Sign up

By submitting this form, I agree to these terms and conditions.

Subbaraju Alluri

Become – High Profiles
March 18, 2016

After a modelling assignment, Subbaraju Alluri was waiting to collect his cheque from an advertising agency when he got inspired. “I was just sitting there looking at what everyone else was doing, and I thought it was the kind of the place I wanted to be at,” he says, recounting his younger days. His catwalking days soon ended, but he never really thought modelling was going to be a long-term career anyway. “What I really wanted to be was a Bollywood actor!”

That never happened and didn’t matter either. He took up an internship at that agency and “the rest is history”. As he rose through the ranks, he quickly gained a reputation for turning around failing agencies. “It's all about people, people and people.” Each time, when faced with challenges in the organisation, he nails it down to helping people better understand him. “People have to buy into a common goal, and this sometimes requires a mindset and attitudinal shift.” Unlike what many have proposed, he does not think print is ‘dead’. “Television and print continue to be leading media, albeit not at the same scale and size as it used to be,” he explains, adding that when television came along, it did not mean that print or radio was dead. Regardless of the media, from a consumer’s perspective, the experience on each platform has become “a single journey”, he adds, meaning the viewer does not distinguish between the experiences of television and online video anymore.

He is sure the essence of the Ad Man will live on. “The Ad Man’s DNA does not only exist as part of an advertising agency. Nowadays, they may exist in technology companies too such as Google and Facebook, and they live on!” he says. More than two decades after his entry into the ad world, he was named Agency Head of the Year in 2011, and again in 2014. “To be the best in your industry certainly provides some perspective for your kids,” he says. “Now, they have a benchmark to beat.” Apart from being a role model for his children, he wants to leave behind a lasting impact in the industry. “Otherwise, I'll just be another agency person gone by—I want to leave a mark, with big ideas.”

Conversations with Subbaraju Alluri

CEO, Grey Group Singapore & Thailand
Text by Yong Hui Yow
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

YONG HUI YOW: How is Grey doing?

SUBBARAJU ALLURI: We are doing really well. Last year, we won Creative Agency of the Year and Digital Agency of the Year. At Cannes, which is the Oscars of the advertising industry, we won seven Lions, some of them were a first for Singapore. We secured hotels.com, which is now a regional client of ours, as well as Certis Cisco, which is another big business we won.

YONG HUI: You were a model before you joined the advertising industry? 

SUBBARAJU: [laughs] Yes, that was a long time ago. That was also how I accidentally got into advertising. I did it to earn some extra pocket money. One day, I was at the agency to collect my earnings, and I sat there looking at what everyone else was doing, and thought it was the kind of the place I wanted to be at. I got an internship, and the rest is history.

YONG HUI: Why do you love the advertising industry?

SUBBARAJU: No two days are alike in our industry. Every day, there are new challenges, whether it is to do with branding, consumers, markets, or the media. The media has changed so much. How people consume media now is not the same as what I was used to growing up. There are so many options now. When I wake up in the morning and head to the office, I know it's going to be a different day. If I have to do the same job again and again, I will be so bored. 


YONG HUI: How has the advertising industry evolved over the past years?

SUBBARAJU: First, television and print are not dead. They continue to be leading media, albeit not at the same scale and size as it used to be. Digital media is another channel to get your message out. Just like when television came along, it became another channel. It did not mean that print or radio was dead. The sorts of messages you can use on social media is not the same you will use on television, and vice versa. Each one has their role to play, but yes, social and digital media are growing leaps and bounds. From a consumer’s perspective, all the mediums are converging because they don’t make any distinction between say, television and digital. It is a single journey.

YONG HUI: Why is the advertising industry so ‘obsessed’ with awards?

SUBBARAJU: Well, it's like the fashion industry. It's about being recognised for your creativity, and it's validation for the capabilities and talents you have. For us, we define a successful campaign as Famously Effective, which is Grey’s mantra. When you consider a famous campaign, it is naturally effective, and effectiveness has to do with sales. At the end of the day, we are in the business of selling our client's products.

YONG HUI: You're known for turning around advertising agencies. How do you do that?

SUBBARAJU: It's all about people, people and people. It’s about having the people who buy into your strategy and vision. When people come together as a group with a common goal which makes sense, you’ll be able to turn around any company. I believe this is a business principle which works across various industries, but especially in the service industries.

YONG HUI: What is the difficulty with people?

SUBBARAJU: The most important thing is helping people understand you. People have to buy into a common goal and this sometimes requires a mindset and attitudinal shift. So, there will be a little hesitation when people don’t know you. It takes time to get to know people, but once they know you, and know that you make sense, it becomes easier.

YONG HUI: What is the key to selling something?

