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Interview: Rohit Ohri, Executive Chairman, India & CEO, Dentsu Asia Pacific

“From the strategic point of view, we needed a tug boat to pull the big ship out into the ocean. Taproot was the tug boat that we needed to pull Dentsu into the ocean. The partnership has been fantastic… Today, people do consider Dentsu when they are looking for a job”

Sohini Sen | Delhi | July 8, 2014

Rohit Ohri Rohit Ohri

Leaving JWT to hold the helm of Dentsu India, Rohit Ohri, Executive Chairman, Dentsu India and CEO, Dentsu Asia Paific, has taken the group to heights not imagined before. Acquisitions of Taproot and Webchutney along with appointment of some of the best creative heads have made them bigger players in the industry. In conversation with, Ohri talks about the journey so far and the way ahead. Excerpts:

You joined Dentsu as Executive Chairman after a long stint of 21 years at JWT. Did you feel there was any cultural difference between the two agencies?

When you work in an organisation as large as JWT, there is a lot of system cushioning that exists. You start to expect that from your work. When you move to a smaller organisation, like when I joined Dentsu India, a lot of that system cushioning was missing. When I joined, my objective was to build an organisation that was global and of the same standard as that of Dentsu in Japan. Certain quality standards had to be brought in, and that is what we did in the first phase.

You built a really strong team. What was your strategy at that point of time?

When I look back now, from a talent perspective, it was always a bit of challenge for Dentsu. When I joined, it was very hard to make people consider Dentsu. The organisation had gone through a lot of turmoil, the previous management had resigned all together, etc. The people we met would say 'we can't say no to you, but I am not sure if I will say yes to Dentsu'. That, I think, over a period of time we managed to change. Some people joined in the earlier years because of their faith in me. They believed that I would be able to create an organisation that we they would want to work in. I am really grateful to them for believing in me at that time. Today, people do consider Dentsu when they are looking for a job.

I think the ability of the organisation to pull some of the finest talent in the market has a lot to do with making sound moves in the industry – such as the acquisition of Taproot and Webchutney. All this has kind of upped the profile for the Dentsu branded agencies in India.

You have been very aggressive with the takeover policy in India. What was the rationale behind it? Is a similar kind of policy being followed elsewhere in Asia?

We look at it as a partnership and not a takeover. And we partner with talent and capability. The way we look at it, when Dentsu had started off, the biggest challenge was to up the reputation from the consumer standpoint. The quality and the product needed to kind of shine through. I needed to partner with the best creative agency we could find. Taproot was and still is a very desirable agency. And Aggie (Agnello Dias) and I have worked together in JWT, so we understood each other's working ways. From the strategic point of view, we needed a tug boat to pull the big ship out into the ocean. Taproot was the tug boat that we needed to pull Dentsu into the ocean. The partnership has been fantastic. We started working on Akzo Nobel where Aggie does the creative concept, and then the whole integration – 360 degree – is done by Dentsu. We have taken the strengths of each and combined them together.

While Martin Sorrell went and slashed an agency into bits, Dentsu never did that. That was never the Japanese way. Here also, the media agency, the creative agency, the digital agency, they all sit together. That doesn't happen in any other agency in India. This helps us work better together, collaborations are possible.

Where does Dentsu stand right now in the pecking order of large agencies in India?

We are a pretty sizeable group right now. For me size has never been the desire. It is the quality which is more important. Look at Taproot. They started small. But today clients are ready to wait for Taproot to actually look at their product!

The problem right now is that the noise in the ambience is so much that it is very important for brands to connect in a way that no one has done before. Ninety per cent of ads on TV are really bad advertising... you cannot distinguish between two ads! That is why clients are putting a huge importance on the creative quality. Big clients like Airtel, PepsiCo, TOI…they work with Taproot.

When it comes to Taproot, what are the clients you have worked on together? What about the integration with Webchutney?

We have worked on Akzo Nobel, Nourishco Group (a Pepsi-Tata JV which looks into value-added water). There are about six projects that we are looking at working together going forward, hopefully in the next three to four months.

As for Webchutney, it was an easier task to integrate because primarily it was not creative and creative, but digital creative and mainline creative agencies coming together. We have worked together on many of our clients. Over the next 3-4 months, this should really come together. The way I am looking at it, Webchutney and we will work together more because that is the way Dentsu works in Japan. Dentsu is an intersection of creativity and technology. That is something which is powerful and will differentiate us from others. Dentsu has an enormous leadership on what is the technology platform that ideas can fit on. Technology today has to be interwoven into the creative process.

Internationally Dentsu has partnered with Aegis. Do you have plans to partner with any media agency in India as well?

We have three media agencies, and then digital agencies, outdoor agencies, etc. So it is a full suite of services for our clients. Depending on which client and what is their need, these individual agencies work together.

In terms of other acquisitions, it is on the charts, but nothing is close to finalisation. We are always on the lookout for acquisitions that will help us build our full capability.

Four creative agencies… How do you manage to stay away from the constant risk of overlapping?

The reason why we have these different agencies is because we have conflicting businesses. As far as Dentsu is concerned, we treat our agencies as completely separate. So while Dentsu Communication is in Bangalore, Dentsu Marcom is in Delhi. This geographical differentiation also helps them to focus on the markets they are in, and reduces the risk of overlapping.

Quite a few Delhi-based clients have moved from JWT to Dentsu. Is that because of the charm of Rohit Ohri or the Dentsu name?

I don't think it was me or the brand name. It was because of the quality of work and the quality of talent. Each of these clients who moved to Dentsu had other options as well. The fact is that they looked at all their options and chose us.

Many in the industry feel that Taproot is losing its creative edge post its acquisition by Dentsu. Taproot has also been winning a lesser number of awards at Cannes and Abbys. What is your take on it?

This is incorrect. Taproot got 29 Abbys and was the second most awarded agency! JWT got 40 in comparison. But if you look at it, Taproot has about 30 people in its creative team, whereas JWT has 600 people in creative. That is a huge statement for an agency which has only a fraction of the strength. As far as Cannes is concerned, last year Taproot won 6 metals including 4 Golds. No agency from India has ever won 4 Golds for one campaign! Plus, they are not a networked agency. They are a one-office agency. So it is unfair to compare them with a bigger agency. Not winning at Cannes one year does not matter. The Gunn Report 2013 ranked Taproot as the most awarded Indian agency. In fact, The Gunn Report states Taproot as the most creative agency in India!

There were rumours in May that you were leaving Dentsu. Was there any basis? Did it have anything to do with the Congress debacle?

Haha! No. It was never true though I was mildly surprised to see that people actually thought so. It is nice in a way to realise that your leaving or staying back in an agency actually affects someone's life! The Congress, on the basis of presentations, had shortlisted a couple of agencies. They chose us and one more creative agency. I do not think there is any controversy in it.

As far as leaving Dentsu is concerned, it is not true. I came here for a mission. And my work here, though fulfilling, is far from over.

Do you think multiple NCDs in an agency make for a better creative product? Or do you believe in a singular heavyweight NCD?

I think it depends completely on the agency and the way it works. Sometimes multiple NCDs can brainstorm and get a brilliant idea out, whereas sometimes it is best to have just one person looking at the overall idea and everyone else working around it. It depends completely on the agency’s work culture and atmosphere.

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