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Gobsmack!'s Inside-Out Approach Shakes up Indian TVC Market

Anthony Vagnoni

Shyam Madiraju taps his US agency and production contacts to 'reverse outsource' Indian scripts to top production resources in the US and UK.

Here's a story to get Republicans in the US all excited. There's a studio in California that's booking projects in India and bringing them to the US for production.
Sounds like a Forbes Magazine story on innovative new business trends, right? Well, it's not quite that yet, although for some in the ad and production business it represents a radical new way of doing things.
This is actually a trans-cultural story of an Indian creative guy who learned the ad craft in Delhi, then came to the US where he was a successful copywriter and creative director who eventually started to direct.  His name is Shyam Madiraju, and his company, Gobsmack! (don't forget the exclamation point), is seeking to take the concept of importing creative talent to shoot Indian TVCs and turn it into one whereby agencies export their scripts to be executed by the best directors, DPs, editors, visual effects artists, composers and sound designers around. They just happen to be working in New York, L.A. and London, not in Mumbai.
First, a bit of background.  Madiraju is an award-winning agency creative who won the Kodak New Director of the Year Award at the 2006 Cannes Lions Festival. He was named a director to watch by both SHOOT and SHOTS that same year. He got his start in the agency business in the US at Lowe in New York in the 1990s, then joined The Martin Agency, where he helped open the L.A. office before moving on to the main office in Richmond. After that he freelanced at a number of West Coast shops, among them Goodby Silverstein & Partners, TBWA\Chiat\Day and Saatchi & Saatchi, and also spent a year on staff at O&M, where he headed up creative on its Cisco account.
While there, he collaborated with the legendary Director Joe Pytka, who Madiraju says played a key role in his transition to directing full time (Anonymous Content was his first production company). "Joe inspired me and challenged me to be a filmmaker, which is something I'd always dreamed about, going back to my art school days in India," he explains. Upon learning that Madiraju wanted to direct, Pytka offered up a few choice words, along with his studio and equipment to help Madiraju shoot his first independent directing project, a series of subtly comic spots for the LA Film festival.
Since then, his work has grown to include a series of branded content shorts for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (which were featured on CNN, Fox News and in The Wall Street Journal), produced through Anonymous, as well as spots for brands such as Fox Sports, McDonald's, Vicks and VW.  He recently shot an ambitious campaign for W+ K launching the compact Chevy Cruze in India, which includes long-format TV spots as well as web videos.
His goal now, with Gobsmack!, is multi-dimensional.  He's working as a director for TV spot assignments, both in the US and in India; his work in the former includes a recent comic spot for Dr. Scholl's, and his work for the latter includes spots like his action-packed Sonata watches TVC and the much-hyped "The Break" spot for Kit Kat, which features two singing and dancing CGI squirrels.
But Gobsmack! is also going to be a portal for Indian agencies and creatives to access the best talent in the US, talent that Madiraju knows intimately based on his days working there. In this respect, the Gobsmack! model will kind of 'reverse outsource,' taking Indian scripts and executing them with his carefully vetted team of production houses, editors, effects shops, even other live action directors.
It's already beginning to pay off.  Gobsmack! recently shot a high-energy TV spot for TVS motorcycles that shot in Dubai and utilized the highly-specialized skills of an L.A.-based production house called Bandito Brothers.  Owned by a director who races both two and four-wheel vehicles, the company teamed with Gobsmack! and the Mumbai office of McCann to produce the spot, which is due to break soon in India.
It's just one example of the niche Madiraju is staking out for the Gobsmack! brand, and why he set up shop both in L.A. and Mumbai to do this.  Another example is a new spot about to break for Nestea titled "Kangaroo Remix," in which Madiraju collaborated with Director Rohitash Rao of the New York-based animation and CG house Curious Pictures.  The two co-directed the spot, which features a family of kangaroos depicted in a deft mix of character animation and photoreal computer graphics. It's the kind of job, he says with all due respect, that could never have been produced in India.
Madiraju returned to India in 2009 because he saw the writing on the wall.  "Everything in the US was going down and everything in the East was headed up," he says.  There were directors he knew – top guys with solid reels -- who, back in '08 and '09, were going months between jobs. "I thought, why not do something interesting and explore new markets? That's what took me back home. Yet I knew I couldn't join another production company here, I needed to be independent, particularly if I wanted to focus on doing high-quality work. That's what propelled me to form Gobsmack!"
