why it’s tough and that’s why I was disappointed when some of the work from our offices in India didn’t come up.
Where will you place your JWT India office vis-a-vis your other offices?
If you look at it in terms of business, it is probably one of our most successful companies. I just came back from WPP annual strategy conference about two weeks ago. Martin Sorrell was saying that Europe, America and everyone is doing ok. But well-done India. This is because the margins are still there for the offices to be making good money, there’s good work, business is really successful. So, it’s right up there with the best companies in the JWT and WPP network, but I think creatively, we are pushing harder. The thing I like about Senthil (Kumar) is that he is not a slave to awards. He does things that he feels are right, and if they win awards, then goos. If they don’t, they don’t.
We just did a beautiful piece on Kashmir. I think it’s a stunning piece of work, it has all that I was talking about earlier – it is emotional and has engaging way of storytelling, but I don’t know if this kind of work will win at Cannes or not, because the insight is very regional. So, I don’t know if it is going to stand up for the international jurors. It is still right, but in a different way.
Where do you place JWT India when it comes to business size? You just lost the Horlicks account, one of the biggest in the country.
We had that business for a long time and it was really disappointing when it left but it hasn’t really shaken up anything since we had already recovered that in terms of new business. It was funny when we were pitching against FCB because obviously I know Swati (Bhattacharyya) very well and I knew that she is going to win this, because the client always loved her when she was running the business at JWT for 20 years. It’s a loss for us but I knew how good she is and I know they always loved her. And I just had this feeling that if they go, they will go for Swati. I even wrote to her after she won it, saying that ‘We should be mad at each other but congratulations. I’m happy that it went to you but I am sure we will get it back sometime’.
JWT is the only agency, as far as we know, that has good women leadership in India.
Yes. There’s Tista (Sen), Babita (Baruah), there are dozens of them, in all of their offices. It’s funny because this (disparity) is something I am so aware of globally and have tried so hard to make sure that we have female leadership, particularly on my part, on the Global Creative Council and it’s just so hard but we have done well in India. With Swati, three of our leaders were women, which was amazing. Look, I think lot of the credit goes to JWT as a company because people often talk about JWT as the university of advertising, where everyone goes to learn advertising. Over the years we have done a good job of training people, getting those to leadership position and in most cases, retaining them.
Different markets have different consumer behaviour and hence, different advertising approaches. How challenging is it for you to keep yourself abreast with all the markets and how different is the India market from the rest of the JWT markets?
It is definitely challenging when working on a global brief that we have to apply to four to five different markets, like Asia, Europe and others. It can’t be a copy of one campaign, but usually the clients want one thought across everything. We are trying to come up with campaigns that give people freedom within that framework to develop their own local insights so that there is relevance to the region that the campaign is being made for. I try and keep up with the latest and visit India at least twice a year. It is important to see what’s going on, a lot of our clients believe that India is one of the best and biggest growth markets and is exploding and hence a lot of our clients are interested in investing there. So, the more I know, the better but yes, it is tough to be abreast with all markets. Since, I can't visit all the offices, I try to focus on the top 20 markets and pay regular visits if I can. I've been to India about six times since I started at JWT. Unfortunately, I've never been able to go to some of our regional market like Kolkata but I always visit the Delhi and Bombay offices. I tried to go to places that I can have the maximum impact, especially with the biggest agencies.
But we also have some smaller agencies with greater creative impact like Costa Rica. They have an office of about 25 people but it’s a brilliant office creatively and went a long way in Cannes last year. So, thought I will go on support them not because they have a big office but because they are big contributors creatively.
How different is the solution approach in India compared to rest of the world?
I don't think it is much different. Planning is the core part of JWT culture since we began as an agency and the local planning and insights are very important. We're doing some work for Unilever in India for Radiant and the planning team there. It is helping us understand what the laundry market in India is like and that it is different from the United States, but closer to Thailand. We rely heavily on our planners to give us these rich insights so that the campaigns resonate well.
What part is technology playing in this?
A lot. About two years ago we implemented an internal Artificial Intelligence (AI) programme called Pangaea. Pangea was that one big mass before the earth split into continents. We wanted to create a single Pangea, which was based on that idea so that we all come together as the same planet called J Walter Thompson. It is a way to find information and ask questions to anyone at the JWT.
Isn't it same as what Publicis is doing Marcel? There was so much news about it.
They are doing it now yes, but we sort of laughed at it because we are doing it for two years now. When the Marcel thing came up we thought that you wouldn't make such a fuss about it.
