Indie agency Maitri Advertising Works completed 25 years in 2021. From starting off operations in Kochi, Kerala to setting up operations internationally with offices in Seychelles and Maldives to teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the story of Maitri is about an agency which has fought the odds and made it count with regional, national, and international clients like Netflix, Disney+Hotstar, and more.
In a freewheeling conversation with team Maitri, comprised of Executive Director C Muthu, Director Operations Raju Menon, Chief Operating Officer Jayakumar Kurup, Director- Ideation Venugopal R Nair, Head & Director – Digital Sumit Raj, Head – Digital & Creatives Ajay Sathyan, and Group Creative Director Francis Thomas, Medianews4u.com maps the agency’s journey, the milestones, work for Coca-Cola, the Women & Child Development Department of Kerala and LDF, and how the team is getting equipped for combat in the digital world.
Summing up the 26-year journey of Maitri, C Muthu says, “The company was co-founded by three of us: Sajan Abraham, who is the Chairman, Raju Menon, the Director-Operations and I. We were all working together in Mudra in the early ’90s. During the period, we were asked not to onboard clients whose account size was below Rs.50 lakhs. At that point, a few clients started asking us whether we would be able to do consulting work for them, and lots of offers and opportunities were pouring in. That was the point when we decided to start an agency of our own, and that’s how Maitri Advertising Works was born. We started in a period when the economy was not good, but we were accustomed to the creative and financial systems of network agencies. Working from a city like Cochin, Kerala, we could think like a multinational agency, and possess the agility of a local agency – this combination worked for us. We didn’t lose many clients during the journey– retention of clients is another success factor of Maitri.”
We asked the team that in its journey since 1997, while Maitri grew from Kochi to multiple South Indian cities, and also the Seychelles and Maldives, was there ever a temptation to go pan-India?
Muthu explains, “Certainly yes, we tried to go pan-India. We didn’t have much success there. We had an office in Chennai till recently, which we closed down. The Chennai market was, by and large, a successful market for us. We had clients like Reynolds, TAFE, and more.
“We had operations in Bengaluru, but for some unidentified reasons, we were not able to taste success there, unlike in Cochin, Maldives, or Seychelles offices.”
Raju Menon recalls the biggest challenge faced by Maitri and how they defied the odds to sustain themselves. “Everything was going smoothly till 2015. We were slowly getting into operations in other metros and were planning to open offices in Mumbai and Delhi as we were handling Vasan Healthcare, whose flagship brand was Vasan Eyecare. Maitri was handling both traditional and digital media. We required agency presence in those cities, and we started single-man operation there. Suddenly, issues started brewing inside Vasan Eye Care hospital chain when a Chennai-based chartered accountant alleged that former Finance Minister of India, P. Chidambaram, had used the firms to launder black money, which was followed by Income Tax Department and Directorate of Enforcement raids. We came to know about the issues quite late, and at that point of time, we had an outstanding of Rs.25 crore. The agency had a good rapport and personal relationship with the Chairman, Late Dr AM Arun, and Rs.7 crore was settled, but Rs.18 crore was still pending. The whole financial setup of Maitri was in chaos,” he explains.
He continues, “We approached IBF with the issue. They said that within a six to nine-month period, the pending payments need to be settled. Then we approached INS. Both bodies extended their support to Maitri. We came back and approached our existing clients and narrated the issues to them and requested support. Luckily, three of our clients paid three months in advance. Then we called the employees and spoke to them about the situation and trouble we were in and told them, if anyone wanted to leave, they can. All our employees stood strongly for the company, and some of the senior employees were ready to lend money to the company by pawning their properties. Ultimately, we didn’t lose anything, neither clients nor employees.”
Maitri played a key role in the thumping win of the LDF government in Kerala, with slogans like LDF Varum Ellam Sheriyakum in the 2016 assembly polls, and Urappanu LDF in the 2021 assembly elections, which were familiar among the kids. We asked the team to take us through the journey and the work that went behind the LDF campaigns.
Raju Menon said, “It was during the above said situation that we got a call from Communist Party of India (CPI(M)) Politburo saying we are inviting pitches for Kerala Election campaigns and would like Maitri to participate. There was no pitch fee and they had invited around six to seven agencies. Election campaigns were new to the team, but we decided to give it a try.
“We put our best efforts into the pitch and we were on-boarded as the agency. During one of the meetings, the slogan ‘LDF Varum Ellam Sheriyakum’ was coined. CPI (M) is an amazing client to work with, and they are very accurate and timely when it comes to the payment part as well. I remember, two days before the election results, I met Pinarayi Vijayan, who was the (party) Secretary at that time. He enquired whether Maitri had received all the payments, to which I said yes, only a few payments were pending. He asked me to send the bill and get it cleared, as if the election results didn’t turn positive for them, then the agency might be affected. He asked me if I had anything more to say. I told him about the trouble we landed in because of the Vasan issue and that if any other extra work could be given, it would be of great help. He said, ‘Communists never promise anything. We have hired you, you have done the work, and the payment is cleared.’ After a few seconds, he added that they knew about the Vasan issue and that’s one of the reasons they selected Maitri for the election campaign work.
“The five-year tenure was over for the government and the next election was approaching. The account came for Maitri. This time it was a little challenging because the Kerala population doesn’t have the habit of re-electing the same government for a second tenure. For the 2021 legislative assembly elections, we needed to reiterate to the people that the LDF is going to be there for the people, and so the slogan ‘Urappanu LDF’ was coined. It worked for them, and the LDF came to power for the second time.
“The two factors that work for the election campaign are planning and execution. An election is a time when any political party will get 45 days to do the campaign and related activities. The parties shouldn’t wait for the Election Commission to announce the dates and then start the campaigns. The LDF was well prepared for the elections in March and the campaigns were ready by that time. Within 24 hours of the election date declaration, the campaigns were live, whereas the competition’s weren’t.”
