The Publicis India CSO on growing up in England and Australia, getting to grips with the Indian market and his epic collection of Nikes
Tenacious obsession – it’s a pretty good trait in a strategist. You want someone who will doggedly dig and dig and dig until they find those undeniable insights. It’s a trait that Sudeep Gohil has always had. As a young kid he would spend hours learning to code on ZX81s, Commodores, Amigas. In his teens, he decided he wanted to become a DJ… and ended up with a collection of over 10,000 records and his own events business. And then a move to Tokyo triggered a love of rare sneakers – which was only amplified when he went to work at Wieden+Kennedy Portland, where he got to know the Nike Skateboarding group and ended up with a basement stacked with hundreds and hundreds of pairs.
Now the former Droga5 Sydney partner and cofounder is turning his inquisitive and slightly obsessive brain towards India – a country that he has family ties with but, until last year, had never worked in. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Sudeep.
LBB> What kind of kid were you? Were you an inquisitive child and do you think that there were any clues that you would become a strategist?
SG> Most definitely. I was born in Cambridge, England - my parents went to university there, but we left when I was very young. We moved to a little town in the middle of nowhere called Peterborough. For my early years, I led a really normal life. There was nothing particularly remarkable about it.
But my parents, like all Indian parents, were very focused on education and would do anything that they could possibly do to help me explore the world. They gave me a computer really, really early – a ZX81. And then every time a new computer came out they got me a new one. For years and years when I was a kid I would sit there writing Basic on the computer. For the life of me I can’t remember why, after all of that and after all the effort my parents put into my education, I ended up in advertising.
When we left the UK and moved to Australia, we had to start all over again with my computers. There may have been a bit of a break in the cycle and I may have got into music more than computers. And that may have been my fault rather than my parents’ fault!
I was a reasonably inquisitive kid, I was analytical. I think you had to be at that stage to work with any of those computers because they were not very intuitive. I was also very open to new ideas and new things. Whenever any new things came about I was always interested in figuring out what I could do in that space, whether it was on computers or when I first got into electronic music, when it was a very fringe thing.
Learning new things was more interesting for me than just doing the same old thing. I would then try to use these new things to shape other parts of my life, if I look back on it somewhat philosophically.
LBB> You were born in England but moved to Australia when you were just 12 – what are your memories of that time and how do you think the experience shaped the person you became?
SG> I remember when I first moved to Australia, Jaffa Cakes, Twiglets and Monster Munch were not available in Sydney – still not for whatever reason. I remember those things like it was yesterday. Whenever I go to London, I buy bags of them and bring them back and try to get my kids to eat them so they don’t forget where they’re originally from.
Moving to Australia was a big change. I had always grown up in nice little English towns. When I moved to Australia I had a very English accent - and not a cool English accent. I was very proper. When I got to Sydney I very quickly learned how to speak with an Australian accent, I got more into Australian cultural things. I used to get into fights when I first moved there, kids were mean. But we very quickly adapted to the Australian lifestyle. It’s not hard to adapt to, right?
All these years later, I have a bit of a split personality. Now I’m clearly not an Australian cricket fan for various reasons! I grew up in England, live in India… and we cheat!
When I come back to London I start to sound really English really fast. I went to work at BBH in London for a time and when I was there I felt very English and not Australian at all… And then living in Australia, the Australian side comes out. Now I’m in India, I kind of look Indian but I’m way more Australian than I am either English or Indian.
LBB> So is this the first time you’ve worked in the Indian market?
SG> Absolutely. I’ve travelled a lot to India. My parents own a house in the north of India, where my family is from originally. We’ve got lots of friends here. But even if you spend an extended period of time in the place it’s not the same as working there.
LBB> What have been the main things you’ve had to get to grips with in the Indian market in terms of how the business works there?
SG> The biggest thing for me is the fact that it’s a growing market. If you do the same thing that you did last year your business will probably still increase. Obviously different clients have different challenges, but at a macro level, there are so many potential consumers and so much growth in the market itself and the growing middle class.
It makes it a really interesting market to be in. In the UK or Australia or the US, or any of those developed markets, you’re trying to convince people ‘don’t drink that brand of water, drink this one because we imagine there’s something about it that will make your life better’. Whereas over here, it’s a different conversation. People are buying the types of products they’ve never bought before, it’s not like they’re replacing it. It tends to be things like TVs and air conditioners and washing machines; consumer durables. And then also experiences like travelling. That’s really interesting because it almost takes you back, from an advertising perspective, to the purity of the craft. It does have its challenges because if everything is moving up it’s very difficult to get people to try things and take a risk because… on some level, what’s the point?
