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New kids on the block

November 14, 2004

It's a trend that keeps cropping up every few years. And it seems the season is here again. Over the last few months a number of advertising professionals have quit their jobs and have floated their own agencies.

"It's nice to be your own boss for a change," says Shovon Chowdhury.

Last year he quit as executive vice president and general manager of Bates India to start Street Life, an advertising agency he formed with five partners.

Says Madhukar Sabnavis, country manager, Discovery, Ogilvy and Mather India: "Capital investment is low and all you need to become an advertising entrepreneur is intellectual capital."

He adds that advertising professionals are used to taking risks, not knowing which campaign will hit off or bomb, and it becomes easier to start on one's own. There's also the hunt for fame, of making one's name, as opposed to an agency's.

Charting your own destiny is one of the many reasons why advertising folks decide to take the risk of becoming entrepreneurs.

"Money is important but it's also to keep alive the joy in advertising," says Subrata Chakraborty, director, Brand Curry.

Chakraborty's earlier job was as vice president and general manager, rmg david. In May this year he quit and floated his own agency with partner Ratno Rudra.

For V Sunil it was "too much clutter" in a big agency that stifled creatives. "You don't need so many people to handle an account. All those brainstorming sessions were meaningless."

He hopes to do cutting-edge work with his seven-member team at A, the year-old agency he started after quitting his job as the creative director of O&M, Delhi.

Another reason people move out is the invisible ceiling. "Only one person can become the boss and you know that there are at least six or seven professionals vying for the top slot," says Chowdhury.

He says that unlike traditional agencies, at Street Life they are experimenting with a horizontal model, and the organisation is built around the model of an American law firm. "We are all equally responsible for our company's growth," he says.

Growth was the keyword when Nikhil Nehru decided to quit as president, McCann-Erickson India to join start-up Inc.

"The satisfaction comes from building companies as well as people. As our client's business grows, we grow," he says.

Though there are no exact figures, advertising industry sources say there are nearly 20 agencies started by advertising entrepreneurs. Given that the ad market is pegged at Rs 9,000 crore (Rs 90 billion)-plus with most big spenders opting for the heavyweight MNC agencies, is there enough business for these small agencies?

"Big agencies account for around 70 per cent of the business. And agencies like ours mop up the rest. There's enough business for all of us," says Brand Curry's Chakraborty.

Adds Freddy Birdy: "There is a huge market of clients who just want a one-off branding exercise. Then there are corporate brochures. There is work all round." Birdy teamed up with Naved Akhtar to launch The Shop earlier this year.

"Smaller agencies give more attention to clients. Their dedication to a brand and service levels are also higher. A client is not just about money but also about relationship," explains Nehru as to why an increasing number of businesses are going for smaller agencies.

And they don't seem to be doing too badly. Though not willing to disclose exact figures, Birdy and his partner have done business worth more than Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) in their seven-month existence.

Other agencies' billings range from Rs 12 crore (Rs 120 million) to Rs 20 crore (Rs 200 million).

"The question is will these small agencies have the sustaining power. History shows that a number of such agencies have either closed shop or been bought over by MNCs," says Sabnavis.

He goes on to add that financial management will be critical for these agencies to survive. But for the time being these smaller agencies are putting the fun back into their profession.

Says Nehru: "Clients have also matured; they are willing to pay for ideas. The only direction business can go is up."

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