In October 2021, when Dentsu Webchutney’s CEO Gautam Reghunath and CCO PG Aditiya quit, it surprised many in the industry. The duo exited at a time when Dentsu International India was going through a leadership shakeup amidst major restructuring with a slew of exits at the top and mid-level. However, Reghunath and Aditiya clarified to Storyboard 18 that they left the legacy ad company to chase their personal ambitions and for no other reasons. They moved on to reset the advertising culture and the agency business. With their new creative shop, Talented, they want to keep people at the core of the business, take a startup approach, and focus on being a pure-creative agency. Read on to know more about how Reghunath and Aditiya are building a modern agency. Edited excerpts.
Q. To begin with, why did the two of you decide to go independent?
Reghunath: Well, going independent was an easy decision for us. Leaving Webchutney was the tougher one. Personally, I’ve always loved startup energy, hanging around my founder friends and the general optimism of it all. I’m also second-generation advertising by the way. It has always been a huge part of my life. My father’s been doing this for 35 years. Growing up, I’ve always had ad magazines, creatives and proofs lying around the house and that sort of thing. So I absolutely love the agency business.
And now with PG, who is an absolute ad nerd, it just feels very right. We’ve both secretly harboured ambitions as to what our own creative shop would look like. And like we’ve said before, the world certainly doesn’t need another advertising agency. What we believe, it does need is a serious re-imagination of the agency experience—both for clients and particularly for the talent working in advertising. Working in advertising can and must feel better than it does now for a lot of us.
Q. Did it have to do anything with Dentsu’s global transformation strategy? Did you both not agree with the new approach?
Reghunath: We’re actually quite bullish on Dentsu’s global transformation strategy to be totally honest. At a global level, it’s a company that’s giving all the right signals while trying to find the right balance between its media and creative expertise. Whether anyone agrees or not, here’s a big advertising network that’s actually trying things. The India story is going to take its time, but it’s going to come through. There are good, wonderful people in Dentsu who care deeply about what they do. There’s a reason that the majority of Webchutney’s best work happened after the Dentsu acquisition.
Q. When you quit, did you have any plans in place? How did the first brainstorming session go?
Aditiya: Gautam was a little more relaxed. I was a mess. Entrepreneurship wasn’t always part of my plan and I think I’m still shaking off some residue imposter syndrome every day. I remember thinking about how much we had to lose and projecting it through terrible ideas.
In fact, the runner-up agency name for ‘Talented’ was ‘Same People’. Something to signal that we’re the same people who did X, Y, and Z things in our previous jobs. Gautam humoured me and considered it. But he was right that I was just hanging onto our pasts a bit much. We’re very proud of the work we’ve done at Dentsu. Our swan song—The Unfiltered History Tour—is on an incredibly successful world tour across creative awards, including 21 shortlists at the One Show as of two days ago. But we’re even more proud of the ideas and experiments we’ve begun trying out at Talented.
Q. What’s your new creative outfit, Talented, in a nutshell? How different is it from other creative shops in India?
Reghunath: Talented is very simply a creative agency. We’re cautious to not start by talking about vague differentiators like data this and disruption that and creative transformation and other such. Those of us in advertising, often have this guilt about the simple but beautiful nature of what we do daily.
Across our teams, we’re going to have the sharpest, most motivated creative talent. That’s our business model for now and that’s Talented in a nutshell. As for how it’s different? Our north star is to build a workplace where every member of the leadership and its youngest colleagues think and say about the company, are the exact same. This means our actions and policies have to back up our words and press releases. We want to give the talent in our company the best agency experience of their lives.
Q. From what we understand, Talented wants to be a flat hierarchy set up? Why do you think this is important?
Reghunath: I remember how overjoyed I felt when receiving my first promotion to Sr. Copywriter in 2013. And then again, years later, a similar feeling when I reached Creative Director. But for the titles after that, it had stopped mattering. Celebrations, even with my bathroom mirror, felt glib. I reckon Gautam felt similar.
Right now, this statement seems to ring true to many of us in the founding team at Talented: Titles matter till a point for everyone. And you shouldn’t have them once they stop mattering. Designation hogging in senior management needs to be discouraged, but we can’t rob talent of the thrill and joy of well-earned promotions in their early years.
So, should Talented have titles until a particular level? And have a flat-ish hierarchy amongst its leadership instead? Should we signal to our leadership that none of them should expect growth to reflect in a form other than responsibilities/pay/portfolio once they reach a particular level? We’re thinking deeply about all of this.
Q. How big is the team? What’s the business model that you are looking at?
Aditiya: It’s only been a few weeks and we’re twenty people strong. We’re twenty strong people. In our business, the clear way to find efficiencies is to never hire for someone else’s weakness. We’re calling this ‘No Follow Ups’. The plan is to invest disproportionately in makers over managers. Especially, in creative people who don’t need following-up and account managers who don’t like following up. We believe we can shave off an entire level in a team structure (and re-evaluate how account managers can actually spend their saved time) if there’s no need to follow up. This is literally what creative folks who’ve switched to the brand side are expected to do. We’re normalising it on the agency side. Gautam and I have told this to each other from Day 1: This isn’t a better version of the agency gig. It’s a better version of the in-house gig. To quote Reed Hastings from No Rules Rules, we’re hiring and paying for talent density.
Reghunath: We’re also trying to get better at working with partners ourselves and not feel the need to in-house everything. This is literally what we’re persuading clients to do, right? The ambition is to build a lean, versatile team that can also get the best out of plug-and-play specialists depending on the project. The dream is that both a Talented ‘consultant/specialist’ and a Talented client have similar things to say about their working experience with us. We can’t expect great clients without learning how to be one.
Q. At Webchutney, you all worked on several startups brands. What are the lessons the two of you have picked up that will help you build Talented? And what are the challenges that the industry faces today?
Reghunath: At Talented, we’re copying our friends in the startup world to introduce one of their simplest ideas to the agency business—more skin in the game and potential wealth creation for the early believers. We are proud to reveal that through our equity allocations and, further on, through our ESOP program, upwards of 20 percent of Talented will be employee-owned over the next few years. If we have a successful trajectory over that time, the spoils of that success will be shared amongst all those fellow optimists who are taking this journey with us early on.
Aditiya: We’re named after every person in our agency. It’s only fair that in the long term, everyone wins from what they built together.
And as for challenges? Well, great ideas are executed weekly. Below-par DEI policies. Attrition. Burnout. A lack of consequence to our work. Attrition. In-housing. Below market-level pay. Attrition. Sensing a pattern here?
Q. As far as clients are concerned, have you onboarded any yet?
Reghunath: We’re about twenty folks in the larger founding group currently, and of course, clients have naturally shown interest. We’re so grateful for it all. Work has started on half a dozen of them already, but we’re nowhere near ready to show it off yet. We’re going to hold our cards close to the chest for now.
Click here to see Forbes India’s comprehensive coverage on the Covid-19 situation and its impact on life, business and the economy
Check out our end of season subscription discounts with a Moneycontrol pro subscription absolutely free. Use code EOSO2021. Click here for details.