WARC’s India Editor Biprorshee Das looks at the Indian advertising and marketing industry’s biggest win at Cannes and what made it happen.

Cut to 2010: I was a fledgling reporter in Cannes for the first time covering LIONS for an Indian trade website. Intimidating but exhilarating. At the end of the week, my editor asked me to file a quick story – Why India fared so poorly.

Twelve years hence, I am here writing a piece on how India hit one out of the park in the south of France. And I have a smile on my face. An Indian agency being hailed as the Agency of the Year is not just a reason for Dentsu Creative India to celebrate, but for the club to come together and note how things are changing.

But of course, it wasn’t just that one; Dentsu bagged a few more during the week and so did a handful of other Indian agencies and brands – 47 LIONS across 20 categories, Grand Prix galore and, of course, the historic Agency of the Year. This will be a year the Indian advertising and marketing fraternity will remember for a while and, hopefully, keep the momentum going.

So what changed?

Building agencies to deliver impact

Back in 2010, when I quizzed some of the veterans of Indian advertising in Cannes on the poor show, a slew of reasons were presented. “Get the young blood in”, “more technology”, “scale things up”, among others, were some. Incredibly, when I approached some of the winners this time, they attributed the performance to those very factors.

Take Dheeraj Sinha, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Strategy Officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett, Publicis Business & Publicis Health, for instance.

“The way we have been building Leo Burnett in the last five years, we are very clear that we want to do epic work on epic brands,” an elated Sinha said.

Epic is right, with Leo Burnett India winning the Grand Prix for Sustainable Development Goals with The Missing Chapter campaign for Whisper (P&G), a first for the country in the category. The category makes the win all the more special, and Sinha agreed.

“For us, the award is important and thrilling. But really, it is a placeholder for the impact it will create for the society, girls, economy and the brand. The category means that this is for long-term and is real impact,” he said.

Connecting beyond borders

You could call this a flash in the pan year for India at your own peril. The country’s star has been on the rise for the past few years. Not long ago, in 2017, India brought home 40 LIONS. And 47 this year is a healthy jump from last year’s 22.

“Our modern and engaging ideas are not just helping brands to grow their business but are helping brands make engaging connections with their consumers. We always did great work that mattered and engaged our audience. Now the work is also engaging the global audience. We are not following any trend; we are doing things that have the ability to trend globally,” shared Sukesh Nayak, Kainaz Karmakar and Harshad Rajadhyaksha, Chief Creative Officers of Ogilvy India.

A Titanium, two Golds, a Silver and a Bronze – not a bad show at all for the agency.

Collaboration at the heart of award-winning work

Amit Wadhwa, Chief Executive Officer of Dentsu Creative India, shared how it is a collaborative effort that is making the difference.

“The recent show by Indian agencies states two key things: first, India has a rich pool of talent. We are, without a doubt, a talent hub with some of the best talents from all across the globe; and two, creativity is far beyond art, copy and digital, creative technologists, PR experts, etc,” said Wadhwa.

“These are the fundamental ingredients of creativity and we, as resources, are all a part of the creative team. All these are important ingredients for the right output. But the game of creativity is idea-led and it must be backed by modern creativity. Only when a brilliant idea is combined with seamless technology and digital can a good campaign be born.” 

A new language for advertising fuelled by data and tech

Clearly, a lot has changed and the industry has evolved in the last decade. To begin with, attitudes have changed, technology has aided marketing plenty and over the years, we have seen a more democratic approach with more engagement with consumers. Effective and creative going hand-in-hand. 

Already, Sinha is calling this a new era of Indian advertising. He is probably not speaking too soon – it has been a few years in the making.

“There is a new generation of creative leaders who are thinking differently and thinking globally. They are using data and technology to solve problems. There is a new language being spoken. We are onto something bigger here than just winning at Cannes. We are onto a new language of advertising,” he said.

You could say that marketing strategy as a whole has evolved a lot over the past few years. There are several platforms at one’s disposal, there’s data and information like never before, and brand communication is a busy two-way street with the marketer and the consumer.

“Classically, the bulk of brand and marketing strategy in India was led by FMCG companies. There was very little thinking and what was missing in that model of marketing thinking was agility, optimising for attention. You optimised for the correctness of the message, you never did it for the attention and engagement quotient,” explained Sinha.

“Also, the palette of material you can use to build a campaign has changed completely. From just TV, print or outdoor at your command, you now have so many platforms. You have so many technological possibilities, innovations and data at hand. The objective has changed from just being correct to optimising for attention. There is a certain degree of agility that has come into marketing and brand strategy. You now think how to win in the short term, in the now rather than just have a big, audacious goal for the long term.”

What’s next?

It is up to these very agencies, the brands, the marketing teams, the strategists, the creatives to leverage on this performance. Of course, not just for the awards and recognition but for better and effective marketing.

It has taken 12 years for me to write two contrasting pieces about India’s performance at the International Festival of Creativity. I sign off leaving you with the words of Wadhwa and Sinha who, for the right reasons, seem optimistic.

The goal is to consistently execute outstanding work and to demonstrate it at the global level. We must adapt to the changing environment of the advertising industry while openly and enthusiastically owning it. The emphasis should be on striking a fine balance between a brilliant idea, execution and effortlessly incorporating technology. The boundaries between mediums are blurring, as seen in the work that has won. What we need to do now is make sure that this integration happens even in day-to-day work.

Amit Wadhwa, Chief Executive Officer of Dentsu Creative India

We need to take a leaf from this performance and do this at scale. Let’s do this for 10 or 20 brands. Currently, agencies are winning for one or two brands. The magic would be when we win for a multiple of them. We have the ability to touch that peak. We must do this more often and at a greater scale. It will happen so that this one is not just a flash in the pan year. This should become a ritual, a habit. That is when we will signal that this is a larger, cultural change, a new language emerging rather than one very good year.

Dheeraj Sinha, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Strategy Officer, South Asia, Leo Burnett, Publicis Business & Publicis Health