Whether its brand endorsement or performance at a wedding, a celebrity management company does all of it. The industry may not be as large as that in Hollywood, but we are getting there with some mega brand deals and the launch of star brands. The point in the case, HRX, a fitness brand by Hrithik Roshan and House of Pataudi, an ethnic wear brand by Saif Ali Khan.
In this story, we speak with Afsar Zaidi, the Founder and Managing Director of Exceed multimedia agency that handles Hrithik, Saif, Shahid Kapoor, Malaika Arora, and Sonakshi Sinha. He and his team have been instrumental in cracking some big-ticket luxury deals such as Jaeger Le-Coulture’s Pataudi collection and Roshan’s association with RADO Watches.
A star is born
It all began in 2005 while Zaidi was heading sales for Globosport India Pvt Ltd., tennis star Mahesh Bhupathi’s sports management company. Zaidi soon decided to branch out and established Carving Dreams, which he thinks is arguably the first, professional, talent management agency in India. “I never knew, still don’t and don’t want to know whether we are successful or not because when you start feeling gratified you stop growing,” says Zaidi. “We are always in the space of evolution, figuring out newer things.”
Founding a celebrity company, not an established business back in 2005 was sort of a gamble, but Zaidi wasn’t inhibited. “Being a first-time entrepreneur and not from a business family, I had many advantages such as access to several books, lots of time to study, to meet people, and was not restricted to work in a family business. I could do what and when I wanted to,” says Zaidi.
Over the years Carving Dreams became Exceed, and it is now one of the leading celebrity management companies in the country, which has played a crucial role in changing the celebrity endorsements business forever. The company further evolved also to launch star brands, and in some cases, also partnering in the ventures like with HRX (launched in 2013) and House of Pataudi.
Streamlining the business
In the media entertainment space, talent management has become an extremely organized and professional vertical. Zaidi credits the change to the people of the eco-system. “Technology and entertainment are two areas where people are always ready to delve into newer avenues, to explore and do justice to the word innovation,” says Zaidi. Ajay Devgn, for instance, had signed a contract with Zaidi in less than a minute. “Ajay, I must say, gave me much confidence. He signed with us in less than a minute. He said that he liked the thought process and hence wanted to do it,” recalls Zaidi.
Building the business hence was not particularly difficult. The challenge though was to analyze the public’s perception of a star as an endorser and recognize his or her brand values. For long, celebs’ commercial affairs were either handled by their managers, secretaries or family members. The approach, thus, was ad-hoc. “But when we came in, suddenly the conversations were a lot about structures, agreements and business planning and data,” says Zaidi. It was Zaidi’s company that started making systematic contracts for celebrities performing at wedding and during corporate events, under its special vertical for the two. “We professionally rearranged the gamut of performing at a wedding, and the weddings became bigger than award shows,” says Zaidi. Sometimes the entire spends of a wedding are far more than what an award show would be spending on their production and artists.
The moment the investment goes up; all parties require some assurance on the deliverables. “It was no longer about Isko bulalo (Let’s call him). The wedding had now become a systematic event,” adds Zaidi.
On the brand endorsement front, Exceed went beyond brand collaboration to create star brands. “As a company, we have always had long-term engagements. Sometimes, from a service provider, you become a business partner. Two cases in point – Hrithik Roshan and Saif Ali Khan,” says Zaidi.
Roshan’s HRX, launched in 2013, is the first and biggest Indian fitness brand and was a result of Hrithik’s 13-year-long engagement with Exceed. In the sixth year with Roshan Zaidi started thinking about what more could be done. Around then, he met Sid Shah, currently at Boston Digital Ventures, but back then his company worked with Hollywood celebrities and helped them set up brands.
Once back to India after his time with Shah in Los Angeles, Zaidi started working on the big plan in 2010. The project kick-started with research with IMRB on Hrithik Roshan and how do people perceive him. Next, students of business school MICA were given an assignment on brand attributes of Hrithik. “So, we used that data and got renowned advertise Anand Halve on board. With the research, expertise and regular inputs from Hrithik, we established HRX.” The team was very clear that the brand’s ideology and philosophy must match that of Hrithik’s and his life. Hence fitness and live healthily. HRX is about becoming a better version of yourselves, touch a billion lives and become fit. “In India, fitness was Nike, Puma, Adidas. None of it was Indian. HRX is the first,” says Zaidi.
It was now time to get into commerce. They had the choice of doing it the regular way, tying up with offline stores. However, they decided to be available only online, even though E-Commerce wasn’t big then. Hrithik went by the instinct of his team, which pursued Myntra, a promising fashion portal. “We closed last financial year with a turnover of Rs350 crore plus,” says Zaidi.
At the onset, their association with Myntra was limited to a licensing deal, which later, became an equal partnership deal in HRX’s fashion vertical. In xxxx, they forged an equitable relationship with Cult.Fit. Cult.Fit has an HRX workout, which has 45,000 unique users as of January this year. There is also HRX healthy meal, and they are working on Care Fit and Mind fit. “Here, however, we are not the leaders, but followers. If they grow, we grow.” Soon, HRX will announce their association in the grooming and technology space.
The launch of House of Pataudi, touted as the first-star ethnic brand followed the same drill. The brand and its star’s traits are elegance, style, more appropriately ‘Tehzeeb’.
The right mix
The association, however, must be just right for it to work. While it’s a fact that brands, in most cases, immensely benefit from their endorsers; it works in favor of stars as well. There are benefits beyond monetary gains. There are multiple reasons why a celebrity would go on an endorsing spree and numerous reasons why he or she will sign up a brand despite endorsing other brands. Then there is always a flavor of the season and brands will go all out to bring that person because that’s a tactical decision; the launch of a summer campaign, a film release, an artist is in the limelight. That’s very tactile as everything is on a high and people want to cash on his/her fame.
Few brand associations are strategic, where you start a conversation on both sides, like Saif and Kareena and Airbnb last year. “It got a phenomenal response,” says Zaidi. The same is with Hrithik and Mountain Dew. ‘Darke Aage Jeet Hai’ has been an eight-year-long campaign and it’s also in tandem with HRX — Keep going. Similarly, the association with Shah Rukh Khan and Hyundai is epic. There are lots of such examples where the brand and the actor have become one. “Celebs also want to associate with brands that resonate with their public persona,” adds Zaidi.
Moreover, everyone wants a long-term career and financial arrangements. Everyone wants to sustain their values and create brands. “As an actor, as you progress in life, there is a huge change in the revenue you can generate. It’s good for the eco-system if actors invest in and understand the equity business,” says Zaidi.
The talent management business though comes with its challenges. “People, people, people and convincing them to follow the same thought of communication,” says Zaidi. Celebrity management and follows a 3C rule – communication, collaboration, and consistency. The artist must converge the same strategy, the artist’s team, the brand, the writer, director, family, PR team, the social media team. “As a management agency, we are constantly trying to talk to everyone and work towards achieving the same dream. This can sometimes get tricky.”
The pressure on a celebrity, whether on or off camera, is immense. In just ten minutes you can decide whether you like a celeb or not. People’s admiration is crucial for stars as that’s what creates fandom, which will ensure the stature of that celeb keeps growing. “Hence, a celebrity management company must ensure that balance is maintained, adds Zaidi. “We firmly believe that an artist should be sprinkled like stardust. The more he or she is exposed, there seems to be that lure, the mystic of the artist is lost.” Zaidi here quotes SRK. “He had once said that I work for Shah Rukh Khan. It’s brilliant. As an individual he has decided to be an actor and that actor is gone onto becoming the Badshah of Bollywood. It’s the responsibility that he remains the Badshah,” says Zaidi.