Driving the Transition from Secretaries to Celebrity Managers

By Vijay Subramaniam,  Founding Partner, KWAN Entertainment & Marketing Solutions Pvt. Ltd. 

For the longest time, Bollywood celebrities have worked mostly with ‘secretaries’ whose primary job responsibilities were to liaise with producers/directors to push their ‘talent,’ managing the star’s calendar- shooting schedules, appointments etc. This model was a good fit in an era where the film industry itself was largely unorganised and heavily dependent on relationships, family ties etc. Also, this arrangement worked well because films were the primary source of revenue for stars.

In the post-liberalisation world, things slowly began to change. As avenues for celebrity engagement started to extend beyond films to endorsements, appearances etc.; there was suddenly an opportunity to bring some method into this chaos. This was the opportunity that we spotted and as a result, Kwan Entertainment was born.

In our founding team, we were all outsiders. We were not part of any filmi families and had zero Bollywood connections. But we had what I believe were some key strengths. One, we knew how brands are run in the corporate world. We had a fair understanding of how people view celebrities and Bollywood’s strong impact on popular culture. Armed with these strengths, we decided to take a different approach to celebrity management:

  • Establishing our value proposition: Right from the get-go, we positioned ourselves firmly as consultants/advisors rather than glorified secretaries. This meant that our role had to extend beyond getting good roles or plum endorsements. We had to work on bringing in the ‘thought’ aspect, building the celebrity brand and weaving the entire story rather than taking a piecemeal approach.

Just to put it in perspective, this approach was quite a shift from the regular working of the film industry as well as endorsements at that point. Decisions to use one celebrity versus the other to endorse a brand were often arbitrary and not rooted in any kind of research or insights. A company CEO would just decide for example, “Let’s sign on ‘X’ celebrity” without giving any thought about “Why ‘X’? What does he represent?” etc. On their part, celebrities didn’t put much thought into their own ‘brand’ either. This is what we worked on changing.

  • Celebrity as a brand: If you look at it practically, managing a celebrity is not that different from managing a brand. The image of a celebrity is built based on certain attributes that they stand for. ‘A’ celebrity represents certain attributes that may be completely different from what celebrity ‘B’ represents. When you take this approach, it automatically brings in a certain method, a structure in the way that a celebrity is managed. At that time, celebrities didn’t have anyone who could effectively pitch them or represent them to companies.

We also reached out to companies to find what they needed. Who was their target audience? We worked backwards to gain insights into why a certain celebrity appeals to housewives versus another one who appeals to 18-24 year olds. We were able to act as the bridge between companies and celebrities to facilitate deals that were rooted in insights rather than just relationships.

  • Gaining trust: Celebrity management entails managing everything from an actor’s appearance, image, films, endorsements to setting up businesses for them etc. Given the high stakes, earning the clients’ trust is paramount is our line of business. Your client not only needs to trust your judgment and capability, but also be convinced that you are committed to protecting their best interests – both monetarily and in terms of their image. The only way to gain trust is to be confident, know your stuff and most importantly, walk the talk.
  • Building the team: Working in an environment such as ours requires not only a professional approach, but also a strong personality to be able to hold your own without being intimidated by celebrity clients. At the same time, it requires immense flexibility and drive to be able to accommodate our celebrity clients’ crazy schedules. We’ve worked hard to build a team with these attributes.

Bringing transformational change isn’t easy, but it’s also exciting to be able to challenge existing norms and bring in a professional culture. In our industry, it all boils down to building a strong value proposition and delivering on it.