Whether it is Flipkart, Ola, or Myntra, the relationship between Happy Mcgarrybowen and startups has flourished in more ways than one. The makers of Flipkart’s first viral ad campaign are showing that building brands may well be a child's play.
When Happy Creative Services was acquired by the global ad giant Dentsu Aegis Network in 2016, much as it was the beginning of a new journey, it marked the end of an even more memorable milestone in the small yet spunky ad organisation’s past life.
What started as a two-man guerilla outfit in 2007, Happy Mcgarrybowen, as it came to be known after the acquisition, is today a 100-strong team that is making a difference to brands with all its guns blazing.
A decade in a startup life is a long one, but I doubt that the two founders -- Kartik Iyer and Praveen Das -- ever boxed themselves as such when they started out of a small terrace in Koramangala area in Bengaluru.
“Though we were just the two of us, we thought and acted like an ad agency,” says 43-year-old Kartik, doing a flashback for my benefit. “We liked to call ourselves an idea shop, and that is what we continue to be,” he adds.
Nonetheless, the way the two went about building their idea shop into an edgy and thriving creative services company tells a lot about their entrepreneurial spirit. With that attitude, it was no surprise that their paths with startups had to cross one day.
“We were three years into our business when Flipkart happened to us,” recounts Kartik animatedly. I am told he pulls off stand up comic acts too, and I have no reason to disagree.
We are in his den in the new Happy office in Indiranagar that is designed exactly the way the two co-founders had envisioned it in the first 30 days since they started. “We had thought about the kind of lighting we would have; that everyone would be working on Mac, and how the design and decor would be. Essentially, what we had planned in those 30 days to do with our business is pretty much what we achieved in these 10 years,” says Kartik.
So as I was saying, Flipkart came knocking towards the end of the third year of Happy’s life. And as history goes, it was a game changer for Happy as much as it was for Flipkart.
The commercials of Flipkart kids with grown-up voices is legendary now, and the fact that the ecommerce biggie resurrected it recently -- albeit with a different agency, Lowe -- proves the enormous brand recall value that the commercial established for Flipkart.
“How can I even begin to explain what that campaign meant for us. It is like asking MJ what he thought of ‘Billie Jean’,” says Kartik, admitting that it personally impacted him when the Flipkart account was no longer with them. Though, he is quick to add that they are working with Flipkart’s private label brand, Billion.
Happy got Myntra (this was before its acquisition by Flipkart) one week after the Flipkart account. At that time, Myntra was selling t-shirts and keychains, and Happy facilitated its avataar as a fashion brand.
The awards came thick and fast. “...and we were winning most of them. We made sure we were there to receive each one of them,” he adds. They were for brand stories well told. The stories were fresh and edgy. “There’s no point in telling a story that is fantastic alone. It has to be rooted in something, like human connection,” says Kartik.
“If it’s your own story, authenticity is the key. If it is someone else’s story then empathy is the key.”
Happy was showing how times were changing. It was no longer the era of a brand advertising itself as being the widest, the coolest, or the biggest. This kind of copy worked when there were only a few brands one could count on the fingers. Today, with so many brands fighting it out to be seen on the front shelf, a new way of thinking and storytelling was required.
And Happy had shown that with its earlier stint with fashion brands and then with startups.
After that, everybody from the startup world was calling them. Towards the end of its fifth year, Ola came to them and they did five radio spots for them. “I remember Bhavish as this passionate young man who wanted to make a difference. He came and met us in our office,” recalls Kartik. But the Ola campaign did not happen for another two years, as the startup focused all its energies on growing its business. “But Bhavish promised us that he will come to us when they were ready,” says Kartik.
True to his word, the Ola campaign landed in Happy’s lap, and the two have been going strong till today.
What is noteworthy about Happy’s work is that they were able to build a brand for a new company (in this case startups) in a matter of zero to five years. “They (startup founders) were all young guys with new ideas. We were able to build their brands in such a small time gap is because they also grew in that time,” he states.
Kartik believes that there’s a vast difference between the way companies that are family-owned and startups think and take decisions. The startup founders are open to new ideas and take risks. “These guys were all younger than us. We learned a great deal from them. Everytime we thought we were getting screwed, we said look at them, what are we complaining about. They were dealing with so much pressure, so much media scrutiny, the public giving them gaalis on social media and so on,” he adds.
The relationship between Happy and startups flourished in more ways than one. “They have contributed to us as much as we have contributed to their brands, and I don’t mean financially. We learnt a lot from the startup culture, it taught us how to deal with the vagaries of business. It was like jumping into new wells each day. And a lot of times, we saw these entrepreneurs do it...launch a new category, do this, do that. We would see them start something and shut it down in six months. Those were learning points for us. And that helped us do similar things in our journey as well. We’ve tried different things in the last 10 years, some things have worked phenomenally well, and many things have not. That’s not really stopped us. Trying something new was progress, and starting something and shutting it down and moving on was also progress,” says Kartik.
Today, they are on on the first leg of their last course. “This is the third leg of the next five years, as I see it. The first five years was devoted to fashion, the second five years to the new-world economy, which is the startups, and now in this third phase, we are looking at the old-world clients like Duroflex mattresses, Suzuki two-wheelers and so on,” Kartik informs me.
Kartik and Praveen met at Ogilvy where the two were working. They connected instantly. And when Kartik decided that he wanted to quit and start something of his own, Praveen did not think twice about joining him.
“As 32-year-olds then, we had all kinds of plans. We said we will raise money so that we can then work in peace! My wife was eight months pregnant then, and Praveen was supposed to be married in a couple of months. We decided on the name Happy spontaneously and hoped for magical things to happen. And they did,” says Kartik.
He says what got them through the initials months was their attitude and the fact that they did not know anything better. “We behaved like an agency even though we were just the two of us. I was at Praveen’s house at 9.30 am, all bathed and ready for work.”
The call from Lee came after two weeks of their setting up the new office. They wanted Happy to do their end of season sale campaign.
But before that, they spent a month trying to work with an Indian-origin South African producer who had told them a tall story about the big plans he had for his Ayurvedic sexual performance enhancement product.
“We had got a call from a line producer in Mumbai. He had a client who wanted to make a film to sell his product. We flew down, got our Rs 25,000 cheque as advance. We made grand plans of running the campaign. We said we will shoot with porn stars in South Africa. And after all this planning, that guy just disappeared.”
Thankfully, it was a momentary distraction for after the Lee campaign kicked off and their Lee movie became a big hit, they were swamped by all the big fashion brands. “We were at the right place, right time...boom,” says Kartik. They went on to launch other global fashion brands like Diesel and Basics in India.
They were quite out there, constantly pushing themselves. Around 2015-16, they realised that they could only grow so much organically, and were sure they did not want to play only the league games. Thus, when Dentsu Aegis Network showed interest in acquiring them, they were happy to do so more because of a match in their intent. “They told us we are acquiring you because you do what you do well,” says Kartik.
Kartik refuses to divulge the financial details of the deal, but media reports put the size of the deal between Rs 200 crore and Rs 300 crore. Both Kartik and Praveen have joined Dentsu’s leadership team and report to Ashish Bhasin, Chairman of Dentsu Aegis Network-South Asia.
Ashish feels Happy has the global sensitivity that Dentsu looks for, and that the acquisition will add to the creative strength of the global team.
For now, Kartik and Praveen are happy doing what they do best, but the two founders may well be thinking about their next stage of happiness.