Suraja Kishore has been in his role at the helm of BBDO India for three years now. Prior to this he was business and strategic planning head at McCann and has held positions as lead-strategic brand planning at Lowe Lintas, Publicis and DDB Mudra. However, he’s also made his mark on advertising as the founder of the CCC - Crafting Creative Communication programme at Mudra Institute of Communications Ahmedabad – or MICA – which grooms young creatives in copywriting and art direction. In fact, some of the alumni from the first batch Suraja mentored are today’s leading creative forces like Raj Deepak Das - MD & CCO for Leo Burnett South Asia and Nitin Pradhan who is creative head for Cheil, India.
As India strives towards new and more innovative ways to hone creative communications, LBB’s Natasha Patel spoke to Suraja Kishore to hear his thoughts.
LBB> Tell us about the moment you knew a career in creativity was one for you.
Suraja> What I can think in retrospect is that one of the things unique about India is that all the road’s a stage!
We the people take to Indian roads when we are happy, angry or playful. Indian roads, unlike anywhere in the world, are basically a stage for human drama. When we feel happy we take to the roads, when we want to get married we take to the roads, when we have festivals we take to the roads, when we want to protest we take to the roads. I grew up in a small town where roads became the most inspiring stage to observe and understand the stories that move us.
Of course, Bollywood and music overall too had a huge impact, the songs used to talk to me because I was a shy kid, and for me, now they seem like they were my friends. That friendship and those cultural stories on the road, probably ignited my creative gene or creative DNA.
LBB> You studied at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, how did that set you up for advertising?
Suraja> When I was young, there was a very famous three-letter word called ‘MBA’ and most of my friends around me were sure about pursuing this. However, I was hugely interested in theatre and how you can bring out any issue of society through theatre. So, when I was thinking of post-graduation, somehow MBA was not calling me. Unlike all my peers I wanted to answer questions that occupied me and not a study that led me to a job. I wanted to gain a better perspective of society and culture. My interest in sociology, anthropology and humanities landed me to a Master’s in Social Work at TISS. As a kid I used to wonder what makes some people commit crime while others can rein their animal instinct, so I chose to specialise in Criminology and correctional administration in my Masters.
LBB> You were a faculty intern at MICA almost 20 years ago, what was this experience like?
Suraja> I entered this industry as a junior copywriter. First date with Mumbai can be overwhelming and that’s what happened. I was happy to have landed a job as a writer but was exhausted by the intense onslaught of human misery that spills over the streets of this maximum city. People are constantly running, no one never sleeps, and the artist in me started questioning something very existential.
At that time, MICA introduced an interesting programme - Inviting faculty interns. Interns who were to be groomed to be in academia. I joined them and after a year I ended up conceptualising and executing the first ever CCC - Crafting Creative Communication programme in copywriting and art direction which today is a one-year programme at MICA. I gave my soul to make that programme successful and in doing so 30 students passed with their portfolio, and the fulfilling part was there was a bit of me in every portfolio.
Generally, it’s a house divided; can you teach a person to be creative? Can you teach a person to be a copywriter? I think we can train our minds and be who we want to be. MICA was fascinating from an education point of view, academic point of view, experiment point of view, adventure point of view. I continue to take lived-in experiences from the real world in the classroom and infuse conceptual ideas from academia into our everyday work.
The programme has been around for 20 years and last year, MICA invited me as programme advisor to rehaul the syllabus because so much has changed in the industry. I think there is no other fulfilling profession where you have a job to inspire young people and to me MICA is doing that. I think this industry can only go forward if we contribute to developing talents. I often hear people saying there are no talents and I ask them, what are you doing about it? Are you finding some time to groom them? If we don't do that, as people in the industry have been for more than two decades, we are doing a disservice.
LBB> What does your role as CEO at BBDO India involve?
Suraja> As a CEO, you have to aspire to be the chief enlightened officer. The other job any CEO has is that of a chief emergency officer. If there is any emergency whatsoever in the company, it should be on the CEO’s desk.
The role of a CEO, or any person who's leading a tribe to a desired destination, is to be a navigator. To be the GPS of that tribe. To be the lighthouse of the company’s culture. Making people become the best version of themselves, helping clients grow the value of their brand and business and shaping never-before ways of doing business are some of the key areas that I focus on in this role. To me any role beyond its KRA must be also a personal growth lab. And I feel my role allows me just that.
LBB> Looking at the creative communication landscape in India at the moment, where does it seem to be headed?
Suraja> We are on the cusp of change, where we have data, and we have creativity – but they don’t fully talk to each other. I feel the ecosystem is not yet organised to have one view of the customer or one clear view of the entire brand play in the market. I am confident that over the next few years, we'll come to a much more definitive sense of one view of the customer and brand connections. We are doing this in our own way currently on Ariel #ShareTheLoad for P&G, by nurturing data informed creativity we have managed to sustain one of the most successful long term ‘purpose-led-performance’ campaign that has been building brand equity and growing business year on year.
Second big change is that earlier we used to say there's one proposition of the brand. There's one mindset of the consumer, that’s being challenged. Different cohorts have their unique connections with the same brand. My hypothesis is that in the future brands will be built on single-minded product truth and multiple propositions. I feel like a boy in a candy store when I look at the future. What is interesting is I have done this for over two decades, yet the emerging changes makes me feel like a trainee again. Rolled up sleeves with an inspired mind ready to rearrange and reshape ideas of the future, that’s how I feel everyday.
LBB> Who is your creative hero?
Suraja> Charlie Chaplin has always enthused me. He inspires me till date. I find myself laughing in my heart, while I am going through the absurdities of a meeting, or a family gathering. It feels like Charlie is talking to me when I need a friend. We are both laughing together at this absurdity of what's happening here. Yet we are keeping it very light and we're keeping it humorous. In fact, one of his quotes – “We think too much and feel too little,” is my guiding star in life or at work.
LBB> Outside of work, what is life like for you?
Suraja> When I was kid, I used to wonder what happens to people when they die. Why do people have to work, why do they have to go to this place called an office and is there a way I can have a job without work? Such interest has led me to discourses in sociology, theology, philosophy, quantum physics, poetry and anthropology. I realised that many people before me have asked these primordial existential questions and there are tons of perspectives to savour and million books, movies, poetry and stories to be relished to help discover my own.
Someday I would like to create a ‘School of Life’. We are figuring more about data and life on Mars and less and less about how to live better. I would like to create a space where young kids can plug into and talk about life-truths that matter and those that really move us.
A small start to this dream project is my Instagram handle @skrunningthoughts - where I share my thoughts that I get when I am running. This happened out of serendipity, for me running has been meditational, I go for a run any time I need to counsel myself or to think better. Then one day I started recording that as my short video bytes during the pandemic to share it with the larger world.
Food is another thing which keeps me alive. I think food is edible philosophy. I wish I had a journal of everyone I had food with, and it would have been the best journal for me because food is the most intimate thing you can do with anyone. And we don't value it. Food is the closest you can get to nature in an urban jungle, no matter where you are. Food is the most tangible tactile thing you do because you use your hands and mouth. I think that's another of my pet projects. I would like to share, and I would like to at least shine a torch on how to live better.