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Opinion and Insight

Cheil’s Indian Ambition and Social Conscience

From creative skillsets to moral values, Cheil SWA CCO Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar describes the keys to the agency’s success to LBB's Laura Swinton

Cheil’s Indian Ambition and Social Conscience

This year marks Cheil’s 14th anniversary in India – and the Korean network has found itself woven into the fabric of India’s advertising scene. It’s currently one of the top five advertising networks in India. 

Chief Creative Officer Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar puts that success down to their unique blend of specialisms and offering of tech-based creative solutions. “[It] truly positions us as a progressive and future-forward agency,” he says.

But being part of India’s High Five isn’t enough to sate the network’s ambitions – now Sagar’s aim is to enter the top three. He hopes that new introductions like Cheil Design, which was launched in India this August, and the Innovation Lab show that they’re constantly trying to build on their capabilities and responding to clients’ evolving needs. Sagar reckons Cheil is pretty unique in the Indian advertising landscape as it also operates on one key principle – allowing a truly integrated approach.

And that future-facing, adaptive mentality can even be seen in the agency’s choice of headquarters. Cheil has five offices spread across India, but for the HQ they opted not for the nation’s capital New Delhi nor the incredibly populous megacity Mumbai… instead they opted for Gurugram, the country’s so-called ‘Millennium City’. Gurugram (formerly known as Gurgaon), is a technology and finance hub popular with international brands, software companies and manufacturers. 

But while the agency’s leadership [Chief Operating Officer Nishi Suri, Chief Strategy Officer Atika Mallik, Head of Events Navdeep Dhindsa, Head of Retail Girish V Nalavade, Sr. VP of Integrated Services and, of course, Sagar] is not short of business ambition, they also consider it important for the company to be a force for positive social change.

“In addition to the great work, we feel that the role of business is not just about wealth creation, but about society as a whole. And so, we have been working towards the cause of primary education,” says Sagar. “We have partnered with Teach for India and Concern India Foundation to educate and empower underprivileged children in India. The program is at a very nascent stage but we hope to continue contributing to the society and making a difference.”

That social conscience permeates internal organisation as well as the work they put out into the world. Like most markets, Indian advertising has disproportionately few women in leadership positions, for example, but several of the top roles at Cheil are occupied by women.

“[The] Indian advertising industry is still dominated by men. However, many organisations / agencies are now consciously making a change internally with giving opportunity to women leaders,” says Sagar. “In Cheil, we have recently had a few significant positions led by women. Cheil SWA is spearheaded by Nishi Suri as COO. Cheil’s Chief Strategy Officer and Head of Design are led by women – Atika Malik and Prerna Mehra respectively. Undoubtedly Cheil is powerhouse led by women and we are all proud of them.”

And that ethos filters into the work they do for brands too. One of their most successful campaigns this year was the campaign they did to promote Samsung Technical Schools. In a collaboration with the Indian government, the brand has established 22 schools in Indian Technical institutes and 3700 students have so far graduated. One of the unexpected successes of the initiative is that it has proven surprisingly popular with female students thanks to its modern and fair environment.

Cheil uncovered and dramatised the story of one such female student, Seema Nagar, who had had to face down family disapproval to learn what were viewed as ‘male skills’. She persisted and studied a male-dominated refrigeration course – and went on to be employed by Samsung.


“Samsung wanted the country to know about Seema Nagar’s heroic journey. And inspire many other Seema Nagars that are waiting in the wings today,” explains Sagar. “Since the ad was meant to inspire girls who are about to finish school, they formed the primary audience. In India, the internet is a genuinely democratic service and has reached the handheld devices of almost every literate person. Therefore, an internet film was conceived that was primarily targeted at 16-25 year old Indian females.”

The true story resonated with its audience. Within four weeks of its launch, the film, directed by Shashank Chaturvedi from Good Morning Films was viewed 80 million times on YouTube and 24 million views from women, making it the fastest-growing advertising video among women in India. 

The campaign is just one example of how Samsung is positioning itself as part of Indian society. It’s a strategy that’s working as this year Samsung was named ‘The Most Trusted Brand in India’ in The Brand Trust Report 2017

Critical to this repositioning was Cheil Pulse, the network’s proprietary social intelligence and insight mining product as it helps shape that new narrative. The new strategy emerged in late 2016, when they published a Samsung Service campaign about the brand’s customer service vans. Telling the tale of an engineer who heads to the mountains to help a school for blind children, the four-minute film has had over 150 million views. 

Since then that human-centred approach was worked its way into ads for Samsung TVs, washing machines, fridges – and of course the CSR work for Technical School India and Safe India. 

Another key client is adidas, a brand that Cheil has been working with since 2015. Recent projects have included a campaign for the Under 17 FIFA World Cup and a spot featuring international medal-winning figure skater Nishchay Luthra. Their key focus has been on broadening and deepening India’s relationship with sport. “As integrated partners of one of world’s most iconic brands, our endeavour is to work towards adidas’ mission of encouraging a culture of sports in India. The last two initiatives – Nishchay Luthra’s #FantheFire campaign and currently running U17 FIFA World Cup campaign have been making waves across the world. We will continue to drive and deliver clutter-breaking and engaging initiatives for the brand,” says Sagar. 

Looking forward, Cheil India has lots of exciting projects on the cards for 2018. There’s much to be done to build on the strong foundations laid for Samsung’s CSR initiatives. Plus they’ve been working with online health insurance brand Apollo Munich, a challenging and interesting sector. And, finally, there’s some brand building work for UC News, part of Alibab Group, a recent integrated win by Cheil India. 
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