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Rehabilitating Sri Lanka’s advertising culture

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By Madushka Balasuriya

“I think the talent is here, but the process is not. There’s a thing called ‘working hard and working smart’. I don’t think the process is right here,” says Anthony Chelvanathan in a frank assessment of Sri Lanka’s advertising industry. 

The outspoken Canadian, who left Sri Lanka as a child with his family, is speaking to me a short while before addressing one of Leo Burnett Sri Lanka’s frequent ‘Rectangular Table’ sessions.

“This might sound bad, but Ranil I have to say it, break rules. I know you don’t want to hear this, but that’s the problem. We follow too many rules,” he tells Leo Burnett Sri Lanka’s Managing Director Ranil de Silva a little later on during the presentation, in front of the agency’s top brass and clients.

“When going from point A to B if you don’t break rules you are gonna get hit halfway. Break rules, not in terms of hurting somebody or losing money, but learn how to navigate. Learn and know when to bring in people, when not to include people, knowing how to go along and weave through to the end goal. That’s understanding the process.”

Chelvanathan’s candid nature is one of the first things you notice about him. Well, second. The first is his attire. Everyone in attendance is in your standard office garb, in stark contrast to Chelvanathan who is decked out in a dark fitted casual shirt, dark jeans, countless accessories and a sports watch.

He is the quintessential modern creative, though for someone so deeply entrenched in an industry that revels in third party approval, he also has the aura of a man who lives by his own rules. That’s not to say he doesn’t take on board other opinions – quite the contrary – but he is definitely someone for whom second best is not an option.

“A good creative director takes out emotion and looks just at the work. That’s a hard skill; taking emotion out and judging the work is a tough thing. Sometimes we oversell things, sometimes we tell ourselves it’s good, even internally. I think at the end of the day we have to be honest. 

“If you see an idea that has a slight chance that it has been done before or it’s not good…I always ask the creatives, you’re flipping through a creative annual do you see that ad being put in there? Like, would you say it’s a brilliant idea? When I say that to them, they look and go [shrugs] ‘yeah…’.

“If you’re not honest about it at the end of the day then why are you doing this, no one is gonna care, you’re just wasting your time.”

Good vs. Gold

 This ability to glacially evaluate his own work is what has made Chelvanathan the success he is today. Presently heading up the creative team at Leo Burnett Toronto as Group Creative Director, the past eight years have seen Chelvanathan oversee numerous award-winning campaigns for brands such as IKEA, The US Open, James Ready Beer, and Raising The Roof, to name but a few. 

The latest and greatest feather in his cap was when he and his team won a prestigious Gold Lion at Cannes’ annual Lions festival earlier this year.

“Anytime we win an award we forget it. FORGET IT. Celebrate for a day and start from scratch. Because as soon as I live off that I’m done. I’ve already lost the game. I remember in Cannes this year when we won the Gold Lion award, I leaned over to my Creative Director and I said: ‘what do we have for next year?’ I swear to God it’s the first thing I said. And she’s like: ‘I know! We’ve got nothing!’ 

“I mean, we’re talking about next year and we didn’t even go up on the stage yet! Because if not it’s going to defeat us. Yes enjoy the moment – I do appreciate it – we do sometimes get too jaded, so we do need to appreciate and celebrate the moment, but at the same time don’t hold it too much. If you hold it too much you’re defeating yourself, you’re getting lazy.”

The above anecdote highlights precisely why Chelvanathan is at the top of his profession, the underlying sentiment of which made up the content of a session he addressed organised by International Advertising Association (IAA) Sri Lanka Chapter titled ‘Good vs. Gold’.

“I always say: ‘Do you wanna be good in this room? Do you wanna be good in this agency? Do you wanna be good in this country? Or do you wanna be the best in the world? Where do you stand?’ I’m here because I wanna be the best in the world. 

“That’s my bar – it’s high but I’m gonna try to reach for it – I’m only talking to those people. The other people I don›t really care if they take it or not but for me you have to appreciate what you do. Once you appreciate what you do, you tend to put your heart and soul into it. And don›t take it for granted.”

This ethos is at the centre of all of Chelvanathan’s best work. From the Gold Lion winning IKEA campaign – recipes were printed on parchment paper with measurements for the IKEA ingredients drawn out on the page, which could then be wrapped up and placed in the oven – to their viral campaign for Raising the Roof (RTR), a group dedicated to helping the homeless. These and countless others have seen the Leo Burnett Toronto team go above and beyond the traditional purviews of an advertising agency.

One word equity 

 To be able to do this successfully however requires a team of creatives to identify the core message of any brand. One of the most effective ways to do this is to identify a brand’s one word equity.

“One of the years when we went to Cannes, Lord Saatchi did a whole presentation on one word equity. For each brand, trying to figure out what you stand for. Any work that you do, you can compare it to that one word and say, ‘is this right, or is this wrong?’ 

“So for example, during the presentation he took the Declaration of Independence of the United States – it’s three paragraphs, he broke it down to two, broke it down to a sentence, and then broke it down to one word, which was ‘freedom’. We took that learning to Toronto and we started applying it to every single brand. It just made work easier, it made it very clear what you stand for and who you are.”

In the RTR campaign, Chelvanathan and his team were tasked with raising awareness on the rising number of homeless youths, while at the same time getting the public to stop avoiding the problem. The one word equity they found was ‘potential’.

“We wanted to identify what the end takeaway emotion should be. We wanted to make sure when you guys see this communication it should stab your heart and turn it; it should make you feel awful. That’s the boundary our creative director placed. Every time we put forward an idea she would ask if it made you feel bad. If it didn’t, keep going.”

