The Best of the West: Gobsmack's Model Takes Top Work Abroad by Anthony Vagnoni 3 April, 2012
Director ShyamMadiraju, who spent years in the States, is raising standards by exporting top Indian scripts to his creative collaborators in the US and UK.
When last we checked in with Director ShyamMadiraju and his Mumbai and L.A.-based production company Gobsmack! last year (click here for a peek at the story), the shop was just starting to get rolling. Having been founded in 2009 by Madiraju, the former agency creative turned director whose career started in India but flourished in the States, Gobsmack! was setting out on an uncharted course.
Could an Indian production company make a go of it by not only importing top directorial talent into the country to shoot for Indian agencies and clients, but then also taking the same work out of the country to access Madiraju's vast network of artists in the US and UK for visual effects, animation, editorial and post production?
Madiraju lives in L.A. and continues to work as a director in the US, where he just signed with BRW (which also represents him in Italy). He got his start in the agency business in Delhi, then emigrated to America where he worked as a Creative Director at a number of top shops before launching a directing career, initially with Anonymous Content.
When we first reported on Gobsmack!, Madiraju described its approach as "reverse outsourcing," a nice twist on the hot-button American issue of shipping tech and other jobs to India and other Asian nations. These days, just a year later, it's turned into something else.
"What's changed for us the most is that we've quadrupled in size, in terms of the volume of work we're doing and our presence in the marketplace," says Madiraju from Gobsmack'sL.A. office, which supports the company's work for Indian agencies. (He travels to India when directing jobs himself or helping executive produce other directors' shoots.) "I think we went from being basically under the radar to being among the top production houses in the country. And we've done it while maintaining our boutique feel and size-there are still only five of us in the two offices, here and in Mumbai."
Since we last chatted (and a "chat" with Madiraju is a thing to behold, as he's a nonstop font of ideas, opinions and observations), the company has produced major Indian TVCs for L'Oreal, Nestle, Savsol and Oral-B (the latter having not yet broken but about to); has announced Indian market representation deals for some of the top directors at Anonymous Content as well as for Bandito Brothers (the latter being the production house behind the recent action-adventure feature film "Act of Valor"); has added former Publicis India Head of Production HozefaAlibhai as his Mumbai-based Executive Producer, a major coup; signed exclusive Indian market deals with fashion and beauty maven Jim Sonzero and his Sonzero Films and the multi-talented filmmaker Jesse Dylan and Wondros; and is in active discussions with a number of top visual effects studios to represent them in India, too.
If that's not enough, the company's also been moving into new media and entertainment fields, exploring hook-ups with digital production companies, studios and the like, all designed to turn Gobsmack! into more than a TVC house. But more on this later.
First, the work. Gobsmack! has made a name for itself by producing talked-about and popular spots for brands like Kit Kat and Nestea, both of which were directed by Madiraju and took advantage of his contacts in the US. For the former spot, he worked with the Dallas and Santa Monica studio Radium/Reel FX (now Reel FX), and for the latter with the New York animation studio Curious Pictures.
His recent "Super Fly" spot for Savsol oil turned the typical automotive product convention on its head; rather than focusing on crankshafts and graphics, we see a fly in the repair shop that gets doused with the product and gains super powers.
For L'Oreal, Gobsmack! teamed with Sonzero to shoot a sexy, high-gloss hair care spot featuring Indian media sensation SonamKapoor. The production tapped visual effects and finishing work in the States, resulting in an ad indistinguishable from the best fashion and beauty work seen in Europe or America.
"Our goal has been to bring top notch talent to the market here," says Madiraju, "but the way Hozi and I look at talent is different than the way other companies look at talent. Some of them are trying to sign just about everyone and anyone – they have rosters that look like phone directories. We're more selective. Our directors are hand-picked, and are well-suited to the Indian market."
Their approach to working with visual effects and post production artists is similarly discriminating. Rather than just assemble ad hoc teams from job to job, Madiraju says they're building exclusive relationships with top studios such as Reel FX, Proof of Concept, Curious Pictures and others.
Alibhai – known to all as simply "Hozi" – is a new convert to the growing Gobsmack! cult, and is no less passionate about its impact. "There's a real buzz about what we're doing in the industry here right now," says the well-connected former agency production leader. "We've done some really big jobs and worked with some top brands. No one has the same access to people that we have with Shyam's relationships.
"One of the biggest advantages we have is that we have offices in both India and L.A.," Alibhai continues. "We feel it gives us a unique edge; no other Indian production company works the way that we do." And the fact that, as a director, Madiraju is still shooting for US agency clients (his current BRW reel includes work for Y&R, Euro RSCG, Publicis, Sanders Wingo and others) means he can continue to collaborate with his production partners in the US while also offering his Indian clients access to a wide range of production and post options.
Madiraju says he wants Gobsmack! to be India's boutique, along the lines of a Rattling Stick or Gorgeous in the UK. "They represent the kind of DNA I admire in production companies," he says. "They're small, contained and very focused in the kind of work they choose to do and the way they do it. My vision for Gobsmack is to start as an Indian equivalent of those two in the commercial production world, but eventually be known globally for our own kind of DNA."
Is the domestic industry ready for this kind of production house? "They're more than ready for it," says Alibhai, who worked at McCann and Ogilvy in India before joining Publicis. "The quality of work here has dramatically improved over the last few years. Indian creative folks continue to pour into Cannes each year in impressive numbers and return inspired and motivated to raise the bar for themselves. This, in turn, has lead to them looking for directors and production companies that bring something special to the table."