His Mumbai office is run by EP Kalpana Kutty, whom Madiraju describes as one of the most experienced producers working in India. The office is small, as Madiraju plans to add capabilities as the demand grows, eventually offering editorial, audio post and all the ancillary services he'll need. "I want it to be self-propelled, so that we can deliver all sorts of things to the client - anything they need, from films to web content or technology solutions," he explains.
The Kit Kat, Nestea and TVS jobs reveal how Gobsmack! is trying to establish a new way of producing Indian advertising in the US and Europe, Madiraju claims.  "I think this is what makes us unique," he says.  "The directors we work with are foreign-based, and have a deep understanding of creative work. Ro Rao, like myself, is a former agency creative - not to mention being Indian-born. And all of us have extensive relationships with a range of post houses that put us in the position to access world class talents who are largely off the radar of Indian agencies and clients, especially those whose budgets often limit who they can get."
Agency people seem to like the idea, particularly due to the fact that the guy running it is a familiar face. "I know Shyam from before, and we've been talking about doing something like this for a while," says McCann Executive Creative Director Anil Thomas, with whom Gobsmack! worked on the TVS spot.  "I'd asked him to find me the right director for a racing spot, someone who understands the sport, and he eventually got me a renowned racer who also directs spots and features, so that was a perfect combination." 
Suprotim Day, VP & Senior Creative Director/Films at JWT in Mumbai, worked with Madiraju on the Kit Kat spot titled "The Break," which was one of the director's first jobs he brought back to the States to produce. What sold him on the approach?
"The reason we went to Gobsmack! was Shyam," he says.  "He showed amazing interest and excitement to make this job happen to our expectations. I was looking for an ideal combination of a director who knew Indian Bollywood culture and could also tap the best international talent. It was quite clear that the animation quality we were looking at could not be easily executed in India or the Asia Pacific region, since this is usually where we go when we have limited budgets. Being based in the US, Shyam has access to some of the best people. He brought in Radium/Reel FX, and together they did a fantastic job."
The response of guys like Thomas and Day is just what Madiraju was hoping he'd get when he opened in Mumbai.  "A lot of the top Indian creative directors knew me from back in the day, and knew I'd worked in all of these world class agencies," he explains.  "Creatives keep track of each other."
"So when I came back to India, they knew what I'd been doing," he continues.  "Most had had already seen my work as a director, especially the Ritz Carlton films. So I was talking to people who knew me personally. What's more important, though, is that they know I'm a big believer in quality. I do a very high level of work, and the people I'd be bringing along would be of very high-class level, too."
An example, he notes, was the Chevy Cruze launch for Wieden + Kennedy.  The spots are episodic in nature and follow the exploits of a group of guys who could pass for cast members on HBO's "Entourage" as they use their Chevy Cruze to get themselves out of a sticky situation. Let's just say there's a party, there are girls and there's a misunderstanding.
"The shoot and the concept was so interesting that we really wanted to realize its full potential," says Madiraju.  "Many of the key contributors, even the stunt men, were international. We wanted to bring a certain level of expectation to it.  The campaign has been so well-received that it's underscoring our point about reverse outsourcing; there are just certain things we need from a production standpoint that the Indian market isn't ready to provide yet."
Until then, Gobsmack! is here to bridge the gap. But at the same time, Madiraju wants to make clear that they're looking to keep their operation lean, and the jobs they work on very select and handpicked.  "We're a small company, and I want to keep it that way.  We want to work on projects we really like and with people whom we respect," he notes.  "Our intention is not be distracted by anything other than the quality of work. Our focus should be about how do we make every project that comes to us the most outstanding piece of work it can be, and who do we want to work with to get it there?"
Madiraju doesn't expect to be buying a waterfront home in Malibu based on this business model.  "It's not going to be a huge money-maker," he says with a laugh.  "But I'll tell you who inspired me to do it this way - Steve Golin of Anonymous Content. What Steve does that's brilliant is he supports great visionaries.  His philosophy is to do whatever it takes to make something be the best piece of work possible, regardless if that means hiring the world's best production staff or writers, whatever. At the end of the day, he'll see whether or not he makes money.
"I look at guys like that and I think, this is a point of view that appeals to me. They aren't businessmen in the purest sense of the word, they aren't here just to make money. They're here to produce the best they can. They're artists. And that's our goal. To bring this level of artistry to the work we do.

 Chapter 1: Footcandles...       Chapter 2: BangBang...       Chapter 3: Gobsmack...       Chapter 4: showcase...