Home Digital Marketing Harikrishnan Pillai and Manish Solanki of TheSmallBigIdea on scaling globally

Harikrishnan Pillai and Manish Solanki of TheSmallBigIdea on scaling globally


In large boardroom meetings, often there is someone in one of the corners who diverts the discussion off topic and talks about healthcare, sports, movies, or some personal anecdote–something very trivial. From these small insights, an idea is often picked that turns into something big. This ‘Small’ idea which turns into something ‘Big’ is the thought that the founders of TheSmallBigIdea had when naming the agency. 

What started as a home-grown creative agency has now completed 10 years in the industry and has ventured into the MENA region. In the span of 10 years, TSBI has made a name for itself and has bagged some notable clientele in the industry working on distinctive campaigns. 

As the agency celebrates 10 years in the A&M industry, Harikrishnan Pillai, Founder & CEO, TheSmallBigIdea and Manish Solanki, Co-Founder & COO, TheSmallBigIdea speak to Social Samosa about the agency’s beginnings, trajectory, significant campaigns, expansion, technology, AI, state of the industry, managing people, building a business and more. 

Small idea, big agency

Pillai candidly shares that the motivation behind starting TSBI was opportunity–the potential financial prospects. “In the marketing space, you spot opportunities and money flowing in a certain direction, and you view that positively. When you want to grow faster, you pivot,” he remarks. He says that from their (him and Solanki) B-school days and early jobs at Zee and Reliance, they were always driving the digital narrative. Sharing an instance from 2007, Pillai recalls that he created a project that advocated for advertising inside gaming. 

The CEO mentions that TSBI has solidified its standing in the entertainment space over the years. “Over the years, TSBs has become established in people’s minds as a strong agency in the entertainment category. We’re sought after by broadcast, OTT platforms, music labels, and actors. Even non-entertainment brands approach us to help push the boundaries of storytelling,” he shares. Mentioning the other reason behind TSBI’s standing in the industry, he says, “Another key pillar for us over the last decade has been our strong culture, leading to high client and employee retention. This has solidified our position as a reputable agency.”

Speaking about what have been the reasons behind TSBI’s success and continued sustenance in the industry, Pillai lists down a few key elements. “For any category or brand to grow, you have to focus on the basics. Regardless of how complex an industry may be, competence is key. At TSBI, we believe in mastering the basics. So, what are these basics? They involve being insight-driven, ensuring that your delivery matches the quality of your ideas. In my experience, agencies that simply present great ideas without solid delivery rarely succeed. That’s where our focus lies. We prioritise insights, we’re outcome-oriented, and we consistently deliver. This approach has led to long-term partnerships,” he expounds. 

“Secondly, we prioritise effectiveness over flashiness. Just because AI is trending doesn’t mean it’s the answer to everything. While we embrace new technologies, we’re selective. Our clients appreciate that we focus on what works best for them, making their marketing investments efficient. This dedication to evolving and maximising returns has earned us trust,” he adds and goes on, “Ultimately, it all boils down to economics. Your creative efforts should drive tangible outcomes, not just accumulate awards. Building a strong brand requires a solid return on investment and a mutually beneficial relationship with clients.”

Talking about some of the memorable campaigns that have helped TSBI make a mark in the industry, Pillai points to the campaign that the agency did for the movie Badhaai Ho. TSBI claims to be one of the first agencies to introduce shoulder content to movie marketing and the entertainment arena overall. Prior to that, only trailers and songs of the movies were released before the movie’s release. He also mentions the campaign they did for Great White Global featuring actor Varun Sharma. 

Solanki recalls a campaign TSBI did for Tourism Thailand titled ‘The great girly getaway’. He recalls how it was the first country to promote itself as a women’s first destination and was used by the government of Thailand for three years. 

An ad agency is only as good as its talent. To execute these small, big ideas that the agency believes in, finding the right employees is also of utmost importance.  

Sharing details about the agency’s hiring process, Pillai says, “When we’re hiring for a senior position, accuracy is paramount. We’re seeking individuals with subject matter expertise, a clear focus on their objectives, and a solid understanding of the relevant category.”  

On hiring junior employees, the founders say that they look for individuals with intense passion and dedication to advertising. Regardless of the position, a key question they ask candidates is why they want to join the agency. “Sometimes, even highly qualified candidates may not be the right fit if their career aspirations diverge significantly from ours. Ultimately, we prioritise subject matter expertise, genuine passion for the work, and alignment of career goals with those of the company. It’s crucial for both parties to be on the same page regarding their professional trajectories,” adds the CEO. 

Adapting to technology and thoughts on AI

The founders mention that while adapting to changing technology has been a focus, the agency does not latch on to any novel technology just for the sake of it. “Our primary focus has been on evaluating strategies that don’t require constant adaptation. We aim to ensure that our approaches have a significant impact. For instance, when the Metaverse emerged, we took practical steps that could affect various aspects, such as press conferences or merchandise distribution for upcoming events. We evaluate each initiative based on its impact on the business, alongside ensuring cost-effectiveness. We prioritise impactful trends, albeit not too many at once,” Pillai elaborates. 

