At Ad Stars 2019, Leo Burnett India group ECD talked to Laura Swinton about the insatiable curiosity that drives her and the importance of feeding your creativity beyond the ad industry
"Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people."
As far as creative curiosity goes, few people embody that famous Leo Burnett quote as fully as Kumuda Rao does. She’s been a lawyer, a furniture upcycler, a director, an actor, a stagehand, a hotelier, a mum, a tech entrepreneur – and she’s got her eye on farming. And, appropriately enough, she’s a dyed-in-the-wool Burnetter, working as a group executive creative director, based in Mumbai.
It’s this compulsive inquisitiveness and willing to throw herself into new experiences, picking up a Swiss Army Knife of skills along the way, that led one college friend to predict that the young law student would end up not in the courtroom but in adland. While still at university, Kumuda ended up helping her friend from the college magazine with his new agency – setting her off on her career.
Kumuda’s first ‘proper’ agency job was at Mudra – now DDB Mudra – where she was one of only two women at the agency. It was the early ‘90s and the management had decided – shockingly - not to hire any women because they ‘might get pregnant’. Kumuda managed to slip in on the merit of her ‘wild and all over the place CV’ and the fact that the agency had just won a sanitary towel account and the men at the agency felt so out of their depth they could barely bring themselves to whisper, let alone say, the word ‘sanitary towel’.
“I thought it was odd because I come from a family where being a female never mattered,” recalls Kumuda. “My mum and grandmother were hardcore feminists. I never had that thing. You go there and you work.”
From there Kumuda went onto Ogilvy, which was like a ‘school’ for advertising. And in 1999, she ended up in Leo Burnett, an agency she describes as her ‘home’ and where she’s worked ever since aside from a short ‘glitch’ where she went to Y&R (an experience she describes as ‘totally traumatic’ as it coincided with her move from her native Bangalore to Mumbai and family illness) and a career break she took when she gave birth to her twins.
This being Kumuda, though, her maternity break also saw her try her hand at commercial directing and also launching and running a beach hut business in Goa with her actor husband. The directing was a callback to her love of the theatre. In Bangalore, where the commute was substantially less time-consuming than it is now in Mumbai, Kumuda had thrown herself into the local theatre scene, where she acted, worked as a stagehand and directed. Back then she found herself drawing on high school French for her acting roles – proof that there’s no such thing as useless education. As a commercial director, her childhood piano lessons came unexpectedly flooding back.
“I was seven months pregnant, with twins. The producer was like… please don’t deliver now! It was too funny. But all my theatre experience came back. When I was sitting with the music supervisor, all my music experience came back,” she recalls. “And I used to bring in all my theatre technique, I’d bring my talent down and talk to them how I would talk to my actors and plot the movements out. It was really good.”
As she started to go back to work with Leo Burnett, she faced a dilemma. To progress any more as a commercial director, she’d have to commit to it full time – in the end her magpie creative mind drew her back to agency life.
At Leo Burnett in Mumbai, Kumuda has worked on huge P&G accounts at a regional level, including ‘Whisper’ (the brand name for Always in Asia and Australia), where she has been striving to break down the same taboos that existed at the very beginning of her career.
“All these myths and misconceptions are very much there - India in some ways is a weird country. Tampons exist as well as all these other methods. Whisper is doing an excellent job trying to bust some of these myths,” says Kumuda. Times, though, are changing. Kumuda’s daughter will speak easily about periods with her dad, and her twin brother will comfortably involve himself in the conversation too.
It’s an account that has focused Kumuda’s mind on the ‘brand purpose’ debate. She’s no fan of disconnected ‘cause-vertising’ that sees a brand tack some cause or other onto its communication in a way that benefits neither the brand nor the purpose. However, India is home to some standout examples of brands zeroing in on difficult social issues that absolutely fit. BBDO’s work for Ariel, ‘Share the Load’, is one such exemplar Kumuda highlights, as well as the social harmony messaging that tea brand Red Label has been running with. At Whisper, the brand has been – ironically – pushing for girls to become more confident and empowered, with 2017’s ‘Sit Improper’ campaign a rallying cry against prim, restrictive expectations.
The agency has also been working on a more proactive basis with its closest clients, leaning into innovation. In 2017 they created ‘Roads That Honk’ for HP Lubricant, a road safety solution. And there are some potentially exciting developments currently in development stage with P&G around changing the makeup of certain products in order to fight malaria. Kumuda talks enthusiastically about Leo Burnett’s Apollo 11 unit, comprising engineers and designers, tasked to come up with non-traditional solutions.
These new and constantly-changing challenges are mana for someone as open to new experiences and adventures as Kumuda. Even though her tapestry of expertise hasn’t been planned, she finds that her past detours still crop up and provide her with useful insights in the most unexpected ways. And she’s still learning. Recently, she started helping a friend of her husband with his tech start up, getting hands-on with the challenges of building a small business in the social age. Her kids want her to help them start a YouTube channel, though she’s (understandably) somewhat warier about starting down that path with a pair of aspiring influencers. She’s also just bought a piece of land about 160km from Mumbai where she hopes to start an organic farm and fulfil her long-held desire to get involved in architecture. She plans to build a house in the style of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa and expose her urbanite children to the sort of rural, tree-clambering childhood she experienced in southern India.
Whatever Kumuda turns her hands and mind to next, it’s all fuel for her creativity. Driven by genuine curiosity and passion rather than cold-eyed calculation, she can’t quite predict how those experiences will help her down the line, but she knows that they will. “I think there’s always a reason that you go through whatever you do,” she muses. “All the pieces just fall into place much later.”