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The paranoia for chasing the next big thing is a little futile: Lowe’s Vikas Mehta

In a candid conversation, Lowe Lintas’ CMO and Head of Digital talks about the agency’s growth areas and the need to move away from commoditisation of the digital business

Jagadeesh Krishnamurthy | Mumbai | March 12, 2015

Vikas Mehta Vikas Mehta

Lowe Lintas India had a great run over the past couple of months and has been notching up recognitions from around the world, with the most recent being named the Best Creative Agency of the Year in new results from the Warc 100. In an exclusive chat with BestMediaInfo, Vikas Mehta, Chief Marketing Officer, Lowe Lintas + Partners and Executive Director, LinTeractive, talks about his unique role at the agency, and the agency’s approach towards the fast paced digital medium.

As India CMO since June 2013, Mehta leads the agency’s growth agenda in conjunction with further enhancing the thought leadership and agency reputation in the market. Over the years, Mehta has worked in the Lowe + Partners network in three countries in multiple local and regional leadership roles. In 2011, he took up the role of Regional Growth Officer for Asia-Pacific, based in Singapore, where he helped take Lowe among the top 10 agency networks in Asia. He has worked for Publicis and Leo Burnett before joining Lowe in 2006.

Edited excerpts from the conversation:

There were a lot of raised eyebrows when you took over as the CMO of an agency. How has the journey been so far?

It has been a great learning curve. India, as a market, wasn’t used to that. And, I don’t think they still have. Irrespective of the intention and ambition that Joe (Joseph George, CEO, Lowe Lintas + Partners) had when we talked about, this role was more about having a slightly strategic view of the business. What tends to happen is that even though we are in the brand building business and we do a terrific job of doing it for others, I don’t think agencies have done even remotely enough to build their own brands. And, if you look at our business just like any other B2B business, brand building in this scenario is very intrinsically linked to your growth strategy. And, from that sense, it has been a fruitful last two years. We have seen serious momentum in various strides. We had a terrific new business run last year, and it was one of our best in our entire history. We have gotten a fair amount of geographical and sectoral focus, and for a change we are playing towards a slightly better orchestrated plan. Doing pitches was not our only strategy, and which I think is the obvious thing to do. But, if you look at how Indian players operate, it seems largely to be a strong differentiator for us.

Did the agency undertake any brand studies to measure its performance during the last couple of years?

Not a formal research yet. I wish we had lot of data about what it was in the past. But, what we are beginning to do is start tracking it at a regular level now, so that we can establish benchmarks and measure them. We started out with pretty much the various sets of industry benchmarks, and we are told that we are doing very well. The important shift has been to take an outward perspective of the brand. So, even if you look at the recognition that we have received last year or so, a lot of these have come from platforms which are global, where India wasn’t necessarily seen before. Be it the AdAge International Agency of the Year, the 4As Jay Chiat Awards or the Warc. For me, the yardstick that we are in the right direction is that all of these are platforms where India has never featured before. So, for a company of our size in the industry that we operate in, we have certainly played a role in putting India on the global advertising map.

Hasn’t the India-focus approach followed by some of these award properties increases the chances?

They have been taking India seriously for a decade. It is not that 2014 was the first time that the spotlight was shown on India. Of course, you can just say that it is just a happy coincidence. I guess rather than being cynical or defensive about it, the best thing is to keep the momentum going. The world wants to believe in an Indian story, and if you look at the scenario a decade ago from now, there was a lot of usage of China and India in the same sentence. This has stopped. There is going to be a continued focus on India. But, the onus is going to be on each company in the industry to keep the focus.

Speaking about your role, how would you differentiate your role from that of a Chief Growth Officer?

In India, Chief Growth Officers are few and far between. So, it is not a very structured or defined role. How we define the role of a CMO is what a Chief Growth Officer does, which is just about business development, business acquisitions, and so on. That is just a subset of the CMO’s role. The differences that we chose to define are slightly wider in perspective. It includes areas like capability and brand development, in addition to business development.

During your appointment, you had talked about ‘changing mindsets to adopt a marketing driven approach’. Have you been able to inculcate such a change?

