In 2010, Flipkart and Happy Creative Services were both three years old, each founded by a duo of hungry young men. One was an e-commerce startup poised to take India by storm. The other was a madly irreverent creative ad agency whose disruptive flair and prodigious success had caught the attention of advertising sages across the country. Destiny threw them in bed together. And from that turbulent and inexorable conjugation were born the Flipkart Kids.
Six years after those memorable television commercials aired, they are still chuckling fresh in memory, still clocking YouTube views. Significantly, the ads planted the e-commerce wunderkind firmly in the Indian consciousness. As a creative trope, the Flipkart Kids campaign belongs in Indian advertising’s Hall of Fame, on the walls of which also hang gold-framed portraits of such notables as the MRF Man, the Amul Girl, Asian Paints’ Gattu, the wise and shrewd homemaker Lalitaji of Surf and, in more recent memory, the Hutch boy-and-dog and the Vodafone Zoozoos.
Seated on a carved antique wooden chair in the lobby of his office, Kartik Iyer is effervescent with emotion as he reflects on his agency’s Flipkart days. Co-founder and CEO of the Bengaluru-based creative advertising agency known since October 2016 as Happy mcgarrybowen, Kartik cut his teeth as a copywriter and became a creative director at Ogilvy in Bengaluru before he struck out on his own. With his colleague, art director Praveen Das, he started Happy Creative Services in May 2007. In September of that year, Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal started up Flipkart in a two-bedroom apartment in the same neighborhood, Koramangala.
It wasn’t until 2010 that their paths would cross. Invigorated by fresh investment, Flipkart was intent on taking the business national. Tapas Rudrapatna, one of Flipkart’s earliest employees who wore many hats, scouted for ad agencies that would help Flipkart make that splash. He reached out to Girija Naiksatam, then senior copywriter with Dentsu Webchutney who in turn referred Neelima Kariappa, who was then an account supervisor at Happy. There are other urban legends associated with this initial referral but, saucy and tempting as they may sound to the raconteur’s eager ears, we’re informed that they’re more fiction than fact.
A meeting of minds
“We were already hot in Bangalore,” reflects Kartik, who pitched his idea to Sachin, Binny and Tapas at the Flipkart office. “We won Flipkart and Myntra [then not yet part of the Flipkart Group] one week apart from each other. We were a creative agency but back then we didn’t have a planning department. We didn’t take any creatives to those pitches. Both were won on strategy presentations.”
Listen to an exclusive Studio34 podcast in which Kartik Iyer recounts the Flipkart days
Kartik recollects that Flipkart’s brief was: ‘We sell books. We need to go out there and tell everyone to buy books online.’
In March 2011, when they went over to Flipkart to make the creative presentation, the Happy founders noticed a new person in the room.
It was Ravi Vora‘s first day at work. Flipkart had hired the former Unilever marketing manager and Indian Institute of Management – Bangalore alumnus as its Vice President of Marketing. Ravi, who had been in talks to join Flipkart since December 2010, eventually came on board in March.
“This was going to be Flipkart’s first major investment in ATL (above the line) marketing and our first TV campaign,” observes Ravi, adding that Happy was already on board when he took charge.
Writing to Flipkart’s first brief, Happy had impressed a script upon the client – a fairytale about a book-besotted grandmother who lived in a house with a little mouse. Addicted to reading a new book every day, all she needed was to gently tap on the mouse’s back (analogous to clicking a computer mouse) and a new book would be delivered to her doorstep. Simple and magical.
“We had already proposed the idea and the client liked it,” recollects Praveen.
“It was almost like a Disney production,” Kartik adds, saying that the film was shot in South Africa with Prakash Varma of Nirvana Films, the Bengaluru ad film shop that had made the acclaimed Hutch boy-and-dog commercials.
“In Cape Town we worked with a guy who trained mice,” Praveen recalls, gushing at the memory. “He had 12 mice trained to do different things — one to pull the rope and switch off the lights, one to roll the cheese, and so on. It was just amazing.”
The eminently watchable 90-second ad, filmed in a vineyard with bucolic sets, high-end art direction and a genteel English voice-over, ended with a snap back to reality – ‘You don’t need magic!’ – and exhorted book-lovers to buy online on Flipkart.
Watch the video of the first Flipkart ‘fairytale’ commercial
A disastrous start
Six weeks later, Kartik got a call from Flipkart. The ad, he was informed in no uncertain terms, had bombed.
Ravi had seen the script when he met Sachin in Mumbai in December 2010, well before he joined Flipkart. “I wasn’t entirely convinced,” he remembers. “I had asked Flipkart to wait but since the company was already under pressure, they went ahead and got Happy to make the film.”
