I don’t often jump to design’s defence. Or to India’s defence. Or vocally defend design in India. I usually stay a safe distance away from conversation about the merits of Indian design versus international design- far enough to stay uninvolved, close enough to overhear bits and chuckle to myself a little about the futility of the argument. Earlier this week however, Nadia Chauhan, Joint MD and CEO, Parle Agro in an interview with afaqs made a few statements about Indian agencies that forced me to pause for a second. I was conflicted. In all honesty, I could understand where she was coming from, but I just couldn’t get myself to agree with everything she said.
Against the backdrop of the launch of Frooti Fizz, when asked why she has Sagmeister and Walsh, a New York based design firm on retainer and not an Indian one, she says:
“When we were up for pitch (2015) every single agency in India that didn’t handle a competing brand pitched for our business. I still have the work with me. I’ve kept it to answer questions like these. Today, most agencies in India think campaigns are about making TVCs. Even when they come for pitches, they come with a laundry list of TVC ideas and lengthy strategy presentations. Agencies today have become too formatted. The approach is so standard. I have not been able to find anyone who can break the convention.
Our company has ambitious goals. We needed to work with someone who was as bold as us. We couldn’t find anybody. We found enough ‘client-pleasers’, enough people willing to do anything to make a pitch happen… but not willing to go that extra mile. Also, most agencies in India have a very ‘protective’ system. They don’t like collaborating with too much talent. It’s all about ‘It’s my idea’. But I would want millions of brand custodians.
Today, design as a discipline is not developed in India. The creative system in India needs a revolution.”
This summarising of the state of Indian design made me decidedly uncomfortable. To begin with, comparing Sagmeister and Walsh (S&W), an independent design firm, with advertising agencies seemed a little unfair- they’re not remotely the same beast- They approach projects differently and have entirely different ways of operating. Two, while Nadia Chauhan talks about Indian agencies and their campaigns being all about TVCs, what S&W have worked on for Frooti Fizz is not particularly different. And three, design as a discipline is relatively younger in India, yes, but it’s certainly developed.
Their choosing to work with S&W is understandable, if a name and reputation was important to them. Many companies with budgets like theirs might have done the same. But as I mulled this further, I began to wonder why I knew of so many good designers and design studios, but couldn’t name very many big brands they had worked for. If we assume, on the basis of advertising agencies, that design in India is underdeveloped, that it lacks talent or confidence and if bigger projects go to international firms, how does the little guy grow? It’s a chicken and egg situation- clients want firms that have big brand on their portfolios, and the firms don’t have them because big brands don’t hire them.
There was something in Ms. Chauhan’s prepared defence for her decision, that made me wonder- Is there a bit of a double standard when Indian clients work with international firms? So many fabulous Indian designers seem to work with constant demands for an immediate turnover, pressing deadlines, tight budgets; with the assumption that groundbreaking creative work can be churned out quickly and consistently. There isn’t often an opportunity for the kind of collaboration Jessica Walsh talks about.This of course, is speculative, but then there’s the question of the work itself. Frooti Fizz, Ms. Chauhan says, wanted something bold that matched the company’s ambitious goals. And yet, the work for Frooti Fizz seems terribly underwhelming. Visually reminiscent of S&Ws work for Aizone and in Karan Singhs’s unmistakable style I struggle to see how this breaks any conventions. While I can’t argue that it looks stunning, it could be an ad for absolutely anything, and I wonder why Chauhan dismissed ‘strategy presentations’ as such a bad thing. Besides, what could be a safer approach than an endorsement by the country’s current favourite fun/ young icon- Alia Bhatt? The challenge, Jessica Walsh of S&W says, was to merge the two visual languages from the existing brands (Frooti and Appy Fizz) but I find that the campaign fails to do this- It’s all Appy Fizz- No Frooti.
And if aesthetic is all we’re concerned with, there is local talent that could easily rival this quality of work. Independent designers and design firms across the country for whom Ms. Chauhan’s sweeping dismissal is hugely disheartening.
The part I have to agree with, is that the creative system in India needs to change and organise itself better. The process is already underway. The country is full of talented designers quitting their jobs disillusioned with the system, and setting up on their own, but what we don’t have enough of are studios and firms that challenge conventional ad-agency processes. We lack constructive design critique that we can all learn from. We lack unity- the ability to set market rates, to collaborate in ways that build one another, to rally together to change how design is perceived by industries other than our own, in effect changing the way we work, and our relationships with clients.
Because dismissing the entire creative system with such broad strokes, must call into question the role of the client. For the system to change, businesses need to work with creatives- to seek out and support local talent, even if this seems like a risk at first. We need to acknowledge the system design firms have inherited from traditional agencies, the expectations clients have, the timelines they put in place, that has led to the approach that seems ‘so standard.’ Yes, the creative industry has a long way to go, but we have far more than just client-pleasers, and we have tons of designers willing to go that extra mile, if only they were given a chance.
If an Indian company that has grown and thrived with local firms looks elsewhere when the large budgets and larger opportunities come by, if a whole industry is regarded as underdeveloped on the basis of agencies that don’t accurately represent it, there’s only so much we can hope to change. For a revolution, we need to realise we’re all in this together.