People are simple, we complicate things

Advertising agency Leo Burnett’s Chief Creative Officer for South Asia is a master fuser of mass appeal with intimate engagement, a delicate balancing act in a highly distracted world

Raj Deepak Das does not sleep, especially when he gets a creative brief into his hands. His longest streak was six straight days. “I don’t sleep tillI cra ck ideas,” says the obsessive chief creative officer of Leo Burnett, South Asia. Das is one of the youngest chief creatives in South Asia, and is described as a tour-de-force in the Indian ad circuit.

His ‘Women against Lazy Stubble’ campaign for Gillette was dubbed the world largest shaving lesson. Women all over India shaved over 10,000 men in public malls. As a result Gillette recorded a five-fold sales increase and a market share jump of 400%.

Advertising is more chaotic than ever. With the endless stream of information flowing through multiple channels, creating a message that sticks is a challenging task. Das relishes in the face of complexity, trying to find simple universal truths that drive human behaviour. Here are some suggestions on how to influence consumers from Raj Deepak Das’ playbook.

Some argue that Sri Lankan society is not imaginative enough, thus resulting in limited scope for creative experiments for agencies.

Das finds this as an excuse for not understanding the universal power of visual storytelling. “A guy slipping on a banana skin is funny,” he says. “It’s funny in India, Sri Lanka, the US or anywhere.”

When Das was working in Thailand, he and one of his Thai colleagues were working on separate pitches for the same client. Before presenting, he switched his pitch with that of his colleague. “I presented my Thai colleague’s pitch and he presented mine. The client looked at me and said the pitch doesn’t work because it’s not Thai enough. But when my colleague presented my pitch, the client said, ‘Now that’s a Thai pitch’” says Das. “He liked it because it was presented by the Thai guy, thinking it came from him. The stories are the same.”

Strong visuals transcend demographics, income levels and even geographical boundaries. “Gangnam Style was meant for the Korean market, not us in South Asia. But it went viral,” he explains. “That is the power of simplification of communication. When things are simple, it travels.”

”People are simple. We complicate things,” says Das.

A client’s reason mindedness shouldn’t be misconstrued as stupidity or ignorance, Das believes. The client has a lot at stake, certainly more than an agency, when investing in a new campaign.

“From the day I joined an agency, my job was not to be creative,” he says. “My job is to be impactful on my client’s business. The client is much braver than us because they have a responsibility for the business, the people and the product. He lives the brand everyday more than I do.”

Creativity for the sake of it has no utility in the ad industry.

“We have to understand his point of view. He’s not looking for creativity as an end all, instead what’s the creative solution we can provide to get him the business?” he says. “We didn’t join advertising for fun. We joined advertising to sell something.”

For many years, commercials were seen as the ad industry’s frontier of creative excellence. Not anymore. “Commercials are just a small medium. There’s a much bigger world around it”.

With dwindling marketing budgets, clients are apprehensive about spending large sums of money to create campaign commercials. In Sri Lanka today, TV commercials, which are the primary channel for most FMCG multinationals, are recycled and dubbed Indian versions. Some critique this trend saying that it deters the creative vigor among local ad agencies.

“We also faced this particular problem. There was a time when ads that were broadcast in Mexico were shown on Indian TV,” he says. “We had to, because it was the most economical decision for the client.”

There are other channels that agenices could give more focus to that are far more effective but genrally tend to be ignored, argues Das. Public relations is one such channel.

His latest campaign for motorcycle giant Bajaj exemplifies this.

When the Indian Navy announced its decision to sell its first aircraft carrier ‘INS-Vikrant’ for the highest bidder to turn it into scrap metal, the agency asked Bajaj to buy the ship. “We wanted to take that scrap metal and create a new brand”.

The motorcycle was named ‘BajV’. Taking use of the patriotic fervor surrounding the brand, it was launched on India’s national day and subseqently came to be known as the ‘Nations Bike’. In 10 months, the company sold 400,000 units.

“The amount of noise we created from this campaign is more than any commercial could have.”

“If a product is not selling, it’s not a problem but a symptom,” says Das. “The question is, why are people not buying it?”

Das is famous for his ruthless approach when it comes to understanding the problem. He dissects the client’s problem with surgical precision to identify the issue at stake. This is the most important part of his process.

“First, I spend a lot of time defining the problem. I have to go deeper than anyone to understand the issue, even if it means calling the client 20 times. And my team will not be sitting in office, but with the consumer on the ground, trying to understand what’s going wrong. If you find the problem, then it’s easy figuring out a solution.”

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