“At the end of the day, we’re talking to humans”
Ruchi Sharma is one of those names in advertising that many might know. With over 25 years in the advertising industry, she has played a role in taking Sri Lankan advertising to the next stage by being the country’s first Cannes finalist and pushing for work that can compete globally.
Indian by birth and married to a local industry veteran, Ruchi’s career has spanned New York, South East Asia, Mumbai, and Sri Lanka, leading creative teams of diverse cultures to achieve creative excellence. She has proudly represented Sri Lanka on prestigious international award shows like D&AD (Design and Art Direction) Awards, ADC Annual Awards, New York Festivals, Spikes Asia, ADFEST, Ad Stars, The Gerety Awards, AME Awards, Dubai Lynx, Effie Awards, and WARC Awards. She is on the advisory boards of the New York Festivals, American Marketing awards, 4As, and the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka.
Ruchi sat down with Brunch for a chat on her newest creative venture, HumanSense, where she is Founder and Creative Chairperson, on how she’s seen Sri Lankan advertising develop throughout her career, and how she is redefining workplace models for herself and HumanSense.
Looking back at the Sri Lankan ad game: Then and now
Ruchi’s introduction to Sri Lankan advertising came about when she visited Sri Lanka for a shoot in 2003 and ended up attending the SLIM Awards, which coincided with the time of her visit. Ruchi recalled being impressed by the vibrant Sri Lankan ad industry (and their ability to party). On witnessing the work of the Sri Lankan advertising industry being celebrated, Ruchi was struck by the potential of the Sri Lankan creatives but noted that the winning work would struggle to be recognised in the international markets.
“I was looking for a challenge at that time,” Ruchi shared, adding: “And I thought, what if I can work in this industry with such fun-loving people, and in some way, be a seed that is sown for raising the creative bar internationally? And so I started knocking on doors.”
Ruchi was astounded by the welcoming spirit of the Sri Lankan community. Her first meeting was with then Leo Burnett Managing Director Ranil De Silva. Even though he had no openings at his agency, and Ruchi was an absolute stranger, Ranil generously and personally connected her to other local agencies’ heads. She then had the great fortune of meeting Phoenix Ogilvy Chairman Irvin Weerackody, resulting in Ruchi stepping into the role of Executive Creative Director of the agency.
“I was fortunate to work with Irvin,” Ruchi said, adding: “He had a creative soul and had built Phoenix with the same creative passion. He supported great creative ideas and personally helped me sell some of them to clients. Those years were probably the best of my local career. The Ogilvy network was at its peak. With giants like Piyush Pandey in India, Tham Khai Meng in the region, and Neil French globally, Ruchi was exposed to the true global standards that she aspired for in the local industry. The Heads of Departments at Ogilvy were amazing people, who became great friends, and all they needed was some creative leadership. In six months, we had won the maximum awards at the SLIM-Nielsen Awards. More recognition followed as we swept the Abby Awards in India, got our work into Ogilvy’s Global Book, and won the first Cannes finalist for the country.”
“It is very heartening to see that ever since, so many local agencies have also upped their game and made their mark winning international awards. This creative passion has been revived by bringing the international Epica Awards to partner with us for an unbiased local awards – all thanks to the sheer drive and passion of 4As President Sugibun Sathiamoorthy and a committed 4As Board that I am proud to be a part of,” Ruchi noted.
2006 to 2015 saw Ruchi taking various positions in Bangkok and New York before returning to Colombo because her mother-in-law was ailing, and they had a young baby. Ruchi found herself back in an advertising industry that had changed significantly from when she’d first joined it.
“Globally, agencies are struggling to be considered the creative partners that they used to be by their clients, and the same is happening here,” Ruchi explained, adding: “That trust and authority that creative agencies used to have has taken a bit of a backseat. This is partly because the large networks haven’t been nimble enough to change with the times and also because clients are spoiled for choice. You have about 10 agencies ready to pitch to you, so clients pretty much have a buffet of agencies to choose from. It’s become quite challenging and, at times, disrespectful. The digital transformation has also been tremendous, but the industry at large hasn’t kept up with the times.”
Ruchi also explained that agencies are now often treated as suppliers rather than creative partners, compounded by many clients having their in-house agencies, limiting the mutual partnership. “What worked for us as a creative business is an irreverence that we had, that we didn’t just fall into line and do as we’re told, that we were willing to stick our neck out and persuade clients to be bold. That attitude is where creativity spouts from. When we become just a mirror to our client’s words, we lose our creative soul.”
“The industry has not lived up to the trust they’ve been given and have produced work that has sometimes failed, and clients have relegated the day-to-day interaction to juniors who lack the experience of the bigger vision and tend to think only of short-term sales, not of building the brand,” Ruchi said, adding: “It’s like a marriage gone wrong – there is no trust and the relationship between agency and client desperately needs that spark back in it.”