“They didn’t say it clearly at the time but Sachin and Tapas really wanted to increase traffic to the website,” recalls Kartik. “We didn’t know anything about this whole ‘invested industry’ and ‘raising capital’ business — it was a whole new ecosystem to us.”
It was also a fairly new idea to Indian industry at the time, but Flipkart was then riding a wave. A few months on, in June 2011, the startup would raise $20 million from a Series C funding round. The pressure was mounting on Flipkart to up its game and deliver.
“I had done the media planning to put the campaign on air,” recollects Ravi. “We had spent about ₹2-3 crore — a big number for us at that time. But the ad didn’t perform to expectations. It gave us some 25-30% growth on our numbers but we had much bigger targets.”
The problem with the Fairytale campaign, Ravi highlights, was that people in India were not ready to grasp the benefit of getting books delivered to their doorstep unless they understood what online shopping was all about. Second, he observed, the ad showcased online shopping in an indirect way.
“We were talking about a complicated concept in a roundabout way to an audience that was not really savvy about the whole thing,” he says.
In May, Ravi took Flipkart’s newly fledged marketing team back to the drawing board.
“We did some research and found that the biggest problem with online shopping in India was the lack of trust,” says Ravi. “The market was nascent and most people had largely negative experiences with online shopping.”
Who trusts online shopping?
A plethora of fly-by-night online shopping portals, failed orders, products not delivered on time, and broken online transaction experiences had fueled the Indian customer’s online shopping phobia. People that Flipkart asked voiced all kinds of fears from ‘What will happen to my money if I pay upfront?’ to ‘Whom do I go to if something goes wrong with the product?’
Before touting the benefits of online shopping, Ravi observed, it was of utmost urgency to allay the Indian customer’s fear and concern about online shopping. “Now my problem was: How do we build trust?” he says.
After the Fairytale campaign failed, Flipkart put Happy on notice.
“One evening, we got to hear that people in Lintas were having a party,” recollects Kartik with a rhetorical pause. “To celebrate the ‘win of the Flipkart business’!”
Alarmed, he called Sachin and impressed upon him that Happy wanted to pitch for the Flipkart account again. Soon, the agency was called in to make a second pitch.
“Kartik convinced us that he had the right thoughts about how he would take the brand forward,” recollects Ravi. “Happy won the account again in July 2011.”
The essence of the brief to Happy was: Flipkart wants to build trust. It wants to build the online shopping category in India. And it wants to do this by communicating three features of Flipkart — cash-on-delivery, 30-day replacement guarantee, and original products with warranty.
“Our intention was to launch this campaign in September or October that year,” says Ravi. “But creatively, it was not coming together.”
The challenge was to communicate the three ideas together, and to ensure that the audience connected the dots.
“This was our one shot,” says Kartik. “If we did not get this campaign right, we were going to lose the business.”
A second wind for Happy
Happy rejigged its creative team on the account. Kartik, driving strategy, put copywriter Naren Kaushik on the job.
“The brief came in and the task looked straightforward,” recalls Naren, one of the agency’s earliest employees. “There was an audience that Flipkart was catering to. E-commerce was a new concept to a lot of people. Even among people who didn’t mind using the internet as a platform for transactions, a mindset change was required. The task was simple: To tell people that Flipkart exists, that they sell books, electronics and more, and to break the barriers in the mindsets of people and tell them they can transact online without worrying about fraud.”
While the brief looked simple, the creative execution seemed an uphill challenge.
To build trust, Ravi’s team examined four approaches. One: Celebrity endorsement — Bollywood actor Ranbir Kapoor was on the radar. Two: Use testimonials, getting satisfied customers to thumbs-up the Flipkart shopping experience. Three: Demonstrate the brand’s trustworthiness with evidence. The fourth approach – a conversation between a skeptic and a believer – seemed most compelling to Ravi.
“After a month of going back and forth, we gave the last approach to Happy who came back with a few scripts,” remembers Ravi. “I felt it was coming together, but it looked dull — there was no spark. It looked like an FMCG ad.”
“The first pitches failed at the storyboard level,” recalls Naren.
The hardest challenge, both agency and client observed, was to make the conversation clutter-breaking. The three creatives had to look and feel like they emanated from one brand.
“Not just in the logo, but in the entire treatment,” explains Ravi. “We didn’t have too many marketing dollars, so it had to break the clutter creatively.”
