VML London’s ECD on his underdog spirit, his voracious curiosity, and getting a thank you note from Michelle Obama
The first and most important thing to know about Harsh Kapadia is that he is definitely a dog person. It’s written all over him. His optimism is boundless. He has the capacity to be distracted and fascinated by just about anything. And he’s not one to hold back and wait for opportunities to come to him. No, you’d never mistake him for an aloof and too-cool-for-school cat person.
The day we go to meet him at the London offices of VML, he’s in the middle of trying to figure out if he can get a pet passport for his Golden Retriever, Comet. He wants to take his well-travelled pooch (who has followed Harsh from Australia to New York and now London) to a pet-related pitch in Germany and he’s got 48 hours to figure it out. But Harsh is not one to be deterred by a bit of a challenge.
Harsh has been ECD at VML London since January this year. Before that he worked at VML New York, where one of his projects earned him a personal letter of thanks from Michelle Obama. This year Harsh will also be heading to Cannes Lions as a member of the Mobile Jury. And if Harsh is good enough for a FLOTUS and Cannes, well he’s certainly got our attention. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with him to learn more.
LBB> I’ve read that you have been obsessed with commercials ever since you were a kid. What were your memories of that time – were you quite a creative kid?
HK> Whenever there was an ad break – and this is something my parents told me – most people would stop watching but I would watch them.
My mum always pushed me to go to art contests. I grew up in Mumbai and I came from a family of lawyers. My mum was a lawyer, my dad is a solicitor, my sister’s a lawyer, my grandad was a lawyer, one of my uncles is a lawyer, my cousins are lawyers… But, actually, my family was quite open minded and there was never any pressure. My mum, even though she was a lawyer, she had this creative bent to her. She would sign me up to art class and teach me art.
I actually represented my school for art5 contests all the time, not knowing that creativity could become my day-to-day job. This was the days before Photoshop came into my hands, so I could draw really well.
LBB> So you weren’t tempted to follow the family tradition and become a lawyer?
HK> It wasn’t that I didn’t like law, it was that I didn’t want to go round the courtrooms with everyone going ‘oh that’s their son’. It happens in India, if your parents are successful in a field you’ll get a bit of royalty treatment. I was too competitive for that. I wanted to build something myself.
When I was young that competitiveness was about me, and now it’s about my team. I want my team to succeed.
LBB> Tell me about your first steps in advertising – I believe you got an internship was at J. Walter Thompson, where you spent the majority of your career.
HK> I went in with no software skills. The ECD then said for my first month I would sit between two guys in the studio and I would get my own briefs. The two guys said, every time I learned a shortcut, they’d order a beer. Which basically meant I learned all the software shortcuts!
When it came to ideas I learned more from my first ECD than anyone else. He always believed that if anyone said they didn’t believe in awards, to go and look at their shelf to see how many awards they actually had won and that will tell you why. I think that applies even today. It’s not about making work for awards… but award-winning work sets benchmarks.
LBB> And there is a big debate right now about the role of awards in the industry.
HK> I think they are important, but you have to know why. If you are doing work for awards, that’s absolutely the worst way to do it. That’s what can give the industry a bad name and build trust with clients. At the end of the day, even if there weren’t any awards, you’d still want to do work that earns recognition and is talked about by people in pubs.
LBB> Having had that first great boss, who clearly influenced you, has that affected how you like to lead and approach your responsibility?
HK> Absolutely. I have been lucky enough to work with had some amazing people working above me and mentoring me. They gave me the confidence to not think twice about breaking rules, if it’s the right thing. I have friends who interned at ad agencies at the same time as me and I would say most of them didn’t end up staying in advertising. They were doing work that you assume interns get to do – the stuff that no one else wants. I was lucky enough to get to work on some of the biggest briefs.
Some of it is timing, some of it is luck and some of it is your own ambition. You have to be ambitious to work in advertising. If you’re going to show people around the world a dream that a brand can give you, you have to aspire to it.
Your boss in your early career is super important. It’s not so much about who you look up to within the industry but who you work with and learn from day-to-day. That decides your whole working style, it’s where you learn what’s right and wrong. And because right and wrong are not clearly defined in advertising, that’s really important.
LBB> So why did you end up moving to Australia?
HK> In India, you don’t just finish your education at your Bachelors. When I finished I wanted to do a Masters in design communication. I had my choices: go to the US, study and come back. Go to the UK, study, and come back. Or in Australia I could study while I worked.
In advertising you don’t learn that much in a classroom, you learn on the ground. I went to Australia thinking I’d get a job there and did a fulltime masters at the same time. Coming from India it really wasn’t that hard – there’s so much pressure in India!
It wasn’t a straight transfer from India – I still had to push, and push, and push to get that interview with JWT Melbourne. And then, once I was there, a new ECD came in and wiped the whole creative department clean – there were just a few people left and luckily one of them was the guy who was mentoring me, Keith. We reset but the three of us survived and we started pitching a lot, winning awards. There was a point when I had done enough time there and I started talking to another agency in Australia – but the global team in New York said they’d move me to New York. It all started as a conversation in Cannes over drinks and a month later it was ‘we want to move you to New York, are you in?’
When I was in India I thought I’d spend two years working and doing my masters and then go back… it’s been twelve years!
LBB> It sounds like you’re one of those people who isn’t content to sit still. Where has that tenacity come from?
HK> If you ask me that today, I’d say I’ve picked it up over time from different countries. If you asked me that when I just left India, I’d say a lot of it comes from the competition you face in school in India. I was into sport at school, so the competitiveness was always there.
