“I always wanted to play differently.” The BBH Delhi ECD chats to LBB’s Laura Swinton about her lifelong love of advertising and why true leadership requires generosity
If you haven’t met Vasduha Misra, do yourself a favour and jump on a plane to Delhi. The BBH ECD is opinionated, creative and, most importantly, hilarious. In her tenure at BBH she’s overseen challenging musical numbers for Tinder, comedy double-takes for water purifier brand Havell’s and punchy hotel ads. Before helping set up BBH’s Delhi office, Vasudha spent 13 years at FCB – fierce loyalty is another of her burning core personality traits.
LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Vasudha to chat about her career and uncover her views on leadership, trust and mentorship.
LBB> Has creativity always been a big part of your life growing up?
Vasudha> Well, I always knew I wanted to be in advertising. Always, always. I used to sit in front of the television and wait for ad breaks. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, because I never explored anything else! I had no clue, there was no influence, no one else in the family worked in the business but I just found this whole thing so creative, so glamorous. I started writing terrible stories and subjecting my parents to it.
LBB> What did your parents make of that?
Vasudha> They let me be me. Which is a good thing. I always knew I wanted to be in advertising but I didn’t know how – I come from a small town that I don’t think even has an advertising agency. All I knew was that I had to do some sort of course in advertising. I dug up on colleges that did courses in mass communication, I ended up in Delhi and here I am, 19 years later, working.
LBB> What was your first experience in an agency?
Vasudha> When I was in IMC [International Management Centre] we used to have guest lecturers who would come in from the advertising world and one of them offered me a job, which was in social communication at JWT. I worked there for a couple of years, writing stories about male vasectomy… not good. I had to see these horrible videos – it wasn’t pleasant! I’m scarred for life! But once I’ve done that, everything else is easy-peasy. Bring it on.
LBB> When you started out, did you have any particular mentors who set you up?
Vasudha> When I started out? No… but I was surrounded by these really feisty women and I think that really inspired me. They were there doing their shit, In my first two years I was like, 'WHO ARE THEY?' I think without them realising, they were my mentors and I somehow carried them through the years.
There was a single mother, there was a married woman who didn’t want kids – all different kinds, the whole plethora and they were all independent and opinionated and doing their jobs.
LBB> We’ve spoken before and you’ve said that you didn’t feel that the fact you are a woman was held against you in the agencies at which you worked…
Vasudha> I was in one agency for the longest time, 13 years. I grew up there. I did feel some gender stereotypes in terms of the portrayal of women in advertising. I couldn’t get my head around it, you know, because I don’t believe in it. The patriarchal representation of women, I don’t like it.
LBB> But now you’re in a position where you can make a difference?
Vasudha> Yes! And I should get those accounts!
I’m very conscious of it. If there’s a woman in a commercial, what’s her role? I feel somewhat responsible for what people see. I tend to feel like I have these stories running in my head and when I see these beauty ads I think, ‘what was it like? A few men in a boardroom deciding what beauty should be like for women?’. I don’t think women see beauty like this: unachievable, luscious skin, luscious hair, luscious figure. Women see beauty very differently and, sadly, I think a lot of the time there isn’t a woman at that table.
LBB> FCB was where you spent a lot of your career. It’s interesting that these days the advice to young creatives seems to be to move every couple of years. Why did you decide to stay loyal?
Vasudha> I always wanted to play differently. If people are moving, I don’t want to move. I want to see how it goes. Secondly, I never had a reason to move. I want to have a solid reason to move and I can’t work with a flaky sense that I would just move every two years. I was working on interesting accounts. I will not say I was privileged or lucky because I think it was my right - I was doing a good job and I was working on interesting accounts. At a young age I started leading a really big account so there was no reason to leave.
LBB> So one of those accounts was a big telecoms account, Tata Docomo. For our non-Indian readers, can you explain some of the context of that account?
Vasudha> There was a time in the advertising market when the biggest players were telecoms brands. They had the loudest voice, the deepest pockets and they owned all of the media. They were everywhere and the big players owned most of that market. At that time, Tata decided to launch and we got the account, together, we changed the way that telecoms was perceived.
We launched initiatives and plans and offers that didn’t follow the normal path and, while the plan was delivering on the product and advertising was delivering on the communication end, they were kind of maverick and refreshing. Soon enough we had a tone of voice. There were these really big players and we were able to stand up to them, and to speak uniquely and interestingly.
LBB> October 2015 you moved to BBH to open up the Delhi office – what was it about that opportunity that attracted you?