Pangea is driven by AI. You can ask it any question or information. It is like an app that everybody at JWT has on their phones. Anyone can ask anything and overtime, the programme learns who is the best person to respond to what kind of query.
You can't know everything but usually someone knows something about what you are looking for. The agency is so big that someone has somewhere worked on the same thing before and have some kind of insight to share.
Don't you think planning is getting too dependent on big data these days?
I think big data doesn't offer you the insight. It only gives you the data. To me that's what planning has always done. Planning is about looking at the data, gathering a few more things and then analysing what can be done and giving it back as an insight, rather than just a dump of data. What is interesting is that a lot of companies just rushed into data ignoring the analytics part of it. I think analytics is key, otherwise data is useless. It's just too much information. We hugely invest in analytics in the major markets. Planning is the one that integrates that data and makes it useful for the creative people.
I see you come from a generation that thinks human intelligence is above AI.
I am the other way round, I am a huge fan of AI.
It is important but the analytics and interpretation of the data is crucial that's why human intelligence comes into picture. Last year, we won the Grand Prix at Cannes for the campaign, ‘The Next Rembrandt’. It’s not just about extracting data from the paintings but the real insight was understanding it to manipulate the data to recreate the new painting by Rembrandt. It's that mental flip that I have all this information but what can I do with it.
What do you do if you don't agree to some results thrown by the data?
I don't ever not agree. If it’s true, it’s true. The interesting thing is that data doesn't always mean what you think it means. That's where the trick is. Having lived through the United States elections last year, all the data was saying that it would be Hillary Clinton. It was dramatically clear that you can't go wrong and when it was not Hillary, a lot of people weren't prepared to tell the truth, so when it was Trump, they couldn't say it because they all felt guilty. The exit polls were all skewed. Michael Moore said from the beginning that Trump is going to win but he was not seeing the data, but looking at it from a different perspective and understanding that the biggest buoyant population is the middle America and not New Yorkers or Californians.
You can't always take data at its face value. You got to think about what's causing the twirl. What's the underlying statement and what is it not saying that we need.
Shouldn't this data and AI always be in control of a human mind? Or the dependence on data shouldn't happen?
It should happen. It's more of an engine that helps drive the decisions you making. I saw the CEO of Verily – the healthcare company owned by Google – speak recently and they are tackling some of the biggest healthcare issues in the world. Somebody asked him how Verily decides which issues to attack and what to go after. Then he said that we look for challenges where information is lacking but information will solve the problem. They looked to bring data to a problem that people have understood but haven't solved yet. Their recent achievement was with Zica virus and while everyone was trying to look for the cure, Google decided to look deep into where the mosquitoes have been interacting and other such things, then resolved the issue in a different way. That, for me is data driving a solution but the insight came from human intelligence. So, one will be the engine to run the other.
From being an art director to a global CCO role, how easy or difficult it is for an art person or a copy person to reach here?
It's the same. My degree is in graphic design so I am trained in art but my first job was as a copywriter. My whole career I have been a copywriter. For the first 5-10 years, they seem like different tracks where the art director will manage all the production and the shoots and the writer writes the copy. But once you get into the creative leadership, you start managing it all with both art directors and writers reporting to you. So, as you go up that leadership chain, the less important it becomes how you get there. It's all about how good are you with the leadership ability, at inspiring teams and motivating them.
There has been equal number of CCOs from both sides of the creative role.
Isn't talent pooling turning out to be a huge problem for the ad industry? How do you think the industry can tackle this?
It is a big problem and is something that I'm concerned about. The main reason is the massive misunderstanding of what advertising looks like these days. As great as it was, Mad Men painted a certain picture of what advertising was like and that’s the image that people still carry. For me, advertising isn't like that anymore. One day, I'll be working on a brief for a new product development and would be working on a script of a TV series for a client. One of the things that we did at our New York office is we helped to co-create a prosthetic leg. It's not about sinking your heads for lines for print ads. It is important for us industry leaders tell a story and that's what I'm trying to do. I am talking to the whole new generation of people not just from the advertising institutes but also from other courses that wouldn’t think like communications is a place for them to be.
Do you think agencies should not be called ‘agencies’ anymore? The roles have expanded for sure.
Yes. Agencies should stop calling themselves ad agencies. We try to call ourselves as communication companies, but I don't think even that is completely correct because it's much beyond that. We will see some interesting shifts coming up in the next few years and there's no doubt that the financial pressure on the industry as a whole is going to pull us down to thinking what should we change. In about three years from now, people are either going to consolidate or change. WPP is a very acquisition-based company and is buying a lot of non-traditional advertising companies. This is changing the makeup of WPP.