Saurabh Varma is currently leading Leo Burnett India as the Chief Executive Officer. In the last 15 years Saurabh has a rich experience working across many categories including FMCG, Banking and Finance and Consumer Durables.
Some of the brands he has worked on include Lakme (Unilever), Vicks (P&G), NIVEA, Fosters, Philips, HP, Blackberry, Samsung, Friesland Campina Asia Pacific (Dutch Lady/ Foremost/ Frisian Flag), MCYS and UOB Bank.
In the last 4 years Saurabh has won more than 60 awards including the Effie Gold, the Appies Gold, the Grand Prix for Direct Marketing, the most effective media campaign at Hall of Fame in 2009 and in 2010, 2 Gold Lions at Cannes, the Grand Prix at the ADFEST, the Viewers Choice Award (Mediacorp) in 2009 and in 2010 and many more. In 2010 Saurabh was awarded the ‘Strategic Planner of the Year’ at the ‘Hall of Fame’.
Saurabh launched Leo Burnett Institute of Behaviour (LBIB), a Singapore based consulting, innovation and research division of Leo Burnett Group, Asia Pacific in 2013. Saurabh also represents Leo Burnett Asia Pacific on the Global Planning Board and presides over the APAC Effectiveness Council.
Saurabh was visiting Bangladesh on 21st and 22nd of April for official affairs with Bitopi Leo Burnett, Dhaka. In an exclusive interview with Bangladesh Brand Forum (BBF), Saurabh shared his thoughts on the communication industry of South Asia.
BBF: How does it feel visiting Bangladesh?
Saurabh Varma: Well, it’s my first time here and it feels great.
BBF: You’ve worked with multiple brands, like Unilever, P&G, HP etc. in the last 15 years. You have worked across completely different categories. How does communication vary across diversified categories?
Saurabh Varma: I worked across multiple categories, I’ve worked across 16 countries. If you ask me, it’s actually all the same. It all comes down to understanding one single thing, which is human behavior. That’s what it is all about. It is all about understanding the real problem, which you are trying to solve, and you might move from one category to another, and every brand, every category has its unique issues. The context might change, but ultimately, our job as professionals, is to singularly figure out what the issue is, and what is the behavior that shapes that issue, and resolve that.
BBF: You have joined Leo Burnett India in 2013 as the CEO. What do you think is more important, understanding the culture or implementing strategies?
Saurabh Varma: We keep saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast. If you have a damn good vision, you can put together a good strategy, and if you execute it, then you will succeed. But I genuinely believe that creating culture is the most difficult thing to do, and that is the big judge.
BBF: You were in charge of Leo Burnett Institute of Behavior, which is based in Singapore. What is the core mission of this institute and what impact does it create?
Saurabh Varma: See, I had an overall objective right from the very beginning, and it was to create an incredible suite of tools which can help our clients. So what we have done is create something called “The Human Lab”, which is now based in Chicago. The lady who runs The Human Lab now, created a bunch of incredible tools which can help our clients across the world. So, these tools are classified into 4 buckets- one of them is called “People”, where you can really use these tools to understand human beings better. The second is “Purpose”, and these are tools which can help you reimagine the purpose of brands. Third is “Participation”, which comprises a bunch of tools again, helping you understand how you can create participation platforms. The last part is what we call “Populism”, which is really, whether your brand has become a part of popular culture.
BBF: You were awarded he Strategic Planner of the Year at Hall of Fame in 2010. Share a few words on that.
Saurabh Varma: I think at that point of time it just felt really good to be a part of an incredible campaign. We had finished some incredible work for the Singapore government, for one of the brands called MCYS, and I had the fortune of working with some incredible people and while I became the Planner of the Year. , the reality was that it felt good to be a part of Leo Burnett and part of a winning team which did some incredible work.
BBF: What are the current trends in the communication industry in South Asia?
Saurabh Varma: I think for us, the trends across South Asia remained the same for the last few years, and a lot of these trends have to do with the pressure that we feel because of scarcity that continues. We have limited resources, too many people, and that leads to a different kind of ecosystem. However, we have access to some of the best things in the world, and we know what prosperity really is. Along with that, we are all trying to consume, a lot. That leads to challenges of its own. It leads to great inequality, in all our countries at the moment. The people who have, have too much at the moment, and the people who don’t have, have very little, and that leads to conflict of a very different scale and size. These are some of the fundamental problems that we face o a daily basis. We have a whole bunch of problems which come from developing too quickly, where a value system on a daily basis gets questioned, and there is a push and a pull. So there is a pressure on the time, there is pressure on the sources, there is economic disparity, and those are all forces which are going to fuel up our behavior on a daily basis.
BBF: What are the pros and cons of cross platform communication?
Saurabh Varma: I think there is no con to cross platform communication, it’s only an advantage. Every time you think of an idea, and if you can figure out the context in which it operates, you can get the most out of your money. That’s really the objective of being media neutral. The objective of being media neutral is to understand the mediums through which the message can travel ad how that message could be shaped. So, for example, if you are a retail outlet, the mindset of the consumer is very different from the mindset of the consumer when he is at a friend’s place, watching television. If you can’t understand the mindset, then you can’t really create communication, which is genuinely relevant. For us, we have an incredible way of operating, which is called “Play”, and what “Play” does is that it looks at what is happening in the context, which is in society, it understands the trends in society and then it figures out where the brand can make its biggest impact. The agency then creates communication, and we operationalize that communication, figure out how it’s doing in society and then figure out contextually how we can make it more relevant and optimize it, measure and track it and that leads to pretty much the creation of what we call “The Virtual Cycle” for brands.
BBF: Where do you see the future of the communication industry of Bangladesh?
Saurabh Varma: I’m already quite impressed with the development of the industry, and I think the mobile will play a very big role in the way people will connect with each other, and advertising professionals will need to figure out how we can create unique solutions on the mobile. So, I think, that will be the biggest opportunity. I think a lot of the contents will become video very quickly, and agencies will need to figure out how we can create everyday content with video, and not just static. So, the biggest challenge will be how to make relevant contents which people can play with and share, but would also lead to buying, because ultimately, that is the most critical thing. So, play, buy and share will become critical.