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“We Are Not in the Creative Business. We Are in the Business of Creativity”

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Chief creative officer at Leo Burnett India, Rajdeepak Das speaks to Natasha Patel about India’s rapid digitalisation, big plans for the company and how his team is working through the pandemic

“We Are Not in the Creative Business. We Are in the Business of Creativity”

There aren’t many people who can boast being called one of the top 20 media influencers in India and have an episode of Netflix’s ‘The Creative Indians’ dedicated to them. But Rajdeepak Das has not only those accolades under his belt, but a host more thanks to his incredibly creative mindset, great sense of humour and ability to understand his audience in a way not many others would take the time to.


Putting the global pandemic aside, India has always prided itself on being a country that is conscientious of others, but Rajdeepak, who is the chief creative officer at Leo Burnett India, believes his own ability to understand his audience stems from his childhood. “I come from a family of doctors. My mother and father are both doctors, and at 75 years old my father is still out practicing during coronavirus. I’ve grown up watching my dad serve as an army doctor and go to unknown places to save lives”. This first-hand viewpoint in how to get to know those you are working with, Rajdeepak says, has altered his attitude towards his career in advertising, “When I joined advertising it made me realise you can’t understand what people say, you have to be among the people to find out what people want.”


It wasn’t until a few years later that Rajdeepak was shown just how much advertising and humanity can have an impact on each other whilst he was working at the Gates Foundation on a project involving the eradication of polio. When the team was told there had been some success in the field, Rajdeepak burst into tears because, having grown up in India where polio was present, the impact of advertising on changing the world was present in that moment. “I have seen what polio can do to a country, and polio wasn’t eradicated because of advertising, it was eradicated because of advertising and the people on the ground who make things happen.”


The people on the ground and the people making things happen are an integral part of the Leo Burnett team, with the youngsters referred to lovingly as “cubs”. They view their jobs as “finding innovative ways to impact people’s lives in a positive way”. Interestingly it’s this mixture of wanting to do better and be better with a younger perspective that spurred the management team at Leo Burnett to create the Apollo 11 innovation lab. Perhaps one of the team’s best kept-secrets, this group of around 14 young problem solvers have all been hired from the Indian Institute of Technology and are a fusion of product designers, hackers, chemical engineers, aerospace engineers, physicists and filmmakers. In Rajdeepak’s words this brainy bunch are “finding solutions for problems not finding advertising for problems” because “it’s a norm in the system to create things that impact people’s lives”. The team is driven by its need to not be the best in India, but be the best of India in the world.


One campaign in particular that the team at Leo Burnett has worked on to impact people’s lives for the better during lockdown is its collaboration with online matchmaking service, The collaboration was an innovative new way to help couples get married – without stepping out of their home. Everything from online makeup classes, dance tutorials and religious rites were performed via video conferencing in line with the Hindu belief of getting married during a ‘murat’ or auspicious time. The team credits a colleague who was due to get married during lockdown as spurring the idea, but Rajdeepak says the zeal and drive is purely a singular one: “I often say the best work happens when someone is very selfish about it, the creative time was very selfish to make the world’s first wedding happen online. It’s a selfish notion; we want to do something that’s not done before. We did it and it became a success and maybe Shaadi will create a platform like that for a lot of online weddings to happen. This is the start of the big normal”.


Figuring out that big normal has led to Leo Burnett India creating its ‘zero, three, six plan’ looking at what’s happening now, what’s happening three months down the line and what’s happening six months down the line. Rajdeepak believes that now, the short-term is the long-term and for brand’s to survive for one week then they’ll survive for another and so on. But, what does this survival include? Rajdeepak is very adamant that safety is at the forefront of consumer’s minds, thus he and his team worked with P&G to create the ‘Suraksha store’ - or ‘safe store’ - in conjunction with the local government. The three main things looked at here were distance, masks and hand sanitisation. However, Rajdeepak added one more thing into the mix and that was currency. He used his own experiences of working for BBDO Bangkok during the SARs outbreak and his own apprehension towards physical currency. In using digital methods of payment, Rajdeepak believes “digitalisation can actually break the cycle of Covid if you look at it.”


Digitalisation is at the forefront of India at this current moment in time – and has been pre-Covid too with Rajdeepak reminding us that the country is one of the biggest Facebook and internet users in the world. He adds: “In Indian TV not much is happening, but the internet is booming massively. I don’t know the exact number but there are probably more than 500 million users on WhatsApp. WhatsApp is, you can say, a curse or a boom for us. A lot of things are not only idea specific; we are looking at platform specific right now also. A lot of ideas are starting from the platforms we have and how we can build upon them. An idea is important, but so is how to reach consumers.”


