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2021 Media Jury President Charu Aggarwal on advertising and culture change

Havas Group Chief Strategy Officer joins the ‘Love This’ podcast to discuss why empowerment and empathy are vital creative industry skills

When Charu Aggarwal was a young girl, her dream was to become “one of the best surgeons in the world”. During her time at college, she was introduced to the possibilities of the creative world and her focus shifted from medicine to the world of advertising. Now Chief Strategy Officer for India & South East Asia at Havas Group, Aggarwal has over 20 years of digital, creative and media strategy experience and has worked with Fortune 500 brands such as P&G, GSK and Samsung. 

Aggarwal served as Media Jury President at the D&AD 2021 Awards, which awarded two Yellow Pencils to Donation Dollar and Michelob Ultra Courtside. Donation Dollar is the world's first legal tender coin that was designed to be donated, not spent. Michelob Ultra Courtside reinvented the live viewing experience for NBA fans, allowing them to sit in the stadium as a "virtual audience" and interact with other fans and the players.

Aggarwal talks to podcast hosts Beth O’Brien and Maria Devereux about the qualities that define her leadership style, the value of different perspectives in the judging process, and why cultural change is everybody’s responsibility. 

The Love This podcast spoke to several D&AD jury presidents, and will be broadcasting those interviews over the summer. You can listen to the podcast here. Here are our top takeaways from Aggarwal’s episode. 

We all have a responsibility to drive cultural change

Given the Covid lens, the one thing that has really bubbled up is the power of community and the ability of brands to be able to make a change and impact behaviour and culture in a more positive way – and I think that’s something we all have a responsibility towards. 

We as marketers or partners to some of the biggest brands across the world can either go on the path of what used to be advertising and the usual of advertising – which is all about reach and TVCs – or we can make those switches to say, “Hey, what about deploying 40% of your efforts into something that will actually start to impact behavior or actually make us a lot more rooted in driving community and culture changes?”

Why the D&AD judging process is also a learning process

[The judging process] is a very, very steep learning curve. It’s almost like this short, power-packed masterclass that you’re having on creativity and everything that’s innovative around the world – and I thought that was really exciting. As a jury member and as a jury President, I think that was the first thing that really inspired me.

When I first started the session I was asked by the D&AD team, “You know there are these fixed rules that we have – which is the idea needs to be inspiring, the idea needs to be fit for purpose – but Charu as a Media Jury President, what is it that you would like to add to these rules we have?” And that suddenly made it a little more personal, a little bit of me added into the mix, and I think that was really, really different for D&AD. I added in, given that it’s media, that the idea needs to be media first, so can we have a media first lens on the ideas when we are judging them. So we’re not just judging the message but how or where that idea evolved from.

Why diverse perspectives are needed in the judging room

It was absolutely amazing to hear the same idea discussed from a Western space, which is seen as a little more evolved media, to an Aisan lens, which is a little more evolved digitally and mobile centric, and hearing two very different points of view. For example, things like TikTok films, the Western lens was, “We’ve never seen this before. This is brilliant” and we’re like, “We’ve got enough TikTok films happening, this is something that we do every day.” That, for me, was really, really interesting. The diversity of the judges and what they brought to the table in terms of discussions of the cases, [is] also very, very unique to D&AD, because it allowed us to progress those ideas across three or four sessions.

Why innovation and empathy go hand-in-hand

I don’t think I particularly belong to any [leadership style], but there are a few things that I do and there are a few quotes that stick in my mind. The first one is, a leader needs to be someone who is driving innovation. When I talk about innovation, I really love the quote that Tim Cook had, which is, “Innovation is not about change, it’s about making things better”. 

...The second one is about empowering, which I think is extremely important. So empowering your teams to not just do what they’re doing but to do something that helps them go beyond and out of their comfort zone so they are feeling more motivated and inspired about themselves. 

The third thing is empathy and the willingness to listen, because not everyone is in the same space at any point in time – and that is something I’ve picked up along the way. I would not say I’ve not made mistakes – I’ve made horrible mistakes, I’ve made mistakes because I’ve hopped markets, I learnt across multiple markets and the culture of one place is not the same as the culture of another place. That’s where empathy comes in, where you not just listen but you also feel.

What makes award-winning media work?

The two things that we added to the D&AD [judging criteria] was that the ideas need to be media first. So, is the idea going to stand if the media was taken away? Or it’s going to continue. And the second thing that the jury was extremely passionate about was the ability of the brand to make change, or impact behaviour long-term. We saw a lot of brands consciously getting into this entire thing of making community or behaviour change or making a big impact, but the impact almost seemed very, very short-term, and I think it was a very conscious decision of the jury to look out for brands that are committed to that change or making that behaviour change for the long-term.

On Donation Dollar

They converted a coin into a media. It was like creating media and that idea wouldn’t stand if that coin was not there. The long-term impact, what was very powerful for the jury, is what I believe would change the currency system of a whole nation, which I think is absolutely amazing.

On Ultra Courtside

Ultra Courtside I think stood out for us again literally because of the power of media, because that courtside was the media, it was about bringing people into a live NBA game. But I think the strength of this idea was around collaboration – you saw Microsoft come together with the Michelob ULTRA coming together to create a new watchful experience…  The second thing is we thought that the brand went a little bit over and beyond in turns of pushing the boundaries. What was different about this courtside is that people could actually interact, not just with the other spectators, but they could also interact with the players, so it was a completely new technology which has the power to then change the way we consume entertainment in sports in the future.

Give new talent a variety of experiences

What I’m doing with a lot of trainees and a lot of interns that get into our company is helping them experience all the departments. What does media look like? What does digital look like? What does creative look like? Just to give them a sense, just to help them feel. Because honestly, people are not clear on what are the roles, what are the other things that you can do. I’ve seen engineers shift into copywriting because they loved it. But you can’t make that shift until you have experienced it in some way, shape or form. Giving that experience to talent is extremely crucial for our industry.

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