Why limit creativity to words and images: Leo Burnett's CEO
Some of Leo Burnett India’s recent works do not at all resemble advertising as we know it. They look like stuff straight out of a tech lab. For instance, for insurance company Acko, it launched a product called Street Eye, which is a device strapped to a bike. It alerts you if there is a submerged pothole ahead and guides you around it. We caught up with Dheeraj Sinha, CEO and Chief Strategy Officer, South Asia at Leo Burnett to find out what’s cooking at the agency. The MICA alumnus who joined Leo Burnett from Grey in 2016, and was elevated as MD in 2018 and CEO in 2020, says the agency remained resilient during the pandemic, even returning higher profits than before.
How are you navigating the pandemic ?
We launched a strategy called 0-3-6. The thinking was we need to succeed in multiple short-terms as well as the long term so we built a framework 0-3-6 and used it as our compass to ride out the pandemic. To explain it, we would examine what’s the plan in zero, and come out with products to help people navigate the present. And then look at what’s going to happen three months from now, and do a similar plan, and then six months later. 0-3-6 is symbolic. So, if you’re launching new products, the plan looks at what’s going to happen in the first year, how am I going to get the first million customers, and then 3 would be the following year’s plans and then 6 the succeeding year. That’s the framework we are using with many clients to launch new brands and products.
Breaking patriarchy: Leo Burnett’s campaign for Whisper
For example, for Whisper, we built mobile shaala , because we found the pandemic had its own share of patriarchy. In Indian households, boys were getting access to education while the girls were being pushed into chores. So we built a platform for girls to attend school, with net connectivity, and access to devices. This is not advertising as we know it. This is centred around solving business problems.
Is this a pivot for you, forced by the pandemic?
It’s a mix of both. Before the pandemic we realised that why should the power of creativity be limited just to words and images? We were solving business problems for clients even before the pandemic. For Bajaj, we helped launch Bajaj V, a commuter bike, made out of metal parts from INS Vikrant, the warship. We realised that creativity has power to solve problems beyond just advertising. At Leo Burnett we have been using technology and data to solve real client problems for the past four years. The pandemic accelerated it.
As you are going beyond traditional advertising, do you have the expertise and the technology in your agency to deliver this?
The archetype of talent at Leo Burnett is what we call mutant DNAs. For the last four years we have been hiring people who are, say, good at strategy but also good at data, good at art, but also at design thinking, good at copywriting but also at digital understanding. We have been going to various campuses to hire, such as NID, IITs, MICA, Ashoka University, Christ College, and we have also started going to undergraduate colleges such as LSR, Hindu. We are changing the talent profile which is coming to advertising to a more younger and more new age, mutant profile. We have also established a team called Apollo 11, which is our innovation Lab. The average age there is 25 — we have product designers, culture anthropologists, data strategists; social platform strategists, and these are young people whose job is to solve client problems but not through advertising.
Although there is a separate incubation lab, the effort is that the ideas should radiate through the entire agency. We want Leo Burnett to be a new age agency to solve business problems and build brands, not just through mass media advertising, which we also do — for an agency as large as Leo Burnett, with clients such as P&G, PhonePe, GSK, Amazon, we need to do that — but the focus is on tech-led innovations. Clients are giving us more upstream problems to solve.
Since you are offering more by way of solutions, are you able to earn more as well from your clients?
Our revenues were lower by 5 per cent in 2020 over 2019 but our profits were higher in 2020 than 2019. There were savings on costs too. We won 20 new businesses all through Zoom and MS Teams in 2020 and we would have produced at least thousand pieces of work for our clients. We ran at least 50 workshops under 0-3-6 for our clients. We have not let go of anybody during the pandemic. In fact we have honoured all our campus hires. We have given increments and given bonuses, overall it was a healthy run for our agency. In H1 of 2021 (we follow the calendar year) we are already ahead of our commitments.
Have the agency’s divisions been re-organised to meet these new client needs?
Last year, during the pandemic, we launched three new services. Leo Burnett Consult solves upstream client business problems — for example we are working with Force Motors to launch a global commercial vehicle platform, so the entire brand strategy, nomenclature, identity is done by us. We are doing one with Care ratings to re-work their identity. We have launched Leo Burnett Design, doing pure brand identity solutions. Third, we launched Leo Burnett Digital. It is not a vertical as such but we are looking at digital as a horizontal, as a specialisation which plugs into Leo Burnett as a whole. These are the pivots that have helped us to build momentum.
What were the broad consumer behaviour shifts you observed and how did the agency adapt?
We released a few culture fuels last year, pointing out trends. For instance, the shared economy going down, as there was suspicion of shared mobility and spaces. Patriarchy also reared its head up. There are a whole list of 10 trends we released.
At a broader level I am surprised by the resurgence we saw since last October. We saw a better quarter after November 2020 than in November 2019. A huge U curve happened in October-December 2020 in most sectors, be it consumption goods, music streaming, digital payments — except for a few areas like travel.
The first three months of 2021 — the Jan-March quarter was going on breakneck speed for most categories. May has been very difficult, but I would say it was still not as difficult as April 2020 which was devastating and absolute zero. This year we did not see a complete stop like that. And already in June we are seeing an upward curve. We are working on several new launches. The resilience of the Indian market, the way it came back is a marker of the consumer economy. In the long term, the India narrative, overall is a positive delta.
Will we see any consolidations happening in the agency space?
In advertising, you buy to acquire scale or you buy to get an expertise you don’t have. For us, we prefer to grow organically. If you look at Leo Burnett Design or Digital, we have preferred to homegrow it.
But yes, you will see a lot of weaker players being weaned out. You will find there will be consolidation in the advertising industry with the weak, who are struggling, weaned out.