Happy ruminated on the brief. “Skeptic and believer. One person believes and the other doesn’t believe. And the believer convinces the non-believer,” Kartik replays the thought process.
“One thing was certain,” he adds. “Whatever we did had to make India sit up and take notice.”
Flipkart Kids in ‘No Kidding No Worries’ – Watch the videos
How the Flipkart Kids were born
Happy riffed on a quote attributed to Piyush Pandey, one of India’s celebrated ad gurus, that there are three sure-shot approaches that work in advertising: Kids, senior citizens, and animals.
“We went with kids,” declares Kartik. “Kids are smart. They know everything. Their hand-and-eye coordination is better. Their brains are uncluttered. You tell them something, they understand. You want them to imitate, they imitate. Unbelievable, these kids were. You put some facial hair on them and they start behaving like adults!”
“I mailed five scripts to Kartik,” says Naren. “He jumped up and said we were onto something big.”
Happy took the scripts to Flipkart. “We told Flipkart that we were going to get kids to act like adults,” says Kartik. “Why kids, they asked? We said, to show the simplicity of it — child’s play. We told them kids would be dressed as adults, but we didn’t tell them that we would be using adult voices. It would have led to an unnecessary conversation!”
“We didn’t get it,” admits Ravi. “We didn’t even know what he was talking about.”
Kartik brought illustrations to the next presentation. Although the concept wasn’t clear, Flipkart started warming up to the creative approach. Working with focus groups, Ravi’s team tested the illustrations along with recorded voice-overs of the situations.
“The feedback was not wow, but it was encouraging,” he says. “People got what we were trying to communicate. It had a connecting thread. We were going after the Hinglish/English-speaking metro audience, so if it was funny we were sure it would click.”
Flipkart Kids in the ‘Mister’ Series – Watch the videos
Despite Ravi’s faith in the campaigns, it was not easy locking the scripts, recalls Naren. “I remember writing 40-odd scripts and sessions in a conference room at Flipkart, with Ravi at the whiteboard structuring the scripts. And I remember thinking that scripts are not supposed to be written like this. But those things helped. He was very clear on what the messaging should be, and I was very clear on filling it with dialogue, and Kartik was very clear on how to execute it. That way, everything fell into place.”
Flipkart Kids in ‘Shopping ka naya address’ – Watch the videos
The pieces fall in place
Happy proposed working with KM Ayappa, an up-and-coming ad filmmaker with the production house Footcandles. “He put a little bit of love into everything we did,” says Kartik.
Ayappa bought into the idea, adding his special touch by recommending a completely miniaturized set design – everything from clothes and furniture to doors and office water-coolers – that wouldn’t dwarf the child actors but complement and accentuate their Lilliputian world.
“There was a huge execution risk,” Ravi says. “If this miniature world didn’t look realistic, it would look amateurish and become a caricature. We were worried. The stakes were high.”
The shoot took place in September 2011. The pieces fell together, and so did the dramatis personae that worked behind the scenes to bring the campaign to life. In came Shaun Williams, a TV ad acting coach and founder of the Mumbai-based theatre company The Cellar Door. He conducted theatre workshops with the child actors. They rehearsed. Sets were built to make six- and seven-year-old actors resemble adults. The production team dubbed adult voices over the kids’ dialogues. In fact, eschewing professional voice actors, they recorded everyday people – the tea vendor, the crew… anybody they thought would fit the role and create a natural effect.
“All of these were firsts,” declares Kartik. “Why is film production so highly regarded as a process? Because it brings in so many different specialists at every stage. The same vision gets passed on and there’s room for every function to improvise. It’s fertile, it’s beautiful.”
Bursting with excitement, Happy presented the film to Flipkart.
“We got no reaction from the client!” Kartik says with disbelief. “Nothing. Deadpan. We’d shown them something truly phenomenal and all we got was: ‘Can we see it again?’”
Flipkart Kids in ‘Fashion Has A New Address’ – Watch the videos
“Ravi was comfortable with the fact that despite the treatment and the nuances, we still addressed the core problem,” analyzes Naren. “Kids acting as adults was the entertainment quotient. In advertising, that’s what breaks the clutter and makes things memorable. On both sides — client and agency — we were clear about the messaging.”
“We had limited media money and we were thinking of investing about a million dollars (roughly ₹6 crore) during the Diwali season,” says Ravi. “We tested the films on social media first. This, again, was a first. Not many brands did it in India at that time.”
Flipkart released the campaigns to its Facebook and Twitter audiences and waited for feedback.
