Saurabh Varma: Storytelling is at the heart of change in Leo Burnett

The big news from Indian advertising last week was the change of creative guard at Leo Burnett India. Former ECD of BBDO India, RajDeepak Das will now take over from KV Sridhar as the new chief creative officer of the agency. This, nearly six months after the agency got a new CEO in Saurabh Verma. Storyboard Editor Anant Rangaswami spoke to Verma on the implications of the decision to bring in new blood.

Watch the video or read the excerpts, below:

Anant: We are seeing a lot of changes in account management and now the creative department at Leo Burnett. Why is all of this happening?

Varma: I think just a single word will explain everything that we are trying to do - storytelling. Everything is about understanding how storytelling will change in India. What we need as a part of our people, our process and the culture is to make way new kind of storytelling in Leo Burnett. We believe the construct of the narrative is going to change from the 30-second spot. Another thing I find people talking about is not the 30-second spot but a 3-minute spot, which I believe is a move in the wrong direction. Ultimately, it isn't only about experiential, participative design or getting people involved in a grand gesture.

Agencies have always been about one-way communication, hence our changes are all about the new narrative. It is about finding a way to deliver, what we believe, is the new storytelling.

Anant: How will it manifest itself for a layperson to see these changes, for instance a lay employee or a client of Leo Burnett's?

Varma: Clients are the ones asking for this change. They are ready for it. If you speak to our clients like Complan or Coke, you will know that they are asking for integrated experiences. Yet, it is the agencies that somewhere aren't ready for this change. The agency that makes this big, bold move first will be the one to win.

Anant: There are lots of changes in mindsets and skill-sets. Are agencies staffed for such changes?

Varma: They absolutely are not. Agencies have various problems; one major issue is the existence of 'silos' and different P&Ls, which in turn have different agendas. If you ask me if agencies are ready to deliver on this new narrative, what I call Wave Three, then absolutely not. But what it needs is a systemic change and for us to create an integrated team to deliver an integrated experience. How many creative teams have a digital producer at the heart of them? How many have a digital strategist? How many times do we create a scope of work and a team along with it that is integrated by design? That isn't happening at the moment. It is the fundamental flaw which we are trying to correct with a new team and a new mindset.

For instance, we are taking 25 new people to Cannes. Why this grand gesture? Not because it is a celebration, but because we want people to learn from the best. If you look at the work at Cannes, it's no longer about the medium; it's about how the idea holistically travels through all the mediums. It is media-agnostic by design where you can't make out where one medium ended and another one started. That is the magic of today's work.

But we don't see this in India even today. We still celebrate and are stuck at the 30-second film. That is going to change, hopefully.

Anant: One of the problems in Indian advertising is that this business pays very badly, especially at the entry to a 5-6 year level. That is where talent is born and it disappears. Is that something that needs to be corrected?

Varma: Why will great people come to advertising? They will come when we give them the chance to explore the new. And how many agencies are doing this? Why is it that young people are very happy becoming entrepreneurs today? Why are they very happy joining new start ups? That is because there is a spirit of adventure, of trying something new, of innovation. We are still stuck in 'art and copy' partnerships. We may be the only industry in the world that refuses to change. I think somebody has to make the move, and we are doing that.

Anant: Outside of the three-four clients you mentioned a while back, how will they accept and receive these changes? I ask, because a lot of clients, too, are stuck in the 30-second spot and the print ad.

Varma: Thankfully, a lot of clients we are blessed with want to back the change. Hence we have had the guts to make such a bold move. Having said that, not all clients are on the frontier of change. Change is also about risk; there is a risk attached to every change that you bring in. In today's day and age, where the space is so competitive, everyone would love to mitigate risk. I think this will happen is in stages. We have made the big, bold move and other agencies will see us and follow suit.

Once the work starts to speak and we celebrate new age work, many others will join us in the celebration of that kind of work. That will systemically change the industry.

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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2014 11:12:08 IST