Amidst larger ad networks, Maitri has worked with global brands including Netflix India and Disney+Hotstar. We pondered over how challenging it was, to prove that location no longer defines the scale of work.
Francis Thomas notes, “When national brands come looking for native content instead of adapting or dubbing work from their head offices, Maitri is the first place they look. Unlike many of the smaller agencies, we not only have years of local insight and craft, but we pair that up with being able to speak to national clients in their own language. Our experience with strategy, ideas that align with the brand and navigating corporate protocols helps us create a seamless experience for national and international clients struggling to find dependable local partners.
“Moreover, our work on the Netflix campaign for Minnal Murali, while primarily in Malayalam, ensured that the interest of even a non-Malayalam speaking viewer would be piqued. We’re happy to say that the scale of thinking and execution demonstrated has even led to Maitri being approached to work on a campaign for a Bollywood film.
“The team at Maitri is quite well-exposed, well-travelled, and diverse. You will find that many of our team have worked in other cities and for network agencies, and they bring that experience to the office. If anything, we try to draw inspiration from local stories with universal emotional connections and use them when working on national campaigns.”
There was one campaign that could count as a milestone. It was done for Coca-Cola. We asked the team about how that came about.
Sumit Raj: “We have had the Coca-Cola account for a long time. It has been a print and production account. If we look at the Maldives as a market, it is a strong one for Coca-Cola, as there is no space for a secondary product. Pepsi products that arrive in the Maldives are imported by traders.
”Maitri was involved in ATL, BTL activities with Coca-Cola. Fortunately, there was no other agency at that point of time, though a little later we had to pitch for the same. Once we bagged the account, we retained it for almost eight years.
“Every year, Coca-Cola does promotional activity or products in the form of table top calendars, which works for them and will be sent to traders, suppliers, high end buyers, and more. They wanted something unique. We worked on it and came up with the idea of bottles. Every time I visited the Coca-Cola office, they used to have these bottles placed on the racks, which became the seed of thought for the campaign. We presented it to them and they approved it, and that’s how the Coca-Cola campaign happened.
”The most interesting part of the campaign was when we figured out that there was a connection between the Coca-Cola bottles and the evolution of time. We could connect the evolution of bottles to the cinemas related at that particular period.”
There have also been landmark campaigns for the Women & Child Development Department of Kerala, which went viral since launch. How different is it from working on private sector clients, we asked.
Ajay Sathyan: “The Women & Child Development Department is one of the youngest departments in the government of Kerala and Maitri was the first social media agency for them. When we started off, they didn’t have an Instagram page and had Facebook page likes of around 2k, hence every activity was started from scratch. Today the page has around 118k likes on Facebook and 37.2k followers on Instagram.
“We started off with Covid19 awareness posts, which had meme and troll-related content. That’s when we analysed or spotted that the department has a very strong WhatsApp network and the posts that were sent to that particular group were going viral. We took it as an opportunity to grow our social media pages. The content strategy was not to be preachy, but to provide people with something they could directly relate to. We moved on to the parenting campaigns with the objective of reaching out to a wider audience. Maitri was confident in terms of our creatives. The next thought process was to reach out to a mass audience, to reach that point onboarding celebrities was imperative.
“For the parenting campaign, it was decided to onboard actress and entrepreneur Poornima Indrajith. Later, we felt that onboarding her husband, actor Indrajith Sukumaran, was a great idea as they are both regarded as a power couple and are known for their parenting style. We kicked off with ‘Namukku Valaram, Nannayi Valartham’ . The campaign urged parents and society to “Grow up’ to raise children in a healthy way. The campaign went viral within no time, and that’s how our journey with the Women & Child Development Department began.
“Maitri has done lots of poster series for the department. After that, the women’s empowerment campaign ‘Ini Venda Vittuveezhcha’ ( No more compromises) was launched. We leveraged singer Arya Dhayal for the campaign, which also became viral.
“When the movie Minnal Murali was released, we saw an opportunity for a campaign with the characters of the movie on women’s empowerment and toxic relationships. The director of the movie, Basil Joseph, was on board and a campaign was launched.
“The strategies of the campaigns are to spread hard-hitting insight and awareness without being preachy and to throw some light on the issues faced by women and children in our society.”
Asked to name the campaigns the team considers to be landmarks, the brand BPL Mobile pops up.
Muthu: “Many clients identified Maitri as an agency that had regional insights; the first such client was BPL Mobile. They required an agency with vernacular insights. At that period, at the national level, BPL Mobile was handled by network agencies like McCann. They gave Maitri the Kerala account, later Tamil Nadu as well. We got clients like BPL Mobile because we knew Kerala better. At present we have clients like Netflix, Disney+Hotstar because of the same reason. Which is our core strength. The campaign we did for BPL Mobile is one of our landmark campaigns.
“Parallelly, we won the Mathrubhumi account in 2000. We have won several accolades for the campaigns we have run for Mathrubhumi year after year. The current Managing Director, Shreyams Kumar, is an ad-savvy person who encourages good creative work. Mathrubhumi has helped us in doing a lot of landmark campaigns,” says Jayakumar.
The agency has also been approached by larger networks with an eye on acquisition in the past. By many, including network agencies in the country and globally. It hasn’t given in to the temptation.
Muthu surmises, “It is very easy to encash money and enjoy a retired life. Many employees who have been with us for more than 20 years have declined job offers by trusting us. We have the responsibility of taking care of them. We believe that Maitri, which we founded, should also be there for decades to come. I believe, perpetuation is one of the objectives of a company generally, hence we should perpetuate Maitri as it is and not join hands with a network agency.”