DAN Interviews

Buddy Movie: Narayan Devanathan and Soumitra Karnik, Dentsu Impact

Starting today (and at regular intervals), Brand Equity will bring you the story of an agency head and the creative chief, with interesting nuances of their partnership

Never mind the art and creative teams of yore. The partnerships that really matter in advertising these days are CEO and creative head. To the point where heads — even the seemingly unassailable ones that agency chiefs carry — have rolled if there's no consistent creative partner in sight.

So how do people who have been in frequently antagonistic relationships like creative versus suit or creative versus planner, finally make nice, get along and pull the entire agency with them? Is this classic buddy movie pairing of unlikely partners more Rush Hour 1 or Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot?

Starting today (and at regular intervals), Brand Equity will bring you the story of an agency head and the creative chief, with interesting nuances of their partnership. What makes them tick? What happens when they disagree? And more importantly, how do they get past their differences and support each other in times of strife? Read on for the first in the series...

It isn't easy being Narayan Devanathan or Soumitra Karnik. Or it wasn't, at least, five years ago. The group executive and strategy officer at Dentsu India, along with the national creative director at Dentsu Impact, set out to scale a formidable mountain in 2011. Peers and colleagues discouraged them from joining the agency, for who in their right minds would make a switch from agencies like Havas and JWT, to Dentsu, the 'Middle East of advertising', as it was then known?

Devanathan was in Ogilvy, before moving on to Euro RSCG (now Havas Worldwide). "Everybody told me back then, 'This is the worst move of your career,'" he says. "Little did they know I was going to Dentsu after that," he adds, with a chuckle.

Karnik has a similar story. "When I came into Dentsu, it was treated as a stepping stone to a coveted pay hike," Karnik says. A year-long pitstop to greener, more satisfying pastures, if you will. "I was doing fairly well at JWT with no reason to move. But then Rohit (Ohri) moved to Dentsu and there I was."

Devanathan loves the long-term vision that comes as a given in a Japanese agency, one of the big reasons he was convinced to make the switch. "I remember Rohit telling me this; the Japanese headquarters told him 'We will give you a free hand, but you have only eight years to turn this place around,'" he laughs.

Eight years!

Yin and Yang

Life with a difficult partner can get really frustrating, whether it is at home, or at work. Imagine if one were to immensely dislike the person one must work with closely, all the time. But fortunately, Devanathan and Karnik are like brothers-in-arms.

"Narayan brings in so much passion into this place. Whenever I feel like my back is against the wall, I hear his voice of reason going 'It's just the beginning. We can do this.' He's irreplaceable, especially when you're trying to build a culture and an environment." Karnik also believes that he is a part of the creative team as much as he is.

"He even sends across designed layouts with body copy. A layout my art directors won't be able to better! He is one of the best writers available to me and his energy never ends!"

Devanathan is a naturally serene person, which helps in situations when Karnik gets worked up. He (Devanathan) describes this best: "I'd say this is a relay race. I'm running at a slow marathon pace and Soumitra picks up the baton, becomes Usain Bolt and it just then explodes and goes to a place where the power of the simplicity of his ideas makes it magical."

The compounders v/s the partners

'Fearlessness' is something that the duo hopes to achieve, every single day. Sometimes it is possible to be so, sometimes it isn't, but they haven't stopped trying.

"It was easier to be fearless when we had just come in. We had nothing to lose back then. Now, the fear of losing what we have painstakingly built creeps in, but we still do our best to stand by our fearlessness," Karnik confesses. Fearlessness about what, though?

About work, about creativity, about standing up to clients and not being afraid to put a point across. "We have even lost pitches like this, because clients didn't appreciate us standing up to them, but we have gone ahead and celebrated with a beer anyway," Devanathan laughs.

Karnik feels that clients don't respect an agency's opinion because they don't believe it is the expert. Like going to a doctor and telling her what medicine to administer, after a self-diagnosis. "At best we are the compounders," Devanathan says. "I got a piece of advice from Madhukar Sabnavis (country head, planning and discovery at Ogilvy) when I was leaving: You're setting out to create ideas that will persuade thousands, if not millions, of people. Are you doing enough to persuade your colleagues whether in the agency or at client side? Are you giving up too easily?" He goes back to this advice every now and then.

Rearing the headless chickens

More often than not, every adman has that dreaded, wretched feeling. The feeling of a piece of work not being good enough. And that's a good thing. Karnik says, "Great work happens only when you do it consistently, with every individual in every department adhering to the same culture. We don't want Dentsu Impact to be creative-led, but creativity led. Each department needs to be more creative."

Putting a culture in place is hard work. It means taking the effort to groom each and every agency personnel and changing their DNA codes.

"I think the senior people need the workshops the most. If Sachin is out of form, he goes back to the nets to practice his basics. In our industry, it is beneath the seniors to say that something could be wrong. There should be no shame in taking a step back and asking 'What could we be doing wrong?' Acknowledging the problem is the first step to correcting it." It really isn't the juniors' problem, then. They need the kind of grooming Devanathan and Karnik were so fortunate to have received, the duo believes.

The highs and the lows

Devanathan candidly explores the high points and the lows of their partnership. "Soumitra is not the one for publicity, and that's one of the reasons he isn't rated as one of the top five creatives in India. He can only do so much by himself. His team has support his vision and ambition. In creative, planning, account management, we still have a lot of things that aren't quite right. He has been held back because he hasn't had the support that he deserves."

The duo are quite high on the agency's recent haul of one of the world's most sought after accounts: Ikea. If that isn't a high, we don't know what is. Devanathan says, "From the first chemistry meeting with Ikea (way before we even got a brief), Soumitra and I probably put into words the sentiments of the entire team: 'We are here to woo you, whatever it takes.' Those were our opening words to the Ikea team the very first time we met them. This was not about the money, or the prestige of the brand, but just the sheer fun and the possibilities of the work that Ikea enables and has enabled around the world."

The entire team worked relentlessly with this driving mantra, with regard to the kind of ideas it presented for the pitch. "It was central to a conversation we had with their procurement team in the middle of contract negotiations. Through it all, Soumitra and I spoke and demonstrated what we were all feeling and living: we were doing all it took to showcase our unabashed love for the brand, and our desire to work with Ikea." This is definitely a triumph that will be remembered for eons, but for the agency, the battle has just begun.

Fortunately, the lows of the partnership don't match the intensity of the highs. Devanathan alludes to a few mis-hires the agency has had as one of their lowest points, but the relationship, personally, is as safe as can be. Karnik even goes as far as saying that Devanathan is the high point of their partnership. It's him, and their mutual fondness for really bad puns, he says.

GO BACK