“These are the kinds of projects that keep creativity alive and the passion for creativity alive,” says Harsh Shah, managing partner at Dentsu Creative India, with intense enthusiasm.
He’s talking about ‘The Unfiltered History Tour’, a project that positively roared at Cannes Lions last week, taking home a pride of 12 Lions, including three Grands Prix (Brand Experience & Activation; Radio & Audio; Social & Influencer) and a Titanium Lion. Dentsu Creative Bengaluru, the main entrant agency, was also named agency of the year.
The project is a radically disruptive twist on a museum tour that uses augmented reality to expose the exploitation and rapacious colonialism behind many of the British Museum’s artefacts and exhibits. It’s a punky and provocative project that uses technology to put history back in the hands of those cultures plundered by the British Empire. And for the agency at the heart of it, Dentsu Creative India, it’s a work of sheer passion.
Interactive Instagram filters and a podcast series allow visitors to look beneath the sterile presentation of some of the world’s most significant historical items and to hear directly from people and cultures that have been robbed of their important artefacts.
It all started when Vice put out a docuseries called ‘Empire of Dirt’, with one episode exploring the ugly history behind the British Museum’s comprehensive collection. The team, at what was then dentsu Webchutney - now rebranded as Dentsu Creative India - was immediately inspired to take this raw truth and bring it to life. Of course, India is one of the many countries around the world that was on the receiving end of the British Empire’s sticky fingers, so this was personal.
They wanted to create something inclusive and which would reach a younger audience, and gradually the idea of making an alternative museum tour evolved. The agency approached the team at Vice as it had been their film that inspired the creative team in the first place. With Vice on board, the Indian agency also now had a team of people on the ground who could surreptitiously scan the items in the British Museum using smartphones - the global pandemic meant that sending a team over from India was a no-go.
However, just as the project was taking shape, the second wave of the pandemic started to hit - and it hit hard.
“People were getting excited about this project and that’s when the pandemic hit, so we had to take a break from it. There were times on the calls when everyone was silent because they were all going through so much personally and their loved ones were going through so much,” reflects Harsh. “So that was one of the big challenges in terms of how do we make sure that when people come back they come back with the same amount of motivation and passion. But I think the idea did its work.”
Not having direct access to the British Museum gave the team all sorts of unexpected challenges, but their dedication to craft meant that they weren’t about to let the 4,990 mile distance between Bengaluru and London get in the way.
“One of the biggest challenges was making sure that we got everything right without actually physically going there and testing it. But the team did a fabulous job,” says Harsh. For example, the team at one point realised that shifting light throughout the day meant that items located near windows would need three separate filters created in order to work at different times of the day.
The guerilla nature of The Unfiltered History Tour also meant that the agency really did need all hands on deck - including the legal team. The project essentially platform hacks the British Museum, without its permission, so the agency wanted to make sure it was ready for any backlash.
It has, says Harsh, had a fantastic response from the public. The podcast has had 35,300 downloads, over 100,000 people have taken part in the secret tour and the whole campaign has racked up 18 million impressions. But for Harsh, it’s not about the big numbers but the individuals that the team has been able to touch. “We’ve had some great responses. We’ve seen great numbers in terms of people visiting the website and trying the filters out. The biggest impact I’m seeing is people who have gone to the museum and are getting in touch with us - these are very young people who are going to look at things in a different way. And all of them have said the same thing - that now I have a balanced perspective. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
And the experience has resonated with juries across multiple categories at Cannes Lions 2022. For Caitlyn Ryan, VP of Creative Shop EMEA at Meta, who was the jury president of the Social & Influencer Lion, the experience takes social media creative beyond buzz and PR to create something deep, nuanced and contextual. She’s also been blown away by the craft of it.
“I think as an industry, we're very comfortable around the construct of creating buzz and fame, and not so much about creating the depth of experience, which the Grand Prix is a great example. It's a very intimate, discrete experience. You could possibly achieve a moment of buzz or fame, talking about a stolen artefact off the back of a Boris comment or whatever. Versus this which took a lot of intent, a lot of craft and, thinking about what that experience should be,” she says.
The huge success at Cannes has also given the team a motivation boost. Harsh says that the success of this and other projects is turning the agency into something of a beacon for diverse talent across the country.
“I think this is the third consecutive year that we’ve been winning something at Cannes. Everyone in the community is very excited, very motivated. We’re seeing a lot of young kids saying ‘I have an idea and I would love for us to work together’. And that’s a win in itself,” he says.
“We’ve seen this kind of talent coming in from different aspects of India, and you know how culturally vast and diverse India is, and if you’re able to inspire someone who probably doesn’t have access to electricity 24 hours a day, you’ve done something right. That’s keeping us motivated and bringing people together.”
Harsh says that the agency’s people-first culture has also driven its creative growth. Packed with homegrown leaders, Harsh says that leadership prefers to look internally for potential to develop rather than outsourcing talent. “That culture itself tells a lot about who we are and what we intend to do. And we’ve seen people spend years and years in this company and do really well.”