In October 2021, when Dentsu Webchutney CEO Gautam Reghunath and CCO PG Aditiya stepped down, it came as a surprise to many in the industry. The duo came out at a time when Dentsu International India was going through a management shake-up amid a major restructuring with a slew of senior and mid-level exits. However, Reghunath and Aditiya clarified to Storyboard 18 that they left the former ad company to pursue their personal ambitions and for no other reason. They then moved on to resetting advertising culture and agency business. With their new creative store, Talented, they want to keep people at the heart of the business, adopt a start-up approach and focus on being a purely creative agency. Read on to learn more about how Reghunath and Aditiya are building a modern agency.
To begin with, why did you two decide to become independent?
Reghunath: Well, going independent was an easy decision for us. Leaving Webchutney was the hardest part. Personally, I’ve always loved the energy of startups, hanging out with my founding friends, and the general optimism of it all. I’m also second generation advertising by the way. It’s always been a big part of my life. My dad has been doing this for 35 years. Growing up, I always had ad magazines and designs and proofs lying around the house and that sort of thing. So I love the agency business.
And now, with PG being an absolute ad fan, it looks very good. We both secretly harbored ambitions for what our own creative store would look like. And like we said before, the world definitely doesn’t need another ad agency. What we think it needs is a serious reimagining of the agency experience – both for clients and especially for talent working in advertising. Working in advertising can and should feel better than it does today for many of us.
Did it have anything to do with Dentsu’s overall transformation strategy? Don’t you agree with the new approach?
Reghunath: To be completely honest, we’re quite optimistic about Dentsu’s global transformation strategy. On a global level, it’s a company that gives all the right signals while trying to find the right balance between its media and its creative expertise. Whether everyone agrees or not, here’s a big ad network that’s actually trying things out. India’s history will take its time, but it will pass. There are good, wonderful people at Dentsu who care deeply about what they do. There’s a reason the majority of Webchutney’s best work came after the Dentsu acquisition.
When you quit, did you have any plans in place? How was the first brainstorming session?
Adiya: Gautam was a bit more relaxed. I was a mess. Entrepreneurship hasn’t always been part of my plan and I think I’m still getting rid of Residual Impostor Syndrome every day. I remember thinking about how much we had to lose and projecting it through some terrible ideas.
In fact, the name of the finalist agency for “Talented” was “Same People”. Something to signal that we are the same people who did X, Y, Z things in our previous jobs. Gautam made me happy and thought about it. But he was right that I was just clinging to our past a little bit. We’re very proud of the work we’ve done at Dentsu (plug: our swan song — The Unfiltered History Tour — is on an incredibly successful world tour through creative awards, including 21 shortlisted at One Show two days ago!) but we’re even prouder of the ideas and experiments we’ve started testing at Talented.
So… what is your new creative outfit, Talented, in a nutshell? What is the difference with other creative shops in India?
Reghunath: Talented is simply a creative agency. We’re careful not to start by talking about vague differentiators like data this and disruption that and creative transformation and the like. Those of us who advertise often have this guilt about the simple yet beautiful nature of what we do every day.
Within our teams, we will have the most advanced and motivated creative talents. 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 what every member of management and their younger colleagues think and say about the company are exactly the same. This means that our actions and our policies must support our words and our press releases. We want to give the talents of our company the best agency experience of their lives.
From what we understand, Talented wants to be a flat hierarchy set up? Why do you think this is important?
Adiya: I remember the joy I felt when I received my first promotion to senior editor in 2013. And then, years later, a similar feeling when I reached the position of creative director . But for titles after that, it ceased to matter. Celebrations, even with my bathroom mirror, were flippant. I think Gautam felt the same.
Right now, that statement seems to ring true for many of us on the Talented founding team: “Titles matter to everyone to some degree. And you shouldn’t have them once they stop mattering. Senior appointments should be discouraged, but we cannot deprive talent of the thrill and joy of well-deserved promotions in their early years.
So, should Talents have titles up to a certain level? And have a flat hierarchy among its leaders instead? Should we signal to our leaders that none of them should expect growth to be reflected in any form other than responsibilities/compensation/portfolio once they have reached a particular level? We think deeply about all of this.
What is the size of the team? What is the business model you envision?
Adiya: It’s only been a few weeks and we are about twenty people. We are about twenty people. In our business, the clear way to find efficiencies is to never hire for someone else’s weakness. We call this “No Tracking”. The plan is to invest disproportionately on makers rather than managers. Especially among creatives who don’t need tracking and account managers who don’t like tracking. We think we can shave an entire level off in a team structure (and reevaluate how AM can actually use their saved time) if there’s no need to follow up. That’s literally what creatives who have crossed over to the brand side are supposed to do. We normalize it on the agency side. Gautam and I said to ourselves from day one: “this is not a better version of the agency concert”. It is a better version of the internal concert”. To quote Reed Hastings of No Rules Rules: we hire and pay for talent density.
Reghunath: We also try to work better with partners ourselves and not feel the need to do everything in-house. That’s literally what we persuade customers to do, isn’t it? The ambition is to build a light and versatile team that can also make the most of plug-and-play specialists depending on the project. The dream is that a talented “consultant/specialist” and a talented client would have similar things to say about their experience working with us. We can’t expect great customers without learning how to be one.
At Webchutney, you’ve all worked on multiple startup brands. What lessons have you both learned that will help you develop Talent? And what are the challenges facing the industry today?
Reghunath: At Talented, we’re copying our friends from the startup world to bring one of their simplest ideas to the agency industry – more skin in the game and potential wealth creation for early believers. We are proud to reveal that through our equity allocations and beyond through our ESOP program, over 20% of Talented will be owned by employees over the next few years. If we have a successful trajectory during this period, the spoils of this success will be shared among all those optimistic colleagues who embark on this journey with us from the beginning.
Adiya: We carry the name of each person in our agency. It’s just that in the long run, everyone wins from what they’ve built together.
What about challenges? Well, big ideas executed weakly. Below average DEI policies. Wear. Burnout. A lack of consequence to our work. Wear. In housing. Pay below market level. Wear. Feel a pattern here?
As far as customers are concerned, have you already integrated any?
Reghunath: We are currently about twenty people in the large founding group and, of course, customers have naturally expressed their interest. We are so grateful for all of this. Work has already started on half a dozen of them, but we’re not ready to show it yet. We’ll keep our cards close to the chest for now.