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The Disrupters: Soho Square’s march towards carving out its own identity

Surviving and thriving amid the presence of large agency networks are the smaller, independent agencies, often referred to as ‘boutique agencies’. Quite often created by former employees of larger networks venturing out on their own, and sometimes by people from different professional backgrounds, these independent agencies are being increasingly recognised for their brilliant campaigns and benchmark-setting innovative thinking.

Adgully’s feature offering – The Disrupters – puts the spotlight on such small independent agencies that have been setting a blazing trail in the advertising industry with their work, their new way of operating and ideation, which have been creating disruption in the way the advertising business is done in India.

Created as a second agency from the Ogilvy Group, Soho Square has been in a transition phase as Bates CHI & Partners was restructured to work along with Soho under common management last year and Sumanto Chattopadhyay took charge as Chairman & Chief Creative Officer of Soho Square India. Prior to this, he was Executive Creative Director, South Asia, Ogilvy, Mumbai.

With this restructure, Soho Square now has an independent national leadership and has been strengthening its presence and coming out of Ogilvy’s shadow. Sumanto Chattopadhyay speaks with Adgully, on his strategy to make Soho Square a desirable agency destination for brands and talent, the challenges of building up the business outside Ogilvy’s halo, creating disruption with its creative thinking and more.

View from the corner room

It’s been 25 years for me with Ogilvy, so your question as to how I got this role and this room... One fine day I got a call from Piyush saying that he wanted to meet me. I was apprehensive but he said ‘it’s good news for you’. I met him the next morning and I was offered the role of Chairman and CCO of Soho Square. The interesting part was I would be in charge, and if all went well, then the credit would go to all, but if things went wrong, the blame would go to me. The room that I am in now used to be a small meeting room. I fell in love with it, asked for it and here I am.

Though Soho already existed, there was no national leadership. Therefore, the Soho Mumbai guys reported to Ogilvy Mumbai. The whole idea was to make it a strong second agency and that’s why I was offered the position of Creative Head and Chairman. With this, the idea was to make Soho a more independent entity, even as it continued to be a part of the Ogilvy Group. But it is taking time and will not happen overnight and there have been some stumbling blocks.

To be honest, I have always been a true-blue Ogilvy guy, hence it was emotionally very difficult for me to differentiate myself from that and see myself in this role. When I first started the Soho job, I continued to sit in my old Ogilvy office on the 13th floor. I felt at home. When I moved down to the Soho office on the 11th floor, it struck me that things have changed. But now I feel that this is my home; of course, I am still a part of ‘them’ in that sense, but now this independent entity is taking shape.

The challenges

One of the challenges at Soho was that national leadership was not there earlier. I had to nurture a lot of relationships with clients anew. I was morally responsible for the numbers now. I would get sleepless nights if we were not meeting the targets. I would someties wake up at 4 in the morning and worry about something that a client needed or if there was a pitch that we really needed to win. All these are a part of the growing up process – from being just a creative guy to being the head of an agency. Initially, I wanted to change everything and everybody, but then I realised that I couldn’t do that all at one go. So, I took a step back. All of those things happened at their own pace and we have reached a good place today. We were also working on shaping the agency while carving out our own niche within the Ogilvy Group and being truly independent. Now the momentum is there and I hope Soho Square continues to prosper.

It’s all about team spirit

The size of the team has not really changed that much. Since we are a part of the WPP Group, there are strict rules pertaining to head count, etc.

When I took charge, someone told me, ‘It’s like a start-up, but with a safety net’. It was exciting to reinvent this agency, and because it is a part of the Ogilvy Group, there was firm backing. We have a Soho office in Delhi. In Mumbai, we have Soho and Bates. In Kolkata, we have Bates, and in Bangalore, we have Soho and Bates. There was an agency called Temple started by VS Srikanth (who is our CEO now), which was bought out by WPP and merged into Bates. Thus, there are multiple work cultures here. A critical task has been to create a single unified culture.

When I took over, Soho Mumbai had nothing to do with Soho Delhi, and Soho Mumbai guys were reporting to Ogilvy Mumbai. Therefore, it was necessary to send out the message that we are all one entity and at the same time, we are distinct from Ogilvy. We have to have our own pride in what we are. In the last few months, we have done some really good work. In the past, we never got called for pitches on our own merit but only through Ogilvy. Now we are getting called on our own merit. So, things have changed today.

Creating disruption at Soho Square

What I have focused on is raising the bar in terms of creative excellence, and not going into a niche. We have a lot of Indian entrepreneurs as clients for whom solving problems is what matters. You may have seen the Bisleri ad featuring talking camels. Another agency might have thought of featuring a celebrity in the campaign, but we thought, why can’t camels be the aqua experts who address the issue of Bisleri becoming a generic term for bottled water? This is one kind of disruptive creative thinking.