LBB> So since you’ve been there, what have been some of the interesting projects you’ve worked on?
SG> Every single project we do here is interesting and has its own challenges. I’m working on a big relaunch of the Maggie brand, which is really big here. One of their core products is the three-minute noodle and we’re working on how we evolve the business beyond that and take it to new places. We’ve been doing a lot of new business pitching, which has been quite successful so that’s good. We’ve done some great work for Heineken, Generations Apart, about a stand-up comedian and his dad.
The thing with India is that you’re either talking to one section of the population that have very similar aspirations to anyone you’d talk to in the West, or you’re talking to the middle of the country and it might be the first time they’ve gone on an aeroplane or the first time they’ve bought a new car.
But I think we’re lucky here at Publicis in that we have a healthy mix of clients that sit across all of that. We have some very, very Indian brands and clients like Zee TV, the biggest cable operator here, and we also have international brands like Heineken and Skoda and Citibank, so we’re trying to translate global strategies for a new generation of Indian consumers. And for the local brands we’re trying to keep up with how the country is moving and where the population is heading.
LBB> When it comes to the size and diversity of the country, what sort of challenges does that present?
SG> To be fair, as much as it’s a bewilderingly large market, when it comes to human behaviours and emotions, it doesn’t matter whether the guy is a billionaire or living hand to mouth on the street, their dreams and aspirations are the same. From an insight perspective it’s not that difficult - the challenge becomes, ‘how do you represent that in a way that won’t alienate one group or the other or anyone else in between?’
What I’ve been trying to do is figure out where the similarities are rather than where the differences are. There used to be a very clear divide. Either you could get the products and services that you see on TV or in the movies or you couldn’t. Now people like Amazon have made everything ubiquitous. Even the guys living in a slightly smaller tier two city have the same aspirations [as those in the major cities]; they want to wear the same clothes, they’re listening to the same music, particularly in the younger generation. There are still differences with older generations, but the younger people who are going to be shaping the country moving forward are more similar than they are different.
LBB> So, going back a bit, how did you end up in advertising?
SG> I came to it in a roundabout way. When I was 17 I told my mum that I wanted to be a DJ. I didn’t know anything about it, but I’d been back to London once and I’d seen that all my friends who used to be in bands were now DJing. I started DJing at a young age, and I was pretty shit for a very long time, but I got better. Between high school and university, I had started putting on events and it was a pretty influential part of my life. Next thing I knew, we were putting on parties for 1000 people, 2000 people. While I was doing that we started to get approached by brands and agencies saying they wanted to sponsor our event.
At university I could have done anything, but I decided to do something that would be helpful to me. I did a business degree and I majored in advertising because I thought that would be useful.
When I graduated from university, the music business was reasonably big. I had about 15 to 20 people working for it and we were putting on much bigger events and on a more regular basis. But my parents said, ‘you can’t do this music thing forever, you need to get a real job’. So I thought I’d get a job at an advertising agency because I’d done it at university and thought it would be useful for our events, at the very least, because we did all of our own marketing.
Little did I know… it’s actually really fucking hard to get a job at a Sydney advertising agency when you don’t have any experience and you think your shit doesn’t stink!
I tried really hard and I ended up getting a job in the mail room at George Patterson Bates, which at the time was the biggest agency in town. At the time I thought it was the worst job I could ever have, delivering mail to 600 people. It was only years later that I realised why they had this trainee programme that started in the mail room. Through that I was able to learn all about advertising, learn how the different departments worked together, who was important and so on. I was just walking round the building and learning stuff.
I started hanging out with the planning people, and realised what they did was really interesting. By that stage I was in account service, no longer in the mailroom. The agency told me there was no job here for a junior planner without any experience. So I thought, ‘fine, if those guys don’t want me to do it, I’ll just leave and do my own thing’.
We added a strategy arm to our music business. We used our audience as free market research and started doing marketing for brands like PlayStation and Virgin. That was where I really got into it and built a proper business out of it. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but it really didn’t matter because we had this healthy music business that was paying all the bills. We figured that we could probably do better ads than most of the ads we’ve been given, and we integrated them into the business.
LBB> It’s interesting that you had that experience of running your own business so early in your career. Did that give you an insight into the challenges that clients face?
SG> Absolutely, but it was a long time ago now. What it taught me was one really simple thing: that it’s really hard to make a buck and therefore you should think super hard about how you spend that dollar or pound or rupee. Particularly when it’s not your money.