A campaign where technology was a major influence was the collaboration with P&G to get girls to continue with schooling despite the taboos around period hygiene. The team completed a mass campaign around this targeting the rural communities of India who struggle with this the most. However, with the current climate and most children away from school, what will happen to the young girls of India who do not have access to computers to continue their studies over video calls? These same girls are the ones who will be sent to work in farms when the economy needs to be restarted and it’s an issue that has had the team at Leo Burnett working tirelessly. Rajdeepak says: “We are working with P&G to find out about the system and what technology we can work on to get the education system to help us to collaborate so girls don’t drop out again.” He and the team are passionate about ‘acts not ads’ and urge brands to be relevant now – or they never will be.


This look at how technology can impact the economy has given rise to the debate between India and ‘Bharat’ or ‘old India’. “India is what the youth is who understand the difference between India and global India – and Bharat is the different economy. But, the difference between both is the technology because we’re all at the screen,” he says.


Being at the screen is no issue for Rajdeepak who was featured in a poll of the top 20 influencers in Indian media, much to the quizzing of his daughter who deemed the list acceptable only ‘if Greta Thunberg was featured’. Despite feigning offence he says: “The benchmarks of generations are different. Youths are the most global citizens.” But, he raises a point that with social media there is no longer the need for people to discuss the six-degrees of separation, it is now one degree. “You are one tweet away from anyone now. That shows the power of social media, in a country like India. Digitalisation is happening in India.”


The impacts of Covid-19 have accelerated the need to be relevant but Rajdeepak is insistent that for his brands it’s all about creating a new normal profile – not a Covid profile. This change is important for Leo Burnett too, he adds. “I love the quote: ‘The best freedom a creative can get, is not having the option’. The best creations that always happen are when you don’t have an option, when you do you have an easy way out.” Rajdeepak insists that he is loving the new way of working from home and that communication between the teams has been better than ever. “I’m a visual guy, the best thing about a visual is the imagination is so different. You are explaining your visuals and what you’re thinking you have to work much harder and be much clearer.”


So, what is next for the industry in India? Rajdeepak has a prediction that women are going to play a big part in the next economy and a lot of small scale, home-based businesses will boom in the coming months and years. He also predicts that the kitchen will become the centre of the house and is already in talks with companies to make sure this is something they are prepared for. He adds: “Economy wise, sentiment wise, mood wise, it’s changing. The insights are very different now.”


Perhaps one of the biggest indications of how different insights are is how the country will celebrate Diwali this year. Rajdeepak is of the belief that, as ever, the celebration will be important but it will be a more personal one. But to really understand what consumers want he and his team will be out on the streets speaking to consumers face-to-face – with masks of course!


Rajdeepak imagines that while the internet will play a huge part in understanding the sentiment of a nation, a lot of the country hides behind smiley faces. “On the internet what you see is a lot of smileys and emojis, but we have to go out and see what people want. What you say and what you do are two different things. Before Diwali I have to meet people and be on the ground.”


His estimation? Next year is going to be one to watch and celebrations will be akin to the Indian cricket team triumphing in the World Cup - against their long-time rivals, Pakistan. “This country is all about the feeling, it's not what you have but what you give to people. We’re all about heart and hustle. This Diwali what you’re going to see is heart and hustle. You don’t have anything but you have everything. 2021 is going to be a lavish Diwali for us”.


Planning for these campaigns may be under way, but in his personal life Rajdeepak has much to look forward to, having been featured as the only advertising industry professional in Netflix’s The Creative Indians. The series focuses on the most important creative professionals in the country from filmmakers, actors, and musicians - and now Rajdeepak adds his name to the line-up.


He jokes that this is a recruitment campaign for the next generation to join the industry but adds his thought that advertising is a melting point of everything.


“I hope to inspire the next generation of creative people to create things - and they’re not advertisers. To them I say, your friends will say you’re a loser, your family will say you’re a loser and your clients will say you’re a loser, but believe in what you believe in. Be human and change things. We will only be relevant if we’re in the business of creativity, I always say that we are not in the creative business. We are in the business of creativity. I said I want from this episode, for one young chap to see it and say ‘I want to be in advertising’.”

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 20 May 2020 16:13:37 GMT