‘My priorities are to achieve share of market and talent'

PURVITA CHATTERJEE | Updated on March 09, 2011

Joseph George, CEO, Lowe Lintas

Joseph George was recently promoted as Chief Executive Officer, Lowe Lintas India. Having served with the agency for the past 19 years, he takes over from Charles Cadell, who had a relatively short stint in the country. R. Balki, Chief Creative Officer and Chairman, Lowe Lintas India, said, “Joe's contribution and pivotal role in having enabled the company in achieving the tremendous success it has achieved on many of its clients, most notably Unilever, uniquely qualifies him for this new role and responsibility. This promotion is demonstrative of the organisation's appreciation of his past performance and trust in his abilities to take Lowe Lintas forward with his vision and leadership.”

Lowe Lintas, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Interpublic Group (IPG), has seen a slow exit of employees in the past few years. Today, it employs over 650 people across eight cities in India, with a client portfolio that includes companies such as Hindustan Unilever, Idea Cellular, Tata Tea, Johnson & Johnson, Dabur and Bajaj Auto. In a freewheeling chat with BrandLine , the new CEO outlines what lies ahead for his agency and the advertising industry. Some excerpts:

Didn't Charles Cadell have a relatively small stint compared to the other CEOs Lowe has had in the past? Don't you think the tenure of an expat like Cadell has been cut short?

Not at all. Charles was here on a three-year contract with a specific mandate and a specific set of deliverables. IPG and the Lowe management believe that he has, in his three full years, fully delivered on them. In fact, he has had the longest tenure as an expat CEO in the Indian advertising industry, and is today based in Singapore operating as the APAC head of another IPG agency, McCann Worldgroup.

Can you describe your stint in advertising from the time you joined Leo Burnett and how you remained loyal to Lowe all these years? What are the changes you would like to implement to take Lowe Lintas to the next level?

Most fulfilling. Especially when I look back at the five years preceding the beginning of my career, wherein I was clear that advertising was where I wanted to build my career. Being “loyal” to Lowe Lintas was quite effortless actually as I was, and continue to be, a huge fan of this institution. And when you also consider that I was blessed with great clients, great brands, great bosses and great colleagues, it wasn't Everest that I had to conquer!

Our creative product and philosophy is in a good place. So in terms of immediate priorities, it would be to achieve share of market and talent that is rightfully commensurate with the equity we enjoy. So, any change that I would implement would be to hasten delivery on these.

What will your equation with Balki be now and how will both of you segregate your roles within the agency?

He is my Chairman. And I am his CEO. The equation between us will be no different from the equation that a Chairman and CEO have in any company. However, the fact that Balki and I have worked closely together for 15 long years makes it just that much easier and enjoyable; and my belief that he is probably the best in the business today makes it stimulating and enriching too.

What are your plans to resolve issues such as compensation and remuneration amongst clients and agencies?

You can't “resolve” issues such as compensation and remuneration. The ball is squarely in the court of advertising agencies to justify higher remunerations for themselves. You can't be in an industry whose backbone is consumerism and have issues with customers paying what they think is the right price. So to me, no one agency or a group of agencies can or should take on the onus for the entire industry for better remuneration — each agency needs to deliver that much more, that much better and that much faster and then look the client straight in the eye and ask for the remuneration it thinks it deserves.

Your marketing services division (previously known as IMAG- Integrated Marketing Solutions Group) has remained low-key. What are your plans to beef up this division?

The size of our marketing services business has doubled in the last four years. I am pleased with the way PR, Health, Design and our Rural offerings are doing. We are well on our way to double them again — and this time in much lesser time.

We had restructured this division almost two years ago and it is today not clubbed under any single entity (like it used to be, under IMAG). We realised that it was a flawed way of looking at a brand's communication needs. Integrating these divisions with Lowe was a more holistic way of conceiving and recommending solutions for our clients. So today, just as mainline advertising is an offering from Lowe Lintas, so are Rural or Health or PR or Design...

How effective is mass media given the huge clutter, and are clients moving to new media which is more individualised?

There is no denying the importance of new media — particularly mobile and Internet. And as much as I am keen to see that Lowe Lintas and its brands are beneficiaries of the digital revolution and not its victims, I am equally sure that we are far from having to write an obituary for mature media. The two will co-exist for the foreseeable future. In any media that reaches threshold size, clutter is inevitable; and so the strength and primacy of the ‘high-value idea' and its creative expression will be the most effective way of standing out in clutter.

How does Lowe intend attracting talent?

My concern with talent crunch is relatively more at the middle level. Whilst a zero-sum game is still manageable, losing people at this level from advertising itself will be disastrous for the industry in the long run. So according to me, retaining people at this level should be the industry's priority number 1. Staff at this level are our future leaders. And they are also the ones who the new entrants look up to and learn from.

I believe the only way we can retain and indeed attract talent is by continuously investing in their knowledge and learning — formally and informally. The learning curve has to keep pace with the impatience curve. But finally, it all boils down to work. Good work attracts not just business, but talent too. And if we can get as many to contribute and own the agency's output, the easier it will be for agencies to retain them.

When agencies earn well, its employees do too. No talent-/people-dependent industry such as advertising can afford to not review its remuneration policies as frequently as it can afford to. In fact, Lowe Lintas just overhauled all its scales across functions and divisions last year. Like IT and Consultancy, the advertising industry also operates on a very high personnel cost to revenue ratio. So a fair and transparent performance-remuneration system coupled with topline growth is the only way to go.

How did Indian advertising fare last year? Which categories have helped Lowe get out of the recession? What is the billings turnover growth you are projecting for the year ahead and where will this growth come from?

In times of economic slowdown, the wider and more diverse your client portfolio is, the better off you are. To that extent, Lowe Lintas got out of it relatively unscathed. Our body of work in 2010 is something that I am very proud of and I dare say, was probably the best in the industry.

While we have one-year and three-year strategic plans, as far as 2011 revenue projections are concerned, positive as we are, we plan to take it one quarter at a time. And our first quarter is looking quite good.

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Published on March 09, 2011
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