Tucked in the bylanes of Jawahar Nagar in Thiruvananthapuram is Stark Communications, one of Kerala’s oldest creative shops. Founded in the mid-‘90s, Stark Communications is known for its work for Kerala Tourism.
Kerala was the first state in the country to develop a brand identity as a sought-after tourist destination. In the 1990s, multiple leading advertising agencies, including Mudra, were involved in developing the iconic brand Kerala. TK Harshan, co-founder and chairman, Stark Communications, used to head Mudra Bangalore and Kochi at the time. He was instrumental in charting Kerala’s first steps as a fledgling brand. He quit and partnered with Swarup BR and Roy Mathew to set up Stark.
After years of closely working with Kerala Tourism the agency sees itself as an extension of its marketing team, Mathew tells Storyboard 18. He says that besides developing ads, they are also roped in for strategic advice, insight mining, planning for trade shows, etc. What makes agencies like Stark Communications a trusted long-term partner is the fact that they go above and beyond for their clients.
“Culturally, agencies in a state like Kerala are different. We may not have the glamour that creative hubs like Delhi or Mumbai have. However, we have a razor-sharp understanding of the market. Young marketers are slowly understanding the depth we bring to the table. That’s helping us move out of our comfort zone and partner with a variety of brands,” adds Mathew.
The agency also works with brands like Ather, MILMA, and tourism boards like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and of course Kerala. Stark Communications currently has 129 employees, with offices across Trivandrum, Kochi, Bangalore, and Delhi.
Kochi-based Maitri Advertising was set up towards the end of the ‘90s. Similar to Stark Communications, Sajan Abraham, C Muthu, and Raju Menon, the agency’s founders, worked in the southern branches of top agencies. The trio decided to set up something of their own in their native land. Menon, who is currently the director of operations, is of the opinion that being an indie agency has its own advantages. “You work with all your team members up close. You can create an open culture. Take feedback personally and help the talent pool create a work-life balance they desire,” explains Menon.
Kerala as a consumer market is interesting. It’s a state fueled by remittance economy. Arindam Paul, founding member and chief business officer of consumer durable brand Atomberg, tells Storyboard18 that Kerala is one of the top markets for his company. He explains, “Malayalis are a well-aware consumer set. They are value-conscious. In a category like ours, it is important to understand the technology, energy savings, and its effects on the environment. Look at the adoption of solar energy in the state. It is beyond impressive and opens up new avenues for companies like ours.” New age brands like Atomberg are weaving specific advertising content in the state through traditional advertising and sponsorship deals through sports and reality shows.
Entry of a new working class
Post the pandemic, it is estimated that there is a steep drop in remittances as many emigrants have returned home, especially from the Gulf. There is also a new set of professionals moving into the state.
A few years ago, Francis Thomas, a former Creative Director from Ogilvy, had to move to Kochi for personal reasons. He was exploring opportunities and had heard about Maitri and their work. He reached out to the founders.
Thomas, who is originally from Chennai, arrived in Kochi without knowing a word of Malayalam. According to Thomas, being in a city like Kochi has its own charm. There is nature, good food, an abundance of creative talent, and great clients.
Menon says, currently, the agency has been getting applications from Malayalees who’ve been working for network agencies in the metros. Maitri hires most of its account management team directly from various B-schools. However, they don’t have a program in place to hire directly from fine arts schools. That’s something in the works, he indicates.
The agency works closely with brands like Matrubumi, Muthoot Finance, AVT Tea, and LAZZA Ice Cream, among others. In the last quarter, Maitri’s campaign Muthoot Finance got attention on social media. The agency created a new mascot ‘Goldman’ for the brand to drive the message ‘Put your Gold to Work’ for their various credit needs. The purpose of the campaign was to highlight how idle gold at home can be put to use and how gold loans are all weather loans.
Both Menon and Maitri told Storyboard18 that clients in Kerala are extremely easy-going. “Clients here don’t have any complex hierarchy, they interact with agencies as partners. They listen to ideas and strategies from everyone in the agency’s team. This culture is refreshing and creates an environment where all ideas are respected. In many cases, regional brands are open to experimentation,” says Thomas.
Finding the missing puzzle
Former senior executive of Wavemaker and current executive director - channel business of Asianet, Kishan Kumar, compares the advertising scene to KL Rahul. “Everyone knows KL Rahul has great skillsets but still hasn’t reached his full potential. That’s how I would like to view the advertising culture in Kerala. There is talent and scope to do far better work. Yet, there is a gap that needs to be filled,” he adds.
Interestingly, Kerala is a state that has pushed its boundaries when it comes to films, literature, art, and even music. It’s a state that understands the finer nuances of life. Kerala is known for being a highly socially and politically aware state. Yet, advertising as an industry hasn’t shined through. The main reason for it is that advertisers here playing safe. However, that’s changing too.
In 2021, home-grown jewellery brand Bhima released an ad which broke stereotypes by featuring the journey of a transwoman. A first in the category, and also by a regional brand in the country. While the brand worked with a national agency, Animal, for that particular campaign, Navya Suhas, online operations head, Bhima Jewellery, tells Storyboard18 that 70 percent of the brand’s marketing work is done by their local agencies Media Mate and Turrino. According to Suhas, local agencies understand the essence of the brand. They are quick on deliverables because their structures are simpler. They also look at brands from a micro lens.
A lot of brands, especially in the jewellery category, are a part of the culture in Kerala. Just like jewellery, categories such as ice cream, umbrella, masala, inverters and paint, have been experimented with advertising with local flavours. New generation marketers like Bhima’s Suhas and Atomberg’s Paul are adding freshness in the advertising you see in Kerala. However, experts believe, regional advertising in a culturally-rich state will only flourish if advertisers build up their risk appetite.
Stark Communications’ Mathew says, it is critical that agencies start enabling strong regional brands to shed their local moorings and identify new consumer contexts and conversation sets that are more pan-India. This will open up lot of more opportunities for regional brands tap into new avenues. Same goes for national brands too.
Rise of new-age agencies
It’s not just agencies in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram that are changing the creative landscape of Kerala. Blusteak, a Kottayam-based digital marketing agency, is making the right kind of noise online and offline. The agency was founded by Jaison Thomas and his brother Telson Thomas, a former memer-gamer duo. The pandemic accelerated their business. “You can run digital marketing sitting in any part of the world. That gave us all the more reasons to stay put in Kerala. We proudly call ourselves a homegrown agency. We may not have the nightlife of the metros but we have everything you need to lead a quality life,” says Jaison.
He admits that there are challenges in convincing youngsters like him to stay back in his hometown. His pitch to the newcomers is the money they can save on travel and housing, and the quality of life they can enjoy by working in Kerala. Thomas admits that it’s difficult to attract talent, but business prospects are promising more than ever before. To fix that gap, the agency is launching its own digital marketing institute called Blusteak Academy. It will be an offline course with limited number of seats. “In the program, we will indulge the students in live client projects. The theoretical lessons will be covered by our department heads. After the course, top performers will be given an opportunity to work full-time with us,” he shares.
Kerala also has its own ad club. Much like the ones in Bengaluru and Chennai, the Kerala Advertising Agencies Association has 180 agency members. Maitri’s Menon, the president of KAAA, tells Storyboard18 that they actively working in the area of upskilling. In the recent past, they have conducted workshops on digital marketing. The 18-year-old association help small and mid-sized agencies, especially in area of payment issues. KAAA plans to bring younger members on board to add new freshness to the association and keep the advertising culture of the state colourful.