It is a work in progress. We are an institution of its own kind. In the last year or so, we have achieved a sense of realisation within the company and outside that we are looking at ourselves as a brand. There is a lot of focus on building capabilities that lead to a greater reputation in the marketplace. And, that has percolated to every level of the organisation, which is very satisfying.

Could you elaborate on the results?

When you start looking at building a brand, you start from the core strength of your product. One of the things that we identified as our core strength was the sheer number of brands that the agency has built from scratch. Some of the brands are seen as powerful brands in their own industry today, whether it is MRF or Johnson & Johnson’s baby portfolio, which we launched in India, Tanishq, Fastrack and the 20-odd brands of Unilever India. So, when we looked at the background work, we realised that a number of these brands are market leaders and strong challengers in whatever they do. Having identified that as our core strength, one of the things we decided to go after is: how you sustain in building that equity. The other thing that is going on in the environment is the fair amount of traction going on behind the Indian start-ups, whether in traditional businesses or e-commerce. To strengthen that equity in the last 18 months or so, we have signed up about 15-20 such companies, which are start-ups in various stages, including Bookmyshow, Myntra, Bharatmatrimony, PaperBoat, FabFurnish, Practo, eBay, etc. What we did was we took a root strength and turned it into a differentiator, and took them to the market. And within a year and a half, I would imagine we have the largest portfolio of such companies across any Indian agency. Now, the onus is on us to make these businesses a success too.

In the past, we have seen agencies following best practices of competitors. However, we still haven’t heard of any other agency appointing a CMO. In your opinion, what stops them? And, what are they missing out on?

That’s a very interesting question, but the people to answer that would be the people who run those agencies. I think we have seen value coming out of this initiative. When and if other agencies are going to replicate it, we don’t know.

You are additionally in charge of Linteractive, the digital arm. How is the digital services business doing for the agency?

We have been in the digital business for over six or seven years now, and last year was a strong year for us. There were a few learnings we had, looking at our own performance as well as what was happening to other digital agencies. What we have decided and tried to do is that we have taken aboard lot of those learnings and attempt a model that we believe is probably more future-proof than what it is right now in the market.

One of the first things that we did, even as we are a  reasonably large legacy kind of company, we consciously chose to behave like a start-up. We were pretty open and nimble about the way the roles were defined, the services offered were defined, and even the way we do compensation models for our clients. So, the approach was to learn as we go along and build something that would be generally a value addition to what the market has to offer. It is old conversation now that digital is growing. There is a lot more beneath that surface which a current agency ecosystem is probably struggling with. There is a lot of emphasis on paid media when we talk about digital, on a campaign-to-campaign approach and a fair amount of commoditisation of these services. Because of the super-specialisation that has happened, we suddenly have a large ecosystem of domain experts, who call themselves search specialists, social media specialists and what not.

I think what that is doing is to a market which is still evolving, it is putting the cart before the horse. So, there are too many conversations about what should be my Twitter strategy, and lesser conversations about what should be my brand strategy. So, we decided to be service agnostic in that sense. While we do have and continue to build deep domain expertise within the various digital disciplines, but our approach is not by selling digital products. We have been at it for over a year now, and we have gone from a portfolio of building from scratch to about 30-odd brands now.

In terms of revenues for Linteractive, what percentage is coming from standalone clients? Going forward, where do you see the revenues coming in from: stand alone accounts or traditional-agency linked ones?

We have a priority for digitising our existing brands first. That’s been the going in approach. One of the fundamental things is that we want to erase the line between mainline and digital. I believe it is a disease in our terminologies today. Because it is suddenly splitting capabilities and plans when they don’t necessarily need to be. So, our starting point was that we don’t need separate plans for traditional and digital, and what we need is a brand strategy that works both online and offline. With that lens in mind, our focus has been to work with more of existing clients, and we have also been open to new clients. We have seen successes in both. Currently, the ratio would stand at around 70:30 in favour of clients for whom we handle both offline and online.