On creating HumanSense
Ruchi’s newest venture, the small, independent creative agency HumanSense (although Ruchi doesn’t quite describe it as an agency, instead preferring, for the moment, to describe it as a different communication model and a model of social change).
“I have always worked in big networks, and I now see them struggling with their overheads, rigid processes, hierarchy, and the slow pace of change. I realised that flexibility is key in today’s environment. And creativity has to regain its share as the soul and core of our business. For that, creatives have to take charge and lead this change. I have always believed in Mahatma Gandhi’s words – be the change you want to see.”
HumanSense works on an agile, outsourced model, with Ruchi engaging the best thinkers and doers based on clients’ needs and contracting them on each project received as opposed to full time. “Depending on the budgets and needs, we access an extensive set of human talent from a pool of local, regional, and global resources. It’s a challenging model because people are not used to it,” Ruchi explained, adding: “But we’ve been managing well so far with diverse clients’ projects, even winning pitches against large agencies.”
She further explained: “My vision with HumanSense is twofold. The first part of it is keeping creativity at its soul. Honestly, I’m still learning the business side, as creatives tend to be idealistic and naive. I want to create an environment where creativity can flourish at the soul of what we do and for HumanSense to be an agent of social change and CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives for clients.”
Ruchi noted: “The second part of it is attracting more and more women. I love my men, but I want HumanSense to feel like a safe, creative haven for women to be the professionals they are but still have the flexibility, without the fear of being judged.” She added that for the most part, there are very few women in the C-Suite of the Creative Department; the majority of women are in the junior and middle management levels, and in many cases leave the workforce after getting married, or especially after having children because of the long hours and lack of flexibility offered.
The impression is sometimes created that women lack ambition after having kids, but Ruchi stressed that this is not the case. “They don’t lose ambition,” Ruchi said, adding: “They’re just not being supported with flexibility, having to work long hours separated from their children. We as an industry are not empathetic and not evolving fast enough to understand this. And then there are the cultural expectations that women need to do an unfair amount of family load too.”
This phenomenon, “The Mom Penalty”, was the subject of one of HumanSense’s most recent projects, an International Women’s Day (IWD) video with the non-profit organisation Women Empowered Global, headed by the passionate Senela Jayasuriya, where Ruchi volunteers as the Personal Growth Officer. Covid-19 highlighted “The Mom Penalty” with working mothers stuck at home during the lockdown and needing to juggle full-time remote work with looking after their children as well as becoming responsible for their education because of e-learning. “I have a very supportive husband, but not everyone is so lucky. Many working women confessed that their husbands often locked themselves in a room because they needed to concentrate, and it was left to the woman to juggle the other responsibilities,” Ruchi said, noting that the production house behind the IWD film was X10 Productions.
“A lot of it is cultural too, but by and large, men can’t (or refuse to) multitask. As a working mom, often I am chasing a work deadline while my son is in a school online class, and I have to keep one ear on what’s going on. A working mom is constantly multi-tasking. I had some good friends who had no choice but to resign from their jobs as they were too stressed. Some were asked to leave because they were struggling with timelines, and I realised that this is what feminists are talking about – women have it tough, but ‘The Mom Penalty’ affects the most.”
Through HumanSense and its flexible freelance outsource model, Ruchi hopes to influence other mums to come back to work. “This IWD film was all about that,” Ruchi said, noting: “All the facts in the film are from reputed global newspapers, and when I reached out to people to give me specific statistics for Sri Lanka and South Asia, there weren’t a lot of clear statistics, which was very troubling. Why aren’t we documenting this to highlight and support our ladies?”
Reassessing advertising as an industry
Sharing her thoughts on how advertising can reassess itself, especially following the pandemic and the room it has given us to disrupt and reinvent how we live and work, Ruchi shared that she feels the industry as a whole has become a little too analytical. “Analytics is important,” Ruchi noted, adding: “But at the end of the day, let’s not forget that we’re talking to humans. You need the persuasive power to sell and to connect at an emotional level, which we’re not doing much of. We’ve made our business very complicated, but we need to get back to some basic human insights and emotional appeal.”
Commenting on working practices, Ruchi shared that she’d noticed many agencies, even globally, moving back to the old model of physical offices, long working hours, and insisting that people come back to work as soon as they could. Still, more futuristic paces like Google, Apple, Netflix, Facebook have embraced this change and shown flexibility towards their employees, thus retaining most of them.
“We need a hybrid system of working from home and full-time work. One or the other will not work. That said, with great flexibility comes great responsibility, and in that way, I feel this is why this rigidity of full time starts. Because some people have abused that flexibility. If we want to get mums back into our workforce, we need to engage them differently, and the conversation needs to be very different, not just for moms but for everyone. In the industry, too, we need a hybrid model – we will always need the large networks for our multinational clients, and we will need a bit of the HumanSense model. The collaborative nature of creative work will never go away, but it can definitely be more flexible and humane.”