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‘We do advertising for the love of it’: Alok Nanda

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India-based design and branding specialist is eyeing Dubai – besides selling a watch brand it created, marketing its own brand of chocolates, and winning awards for branded art installations. 

One of the reasons Alok Nanda decided to set up shop on his own was that he had always wanted to do things beyond advertising, he recalls. He is now on a trip to Dubai to meet potential partners and clients, in what looks like another era in Alok Nanda and Company’s (ANC) journey. He remembers the venue of his meeting with Campaign from a judging session of Dubai Lynx a few years ago. We turned the clock back a few more years.

Nanda started with Trikaya in India, when it was still called that. By the time it became Trikaya Grey, he was on the Grey Asia-Pacific creative board. About the time the agency became Grey Worldwide, he decided to set up ANC. That was over 16 years ago.

“Advertising still remains a part of what we do and it’s where I came from. But it’s not a be-all or end-all of ANC.”

Even within Trikaya Grey, he made an attempt to partner with British design company CDT and bring them into India. He cites the failure of that attempt to ‘the cultural mismatch between an Indian advertising agency and a high-end design company from the UK’. Setting it up as a small design cell outside the agency didn’t work. Which is why, the teams are integrated at ANC.

“I decided I wanted to do something different (from advertising). Which is how we have turned out to be – a large portion of the work that we do is in branding,” he explains.

“Advertising still remains a part of what we do and it’s where I came from. But it’s not a be-all or end-all of ANC,” adds Nanda.

The journey

“We’re now India’s only lifestyle and luxury communications company, besides corporate branding and communications. We approach them through design or branding services or something else, but that’s the market in which we operate,” explains Nanda.

Along the journey, the company’s founder believes the people at ANC have ‘truly arrived at who we are’ – which is the lifestyle and luxury positioning. He could possibly speak for the team of less than 35 people in the agency’s only office, in Mumbai. Many of them have stayed for 10 to 15 years, making them company veterans. While many have stayed, Nanda is also paranoid about quality, meaning it would not have been easy to replace them, as he confesses. And as the single office suggests, ANC has been in no rush to expand, making the potential Dubai foray noteworthy.

“I know we’ll get business here. Whether that merits setting up here, we’re yet to see. It depends on the partnership and the scale of opportunity.” 

The creative cum CEO adds, “When you are operating in the luxury or lifestyle space, the quality of execution and craft is supremely important. Even when you attempt to do advertising in this category, design plays a great role. We are absolutely paranoid about quality control, which explains the small team and the single office. What happens here (in Dubai) is something we’ll have to see.”

What eventually happens in Dubai will depend on meetings with potential partners. “If there is a soul-fit, that would be a nice way to kick off. In parallel, we are also thinking about whether should set up a small beachhead on our own. That really depends on how our conversations go. The other thing is, in Dubai, we’d really like to focus on our branding expertise rather than the advertising part,” discloses the Indian veteran.

So while talks are on with some potential clients, the route to market could be either – with a set up or through another established group in Dubai, with ANC’s talent from Mumbai lending branding expertise.

“I know we’ll get business here. Whether that merits setting up here, we’re yet to see. It depends on the partnership and the scale of opportunity. I am quite optimistic, but you can never really be sure until you have the business,” he says.

What has nudged ANC towards Dubai is the resurgence in the market since the economic crisis. Irrespective of the foray, Nanda is clear that while the team of 35 will grow, there is no desire to ‘be massive’.

Looking back, looking out

So does Nanda miss the world of advertising, of which ANC is still a part albeit with lesser reliance? Or is he having a good laugh at what the industry is going through, having branched out early?

“In all honesty, we have not looked back or looked at the ad industry. We’re a bit of an anomaly. We are essentially a group of people who opted out of the ad industry. I’m not trying to be arrogant about it, but I really don’t track the ad industry. We’ve found our space and we’re quite comfortable with that. We work as much with architects and light engineers as we do with brand managers,” he adds.

Nanda explains that staying true to the lifestyle and luxury positioning has paid off for ANC: “The ‘premiumisation’ of India has come back to us in a very beneficial way. We stayed in a small space, and that space is now exploding. There are clients doing projects with us and not their mainstream agencies. There are clients in FMCG that work with global agencies, but when they need to upgrade, they are coming to us.”

The company head notes that ANC’s sharp positioning, focused on lifestyle and luxury, has helped the agency. He reminds us that a narrow niche is not something agencies like to position themselves in, mandated as they are to go after all kinds of business.

“I am sure all of them are different in their own way. But all these companies bring to the table only a visual vocabulary. We bring to the table a verbal and a visual vocabulary, and we leverage words in design.”

He is also quick to add that when it comes to mainstream advertising, ANC is ‘very much there’; it’s just that it’s not the only thing they do.

But then, couldn’t that be said of ad agencies today too, with their many spe-cialist units including ones focused on design? And to add to that, there are specialists like Wolff Olins, Landor and Fitch, in ANC’s home and current market India. How does the differentiation work?

When it comes to corporate identity, ANC does compete with Landor and other specialists, cedes Nanda. For luxury or lifestyle branding, some of them would be called in alongside. Fitch would be called when there is retail design involved, he offers by way of explanation.

And adds, “I am sure all of them are different in their own way. But all these companies bring to the table only a visual vocabulary. Even in branding, we bring to the table a verbal and a visual vocabulary, and we leverage words in design as against leveraging them only in advertising. So that’s our space – but yes, I am sure each of us treads on each other’s toes once in a while.”

Shops like Landor and Fitch coming in, he acknowledges, has expanded the market, by creating an understanding among marketers that ad agencies are incapable of doing the things specialists do.

