It's possible to have a matchmaking story in advertising without the classic drama and chaos. These guys tell you how
A few weeks ago, trade journalists were invited over to the Dentsu Mumbai office to meet the Happy Creative team (Kartik Iyer and Praveen Das) along with Gordon Bowen, co-founder and chairman of mcgarrybowen - the agency that brought Happy under its fold last October. This was a rescheduled meeting because Bowen couldn’t make it to India as per his initial plan. Why, I asked, out of curiosity. He told me there were some last minute changes on a client’s shoot and so he had to be there, in NYC - the network agency’s headquarter.
It was quite refreshing to know someone at his position was actually going for shoots. “When your name is on the door, you’re like the dad. Also, I didn’t come into this business to sit at the back. I like the business, its creative process. I can’t go on every shoot meeting but I try to stay involved as much as I can,” he says.
Hands on Vs Control Freak?
It’s nice to be hands on when the agency is smaller. The client enters your office to meet you. How do things change once you become a part of another network though? (mcgarrybowen was acquired by Dentsu Group over eight years ago). Is it easier to let go of the control, knowing that you’re not going to be the face of the agency forever?
“I’m going to live forever, don’t you know that? I’ll tell you my little secret,” he quips. Jokes aside, he says: “I’m not going to hand over the client to someone I don’t trust to do a great job, or treat the client the way I do. I don’t think I have a problem with passing on the relationships we have, as long as those people have similar values. For example: Walt Disney passed away a long time ago, his values have stayed with the people working there right now. Same can be said of a lot of other founder-led brands - GE, Apple. Their names aren’t even on the doors now.”
Bowen grew up in a ranch in Utah where they’d stamp cattle to establish a symbol of ownership. That’s how he learnt to differentiate between brands and iconic brands, he says. Brands create a symbol of ownership, whereas the iconic ones create a religion.
The one where Gordon stayed in David Ogilvy’s castle
When Iyer and Das went to meet Bowen in NYC, they found several similarities between each other. One thing they already had in common was that they were all Ogilvy-ites at some point in their career. Bowen, in fact, knew David Ogilvy, he tells us. “I had won a competition and got a chance to stay with him, at his castle. One learnt a lot from him about foundational principles.”
You’d think these guys would have bonded over their respective Ogilvy memories. But that wasn’t the case at all. How did Bowen get to the point where he knew this was the agency he wanted to bring into his “family of companies,” as he likes to call them?
“I was converted when the lights were off”
Bowen was floored by Iyer and Das’s presentation and showreel. What’s so surprising about that now? The decision happened in a way that’ll surprise us, he claims. “I was really wondering what if we don’t like them. They had come all the way. But when they showed us their reel, I found a sense of optimism and respect for consumer in their work. It was so unlike the tendency to look down upon the consumer that most ads perpetuate.”
Of course they knew how to tell a story, but they also had an incredible blend of music in each of their pieces, he notes. (Trivia #1: When mcgarrybowen was founded, its first hire was not a creative director but a head of music) "That music enhanced their stories, brought heart to it. And as consumers our heart tells our head what to do. Basically, I was converted when the lights were off. Not that I didn’t like what they said…”
What impressed him the most, however, was that Happy’s ppt showed business results. “I’ve been acquiring agencies across the world and so many of them don’t even know what are the business results to show for their work. These guys did it better than anybody else.”
Bowen has made 18 agency acquisitions across the world so far. And he and his team vetted quite a few agencies from India too, before they brought Happy on board.
But unlike most Indian matrimony, these marriages always take both parties’ consent. And Bowen understands that really well given that he had been on the other side with Dentsu himself.
“It’s like being adopted”
Bowen says: “When you start an agency, it’s really hard. No clients, no money, and you know you can easily get a job somewhere else. I had three job offers and five kids to support when I started off.” He knew what it meant for the Happy squad to make the decision to finally join someone else. “It’s like being adopted. You want to know what you’re getting into.”
Here’s the story of how Happy got wooed:
Love at first sight..of the PPT
For Iyer and Das, it was love at first sight of the presentation. They sat through the slideshow, saw the work reel, value systems matched, and our Happy lads were ready to sign the nuptials. The two admitted they hadn’t heard of the agency until then.
Das recounts: “Their presentation mentioned something about how the clients deserve better - something we always believe in. Also, we loved the fact that they clarified there were no superheroes in their team. They had a line stating: 'We don’t like people who are God’s gift to creativity.’ It resonated with us because we are normal people ourselves.”
Iyer makes a special mention of mcgarrybowen's work on P&G’s Aussie haircare brand for a campaign titled ‘Unfair Hair’. He also cites work on Verizon and Walt Disney among his favourites. (Trivia #2: Bowen has been touted as the creator of “emotional blockbusters” by Time magazine)
“Yeah, well, we took our best work and put it on the reel because we really wanted them,” shares Bowen.
“It’s only now that we are finding out that we also meant that much,” adds Iyer.
While Bowen was being humble, he was also forthright. For someone touted as the creator of emotional blockbusters, he is admittedly a very emotional person. “In my first job at J Walter Thompson, someone made a small mistake that came with a huge cost. I was told: the good thing about working in advertising is that it doesn’t really matter. It’s not like we’re brain surgeons.” Instead of being relieved, Bowen was let down by this. It felt like someone told him his life didn't matter. “So, I had to reframe why i wanted to be in this business. I have a responsibility to create ideas that will be seen by millions of people, that will have an impact on my wife and children as well.”
The family does get impacted by his work. Not in the most obvious ways though. “My mother is the first person to comment on my ads. Often she’ll see them and go: 'That’s not very good. You’re a lot more creative than that.’ At times, kids go: ‘You did that? That’s very cool. You’re not that cool, how did you do that?”
Kids keep you contemporary and honest, he notes. Incidentally, all his kids have worked in ad agencies and none of them want to be in advertising. Here’s why:
“They want to be billionaires by 30”
It’s just too much work, say the kids. “I want to become Steve Jobs, be a billionaire by the time I’m 30, they tell me.” Bowen concludes how so many youngsters are fascinated by the output of advertising and not the hard work that goes into it. It’s cool to be in advertising but it’s not a 9 to 5 job. They get bought into the lure of what a lot of kids think happens when you start an internet company.”
This brings him to talk about the biggest issue facing advertising these days: The one where agencies focusing on building their brands (via awards) as opposed to building client’s brands. “And that’s why I love these guys (Happy Creative) because they focus on making their brands great. We’re also going to use their robust design capabilities to strengthen our global centre of excellence which works towards bringing a global look in packaging and product design.”
The Honeymoon phase
It’s early days for Happy co-founders to comment on how the merger has panned out for them. But they’re confident of not losing their freedom - something most indies have to give away post acquisition. Bowen, despite his religious afifliations, doesn’t impose his rules on any of his people. (Trivia #3: Bowen is a Mormom and therefore doesn’t smoke, drink alcohol, or consume tea or coffee) “I was recently approached by my Amsterdam team to check if they can pitch for a global tobacco company. I told them it’s their choice. I won’t do it but they have the freedom to. You can’t mandate creativity,” he concludes. Seems like the Bengaboys don’t have their confidence misplaced here.