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D&AD Leadership Interviews – Santosh Padhi of Taproot Dentsu

Taproot Dentsu co-founder and CCO shares his leadership philosophy and insights from an impressive career

Illustration by Alysa Browne

Santosh Padhi is one of the most awarded creatives in India. After starting his career at DDB Mudra, he then moved to Leo Burnett, where he was an Executive Creative Director and the National Head of Art. He started Taproot a decade ago and for nine of those years the company has been a part of Dentsu.

Founded in 2009, Taproot Dentsu has been lauded the world over and has produced game-changing work, such as Odds for adidas and Pooja Didi, a film for Facebook that was awarded two D&AD Pencils this year – a Wood Pencil for Casting and a Graphite Pencil for Sound Design and Use of Music.

Working through the pandemic in India has been extremely tough, but through it, Taproot Dentsu have produced work that affects and moves. Padhi’s ability to combine brand messaging with meaningful, emotional themes in a believable way is just one way in which he has influenced the industry. 

Here he shares some insights for his creative peers.

Great ideas motivate teams

Great creative is about fantastic ideas. A good idea can propel a team to throw themselves into a project with added verve and galvanise everyone involved in a campaign, from inception to release.

“Be it the client or the agency, or people within the agency, or people from the production and execution side – if everybody passionately comes on board you get that great energy, and that's what I feel good ideas can do,” says Padhi. “A good idea can make the client push the envelope, bring in a little bit more money and give that freedom.” 

That enthusiasm can power a team through the creative process, which can often take them on a journey of ups and downs. This process is essential to Padhi, who says that you can learn more from making and learning than the polished result. “I strongly believe that most of the time we are adapting, we are not creating… I think experimenting is absolutely key.” 

No mistake is wasted

Accepting mistakes is one thing, but knowing how to benefit and learn from them is the mark of a true leader. “I think you learn a lot during that journey of creating a campaign, and maybe at times our subconscious mind does the work, or we end up learning a lot that comes in very handy when you're doing the second campaign,” says Padhi. “I always feel that nothing goes to waste; you make a mistake once, you make a mistake twice and you learn a lot and that gets implemented the third time.”

Small agencies offer focus and dedication

It wasn’t that long ago that a large brand wouldn’t even consider going with a smaller agency like Taproot. But after the agency turned around a campaign for the 2011 Cricket World Cup, where Pepsi was the official sponsor, it put them on the map in the industry. 

“That actually opened a new conversation in the industry. Why shouldn’t big clients reach out to smaller agencies?” Padhi asks. “So, I think somehow, I take a lot of pride that Taproot set that tone and today many big brands are working with many smaller agencies, especially in India. As I said, it's people who bring great ideas with people's passion and hunger and drive that makes the campaign work.”

Creating award-winning work through lockdown

The double D&AD pencil winning film for Facebook, Pooja Didi, was created in lockdown in India, and many of the issues of working through that time to make the film were reflected in the content itself. The ad tells the heartwarming story of a young girl who risks her business to employ people laid off in the pandemic. 

“We are fortunate that a giant brand like Facebook has been working with us for the last two years and we put a lot of energy behind that brand to make sure that they are happy,”  says Padhi. “This was a campaign that we created last year… We and Facebook took a stance that this is the time when we need to stand behind humanity and be a lot more emotional.”

The shoot, which would usually have taken three days, took seven to capture, to ensure the safety of those working on the ground in the unknown territory at the start of the pandemic. They had to work in completely new ways and overcome new challenges to create the film, which carried a similar message of resilience.

“If we really open our hearts, we can accommodate a lot of people and that's one simple message that we wanted to give to the world and we're extremely happy that this campaign really did well for the brand, for humanity and as well as for us.”

Real stories create authenticity

When a powerful message is harnessed with care and authenticity, it shows, but it’s not easy to achieve. When working with moving stories and themes there is a risk that it just won’t parse but Taproot are masters of this kind of work. For example, with Odds for adidas, which hinged on the fact that not one brand sold single shoes for people that needed only one, real experiences of para-athletes were given a platform. 

“We thought a para-athlete narrating their story in front of the camera would be magic, we found a blade runner, an army veteran who had lost a leg in combat and has been running since then. I thought: nobody else but he can be the face of this campaign.” For Padhi it’s about engaging in the subject in a genuine way that then enables you to communicate that story in tandem with a brand message and touch them.  

Interview by Amah-Rose Abrams

For more insights on how the way we work has changed, Asana surveyed over 13,000 global workers to explore how issues brought to bear over the past year have affected creatives and other knowledge workers. The findings and solutions are designed to help organisations thrive in a hybrid-working future. Download Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index 2021 here.

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