He goes on, “In terms of technology adoption, we follow a meticulous process. We initially experiment with new technologies through a trial phase with selected brands to assess their effectiveness. We then evaluate whether the technology saves time, enhances efficiency, increases revenue, and fits into our economic model. Any technology that doesn’t contribute to scalable and profitable operations is not pursued further. For instance, while AI in cinema sounds promising, if it doesn’t improve efficiency or profitability, it’s not worthwhile.”

The founders emphasise scalability and mass adoption as factors one must consider when adopting new technologies. “We must consider scalability and speed in adopting new technologies. Technologies like Generative AI show potential, but until they become scalable and faster, their mass adoption remains uncertain. Mass adoption of technologies, whether in advertising or any other industry, occurs when they become accessible and beneficial on a large scale. We’ve seen this pattern with mobile phones and 3G technology, where affordability and accessibility drove widespread adoption,” remarks the CEO. “In advertising, as in other sectors, mass scalability and adaptability are essential for the widespread use of AI. Therefore, we explore various technologies and adopt those that help us maintain agility, relevance, and profitability,” he adds. 

Sharing his thoughts on generative AI, Pillai illustrates with an example, “Around 15-20 years ago, if someone needed a print ad, they’d take a stencil and sketch it out. Then came tools like Photoshop, CorelDRAW, or Illustrator, and subsequently visual imagery evolved, seamlessly integrating into our workflow. This shift meant we went from producing a hundred creatives a month to a thousand. The technology not only created more jobs and opportunities but also increased our output significantly. The same principle applies to generative AI. As generative AI becomes more prevalent, people will pivot from being designers to becoming adept prompt engineers. They’ll refine and streamline processes, turning out not just numerous creatives but quality ones too.” 

However, he emphasises that AI cannot replace human creativity, remarking, “It’s crucial to note that while generative AI can replicate ideas, it lacks the ingenuity and nuance of the human mind. Take comedy, for instance. You can’t replicate the timing and delivery of a joke with the same finesse as a human. Our minds have evolved over billions of years, whereas technology has only advanced for a few decades. So, while technology enhances our efficiency, it can’t replace the creativity and complexity of the human mind.”

Similarly, sharing his perspective on generative AI, Solanki says, “If you go and use MidJourney and generate images, after several repetitions, you start seeing a pattern, the results become repetitive and similar. That is why I think AI cannot replace human creativity. You need that emotion, that human ingenuity to create something remarkable.” 

Client relationships, expansion, and industry

On venturing into the MENA region, Pillai mentions that the motivation behind the move was the enormous potential the Gulf region holds. He says that the logistical challenges weren’t as much as understanding the cultural nuances of the region. Consequently, he mentions that one of the first hires that TSBI did in the MENA region was that of someone who could acquaint the agency with the intricacies of the Gulf culture and help formulate their product accordingly. 

TSBI has developed solid relationships with clients over the years and has witnessed a high retention rate. On the elements that lead to good agency-client relationships, Pillai says, “When we work with clients, it’s about having a partnership where we align with their objectives. It’s about mutual respect too. We prefer clients who see us as experts in helping them build their brand. They outsource certain work because they’re not looking to build capacities in-house. What’s changed with the trials is that the brands we work with now have a lot of mutual respect. They recognize what we bring to the table, and we operate as partners. However, that doesn’t mean we always agree on everything. We do have discussions and arguments, but ultimately, the end objective of the brands is clear in our minds.”

He further illuminates, “Everything we do is measured. There’s nothing we present to a client that isn’t measured. This gives clear, objective clarity on our actions. We focus on ideas with clear audience measurability, ensuring success can be easily determined. These are the reasons why our partner relationships are so successful. Partners also act as mentors, helping us grow. We treat them exactly as we expect to be treated by clients — as professionals.” 

“Most industry problems don’t require high-level thinking; they lie in understanding objectives, delivering results, and being measurable. Ensuring these aspects are in place nurtures relationships and ensures success,” – Harikrishnan Pillai. 

Foreseeing the future, the founders share the long-term and short-term goals of the agency. Solanki says that TSBI aims to go fully global in the long term and to become an India-born agency to operate on a global scale.

In the short term, Pillai reveals that the agency is working with Mumbai Indians for the ongoing IPL. Along with that, TSBI has been working with JioCinema, which it aims to continue and amplify. The agency will be focusing on growing in Dubai as part of the MENA region expansion. 

As entrepreneurs, the founders have learned a lot of valuable lessons in the industry in the past 10 years. Sharing advice for upcoming entrepreneurs, Pillai says, “Focus on building your own niche. You might end up delivering more services, but being an expert in one service is what will build your name. In management, it’s called building a ‘T’ personality, which means you are good at a lot of things but you are best at this one particular thing.”

Besides this, Solanki says that as a founder, one should emphasise taking care of your employees. It’s the biggest investment you can make–it’s not the technology or equipments, but the people that make your agency.  

Pillai also emphasises not undercutting and undervaluing oneself. He says that initially, you might think that it will give you business, but in the long run, you’ll be walking on really thin ice vis-a-vis sustaining financially. “Always be margin-conscious because it would only take a snap of a finger for that cookie to crumble,” he adds. 

Source: Social Samosa