SUBBARAJU: If we are selling the same thing as everybody else, consumers will go for the cheapest option, but when you come across as an innovative brand, you command a premium. Apple is a great example of this. It is a phone at the end of the day, but they have innovated in such a way you can't get away from the brand— and you don’t mind paying a premium for it. Being innovative is the key to selling anything, whether it is the product, packaging, or in the way we package the communication.


I don’t think managing people is such a big deal. What is most important is being able to provide great solutions for clients.

YONG HUI: Is it difficult for a creative to get into management and the business side of things?

SUBBARAJU: Not at all. Many of the big agencies were started by creatives like David Ogilvy and David Droga. Many people who run agencies have creative backgrounds. I don’t think managing people is such a big deal. What is most important is being able to provide great solutions for clients. It is about the individual's desire to move into other roles such as account planning and servicing. To do this, they have to demonstrate additional skills. It is also about having a conversation with management and saying you'd like to move into a certain area.

YONG HUI: Are people able to move around at Grey?

SUBBARAJU: Of course. People have moved from account planning into creativity and vice versa, or account servicing into copywriting. It is easy to spot someone with copywriting skills just by reading their emails, which are very different from a typical business email. One of the girls who got transferred to Germany used to write emails like how a copywriter writes a manifesto—with humour and playfulness, while still getting across what she wants.

Whenever we make recommendations to the client, there has to be a strong rationale based on consumer insights. It's not like the creative guy just thinks it up and has some fun with it.

YONG HUI: What are the future trends for advertising?

SUBBARAJU: I always tell my team we have to go beyond traditional advertising by coming up with product innovations—solutions for humanity. This is not usually considered advertising, but just to give you an example, we did a campaign last year called "life-saving dot", which won us numerous awards. There is a huge problem in India where women have iodine deficiency, and they don’t want to take tablets. But they wear something called a bindi on their foreheads. So we thought: what if we turned those into something like a nicotine patch? So that’s what we did. We came up with an iodine patch. Whenever we make recommendations to the client, there has to be a strong rationale based on consumer insights. It's not like the creative guy just thinks it up and has some fun with it. To be at the cutting edge of advertising, we have to be in-tune with the consumers of today. Research six months ago is of no use. 

YONG HUI: So the future of advertising is in product development and innovation.

SUBBARAJU: Yes, we will see agencies coming up with product innovations instead of just advertising products and services. We have to come up with product innovations which solve consumer problems or enhance their daily experience. Once you have product innovation, only then you advertise.

YONG HUI: Is this because it’s becoming more difficult to advertise as people get increasingly desensitised?

SUBBARAJU: Yes, that is why agencies need to go beyond advertising, and add value in product design and innovation. It does become more difficult when people care less, but that’s also because consumers don’t find your advertisement entertaining, inspiring or aspirational. This is what I call ‘wallpaper advertisements’—people just don’t care. If you engage consumers effectively, they’ll watch your advertisement again and again. Just look at the number of views some of these advertisements get on YouTube. If someone, out of their own willingness, goes to watch your advertisement, it is engaging. That is what everybody is trying to do.


YONG HUI: What do you think of ad blocking?

SUBBARAJU: I think it’s a temporary phenomenon. In a lot of cases, advertising is entertainment, and people enjoy that. Take for instance Superbowl ads. Ad blocking worries a lot of people, especially publishers, but take a look at how HBO works. There are no ads, and you bypass that by being on Starhub. So before and after a movie, they have every right to communicate or advertise what they want. Next, let’s take alcohol advertising. In most markets, it is banned, yet they are still selling alcohol. When they banned direct advertising of alcohol, their entire advertising budgets went into HORECA [Hotels, Restaurants and Cafes]. In a bar or restaurant, it comes down to how visible your brand is vis-a-vis other brands. That valuable shelf space used to be in print media. New channels always open up when something closes, so I’m not too concerned about ad blocking.

YONG HUI: Is Return on Investment still the best way to judge the success of a campaign?

SUBBARAJU: If you bother to share it, I’ve achieved my objectives. Unless you are engaged, you will not share it. Even if you don’t share, at least I have reached my primary target audience. Shares simply decrease my cost per acquisition. Today, it’s not about Return on Investment; it is about Return on Attention—how much time can you get people to look at you right now?

YONG HUI: What are some of your most memorable campaigns?

SUBBARAJU: My favourite one is probably eTrade’s baby advertisement from our New York office. It is a really funny advertisement for a very boring category—online trading. They wanted to show how easy it is to trade online, so they used talking babies. It became a huge public relations boon for us because all the television channels were talking about how babies are now giving us investment advice. There are many fringe benefits you can get out of a good advertising campaign, especially in public relations.

