In northeast India, tens of millions of people do without electricity, sometimes for up to 12 hours a day, because of a grave power crisis. Agency Lowe Lintas & Partners and Unilever found a way to offer them a little entertainment in dark times.
People use a basic mobile phone to dial a number, hang up, and get called back with 15 minutes of free radio – along with ads for Unilever products like Dove, Lux and Pond's. The service started in two northeastern states, Bihar and Jharkhand, and was later rolled out in other regions.
Helping brands address India's challenges is a signature of 900-person Lowe Lintas, part of Interpublic's Lowe & Partners Worldwide. That commitment appeals to brands, and the agency achieved revenue growth of about 9% in 2014, winning new business from Heinz, eBay and Flipkart, India's largest e-commerce player.
"I believe that in a country like India, when you have the opportunity to send out messages to millions of people … it would be irresponsible if you didn't leave behind a message, something for consumers to reflect on," CEO Joseph George said.
That social engagement isn't corporate social responsibility but brand strategy. The agency argues that brands need a "soul" – a purpose, not just a proposition.
Take soap, for example. "There are close to 100 brands operating in the soap category," Mr. George said. "What happens in a situation like that? The functional differences that brands offer cease to matter, because every second brand is pretty much offering the same function and message."
So for Unilever's Lifebuoy soap, the agency has worked on a campaign called "Help a Child Reach 5," aiming to wipe out deadly childhood diarrhea and other diseases through hand-washing. The multinational sponsored an Indian village to bring down its high child mortality rate; Lowe Lintas took the effort to Indonesia last year with a poignant video about a grieving mother that has over 11 million YouTube views.
The agency's name, Lowe Lintas, is a reflection of a long global relationship with Unilever, by far India's biggest advertiser. Lintas was an acronym for Lever International Advertising Services, a house agency started in 1899 for Lever Brothers, later Unilever. Lintas became a global agency network, eventually merged with Lowe, and the Lintas name was dropped everywhere except India (and, oddly, Nigeria). The legacy name is such a strong brand in India that it lives on.
For another marketer, the Tanishq jewelry brand owned by India's Tata Group, a Lowe Lintas ad celebrated the wedding of a divorced woman, breaking a taboo about second marriages.
Sometimes the ads have a touch of Bollywood to them.
"If you've seen any Indian film there's a lot of song and dance, a message, a lot of drama," Mr. George said. "Storytelling plays a very dominant role in the way we handle messages."
India's growth is projected at 5-6% in 2014, but that's nonetheless a slowdown. Some established, traditionally big-spending categories have lost steam, while local startups and entrepreneurial ventures are gaining ground. The agency made a commitment to working with them, and it recently won a coveted full-service pitch for Flipkart, an e-commerce company founded by two former Amazon employees.
In a country where only 7% of marketing dollars are spent on digital, Lowe Lintas is a leader, re-launching its LinTeractive digital division in 2014, and boosting its revenue by 212%; a healthcare marketing unit grew revenue by 37%. In other firsts, the head of LinProductions, Anil Naidu, co-produced a full-length feature film.
Generally, it's a time of uncertainty in India's agency world.
"Many agencies have gone belly-up, there's a scramble for business, and clients have been extremely bottom-line driven," Mr. George said. Price-undercutting has become a big issue, and Lowe Lintas says it has stood its ground.
"What we try to do with most clients is engage with them much before the actual day of presentation so they are fully aware of our processes, the quality of our people, the tools we bring, the research we do," Mr. George said.