Great Advertising Starts with a Story: S. Subramanyeswar, MullenLowe Group APAC

by India Fizer , AdForum

MullenLowe Global
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London, United Kingdom
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S. Subramanyeswar
CSO APAC MullenLowe Group

We spoke with Subramanyeswar, better known as Subbu, MullenLowe Group's Chief Strategy officer – Asia Pacific, about the shift to purpose-driven work and story-telling in a digital world.


Tell us about your role and how long you been working in the world of advertising.

I work as Chief Strategy Officer – Asia Pacific of MullenLowe Group. Writing, teaching, and training are my other passions.

I’m a fervent believer of ‘Purpose-inspired’ brand building, and my mission is to bring purpose to the world of brands through the breakthrough ‘Brands to Stands’ thinking that we have developed in-house. The methodology and frameworks that we have created have been adopted successfully by many of the brands that MullenLowe Lintas Group steers in India and beyond.

At heart, as a strategist, I love being an explorer. Discovering the unknown rather than planning with the known. Essentially, leaving no answer unquestioned always fires me up. 


Are there some common staples or tropes that have developed in recent years within the industry? How do these compare to the ones of 10 or even 20 years ago?

Of course, a lot. We can endlessly speak about how the industry today is fuelled by digitization, mobilization, augmentation, disintermediation, automation and so on, but the biggest audience-led staple, particularly with millennials and Gen Z is the expectation for a brand to stand for something meaningful. They prefer purpose-driven companies that have a stand on the challenges surrounding issues ranging from - guaranteeing environmental sustainability to ridding the world of disease, reducing childhood mortality, ensuring primary education, improving mental health etc. They’re clearly embracing social causes more which is why they seek brands that have goals aligned with their ideals.

In a world awash with brands, and with most of them either unable to chart a clear course in today’s uncertain marketplace or drowning in a sea of sameness, the idea of brands taking a stance or having a higher-order purpose beyond the realm of mere economic units of transaction certainly floats an idea that could inspire more brands and businesses to embrace this fresh new wave of thinking. 


What were some aspects or qualities about ads from the past that you feel modern advertising could benefit from adopting?

The aspect of ‘Brand Storytelling,’ which is the timeless truth of great advertising. Storytelling in a digital world not only addresses the needs of a fast-paced generation of people who cut through the fluff and look to receive information faster, but also empowers them to tell the story for us rather than telling them our stories. Storytelling is a human plan and it is always more valuable than a channel/format plan. Powerful stands for brands are best built through stories.


Was the work approached differently or have the methods remained the same?

Stories are passages to the past, portraits of the present, or peeks into the future. The evolution of technology has in fact amplified (rather than change) the power of stories and storytelling making them accessible through multiple platforms to anyone who wants to create a world of their own in their unique way or form – be it written, visual or oral. Digital universe in fact, thrives on stories and not specks. 


How have ads evolved to keep up with technological and cultural advancements such as smartphones and the internet?

Ads have evolved as a domino effect of change. Because with change, comes relevance and context. And this has moved the needle of advertising from broad based to more contextual in sense of time, context, geography, like stage, etc. It has also helped in developing a new trend of content and communication multiplicity, i.e., one thought curated for different scenarios. That’s the basis for hyper personalization which has also helped marketeers with instant knowledge of ROI on an otherwise black hole of marketing budgets sans tracking.


Do you feel as though ageism is a problem in the advertising industry?

It’s true that advertising industry always tends to skew towards younger workforce (perhaps even more for some time now with digital acceleration), but I have also barely seen any retirements in the last two decades plus a bit that I have been in the business. A few rises to the top with nonstop passion and others leave because they are either burnt out or found other creative pursuits. To me, success in advertising is ageless. I hate putting people in boxes and believe in supporting them as long as they are open-minded and passionately creative in whatever they do. And creativity or finding creative solutions always thrive with a bunch of heterogenous people, who can effectively combine multiple perspectives, varied experiences, and ways of thinking.


What advertisements do you remember seeing when you were younger that left an impression on you and why do you think they stayed with you?

‘The 1984  Macintosh commercial’ from Apple

‘An idea can change your life series’ from Idea Cellular

‘Jaago Re’ crusade from Tata Tea



I love them because they are brands that have taken decisive stands. They stood up for something that they believed will deliver true value or otherwise improve the lives of their consumers. They stood out from competitors by intentionally and consistently delivering a distinctive consumer experience that is consistent with their promise. They stood firm by creating the appropriate culture to ensure sustainable and authentic delivery over the long term.



Looking to the future, where do you think the advertisement industry is heading?

Rather than being one more to predict the future, especially towards the end of 2021, let me try and minimise the surprise with a bit of foresight and firm belief in these 3 things.

a) Businesses will benefit mightily as brands take stands in a world that will no longer stand for surfeit of commoditised products and services without any meaning. The rising Generation Purpose aren’t like earlier generations, and place greater importance on a company’s/brand’s stance on issues that matter and are more likely to vocalize their opinions and turn their backs on companies that falter. While a brand has been the differentiator so far, it’ll be the stand that will give the distinctive advantage going forward.

b) To bring alive those stands, rather than simply develop a traditional advertising campaign, brands will move to creating movements digitally – both internal and external. A movement that organises people and communities against the problem for which a stand has been taken, stoking emotions and passions in order to drive change.

c) The advertising business will move to a model that will not thrive on old notions of competition and disruption, but instead benefit, indeed foster collaboration, engagement, and cooperation with everyone -  multiple people and groups – from consumers to client partners, suppliers, tech developers, data analysts, researchers, media specialists, and even competitors. They will actively contribute to value creation and can interact with each other through the interaction field. Built on digital platform, it will be organized to generate, facilitate, and benefit from interactions rather than transactions. This model builds velocity to improve an entire industry or potentially solve a larger social problem.