Digital agencies are dime-a-dozen these days, with many of them even operating out of coffee shops. Are these inexpensive digital specialists or evangelists, as they like to call themselves, a threat for network agencies like yours?

There is room for all kinds of players, and there will always be. And, I think as the market matures, each one will find their natural playground to exist. There will be room for three teenagers working out of a coffee shop to manage your social media assets for peanuts a month. Our play is going to be a lot more about big impact solutions rather than cost efficient commodities.

What are the steps that a network digital agency has to implement to be ahead of the curve?

The fundamentals are the same across mediums. A year ago, probably we had a lot of catching up to do, but we have done that to a greater extent. And, now it is going to be about innovating our own business models. So, to that extent, what it takes to build an edge in digital is more different from what it takes to build an edge in digital is different from any other discipline. The other big realisation is that we don’t want to become a technology company. I don’t think we are competing with the IT industry. While we will build those capabilities, and remain competitive in those areas, that’s not our reason to exist. We are in the business of ideas and we know how to build brands.

Agency remuneration has always been a contentious issue in this business. Do you feel agencies are being short-changed for the kind of work that they bring on to the table?

You are worth how much you think you are. That’s the point of commoditisation of business I was making about. If you are hiring me to run your Facebook page and all you need is two posts a day, then you are buying a commodity. No matter what the price you offer, there will be five competitors. That’s the commodity game, which as a company, we are not designed to play. This is an industry which is still shaping up, and it is easy to say that the value dwindling because the market is not paying for it. Some of the onus has to be on the agencies to demonstrate business impact and delivery, and if you are making a visible difference and help clients make money, they are happy to share it.

Do you think Indian agencies are doing enough to keep pace with the growth of technology and possibilities in the digital space? What could be done better?

The paranoia for chasing the next big thing is a little futile. A couple of years ago, there was a mad scamper to put your brand on Pinterest, now it is figuring out an innovative way to use Snapchat. The pace at which the ‘next big thing’ is going to come up is going to get faster. And, I think it is exciting to keep up with it, but marketers, agencies and users are going to struggle to keep pace with it. Yes, the first brand to be on a new platform makes good headlines for a week, but it is essentially about building a footprint that will engage people and make them fall in love with your brand. Digital allows you to do that in 37 or more ways. But, the fundamental is about finding ways to make people fall in love with your brand. And, I think once everybody has given up on trying to keep pace with the next big thing, is probably the time when they will focus on the right thing which is: have you really maximised the touch points that are available today, before you get on to say, Snapchat.

We have rarely seen a great digital case study coming out of India. What ails the use of medium?

It is a really long subject. I will touch upon the economic bit, where the commoditisation of business is hurting people’s abilities to invest in newer ways. I don’t think it is as blanket a statement as India is not making breakthroughs in digital, and I think we are. The economics of the business are unfortunately such that the best minds in the business are not working towards it yet. That’s where the bigger companies will have to invest in talent a little ahead of the market, and resource for the business you have in a reactive manner. I think that’s the length of investment we want to make. Hopefully, we will be able to put up a few things that the market has not seen before.

Talent is another issue that our industry has grappled with. Where have you usually picked up your new talent from?

(Laughs) On the streets, coffee shops, airports. We had to be a little creative about where we go looking for people because if you put the same kind of people in the same kind of setup, you can’t really expect outcomes that are different. We have hired from digital agencies, e-commerce companies, technology companies, marketing organisations, etc. The way we have started looking at our talent acquisition play, is not so much about where they come from, it is lot more about what the skill sets we are looking for. To that extent, we are not afraid of experimenting with it.

What’s next for Vikas Mehta? What are the challenges that you intend to tackle in the coming months?

The biggest challenge is to sustain the momentum that we have built. Getting up there while it is seemingly damn difficult to get, is still the easier part. Our biggest focus is how do we sustain the momentum, and how do we continue investing in capabilities that will keep us in a position to be as strong as we are in advertising today, in every other avenue where marketing dollars are going, and help play a role in shaping the industry rather than reacting to it. The pace of change is only going to accelerate, and the challenges are going to be more fun as we go along.

Info@bestmediainfo.com

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