March 11, 2014

Dialogue: Partha Sinha of Publicis Worldwide

By Payal Khandelwal

For a second, we presume that there must be a glass door or some kind of an invisible partition between the offices of two of the senior-most people in Publicis Worldwide, but there isn’t. The newly appointed director and chief strategy officer, South Asia, Publicis Worldwide, Partha Sinha sits in one corner of the office and his creative partner Bobby Pawar on the other. This seems like a physical manifestation of a solution to the problem faced by most advertising agencies in India — the lack of adequate interaction between the planning and creative teams.

Sinha’s journey coincides with the evolution of planning as a discipline in India. He has come a long way from starting the planning function at Ogilvy India to working with Zee as their marketing,head to his earlier long stint at Publicis. He was,also handpicked as one of the legs to form the, three-legged stool model of the Indian outfit of BBH, well-known for its highly robust planning, function globally.

He is now back to Publicis as part of the new powerful squad comprising of Ambika Srivastava, Pawar and himself. We talked to Sinha about the loopholes in the planning function in India, things he could have done better, what went wrong at BBH India, the importance of reading and more. Edited excerpts:

After you started the planning function at Ogilvy, how have you seen strategic planning evolve in India over the years?

I actually started off as a client in Citibank. When I moved to Ogilvy, I was the first planner there. At that time, a lot of our focus was on bringing marketing thinking back to the agency business. I personally started realizing the futility of it because there were already marketing people who did that so why should we repeat what they were doing. And I think that’s the time when a couple of other people were also questioning this.

In 1996–97, planning was taking shape in India. There were a lot of us who were thinking in our own independent ways as to how exactly planning can add value to the business of communication. Gradually, what emerged was that if you find a marketing solution to a marketing problem, your work always travels in a predictable corridor. You possibly need a human or life solution to a marketing problem. That’s the kind of planning I started doing. And there were lot of people doing it.

Then came a very bad phase for planning in India when planning started getting institutionalized and that produced a truckload of second rated marketing thinkers (planners). The first-quality marketing thinkers were working for marketing companies. That is possibly the darkest phase of planning. It continued till mid-2000. And today, it has come to a situation where planning as a discipline is under threat because good planners don’t want to work with agencies anymore. This is mainly because when large agencies started institutionalizing planning, they created client expectations, which is basically making power point presentations for clients. Since the good planners won’t do that, the industry is left with a huge amount of second-rate planners. To a certain extent, this is the situation today.

Do you think that somewhere it is the fundamental flaw in a bigger agency set-up?

I think planning was just wrongly institutionalized. Planning was fine as long as it remained not a discipline, but an idea driven by a few leaders. The moment it became a must-have discipline, people started shortchanging, that is where things went a little off.

Going back to Ogilvy, what’s the kind of relationship you had with the creatives when the planning function had just started?

We never felt that we were part of different teams. At Ogilvy, we approached it very differently. It was always about how fresh the idea was. We used to sit and brainstorm ideas many times and that’s something I have missed a lot subsequently. At Ogilvy, the best part was that planning became very close to creative but again planning wasn’t institutionalized at that time, so may be that’s why I worked so comfortably with creatives. And I definitely lament that if it had not been institutionalized, we would have got much better planners today.

Why did you quit advertising after your stint at Ogilvy and worked at indiainfo.com and then at Zee?

I am an engineer so I get highly turned on by technology. There was a technology revolution going on at that time and I wanted to be a part of it. This is why I joined indiainfo.com but that didn’t last too long as the whole bubble busted in a year and that’s the time I realized that all these internet companies are actually media companies. If you look at Google, Yahoo!, they are quite similar to media companies, and that’s when I thought that working for a media company would be a good idea and I joined Zee.

I thought that large format content could be an interesting area where I could contribute. But then I realized that Indian media industry is still not about content. Even though I did learn a lot, I was hugely disappointed. There was a huge gap between my expectations and what the reality was. There were no good content makers/writers in the ecosystem.

What did you learn in those two stints that you were able to apply to planning?

I actually wanted to be inside pop cult. I wanted to do large format content that becomes pop cult. That is an invaluable learning. It helps in two ways: it helps you understand the impact of pop cult and how your brand would be shaping in it and it helps you understand content beyond 30 seconds.

What attracted you to Publicis after that?

This organization was growing at that time and I was part of the growth story. When we came, there were just one or two accounts and there was obviously no planning function. I had to build it brick by brick, which was interesting. We did it for the whole of Asia. It was interesting that there was a planning philosophy running through all the offices in Asia. And I was getting to learn about one new culture every week. That was good fun.

What are the fundamentals you brought in when you created the planning function in Publicis?

There were some very simple things. The first is that you can’t give a marketing answer to a marketing problem. You need to have a human answer. That’s the first discipline I brought in. The second was that the answer can come from any end. It sounds like a cliché but it’s very true in planning. It can come from anthropology, sociology, pop culture, from interrogating consumers, etc. It has to be something interesting that you latch onto and ask a few questions. That is what makes planning rich. It allows creative to dip into a host of rich texture and therefore, hopefully gets reflected in the work.

Initially, what was the process when you worked with creative team at Publicis? Did you work in isolation first and then involve the creative team?

Yes, it was a little sequential. If you ask me, I wish I could have done better. Though we worked closely with the creative team but it was still sequential. Planners would first think and then go to the creatives.

And that’s clearly a wrong process.

Yes. I think creatives need to get involved far early in the process. All great campaigns have happened when people have owned the problems together, filled up blank walls with ideas together and then picked out something.