“In the early days, what Landor or Fitch or ANC was doing would have been expected of the ad agency. They would probably make a pretense of doing that work but they were not capable of it. The more the players, the more we are establishing the need for identity specialists. The opportunity is big; so one should be large-hearted about it,” he notes.

Nanda contends that while a large part of the marketing universe would not find a need to work with design and branding specialists, a large part of marketers who matter to the specialists do appreciate the differentiation today.

Prodded on whether the argument that the ad agencies ‘don’t get it’ is valid anymore, in the context of a global campaign run by an ad agency for an India-based luxury brand, he clarifies: “If we are talking about an advertising campaign for a luxury brand, sometimes an ad agency is able to do a very decent job. When it comes to true premium branding or communication, I think it’s terrible in India. Some of it… if you see the new Jaguar work in India, or what Audi is doing, it just mind-boggles me. It shows a complete lack of understanding of what a luxury brand should be behaving like. But I view it positively. Those are the opportunities.”

The future

Besides initiating its Dubai foray, ANC has also bagged the business of its client, Indian real estate player Lodha, for the latter’s foray into the London market. There are opportunities within India for growth too.

“I see the premiumisation opportunity in India a little differently. To me, the big opportunity in premiumisation is in education. When you have to pay a little more than the cost of a Patek Philippe watch for your child’s annual education fee, you are talking luxury. People don’t get it – that’s the huge opportunity in this sector,” says Nanda.

Services like private wealth management on the other hand are beginning to get recognised, according to the ANC founder. And these categories demand much more than design in the graphic sense, he points out. The creators need to figure out and design the ‘language’ and ‘speak’.

ANC is working with an upcoming school chain in India. He points to an organic milk brand that the company helped create, Sarda Farms, which sells at a substantial premium, citing more categories opening up.

Sarda Farm Packaging

“It’s not just about upgrading anymore. I genuinely believe the next Body Shop will come from India. There are exciting categories emerging where one can create lifestyle brands that really stand for something,” notes Nanda.

The design lab

Nanda observes that the only kind of design ANC is not into is product design, but that isn’t entirely true. With the arrival of affiliate Filter, a ‘design lab’ launched in 2012, that too has changed. Filter is present in the form of a store in South Mumbai, playing host to creations from fellow creatives, as also an eponymous in-house brand. The CEO terms Filter as ‘firstly an experimental place for us to have fun’. Its second stated purpose is to ‘test out things’.

“At a third level, there is so much talent in our industry. We invite art directors and designers from other companies to exhibit their personal work. The last bit is that some of the products we have designed there have actually turned out well. And we intend to take them out into the market ourselves,” he reveals.

Two of the products have done well. One of which is the ‘ish’ watch, which is based on the ‘Indian Stretchable Time’ adage. ‘For those who are perpetually casual’, as one site selling watches says. It’s for those who feel ‘Let’s meet around 4-ish’ is perfectly acceptable, with the pieces even having the digits ‘a little off’ position. Born in another ANC affiliate Hyphen, the product ‘has gone crazy’ on the internet, says Nanda. Sales are coming from the US, Scandanavian markets and
the Philippines.

“We’d love to build a brand for ourselves, much as we would for other clients.”

The ish watch
The ish watch

The other creation that’s evinced interest from retailers is a line of Indian chocolates, with flavours like Madras Kaapi, Kerala Dalchini and Gujarati Aamras. They are keen to work with Filter to create a brand out of it, says the ANC CEO.

“We’d love to build a brand for ourselves, much as we would for other clients,” he adds.

Chocolate Indian Paan
Filter chocolates

Besides Filter, what could find takers in other markets is Brand Canvas, which deals with branded art in public spaces. A giant installation at Indiabulls Centre in Mumbai won a Grand Prix at Goafest last year.

“We would also look at whether some of these ancillary businesses would find some traction in markets like Dubai,” notes Nanda, even as he recalls setting up a Barista store in Al Ghurair Centre mall in Deira many years ago, when the agency created the coffee chain’s branding.

Back in India, the product play marries corporate branding mandates in some cases. For retail bookstore Crossword, ANC is building a set of products that ‘build desirability for the product’. Because the category does not allow differentiation on pricing or product range, a range of branded stationery has been created, which will be available only at Crossword stores. It is currently being test marketed.

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Wall poster at a Crossword bookstore

“That may be the first off the block, but it won’t be the biggest,” remarks Nanda. He drops hints though, on the possibilities. If a hotel wants you to fall in love with its bedding and pillows, could it create a line and put it out in the market?

In theory, the product is created in line with what the brand stands for, rather than a product being branded and advertised. Loosely put, done before; but the product here is not just an extension of primary product, but of the brand, to meet an objective, with a profitable future.

The possibilities seem endless.

The question of scale 

While the company will look at Dubai and London for growth, it continues to grow at its chosen pace in India, underlines its founder-CEO. The stability is born of an ‘Order Book’ system that allows it a bank of client projects thanks to its niche play, he explains. “The other option is to take on five more people and take on more clients. We choose not to,” he adds.

“The other option is to take on five more people and take on more clients. We choose not to.”

Point out to him that the model is inherently not scalable, and pat comes the response: “The model is not scalable for volumes; it’s scalable for margins. But that’s the game to play. Therefore branding, therefore branded art. Because in my view, advertising doesn’t pay – it lost the plot long ago. We do advertising for the love of it.”

Nanda surmises, “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t pay big agencies which do tremendous mass media work – I don’t mean to put them down. But we’ve chosen to play more in a higher strategic area like design, which is therefore about higher margins.”

(This article appears in the issue of Campaign Middle East dated 8 February 2015.)