Vasudha> I think it was the fear of the unknown. It terrified me, and also pulled me towards it. I didn’t want to go from heading 30 people in one agency to heading 30 people in another agency. I just wanted to see if I could go back and start doing things again and just go for it.
I think the other thing about BBH is that it’s about good work and good people. I think in this day and age it’s important to have a healthy working culture that’s conducive to great work.
LBB> So how does that BBH brand translated to a new office in India?
Vasudha> It translates into a plot of pride and a lot of pressure because I think we have to do due justice to this brand. That’s a goal that goes beyond servicing our personal goals but living up to something. Pride and pressure. Together.
LBB> You’ve got a bunch of interesting projects under your belt at BBH, but I guess the one that stands out is the work you’ve done with Tinder. What were the challenges you faced working in the context of India’s dating scene?
Vasudha> It was a project and they approached us with the objective of relaunching the brand. They were very clear – and I came to realise – that it was about the empowerment of girls.
The challenge for me was to portray empowerment in a happy way; not serious, not soppy, not a victim story. In a ballsy, sassy, liberating story. It’s so cool! This app! In a country like India where girls hardly ever get choices, there was this app giving girls choices after choices. It was so empowering!
That’s the underlying thought that both Tinder and we went for and I’m glad that the commercial lived up to it. We wanted to show a young, cool girl. We wanted to show her skirt above the knees. We wanted to show her choosing who she wanted to go for coffee with or who she wanted to go to movies with – it’s about choices. Especially when it’s always the guys who make the first move… we always waited but what if we got to make that choice?
LBB> How was the ad received locally?
Vasudha> It got a lot of positive traction. The track is globally very popular but it’s only been sung by a man. The track is all about getting to know one another. "Jaan Pehechan Ho”. And I think the thought in our head was, what if we had a girl singing it because she wants to meet new people? That also worked beautifully. On Insta and YouTube we had a lot of people singing to it, making their own stories, walking around the street.
LBB> In terms of other recent piece of work, what else are you super proud of?
Vasudha> I think the other piece of work that really upset the category was Don’t Mess with Water [for water purifier brand Havells]. I think when you start at an agency there’s a pressure to win and there’s thing of ‘I must not give into the pressure and I need to do good work’. A lot of work that we’ve produced is pitch work and I think that’s a good thing, that we haven’t let go of what we went to the client with. I think we’ve travelled through this journey of winning work and doing good work well, at least for a start up. Whether it’s Havells or Tinder or housing or hotels I think we’ve done something interesting in each.
LBB> As a creative, when you’ve got these ideas that are pretty different for the category, how do you work with the client to get them through? Is it about being negotiating carefully with every client or is it about selective about who you work with in the first place?
Vasudha> I think it’s a bit of both. I think you know you get to the stage where there’s a meeting of minds, a meeting of objectives. One of the things that’s important to me is trust. At some point the client needs to trust us. It’s not them writing over our shoulder, shooting over our shoulder.
I think we’ve been fortunate enough that with whatever we’ve gone after there’s been a meeting of minds, trust, healthy respect for creative. It’s a good thing… it’s rare but it’s good!
LBB> Looking at the industry at the moment, what are the trends that are exciting you or frustrating you?
I think something that happened in the industry that was exciting was that at the senior position everyone just swapped. It was like musical chairs. We’re at the tail end of it. It has nothing to do with work but I think it’s the most exciting thing of 2018.
And I think the most frustrating thing is losing the idea. I see a lot of work that is just executional but I miss the idea. If we let go of the idea, then as an industry we have nothing. And that’s the most important tool we have. If we let go of that then there are dime-a-dozen people who can do what we do. I miss point of view out there. I’ve seen very little work out there with a point of view.
LBB> One thing that’ often not really taught is the idea of creative leadership. What’s your philosophy on creative leadership?
Vasudha> I think that creative leadership is a really important and that agencies and networks should invest in it… Having said that I think the way I learned leadership was having a good boss and a bad boss and figuring out what I didn’t want to be and what I wanted to do. The two things I can do for my team is to help them make better work and help them to sell their work. Hopefully both! But if not both, at least one.
As creative leaders we need to be very secure in who we are and we need to be very, very generous with our thoughts and feelings and briefs.
LBB> Outside of work, what sort of creative things do you enjoy?
Vasudha> Laura! I’m a mother of six year old! I have no time! I’m either at work or I’m at home going through homework or trying to teach my son life lessons! And I think that’s what inspired me, the whole momentum of it. I think the pace of it inspires me and I’m learning real things from him. What he’s sharing can be quite funny or cool and to see him grow into a funny kid is inspiring.