YONG HUI: What kinds of emotions work better for which kinds of brands?

SUBBARAJU: The emotion we try to drive depends very much on the relationship the brand is having with the consumer. For example, if people have forgotten about your brand even though it has been around for a hundred years, you may want to evoke an emotion along the lines of—I grew up with you. That is different from if consumers don’t know your brand, in which case, humour might work better.

YONG HUI: Do you do philanthropic work?

SUBBARAJU: Not here, but in India. I participated in ‘semi-adopting’ a small village in South India, along with other people. I'm just a part of the whole thing. It isn’t much, but it makes you feel connected to the cause. There are about five hundred families there. In the Indian context, that is a small village. So we provide schooling, electricity, water facilities. . . 


YONG HUI: What do you remember about growing up in India?

SUBBARAJU: I remember my boarding school Saint Patrick's, which is in Chennai, where I was at for ten years or so. Those memories are very precious to me. When I meet my friends after so many years, we feel exactly the same towards each other. All the years have not changed anything between us. I believe that is real friendship. 

YONG HUI: Are you the most distinguished among them?

SUBBARAJU: No, not really. I'm probably the only guy who is in advertising. Everybody else is into all other things. Some are doctors, dentists, engineers, or are into software, hardware ... a lot of IT guys. One of the guys has become a tennis coach who runs a camp in the US. It is incredible how we all turned out.

YONG HUI: What do you dislike most about the ad industry?

SUBBARAJU: I dislike how I don’t know when to cut the work out of my mind. Whether I'm at home or travelling, work is constantly in my mind. If you overdo it, that’s not so good. Sometimes, you need to have your personal space. You cannot be preoccupied for 24 hours.

YONG HUI: How do you take yourself out of that?

SUBBARAJU: Family is the best way to do that. When you are with your wife and kids, the conversations take you away from work. In that moment, you don’t think of work. And have you been to an Indian wedding before? It is an elaborate process. For that week or ten days, I cannot think of work because there is just so much happening around you. The advantage of being in advertising is that you are never old, because you can talk about various subjects from kids stuff, to airlines ... anything! You become a very casual person, so your relationships with your niece or nephew become almost like a friendship. We can yak forever about any subject because of the work that I have done previously.

Consumers are smart nowadays, and we don’t give them enough credit.

YONG HUI: Being Indian, what do you think of Free Basics?

SUBBARAJU: I don’t know too many details about Free Basics, but they are facing a lot of opposition right now. I think giving access to people for free is a good thing in general, but how people use it and for what purpose are what matters. Just because you are on Facebook now, does not mean you will be forever. People can switch. If you look at some markets, Twitter is bigger than Facebook. Consumers are smart nowadays, and we don’t give them enough credit.

YONG HUI: What do you think of Modi?

SUBBARAJU: He is an exemplary, visionary leader. He has done very well for the country although people claim he isn’t doing anything impactful. There was a progress report which came out just last week, and it is fascinating. He is making all the right investments, especially in infrastructure, which is so essential for any economy. Without infrastructure, you cannot get the engine rolling. 

YONG HUI: Might you have stayed a model if you did not get into advertising?

SUBBARAJU: Modelling wasn’t really a long-term career choice for me. What I wanted to be was a Bollywood actor—never happened! It’s a very difficult industry to get into, but it’s one of those things I always wanted to be.

YONG HUI: What kind of role model do you play for your kids?

SUBBARAJU: I think they see someone who has achieved some success in life, and has been recognised within an industry. I was the Agency Head of the Year in 2011, and again in 2014. To be the best in your industry certainly provides some perspective for your kids because they have this high benchmark to beat now. 

I’m driven by big ideas which have an impact for a long time to come, at least within our industry. Otherwise, I'll just be another agency person gone by—I want to leave a mark. 

YONG HUI: Having achieved all that, what still drives you?

SUBBARAJU: I’m driven by big ideas which have an impact for a long time to come, at least within our industry. Otherwise, I'll just be another agency person gone by—I want to leave a mark. 

YONG HUI: Is the Ad Man a dying breed?

SUBBARAJU: I don’t think so.

YONG HUI: As long as there are products to sell.

SUBBARAJU: And there will always be products to sell. But the Ad Man does not only exist as part of an advertising agency. They exist in a technology companies too such as Google and Facebook, and they live on! Our global CCO for example, has moved on to Apple as VP of Marketing. The DNA of the Ad Man won’t change, and it won’t die. 

YONG HUI: What is the Ad Man’s DNA?

SUBBARAJU: It is the passion to do and create something different all the time. In this case, it is through communication, the passion for coming up with big ideas, and having fun doing so!