India roared at this year’s Cannes Lions with success across agencies and networks - does this indicate a new wave of Indian creativity on the rise? Asks Laura Swinton
Fourteen bronze Lions. Eighteen Silver. Eight gold. Two Titanium. Oh. And Five Grands Prix.
It all added up to a bumper year for Indian creativity at this year’s Cannes Lions. And while there were a couple of runaway winners, the success was spread through the whole industry, with nine separate agencies taking home metal across the major holding companies.
India's Tech-Fuelled Tomorrow, Today
According to Mukund Otley, CCO at VMLY&R India, this year marks the start of a brand new chapter for the country’s creative industry, as it showcased an ability to combine big thinking with emerging technology.
“This year was a turning point for the creative powerhouse that India has always had the potential to be and it’s great to see the work recognised on a global stage. It was especially exciting to see pieces of work from multiple agencies performing so well,” he says. “I think it’s more than just a new generation of creatives – it’s also about taking advantage about the spaces in which our industry now plays. There is so much opportunity in India, and so many emerging technologies to leverage, to truly make a difference beyond just communication. We’re able to solve real-world problems that Indians face by bringing together brands and consumers through innovation and storytelling, and I think that intersection is where India has seen so much success.”
All of which begs the question, ok, why now? Well, for one thing, this revving up of India’s creative engine comes at a time when the country is seeing an explosion in the tech sector. India’s economy has transformed and an influx of international investment and homegrown tech stars mean that local creative talent is embracing new technology. Rohan Mehta, CEO of Kinnect, points out that 2021 saw the creation of 42 tech start-up unicorns in the country and billions of dollars’ of investment.
“A large part got to do with the globalisation of India over the last 10 years. India has been on the global map,” he says. “Eyes are on India, so India started realising that we need to play on a much bigger stage than we already play and I think the new generation is, you know, surely looking at that pretty, pretty positively.”
Indeed, several of the most successful campaigns managed to show creative application of cutting-edge creative technology. Taking home hefty three Grands Prix, ‘The Unfiltered History Tour’, from Dentsu Creative India and Vice, used Meta’s Spark AR tools to hack the British Museum. The team created an alternative tour that revealed Britain’s colonial thievery and could be accessed via an Instagram filter.
Another example was Ogilvy’s Shah Rukh Khan My Ad for Cadbury, that used machine learning to recreate the Bollywood megastar’s face and voice so that small businesses could generate their very own Diwali ads. The tech meant that the star could star in hundreds of bespoke ads, shouting out everything from fashion stores to corner shops. The campaign took home a Titanium Lion and a gold in Creative Data among other gongs.
“We are super happy that one of the most talked about campaigns from India that the masses love and know of, has also found love from various Jury members at Cannes. We are very grateful for that,” say Ogilvy India CCOs Sukesh Nayak, Kainaz Karmakar, and Harshad Rajyadaksha.
Tapping into the darker side of India’s tech boom, DDB Mudra Group and Kraton Inc. snagged a Bronze Lion in the Film category for its campaign for Battleground Mobile India, which flagged the problems of gaming addiction as well as introducing BGMIs safeguarding tools and measures. It’s a campaign that has performed well on this year’s award circuit, including a Grand Prix at Spikes Asia.
Innovation doesn’t have to mean expensive tech, however. Another big Grand Prix Winner was Killer Pack by VMLY&R Mumbai. Inspired by the insight that rotting waste can foster the larvae of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, this packing was designed to kill the larvae in waste sites.
“It inspires and humbles me to see the success of Killer Pack at Cannes this year,” says Mukund Olety. “It shows that innovative thinking doesn’t necessarily need to be linked to huge actions and changed mindsets of the billion+ people that make up India. It can also be about understanding a human mindset that likely will be difficult to change, in our case, littering and the abundance of garbage, and turning that problem into the solution. Today’s innovation is more about affecting actual change within the parameters of the problem, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel and I can’t wait to see where that distinction takes us in coming years.”
Covid-19 and Agency Cultures
There’s also a sense that the pandemic kick started some of the latent potential within the market and Rajdeepak Das at Leo Burnett India believes that we’re just starting to see the fruits of that. While terrabytes of media coverage have been given over to the accelerated tech adoption driven by Covid-19 lockdowns, Raj believes that it also encouraged leaders in India to see their people in a new way too.
“I think a huge credit to the new wave of creativity goes to pandemic led experiences and post pandemic learnings. This period helped us to see the human side of people. The pandemic became an equal ground for the world to think from as everyone was going through the same challenges. And this empathy and people-first thinking is reflected in the work that we are currently seeing. The new generation trying to solve an old India problem.”
Indeed several of the leaders at the festival spoke about how culture has become a driving concern for them. “At Burnett our biggest strength is our collaborative culture. We don’t have individual credit system and we believe that magic happens when all of us come together to bring to life ideas we truly believe in. To that end we have even redesigned our office as India’s biggest coffee shop. Creativity cannot thrive within the confines of a cubicle and I have found that the best ideas are born after freewheeling conversations. “
Rohit Ohri, chairman and CEO, FCB Group India, which won a whopping 14 Lions at this year's festival, says his team has been on a seven year journey to build on the agency’s business success by developing a truly creative culture. By working hard to attract talent and also giving said talent the space to push boundaries and take risk, they’ve seen a consistent drumbeat of winning work, for clients like Times of India (such as 2017’s #NoConditionsApply, Out & Proud and this year’s Nominate Me Selfie for TOI and Political Shakti). Of course, that reinvigorated creative culture, spearheaded by CCO Swati Bhattacharya, did not materialise instantly. It took self-belief and a willingness to keep going in the face of setbacks.
