Q&A: Anil K Nair – ‘Brands Need to See Consumers as Equals and Friends’

Back in March of this year, Anil K Nair was appointed CEO of VMLY&R India. Previously CEO (Digital) and Managing Partner at L&K Saatchi & Saatchi India, Nair brings nearly two and a half decades of advertising and digital experience in the ad world.

Branding in Asia recently spoke with Nair about his vision for the agency moving forward, digital as the new “consumer consciousness”, in-housing by brands, recent trends in the industry, brand-consumer relationships, and more.

You were appointed CEO of VMLY&R India back in March of this year. What are some changes you’ve put in place to create growth and how have things progressed since taking the new position?

It’s been an exciting half-year so far – from getting to know the larger VMLY&R global family, the India WPP family, our folks from the region, the operating team in India, the India clients to refreshing the office ambiance and immersing oneself in the ethos and culture of recently betrothed VMLY&R, it’s been a roller coaster.


I am a huge personal fan of getting the culture right as a recipe for success. That’s been one of my core areas of focus. How does one absorb and assimilate the entrepreneurial Kansas City VMLY&R culture and use it to drive our purpose in India?

I have also been busy sharpening the India offering and proposition along with the team. 

We intend to focus on four areas of excellence and global expertise. Namely 1) Campaigns & Connections 2) Content at Scale 3) Connected Commerce 4) Experience & Technology

We are betting heavily on Connected Commerce, a global practice that empowers brands to speed up their commerce play and optimize their Go-to-Market strategies.


Another area wherein we will bring the best of global expertise is the practice of Customer Experience or CX. This, in my opinion, is a solution being sought after by Indian brands given increasing global competition and tougher margin pressures. 

The market has been very warm and welcoming. I have had a lot of positive and varied reactions from clients. There is a lot of residual brand love for erstwhile Y&R, enigma about VML and curiosity about this new entity. I have always considered VML to be a well-kept secret. But it’s time to let the cat out of the bag.  Though VML has been in the market for nearly five years now and done some pretty iconic work including the digital roll out of ‘Mahindra’s Spark the Rise’ movement.

In an interview, you once said that digital is “a new form of consumer consciousness.” Talk about that and why it’s relevant to how brands can better interact and resonate with consumers.

I believe that we are lucky in this generation to be on the cusp of change from the industrial economy to the digital one. To see the birth and rapid progression of social, IoT, Dark Web, Cryptocurrency, Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. We are in the formative years of this new period.

   This reminds me of the famous song by the British band “Buggles” called ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. But in reality, nothing such calamitous happened. Radio shapeshifted and is back in full force.   .

One of the big shifts is the democratization of the world, the blurring of geographies, the speed of connections, the instantaneous merging and melding of culture and thought. Juxtaposed increasingly against a certain dependency on technology, losing of certain human faculties and disconnection amidst all these connections. Which is what leads me to believe that an always-on new consciousness and intelligence is evolving and brands will need to formulate completely new approaches to co-exist and thrive in this new ecosystem.

Brands need to see consumers as equals and friends. Not target audiences and demographics that need to be manipulated and interrupted. 

They need to move from staccato campaign thinking to an always-on approach of an ongoing stream of contextual content and consciousness.

Brands need to intuitively be present at various points of the consumer’s consideration and buying journey, in a contextual manner.

 Old orders are being replaced. New frameworks being formed. And therefore everything and everyone is vulnerable at this point in time.

Brands also need to be aware and alive to the ‘power of disruption’. There is the ever-potential opportunity/threat that always looms in every category. Success depends on one’s ability to spot and ride these waves of disruption.

This means changing of existing systems, structures, processes, templates and most importantly a way of thinking.

Most importantly to realize that the digital economy has resulted in the creations of networks or ecosystems. It’s important that brands cultivate and emotionally invest in such ecosystems for the propagation of its thought processes.

But the funny thing is that networks need to be invested in over a period of time. One cannot invoke these networks only when one needs to campaign. There is a certain marrying of short term tactical with long term trajectory thinking that always needs to be at play.

Regarding the trend of consultancies acquiring agencies, in-housing, and the move of talent to media platforms like Facebook and Google. What are your thoughts on these shifts and the long term/short term effects on the ad world and for consumers?

This reminds me of the famous song by the British band “Buggles” called ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’. But in reality, nothing such calamitous happened. Radio shapeshifted and is back in full force.

Change is painful and often comes with collateral damage. What we see now are indications of this turmoil and confusion. Ecosystems and frameworks are colliding and crashing with each other. It is difficult at this point to pinpoint definitive trends going forward. A lot of things will change including ad formats, targeting, interactivity and speed of deployment.

But I guess it will all eventually metamorphose and meld into a new order. 

You’ve spoken previously on brand safety. What steps can brands and their agency partners take to better ensure brand safety on digital platforms?

Like I have said earlier, we are in a period of flux and change. Old orders are being replaced. New frameworks being formed. And therefore everything and everyone is vulnerable at this point in time. I guess as this ecosystem matures, brand safety norms will too. But till then brands need to extra vigilant about protecting themselves.

Some hygiene internal control protocols can always help. Almost like a playbook of dos and don’ts. Which can govern alliances, content adjacency norms, role of channels, partnerships, technology partners, and security frameworks.

The industry talks about the importance of understanding the consumer and putting them at the heart of every piece of work. Tell us what that means to you and how these goals can be achieved.

Digital has ensured that marketers and advertisers have no choice but to acknowledge the primacy of consumer understanding through data. 

We are tending towards an era of machine fuelled creativity and targeting practices. Which will have data-driven marketing and communication at the heart of it like an intelligence black box that can fine-tune segmentation, targeting, creative optioning, media optimization and best practices on the fly real-time. 

The big ask right now is data standardization and creating a data orientation in organizations. To get many of their hybrid systems talking to one and another,

The softer aspect of consumer understanding, insight mining, customer profile creation, creative ideation will remain and grow into newer grander forms. Given new formats like AR/VR, wearables, 5G, IOT and technologies being developed that we aren’t even aware of yet.

But some of the hygiene comms heavy lifting will be taken on by a combination of AI/ML driven processes and systems which will reduce wastage and improve efficiencies.

What is some recent work from VMLY&R India that you are proud of?

We call ourselves a Brand Experience Agency creating always-on connected consumer experiences for our brands. Creativity curated through the lens of culture and harnessed by data & technology is where we play and is most definitely our sweet spot.

We also like to call it Live Creativity, work that is interactive, that provokes a reaction from consumers giving us almost visceral palpable real-time feedback on how well our creative triggers are working and what needs to change.

A lot of our thinking is ‘Beta Thinking’. Which means the ability to constantly evolve the communication trajectory in keeping with the sentient nature of dialogue between two entities in real life.

We have done some exciting work with Heinz Foods, Indonesia.

We launched a whole new brand platform for their soy sauce brand, Kecap ABC, driving equality in the kitchen by encouraging husbands to help their wives cook, and that too in a patriarchal society like Indonesia. The #RealHusbandsCook multi-touchpoint campaign permeated popular culture and entered the conversation mainstream.

Bobby McGill

Bobby McGill

Bobby is the founder and publisher of Branding in Asia.

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