The end result was a heart wrenching, and thought provoking, poster campaign. Life-size posters were placed in awkward areas on pavements and side roads, such as on a set of steps or the corner of sidewalk, which read, “down here is a bad place for a poster an even worse place for a homeless youth.” Other posters drew comparisons, one memorably showing a potato and then listing the numerous things you could “potentially” make with one, but sombrely noting that when someone saw a homeless youth all they saw was a homeless youth.

“Instead of showing a homeless person we like to let people think about. Keep that execution fresh,” adds Chelvanathan on the creative choice to never once show a homeless individual in the campaign. 

‘Mac Monkeys’ and 

Sri Lankan potential

 Potential would also be the word that accurately surmises Sri Lanka’s advertising industry. For Chelvanathan the talent is clearly there, however he feels that for Sri Lanka as a whole to make that next step up, the talent needs to be more self-assured.

“They have crazy talent here. I just want people to be a little bit more confident in themselves. I wouldn›t be able to do this interview if this was five, six years ago. I’d be super shy. But I had to start putting myself out there.

“I’ve told Art Directors here to start presenting more, and not rely on writers to present. I used to rely on my partner a lot, but after a certain time you›re going to hit a ceiling where you become a senior Art Director. Now when they put you in front of a client what are you going to do? Start speaking up. We’re too humble in this side of the world. Unlike down there [in Canada] where you want people to be more humble!”

Chelvanathan has a particular pet peeve around what he refers to as ‘Mac Monkeys,’ where an Art Director is simply there to make an idea “look pretty” without any meaningful creative input. He says he sees a lot of that in Sri Lanka.

“I don›t want Art Directors to be ‘Mac Monkey’. That means the writer does the idea and passes to the Art Director – that’s some ‘pass-on’ rubbish, that should not exist, we should work together. When I started early in my career I was being a ‘Mac Monkey’. I would take everything and make it look pretty, and I hated that. I hated that because I felt like I was being used, that I wasn’t a part of the idea. 

“So what I tell Art Directors nowadays is to take that hand off the computer. Don’t touch the computer. Work on an idea – piece of paper and a pen, the most powerful things – work with your copywriter or partner, think of ideas, write it down, sketch it down. Once you find one or two ideas that are great, once it’s official, then each discipline should go their own way. As an art director I’m doing my expertise after we separate. So that way when we’re together we’re utilising our heads.”

The problem with 

group brainstorming

 This idea of going in separate directions during a creative process and then coming back to formulate the final concept is something Chelvanathan is a huge proponent of. However in Sri Lanka, this methodology is rarely used – rather Sri Lankan ad agencies commonly use group brainstorming as one of their key creative processes. For Chelvanathan this has a series of inherent flaws.

“I’m not a fan of group brainstorming, and I noticed that it happens here a lot. We tried that maybe six to seven years ago, like five people in a room – me personally, I would never speak up because I’m shy and kind of insecure, and didn›t want to sound stupid – and you know one person talks about basketball and the next thing you know the whole team is talking about that. It’s just when you have an Art Director/Writer dual team, and you focus on it, you’re just like attacking the brief. There’s less chances of you going all over the place.”

“In these group brainstorms I’ve never seen a ‘gold’, maybe a ‘merit’. But when you work together in a tight unit, you›re way more focused and you’re way more able to get to the end goal. That doesn’t mean you shouldn›t work in a team, what I mean is the process.”

Chelvanathan’s success in Toronto backs up this sentiment; in Toronto there are about five teams working together, which go away, work on things separately and then come back to discuss ideas. This is also backed up by some of the biggest influencers in advertising globally.

“When I went to Cannes one year it was a hot topic, and one of the seminars was on ‘does group brainstorming work?’ And I think the next slide was ‘no!’. And everybody cheered!”

“Life is all about simplicity, so you need to be laser focused. When my partner and I work we go like this [makes hand gestures going outwards and then back in], out and in. Meaning we both take the brief and work separately and then we come and share. However if we both go in the same direction, we end up in the same place.”

“I could be completely wrong, but this is my point of view. We tried it back in Toronto and nobody likes it. We tried it for a year, year and a half and we didn›t see any good work come out of it. Now the Creative Director looks at all the teams’ work and picks the ideas they like. Those teams are then accountable. When you work in a group team no one’s accountable, you can hide.”

The need for focus

 As I’m concluding my interview I ask Chelvanathan what his key piece of advice would be to any budding talent, his answer is unequivocal: focus.

“That’s the hardest thing to do as a human being, if we all did that man we could be ahead of the curve even evolutionarily speaking. We’re lazy creatures; we say we’re working hard but we’re not, we’re not focused. Laziness is the opposite of focus and that is kind of what’s holding us back. Try to get into that zone, try to focus on what you›re doing.”

“I want people to stop working here till like 12 o’clock every day, because you›re not focused, it’s rubbish. I have interns who have been interning for a year and a half, and I go up to them and ask, ‘why are you guys still interning for a year and a half? What are you doing, you›re here every day, because you›re not focused! You’re just sitting there, lullabying, playing games, doing this and that, you think you›re working hard but where’s the result?’ If you don›t see the result you›re doing something wrong, go figure out what you›re doing wrong. You’re lying to yourself.”

I ask him if he was ever guilty of such indiscretions. “At the start of my career we were out there till 1am, but you know what we’d be doing? We’d be like riding scooters, it’s rubbish! We had to go through years and years of realising that we were not focused.”

So what changed? “I got a girlfriend,” he laughs. “That’s when you have to balance your life. Then you can’t work as long cos you gotta go see her. So then you›re like you really have to put time to your work.” 

Pix by Lasantha Kumara


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