“We saw a ton of shares,” remembers Ravi. “That told us which of the three creatives performed better and allowed us to fine-tune our media plan. Rather than commit an equal budget, we put more money into the more popular commercial when we aired it on television. We put them on air just before Diwali and the campaign took off like a rocket. It was the most widely shared campaign on social media that season and won several awards.”
No Kidding, No Worries
Dubbed ‘No Kidding No Worries’, the Flipkart Kids campaign made advertising history. They were funny and memorable. They started conversations. And they sealed the deal when it came to brand recall. Happy also thought up the tagline ‘The Online Megastore’ that introduced Flipkart to Indian television audiences. The next year, and the year after, Flipkart Kids came back to entertain television audiences, each thrifty 20-second ad spot punching way above its weight. One ambitious spot was even aired just before the Indian Premier League (IPL) season. It was a big boost of confidence for every member of the team that worked on the spots.
“Until the campaign was executed I wasn’t sure of how big it was, though Kartik believed Flipkart Kids was one of the biggest things we’d done!” says Naren.
“When all this was happening, I was an outsider,” says Ameya Lokhande, who was then with Lowe Lintas in Mumbai and later joined Happy as the business head for the Flipkart account. “Flipkart Kids was a story that everyone was talking about. It was a new industry, a new brand. Their reaction was: What just happened? It was different from what we had been seeing. Although it was just two campaigns in, the kids with the grown-up voices was already synonymous with Flipkart. People were talking about it. They said that even if you muted the TV, you could tell it was a Flipkart ad. It was instantly recognizable.”
“How many brands can say: You don’t have to see my logo, you don’t have to listen to my ad, you just look at it and you know it’s a Flipkart ad?” asks Kartik. “For everybody who worked on those campaigns, Flipkart Kids was one of the best things that happened to them.”
Flipkart blasted past its targets. “Our customers, our traffic, our new business… all the numbers doubled in October, and doubled again in November,” recollects Ravi.
Flipkart Kids in the hilarious “India Wants to Know series” – Watch the videos
The secret sauce
What was the spark that ignited the Flipkart-Happy partnership?
“Happy brought a lot of passion into working on Flipkart,” analyzes Ravi. “The founders put their heart and soul into the account. Before starting Happy, Kartik was a creative director at Ogilvy. For what was then a small brand like Flipkart to have someone of his caliber working directly on it was a big blessing. The other thing was that they really wanted to build the business. It was not only about winning awards for their campaign. They were serious about delivering on the objectives.”
“As we went ahead, we built a strong relationship with Ravi,” says Praveen. “We felt a connection with the founders. It was important for us to understand their vision and to translate it.”
“The reason why Happy, then an agency with 22 people, won a business like Flipkart is because Sachin and Binny were themselves two guys,” Kartik elaborates. “And they saw in Praveen and me two guys who were trying to do something. They saw the passion in us, and I believe that’s why we won the business.”
“Flipkart was a courageous client,” opines Naren. “As an organization grows, what’s at stake also grows. Obviously, there is a bit of dilution in terms of how courageous or risky you can be. As an agency, we took it on more as a challenge than a frustration.”
Flipkart grew, and so did Happy, but both outgrew their partnership.
In 2011, 2012 and 2013, the Flipkart Kids were all the rage. In 2014, a little after the first Big Billion Day sale, Flipkart initiated a dual-agency model. Soon enough, Happy exited the account. In September 2015, Ravi Vora left Flipkart to join HOOQ in Singapore as Chief Marketing and Business Officer.
Ten years down, both Flipkart and Happy are in their next phase of growth. One has transformed into a formidable force in Indian e-commerce comprising market leaders such as Myntra and Jabong, and eyeing an international footprint after its acquisition of eBay India. The other, now part of the global Dentsu Aegis network, has been rechristened Happy mcgarrybowen.
Although the custody of the Flipkart brand changed hands, the stamp of parentage has been hard to ignore. The Flipkart Kids campaign that ran from 2011 to 2013 elevated the brand into the national imagination. In 2016, after a hiatus during which the brand flirted with other creative approaches, the kids made a comeback.
When asked what he thought of the new ads, Kartik smiles. “There’s a clear difference in quality, edginess and production in the original Flipkart Kids commercials,” he says.
“We built the brand from the ground up and we still feel that we are one of Flipkart’s parents,” says Praveen. “Flipkart will always be a feather in our cap.”
“Right from the word go, the stars aligned,” says Kartik, shaking our hands as he prepares to get back to his desk. “Just as success was meant to be for Flipkart, we were meant to deliver it for them.”
Studio34 podcast recorded by Anand Vijayasimha
Photographs by Arjun Paul