Also, the spirit of entrepreneurship that came from that world has become ingrained in my DNA, I guess. It’s why sometimes I’ve ended up in positions that don’t seem like the most obvious thing to do for various reasons but it’s an interesting exploration into my entrepreneurial side or a new market or a new way of looking at the world.
LBB> Talking of entrepreneurship, you were one of the three co-founders at Droga5 in Sydney, which made a really big impression on the Australian ad scene before it closed in 2015. What were your personal highlights from that time?
SG> It was an incredible experience and the agency has obviously gone on from strength to strength since then; the Australian office was a fantastic case study piece in how to build a business and for it to burn so bright that it almost burns itself out a little bit.
For me personally, it didn’t work out the way we anticipated it would, from ownership structure to all sorts of bits and pieces. First, you never make the same mistake twice and having the opportunity to learn on that scale and that stage was fantastic. Most people don’t ever get that.
And secondly, for an industry that is so full of itself and believes its own hype so much, it was an incredible experience and learning in humility - which is not exactly a word you hear bandied around when it comes to advertising people. On some level you have to believe that your shit doesn’t stink but when you go through an experience like that, it does make you think about all those conversations and personalities in a different light. Well, it certainly did for me.
LBB> From what I understand, in Australia the industry really likes to gossip so that must have made it particularly hard…
SG> I started off as the strategy partner in the business and I knew David a little bit, had bumped into him a couple of times in America. But unbeknownst to me, when you start a business with David’s name in it, particularly to have the legacy of all the amazing stuff they did in New York, it paints a pretty big target on your front or your back, to start off with. Everyone wants to prove that, hang on, those upstarts can’t be right. Everyone wants to prove that there’s no way you could do work that’s on a par with what’s going on in America. So, it was always quite challenging.
On the one hand it gave us a benchmark to which we needed to live up to, on the other hand the market is such that you don’t get any second chances and you don’t get cut any slack. It really is a blessing and a curse. But only in retrospect you realise that it opens lots of doors but they also slam pretty hard on your arse when you’re walking out.
LBB> At one point you were chairman of the Comms Council in Australia – a position that would force you to take a step back and consider the issues affecting it at all levels. How do you think that experience has influenced how you approach your own work and career?
SG> It was an incredible opportunity. To be honest with you, Australia doesn’t have the legacy of the IPA, a professional organisation that’s been around for all those years to help govern the agencies. But it definitely has the aspirations to be like that.
Being the head of the Comms Council was not without its challenges - it was an optional extra that people did out of the goodness of their heart, it wasn’t a regulatory thing. We constantly had to think about our role and how we could help agencies make a difference. But on the same token it did give me a great perspective on the fact that we’re not facing these challenges on our own. We would talk in a really open, collegiate manner, which I thought was really good. It certainly gives you a perspective on the industry that’s broader than your own thing.
LBB> And before I go, I had to ask you about your insane collection of Nikes! I’ve read that you have 400 pairs of Nikes! Where did this obsession start? And what’s the crown jewel of the collection? Where do you keep them all?
SG> When I was DJing and living in Australia, I collected records. Every Thursday or Friday we’d go to the shop and hang out and listen to music and buy stuff. At one point I had over 10,000 records. When I left to move to the UK and join BBH and then on to Japan I figured I couldn’t really take all these records with me, so which ones would I take?
And then I started to collect sneakers when I moved to Japan because I needed something to replace my records. In Japan collecting sneakers is an amazing thing to do - first of all the sneaker stores are brilliant and secondly there’s this whole market that exists that allows you to find old rare pairs of shoes.
And then I went to work at Wiedens, where I was really good friends with the people who ran the Nike Skateboarding group. Through those friendships and partnerships with those guys, I’d get box after box. When we left Portland to move back to Sydney, I don’t think my wife realised quite how many I had in the basement. To be fair I probably didn’t either.
We piled them into a shipping container and we moved from a house in Portland with a basement to a terrace in Sydney and when everything arrived I thought, oh shit, I have nowhere to put all this. I had to get a storage facility to keep them in. We moved to a bigger house and we had a whole room to keep them in. My wife said, ‘you have to choose, either we have another kid or you keep your shoes’. We ended up having another kid and… I kept some of them. But I used to do Free Shoes Friday when I was at Droga5. I’d stack as many boxes as I could into the back of the car and take them to the office.
Now all those years later I still have most of them in amazing condition, some have never been worn and they’re all in a container in Sydney. I have way fewer pairs that I actually travel with now.