Another example is that of the Lava mobile campaign. They are in a category with a strong dominance of Chinese brands. Thus we came up with the idea of showcasing Lava mobiles, an Indian brand, as more appealing than the Chinese ones from the standpoint of national pride. We created a film wherein a girl is trying to sing ‘Saare Jahan Se Accha’ and sings ‘Hum Chulbule Hai Iski’ instead of singing ‘Hum Bulbule Hai Iski’ and you can hear her father’s voice correcting her. MS Dhoni is the dad in the ad. We ended the film with #ProudlyIndian. We did an activation around Independence Day in which we encouraged people to sing their favourite patriotic song and upload it on social media with this hashtag. This gained huge traction and it went on to become one of their most successful campaigns.

For our new client Havells, we were challenged to do something very iconic. We created a 2-minute long digital film featuring a cute crush story of a little boy and girl. In the film, the girl throws a wire flower the boy makes for her into the bonfire. She later regrets her decision and retrieves it in the morning.

Within the Ogilvy Group we are like the challenger brand and thus, we are trying to bring the challenger kind of thinking to our brands. For example, today we are handling Dukes, which is a Hyderabad-based biscuits and wafers brand and is competing with the likes of Britannia. My experience of working for regional content earlier in Ogilvy is coming to good use here. There is a lot of stuff that one can do in digital, but not all are doing it. While in most of the world advertising is becoming exclusively digital, in India it is very difficult to be purely digital. I think at the end of the day it is about being creative, regardless of the medium. The journey from doing TVCs to digital content is not that big a change though.

The digital play

When we think of ideas, we always think 360 degrees. However, though everybody talks about digital, not everybody is doing it or are just doing one or two digital campaigns. Ultimately, we are led by where our clients want to be.

The pitch when you are pitted against Ogilvy

Honestly, that is one of the most humbling lessons for me, because as I said, I didn’t know what life was like outside Ogilvy. I quickly realised that when you pitch for a business as Soho Square, you are not coming in as Ogilvy. It is much harder. So, when you win, the satisfaction is greater because it is for Soho Square and not because of the Ogilvy halo.

Every pitch is a learning experience. You are called for certain pitches as one of 6 agencies. They may only be interested in the bigger agencies but you are there to fulfil a quota. I think that because we are not as huge as Ogilvy, we seniors can directly give time to the clients, which is not possible if you are a massive agency. There are certain disadvantages as well. But the space in between has huge business potential.

Big data, programmatic, AI and voice

It is all there. But right now in India, there seems to be a lot more talk about it rather than it actually happening. I look at it as a creative person and I believe there is a lot of potential when you use AI to harness data to customise advertising. But I firmly believe that at the heart of a campaign is not the technology but its creativity. You have to understand the technology well enough to utilise it. You also learn to cast your creative in a way that works with the technology. But at the centre of it all is still the idea.

In the past few years, everybody has been talking about technology. Sometimes, though, you can lose sight of what it is really about. I think it is still about telling a brand story and that has not changed, only certain tools have changed. Sure, there is a lot of social media advertising going on, there is Search Engine Optimisation, etc, but in India, we still do not see a whole lot of the evolved kind of digital advertising. Ultimately, brands have to be ready to implement that. I think it’s changing fast, but still, somewhere the TV commercials or digital videos are what we are focussing on.

Working with smaller budgets

I have learned to work with directors and producers for films. Again, I would like to stress that for me, the biggest thing that has not changed is that I am still a creative person and more into films, be it broadcast or digital. I have discovered directors and producers that I would never have as a creative director with Ogilvy. I think there is greater satisfaction in doing things on a smaller budget. Making that successful is like the cherry on the cake. For me, what is more important is my personal reputation as a creative person who has been in the industry for so long. I am concerened about what goes out under my name. My client might be happy with something less. But even if the budget is smaller, I have to ensure that I would want to be associated with it.

Do winning awards still give a high?

Honestly speaking, I have not got any awards yet for Soho Square. I will get there. But, as I said, I am now in charge of the over-all business. For me, being able to succeed on that front is as important. We have been in transition and we went through some changes which Soho Square was in urgent need of. So, being able to succeed on those parameters is something which I am developing an appreciation for.

Has it been worth it?

Right now, I am sitting in a good place, but I have been through a lot of highs and lows. I am a guy who easily gets excited or depressed. So, when there’s a setback, I have to take a step back and tell myself that this is not the end of the world. But it is all worth it.

Looking back at 2018

For me, 2018 has been a year of learning, consolidation and carving out what exactly we are all about. I think we will end the year with a kind of clarity about all those things. A lot of it is internal; it is about ourselves and Ogilvy. As I said, when I was pitching for businesses from Ogilvy, it was a whole different ballgame and I realised quickly how differently we have to look at life now. For me, it’s been a year of learning because of the kind of categories that I have worked on. For instance, I had never worked on the automotive category, so working on Tata Motors was a great learning. I was that FMCG guy because Unilever was my biggest client.

Looking ahead

I want Soho Square to be a desirable agency destination for brands and people. I may be able to pull in the creative people today, but I would want Soho Square to draw in the talent and the business on its own merit and not rely on it being part of the Ogilvy Group. From day one we have strived towards that direction. We have to first make people believe that Soho Square is one independent national agency.

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