“I think the fundamental thing that we did was to create this whole ‘fail forward’ culture, Every failure is something that you learn from… For two years, we entered and we got zero, right? So we could have at that time said, ‘you know, maybe we're not good enough, we can't do this’. But finally, it turned right. The whole thing is about believing; it's about standing behind something that you really want and encouraging it all the time.”
More Latent Potential to Be Unleashed
Talking of culture, Harsh Shah, managing partner at Dentsu Creative India, says he’s seen his agency’s cumulative Cannes success over three years start to filter out to a more diverse pool of potential talent. As a huge and complex country, with a vast economic, social and tech inequalities, if Indian agencies can really get to grips with the diversity question and reach the bright sparks from more deprived backgrounds, they could unleash a whole new wave of talent.
“We’ve seen this kind of talent coming in from different aspects of India, and you know how culturally vast and diverse India is, and if you’re able to inspire someone who probably doesn’t have access to electricity 24 hours a day, you’ve done something right. That’s keeping us motivated and bringing people together.”
Indeed that’s the thinking behind the life-affirming and provocative #Chatpat campaign from FCB India, FCB Chicago and Kinnect. Created for SOS Children Villages, it turned a 10-year-old boy who lived on the streets of Mumbai into a social media influencer, which allowed him to show off his hustle, boldness and smarts while also depicting the harsh conditions of the streets. It’s a campaign that refused to turn impoverished children into pity cases, and in many ways showed the face of new India. It also won two gold, two silver and two bronze in the Social and Influencer, Media and Direct categories.
“That's actually the heart of the success of this campaign,” says Rohit. “It is really about not showing these kids as helpless. And you know, what we're seeing is a new India as you know? They're full of ingenuity, right? And these kids are so full of new ways and new thinking and saying you need to give, but I'll give you something back.”
That eye on the future, unleashing the full extent of India’s talent, is also one of the key elements of The Missing Chapter, a campaign created to keep more girls in education. Devised by Leo Burnett India for P&G feminine hygiene brand Whisper, The Missing Chapter challenges the fact that 23 million girls drop out of education at the onset of puberty every year, but many standard textbooks compound the issue by failing to explain the simple biology of periods to school girls, which would reduce the shame and embarrassment around them. The team created this ‘missing chapter’, which could be inserted into any school textbook.
The campaign went on to win one the India’s five Grands Prix - in this case the prestigious Sustainable Development Goals Lion. Says Rajdeepak, the trophy comes second to the fact the team feel they’ve been able to have a profound impact, “Winning a Grand Prix is amazing in itself, but winning the Grand Prix for the Sustainable Development Goals is momentous for us. We have been partnering with Whisper India to spread period education over the past few years and have created several initiatives to further our cause. What makes us proud is the fact that this campaign makes an impactful and measurable difference to society – a goal that we at Burnett firmly believe in. At Burnett we weigh all our work to our HumanKind scale where we endeavour to create work which makes a difference to both the people and the brand. This win reiterates our purpose of using creativity to make a difference to both culture and the brands that we work with. It’s also closer to our heart because of the 2030 Sustainable Goals deadline.”
Coming back to the advertising industry specifically, Rohan says that the current generation of Indian industry talent has mastered the ability to innovate with new technologies and platforms while drawing from India’s creative heritage and the experience of yesteryear.
“I would say surely, there's a generation which has an understanding of what these new platforms are, the social platforms, the technology, the kind of interactions that existed and they're pulling a lot from what was already existing, which was great brand building. So the tenets of brand building remain the same. The platforms and the technology have changed. So putting these both together, just like we've done together, that's a potent mix, which helps campaigns you know, you know, perform at this stage so that I think that's been probably one of the things that has been quite different about India because you see, large brand ideas but driven by technology is driven by new platforms, today.”
A New World-beating Self Belief
Ultimately, though, beyond the specifics of talent and tech, or the philosophies of individual agencies, what’s causing this upswing across the whole industry is a culture of belief. Speaking to leaders across the various agencies, there’s certainly a sense of competition that is highly motivating - leaders believe they can and should outperform their rivals. But more than that, these agencies are no longer competing among themselves, seeking to be ‘the best of India’ - they are competing with the world’s finest. According to Rohit, what we’re really seeing is a fundamental; mindset shift and a growing belief that Indian work doesn’t need to make apologies for itself and can and should aspire to the very highest level of thought and execution. And with that, he says the industry is fostering a sense of healthy competition as each agency strives to perform on the global stage. After all, in the Grands Prix tally, India came second only to the USA.
“I think today, everybody understands what the global standard is that needs to be met. And whereas we were, in many ways, thinking ‘this is great in terms of India’. I don't think that benchmark exists anymore. We are all looking at ‘how can it be the best in the world?’ I think that's a fundamental mind shift that all the agencies have seen and the results are in front of you. The confidence of the agencies has gone up, you know, it's also about belief, right? Once you see success, it creates more success. The fundamental part is people are learning and understanding that there doesn't need to be two benchmarks, right? There’s only one benchmark, and that's a global one.”