So did these things improve when you went to BBH?

Yes, that was the whole point of going to BBH. There are three main planning agencies in the world BBH, Wieden + Kennedy and Goodby Silverstein & Partners. I went to BBH to learn as I realized that my learning had stopped. The large international agency systems approach planning in a particular way which could be good for a young person to learn but I didn’t have too much left to learn. And when you go to a place like BBH, which is built fundamentally on the strength of planning and creative, you learn a lot. You learn discipline. Planning is a lot about discipline, which is fantastic in markets like the US and UK but lacks severely in India.

And of course, I got to meet some of the best planners in the world. Luckily, at the end of the first year in the BBH system, I was considered to be a part of what Nigel Bogle calls the ‘planning elite’. I think even in a network agency, there won’t be so many good planners. BBH’s size might be smaller but the number of fantastic planners is huge.

So it’s a question of creating a planning culture, a planning plus creative culture: culture of ideas, culture of finding the solution. And to build that culture, the creative leader and planning leader need to be joined at the hip and they have to believe in the same things. And eventually what happens is that great people get attracted to those places. If you go to BBH London or W+K Portland, the kind of planning and creative combo you see will knock your socks off.

And did this partnership happen at BBH India?

I must admit that the partnership didn’t form; otherwise I would have been staying there today. And that partnership is critical because you can do very good planning but what do you do with it at the end of the day if you are not good partners with the creatives.

What actually went wrong at BBH?

I have never analysed it like that but if you ask me to analyse then I think that may be the worldview alignment didn’t happen between the partners. I think it is more important for people who are forming the team to have a worldview alignment, more than an advertising alignment. Advertising alignment happens as you learn but your point of view about many other things, those alignments need to be fairly strong.

I think it’s too much of an expectation to form that kind of a team and expect that the worldview would align. I think these kinds of teams need to be more organic and can’t be formed. I am increasingly coming to that belief. You need to understand each other far more fundamentally. It’s very difficult to pick up people and say ‘you are Bartle and you are Hegarty’. One of the fundamental issues I faced was that I was never satisfied as a part of the team but I realized the importance of it. If you see BBH London, time after time after time they churn out great work, and that’s because that culture flows through the system.

Out of the various creative partnerships at BBH, which one came closest to achieving this?

They were all great creatives in their own rights but was the teaming better with one of them? I don’t think it’s really important to make that comparison because they are all different kind of creative people. I was dissatisfied personally because I wasn’t able to achieve the things for which I had gone to BBH. And the proof of the pudding is in the work. I was not satisfied with the work at all. It was okay but we expected far more.

So do you think that probably the BBH partnership model cannot work in India?

It can work depending on the people. If they have form the right team, it will work. If it has worked everywhere else, then why not in India? India is no different market.

Are you excited about your partnership with Bobby?

We came in as a team. I wouldn’t have even taken this job if Bobby was not my partner. We have different skills and we hope that those come together. I have a skill that when I see a marketing document, I try to open it up. Bobby has the skill to build interesting layers on top of that. When Bobby sits down to write, I almost know what he is writing.

Many times, what happens is that when you are opening up a problem, you open it in many directions. Bobby and I keep talking and we keep rejecting and it requires a huge amount of maturity to keep ruthlessly rejecting things, which in any other agency wouldn’t be ideal. And finally when we arrive at something, both of us are really happy. We are jumping with joy. I think that happiness is what forms the crux of the partnership.

Do you face a huge people problem in planning?

Yes, my biggest problem is that most people I meet are people who don’t read. And a planner who doesn’t read is sort of an oxymoron. Some people come and say that they learn from life! You don’t learn from life. You learn from someone who has written a book and they have learnt from life. You don’t have the capacity or the capability yet. Most of the people say that ‘I watch movies and I spend time outdoor’, which basically means ‘I like getting drunk’.

So basically, if you don’t like this discipline of reading, you have no business being in planning. If you want interesting solutions then you need to be interesting to start off with. You need to develop interests. And academically, you need to have knowledge of basic natural sciences and derivative sciences.

Is it mandatory to be an MBA to be a planner? Or is it just a myth?

That depends. I would rather take a school dropout than take an MBA from a bad XYZ institute where your owner has a ponytail. I want people who read and who have interests. It’s very difficult to find planners who have interest. You can’t become a planner by reading Bombay Times. You can be nothing actually if you read Bombay Times.

As far as MBA is concerned, it only teaches you to become smart and to package yourself better. I went to two top places in India, IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) and IIM (Indian Institute of Management), and if you ask me to compare the two, IIT is far superior to IIM in terms of the quality of thinking you get around you. It is a fundamental learning. IIM is a polished kind of place. So yes, if you are hiring an MBA from a top institute you know that this bloke has gone through a filter and second, he/she will be able to smartly manage things. But is MBA a fundamental learning? No. For a planner, a lot of this fundamental learning happens by self. If you are not reading, you will make a lousy planner.

Who are your role models?

In terms of fundamental thinking, my role models include Ashis Nandy. I like the way he looks at problems. It could be slightly difficult at times, but it’s mind opening. I also look upto Ramchandra Guha. Not always though, as I don’t agree with lot of recent stuff by him.

I also like Sunil Khilnani and keep referring to his book The Idea of India, which I believe is one of the best books written about India. And I am also increasingly becoming a fan of the economics thinking of Raghu Rajan. He thinks quite fundamentally and I am very happy he is from my school. And of course, if you are a planner, you are bound to get influenced by Roland Barthes and Joseph Campbell.

This interview was first published in the 18th issue of Kyoorius Magazine.

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