A lot of it was I’ve always enjoyed starting as an underdog and having to push. ‘It can’t be done’ or ‘we’ve never done it like this’. As soon as I hear that it drives me crazy. The day I get comfortable… I’ll probably switch to consulting!
LBB> How have you found working in different markets. What have been the distinctive characteristics of the various places you’ve work?
HK> Take humour, for example. In India it’s very ingrained in the culture. As a foreigner you won’t even connect with it, you’ll think ‘why is that funny’. It gets lost in cultural translation, not linguistic translation. India is so rich in culture, you can play with it – as long as you don’t touch religion. And also, having a lot of non-advertising friends is important.
In India there’s a thing called ‘jugaad’. It basically means you can hack things. On average, people there won’t tell you they can’t do something – they’ll figure out how to do it once they’ve got the job. That changes your mindset from the traditional advertising approach. If you don’t have enough money to do something for one client, why not bring two clients together?
In Australia, the humour is a bit self-deprecating. Aussies don’t mind laughing at themselves and they realise it’s not life and death. That attitude of not wanting the pressure on yourself allows people to not worry too much and be free with their thinking.
In New York, coming from a legal family really helped me because lawyers there love to get involved. My business affairs office had fun there. We had a whole conversation with our lawyers around poo emojis once!
And then also I think as a market, there are so many processes to make sure that everyone and every layer is involved. I always say, democracy is amazing for politics but sometimes an idea needs one person protecting it all the time. Without being misunderstood, it’s about having the vision and the person who ends up protecting the idea has to have that vision.
LBB> And how have you found the UK culture?
The UK I feel, as obvious as it sounds, a little bit more dry, a bit more subtle. Sometimes if you leave the UK it can sound a bit apologetic. You need to be careful if you’re creating a campaign for just the UK market or for the rest of Europe. You have to be able to dial these things up and down.
I would also say, at the moment, at first glance the industry still feels a bit divided between traditional and digital advertising. I think the UK is largely known for its film but I would love for the UK to be known for its innovation. That’s a personal challenge for me and as VML. It’s about the best ideas as long as it’s strategically sound and works for the client.
LBB> I wanted to ask you about moving to VML from JWT, what drew you over?
HK> I think the advantage that VML has is that we are a network that is only 25 years old.
They wanted to push the work. Contrary to everyone’s belief we are not the digital arm of Y&R. New business and pushing the creative boundaries were the ambition, not just for the New York office but the whole network. At the time I thought, ‘I have a friend I trust who has introduced me to VML, I’ve never worked for the classic digital agency – at the time that’s what it was, although it is evolving very fast.
I tried it and the first thing we did was the Talking Fountain. It got accolades and a letter from Michelle Obama – check!
LBB> I saw that! Talking about awards, it doesn’t get much better than a personal letter from the First Lady?
HK> Perhaps getting one from the queen! At the New York office it really gave us confidence and on the back of it we won Legoland and New Balance, Motorola. And a lot of the work started getting recognised, not just from an award standpoint; clients wanted us to do more. With Legoland, we were true partners. I would meet the client for lunch or drinks and we’d talk about work – and they’d pull me into roller coaster brainstorming. How many jobs get you brainstorming for roller coasters?
Jon Cook, our global CEO, talks about ‘most important partner’, and I really embrace that.
LBB> What’s the culture like in the network?
HK> VML acts as a family. Everyone believes that the best work has to win. It’s nothing personal. We will fight for the work, we will have arguments but when we leave, we will have a beer. It’s just like a family.
Arrogance will not survive in VML. It goes back to the headquarters in Kansas City – that culture seeps out. I’ve worked in two VML offices now and I’ve spent time with most of the network globally. There are times when someone from another office will call because they need some input. Recently one of my ECDs went to Brazil and spent ten days working there. When we have to work as a network, we work as a network.
LBB> What are you working on at the moment?
HK> There’s something we’re working on right now for plastics in oceans. It’s already soft-launched, with the posters and print. The connected book comes out and then there’s a massive push in June for World Ocean Day. The client’s fantastic. I have been lucky enough to learn from some of the toughest productions at VML, whether it’s the Talking Fountain or reinventing GPS using Google Maps - and we’re now working with scientists to create an environmental ticking time bomb using data. Rather than being exclusive and saying, ‘it’s our idea, no one touch it’, we’ve been working with scientists, showing them how marketing works, learning from them and making it cooler and better.
Since I’ve come here I’ve been asked to come to a lot of innovation meetings with clients to help get them inspired about innovation. We’ve always said, “innovation is invisible; don’t worry about how we will make it, worry about how you will experience it.”
At the end of the day, it’s about being human. Consumers are not consumers. They’re human beings. It sounds so obvious, right, but how often do you forget.
LBB> When you’re not at work and not thinking about an idea (I imagine you rarely switch your brain off completely!), what do you get up to?
HK> At the moment, since I’ve come to the UK my son has been keeping me very, very busy. He’s nine months old and we also have a big dog, so between the two of them, I try to give my wife a break when I’m around.
I always wanted to get back to comic sketches, just to draw stuff. But I need to find time to go do it. Right now, my boy is teething and starting to flip around. The other day I went balloon shopping and my wife explicitly thinks I’m doing that for myself and not him!
LBB> A little bit…?
HK> More than a little bit! I said I think he needs a train set. He is nine months! She said, ‘you want the train set’. My new passion right now is going into toy stores and seeing what I can get in his hands!