One person who might agree that Gobsmack! can serve up the treats is Ajay Vikram, Executive Creative Director at Publicis in Singapore. He recently worked with them on a spot for the P&G brand Oral-B. Vikram had not heard of the company prior to this job, but one of the account people on the business had worked with Hozi in the past, and suggested them as an option. "We found the reel, the work and Shyam's background intriguing and, in some ways, a perfect fit for the story we wanted to tell," Vikram says.
He describes the script as being a "true life scenario" about Madhuri Dixit, a famous Indian movie star, who lived in the US for over a decade and came to miss certain aspects of her life at home, namely "the ready, spontaneous and disarming smile that you see day in and day out, in every walk of life, in times good and bad." The actress teams up with Oral-B to help protect India's smiles from tooth decay.
"Apart from the fact that few directors we spoke to grasped the story as quickly and completely as Shyam did, we felt there was a resonance in his own experience as someone of Indian origin who now lives in L.A.," Vikram explains. "Clearly, he could relate to the story at a very personal level and bring something of himself to the film. What we also felt he brought to the table was that perfect balance between storytelling, which is a strong Indian tradition, and the sheer polish and high production value we've come to expect from the West. And Hozi and his team gave us the comfort of strong on-ground presence in Mumbai and the right connections to make things work, so it all just felt right."
Vikram says his experience with Gobsmack! could be seen as a proof of concept for his model of mixing and matching global talent to get the best possible result. "It certainly worked out for our project," he says. "The film was conceived in Singapore, produced and shot out of India and post-produced in L.A. Gobsmack! managed all of this quite seamlessly, and we were extremely impressed with the work out of L.A."
Sonzero is another convert to the Gobsmack! belief system. He was affiliated with another Indian production house, but says he was looking for a new situation last year, ideally "a production company of stature that was representing great US companies and didn't have a huge roster. I was just launching Sonzero Films in the US, and looking for a strategic alliance in India where I would get focus."
He chose Gobsmack! for a number of reasons. "Shyam didn't have anyone working in the beauty category, so it made sense that this would be a good fit for Sonzero Films," he says. And the fact that both he and Madiraju are former agency creatives "adds valuable perspective to the process in how we interface with agencies – we become part of the team. And Hozi, his EP, comes from the agency side as well."
Sonzero says the proposition for global directors like himself that Gobsmack! presents is highly appealing. "It's an exciting time in India," he says. "The place is electrified. Agencies are very interested in upgrading the caliber of the work by bringing in international directors. And Shyam and Hozi have put together an elite collection of companies. They're offering the Indian market premium international talent, but are also tough about fighting for what they believe in and not compromising if it means the job will suffer. Not everyone has the moxie to stand their ground or be willing to walk away from a project if it is being severely compromised. I respect that"
Sonzero's recent L'Oreal work produced by Gobsmack! is a continuation of a relationship he had with the client at his former Indian production house. The chief L'Oreal client found this go-round with him just as satisfying as the previous one.
"You know, the clients are always tough and very demanding, especially at L'Oreal, where most of the time we have a very clear picture of what we want to achieve with our partners," says Nathalie Gerschtein, Director, L'Oreal Paris India. "I think there has been a very good understanding of the ins and outs on both sides from day one on this project, and this enabled us to be very happy with the output, though it was a very high tech and hence difficult shoot."
Not just clients are happy with the process; Madiraju's US-based production partners rave about working with them. Stuart Wilson, Founder and EP of the L.A.-based design, visual effects and transmedia production company Proof of Concept, worked on the company's L'Oreal ads, doing finishing work and beauty retouching. He'd worked with Sonzero previously, but this was his first experience both with Gobsmack! and with Indian advertising. What was it like?
"I love these guys," he says unabashedly. "They have a great understanding of the business and how we work." Wilson was impressed not just by the fact that the budgets Gobsmack! brought for the post and finishing work on this spot were "respectable," but that Madiraju and Alibhai "have a very high bar and they expect the best." Proof of Concept is currently at work on two additional Gobsmack! projects.
Reel FX's Dale Carman, Founder and Executive Creative Director, first worked with Madiraju when he was working as a director before launching Gobsmack! The Kit Kat spot, "The Break," that they worked on was their first production for an Indian ad agency. "When Shyam came to us, we saw it as just another opportunity to work with a great director on a cool concept," he says. "And that's what all our work with Gobsmack has been like – the focus has always been on the content and the creative execution."
The relationship with Reel FX is a good way to lead in to the next phase of what Gobsmack! intends to be, which is more than just a production house for Indian commercials but also a content creation studio. Madiraju says he and the visual effects studio, which has a long history of producing animated feature films, are working on several such feature film projects now for the Indian market that are based on folk tales.
One thing about Madiraju that's unmistakable is his passion for what he's doing. How else can you explain what he puts himself through, basically holding down two all-engrossing jobs – production company owner and commercial director?
"I'll be honest, it's a 48-hour-a-day job to wear two hats and work across two time zones across the globe," he says. "So I was very fortunate to get Hozi as my EP and Managing Director. He not only brings vast experience and a smart understanding of client needs, but he also embraces our culture of creating an environment where a director can truly realize his or her vision.
"But the most important reason why we're heading in the direction we are is because we see a lot more for us to do besides being an Indian production company," Madiraju continues. "We're developing cutting edge new apps and IP-based technological ideas, entertainment content and films. Our approach is not to see ourselves as directors and producers but more as an innovative company that's in the business of producing ideas."
He and Alibhai may be on to something here. "If, as the author Thomas Friedman says, 'the world is flat,' then Gobsmack! has positioned itself in the right place at the right time with the right belief system," says Publicis' Ajay Vikram. "Agencies and clients in this part of the world are now completely blind to geography. We want to work with the best and most relevant people in the world on any given job, and anyone who can deliver great content in a seamless, integrated and hassle-free way, with a real passion for quality, will always find takers."