The Man of ‘WORDS’ – Rohan Rajaratnam

Words make sentences and sentences make languages, making communication possible, which differentiates, between us and all other living creatures. WORDS Advertising has strived to speak the language of Brands with consumers. The Man at WORDS, Rohan Rajaratnam, actually began his career in the field of Accounting, failing in his attempt to become a Chartered Accountant. His decision to build on his failure has now made him a respected Advertising industry personality with over 30 years of experience.

Elaborating on his mesmerising journey, the Managing Director of WORDS stated, “Though a tad late in the day, it suddenly dawned on me that I would rather not be a ‘bean counter’ but would prefer to dabble in Marketing which was a special subject in my Bachelor of Commerce degree. So, I returned in 1986, to the country of my birth which had always tugged at my heart strings right through my early years of learning in India and joined the then Grant, Kenyon & Eckhardt as a trainee Account Executive, working for the ‘Father of Advertising in Sri Lanka’ Deshabandu Reggie Candappa. I worked on a number of prestigious accounts among which was Brown & Co. with brands such as Massey Ferguson, Exide Batteries, Makita Power Tools and Canon with such ‘Gentlemen of Marketing’ as Srilal Perera, Monty Candappa, Eksith Fernando and Ian Dias Abeysinghe, all outstanding gentlemen of fine calibre and astute acumen whose immense experience shaped me in my formative years. Grants then aligned with an international agency network and became Grant, Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon and Eckhardt in the late eighties.

“Grant Bozell as it was subsequently known, gave me the opportunity to work with multinational corporates such as Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Singer among many others. It was at this juncture that stalwarts such as Hemaka Amarasuriya and Gamani Abeysuriya from Singer, Shanthi Nadaraja from Coke and Rajiv Deraniyagala and Graham Campbell at Nestlé played a pivotal role in shaping and molding who I was and would be in the field of Marketing Communication. In 1990, Bozell New York welcomed Sandya Salgado, a colleague of mine and me to a training programme for a select group of representatives from around the world, driving me to higher levels in this profession of Advertising.  In the mid-nineties, Grants re-aligned itself with the world’s largest Advertising network, McCann Erickson and became Grant McCann Erickson and 1994 saw me in Manila at the Asian Institute of Management undergoing a vigorous course in Management in Marketing Communications. The tie up with McCann also brought the opportunity for me to work in their Sydney offices from 1997-1998, initially on Nestlé and then as Worldwide Account Director on their Reckitt & Colman business from which I was able to gain much experience and learning that has stood the test of time. In July 1999, we won the newly liveried SriLankan Airlines Account and in July 2000, I took up the challenge of handling the Account as the Worldwide Account Director while being on the Board of Management, which I did till I left Grant McCann in 2003.”

A short spell with the Agency Triad Advertising came next when he had accepted Dilith Jayaweera and Varuni Amunugama’s invitation to join the then 10-year-old Agency, followed by three years as Managing Director of Minds FCB. Later, in March 2009, he began his own Advertising Agency ‘WORDS’.

He further elaborated, “When I joined Advertising, we had only one radio station, Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and two television stations, Rupavahini and ITN. You can imagine the time and skill required to plan schedules with these media channels. It was a walk in the park, compared to today. We only had to deal with ANCL or the Upali group, mainly, in terms of Print Media. The experience gained at the ground level over the years and the difficulty with which we had to carry out our work with no computers and no software based presentations, makes today a cakewalk comparatively and gives me the confidence that anything and everything is possible if you have the right attitude.”

Speaking about the global communication trends, Rohan explained that the only global trend that we need to emulate is the adoption of technology, processes and best practices which must be done sooner than later. He said that in terms of communication ideas, it is our inborn ability to vocally and visually interact and impact with other human beings and that is best done when telling the truth in the most convincing and empathetically relevant manner that we know would stimulate the receiver.

On the topic of the challenges faced by the Advertising industry in Sri Lanka, the respected industry personality stated, “The first and foremost challenge is the lack of trust and understanding among the fraternity. As an industry, we need to come together to resolve key issues without being suspicious of each other’s motives. There are a number of pressing issues that need to be discussed, such as a Code of Conduct, a Code of Ethics, an industry wide minimum fee Rate Card, Rules & Regulations with regards to Pitches, Intellectual Property Rights in advertising etc. These are from a macro perspective but given the aftermath of the pandemic there are specific issues also that need to be addressed such as legislative initiatives that need to be passed into law that creates a legal platform for representation, discussion, implementation and monitoring, for an industry that is so critical to the economic development of the country.”

In his assessment of Digital Advertising, Rohan mentioned that digital is only a channel or medium for communication to pass through – it is only a means to an end. “As long as we remember that, when developing communication, it will be an effective tool.”

Of the evolution of the Sri Lankan Advertising industry and where it stands with that of the region and beyond, Rohan shared an unusual perspective. “Mainstream movies are not made with a specific target in mind, not even Disney targets children. It is targeted at a conceptual mind set. So, in my opinion if the local industry is successfully communicating with the conceptual target audience it planned to reach, then we are as good as anything that is being done globally. It is not fair to compare advertising between markets to some extent because it is a case of ‘each to its own’. Our customs and traditions are different, our habits and attitudes are different, our choice of colours is different, and so is our advertising. We would not be aroused by Japanese or Chinese advertising as they would not be by ours. So, each to their own is my opinion, as long as it is effective”. You need to have local insights and local knowledge and garner the power of the local dialects to effectively communicate to a local audience.

When questioned about the effects of Advertising on the economy, Rohan replied, “If, as Peter F Drucker says in his Journal of Marketing in 1958, Marketing is the engine for economic growth and development, then I would opine that Advertising is the spark plug that makes that engine work. Especially in times of a recession or depression, Advertising will drive demand which in turn will drive supply and slowly but surely turn the vital economic wheel, which sustains life as we know it. It is imperative that marketers understand the need to shy away from that knee jerk reaction to cut advertising to improve the bottom line on the short haul during times of stress and forge ahead with driving demand so that the economy does not falter at any time. The ‘show must go on’ whatever be the circumstances.”

WORDS won the first Gold EFFIE in Sri Lanka for ‘Trail’ a Social Responsibility campaign to raise funds for the construction of the first cancer facility in the North of the country in the immediate aftermath of the civil war. WORDS has also won EFFIES for their two long standing clients ‘Pizza Hut’ and ‘Sampath Bank’ both of whom have been with WORDS for over a decade. However, Rohan believes that awards are not an essential or a critical part of the life of an Agency, as Client budgets should be spent to deliver on the marketing objectives the client has defined for the brand. ROI in this case stands for a “Return on Ideas”, ideas that work for the Client and their brands. If as a consequence of fulfilling that objective, the Agency wins an award, that would be great. On the other hand, award winning work does not automatically guarantee effectiveness in the marketplace.

“We have not won or lost business as a direct result of having won or lost at the awards. Awards have come to stay in every industry but to me they are not a measure of the quality of the product or service offered nor a direct reflection of the health of the brand and are now more a business venture than a fair determination of the standards of that specific industry,” Rohan added.

As the Managing Director of WORDS, Rohan will steer the organisation, to continue to be a strategic communications’ solutions company that is nimble and potent, capable of building relationships between Agency and Client and Brands and Consumers, built on truth and trust  and concepts that endear and endure.

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