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All our creative agencies fired at the same time. But I don’t want to be obsessed with an awards culture: DAN’s Ashish Bhasin

The Dentsu Aegis Network chief emphasizes on the group’s focus on building a strong talent pool. “We don’t give jobs here, we only offer careers,” he says

All our creative agencies fired at the same time. But I don’t want to be obsessed with an awards culture: DAN’s Ashish Bhasin  

The Dentsu Aegis Network chief emphasizes on the group’s focus on building a strong talent pool. “We don’t give jobs here, we only offer careers,” he says

Raushni Bhagia | Mumbai | April 21, 2016

Ashish Bhasin Ashish Bhasin

Pocketing 83 Abbys was no cakewalk, but Dentsu Aegis Network did achieve the feat at Goafest 2016 earlier this month. The agency’s mission of becoming the second largest agency network in the country and of weaving in all its agencies remains a tall task but the network hopes to pull it off.

The impressive haul of Abbys was not just by Taproot Dentsu, which has a tradition of winning awards, but by also by the other creative outfits of the network. Soon after the network’s spectacular performance, BestMediaInfo caught up with Ashish Bhasin, ?Chairman and CEO, South Asia, Dentsu Aegis Network, Chairman, Posterscope and psLive Asia Pacific, ?Aegis Group plc, about the talent in the industry and how important awards are for an agency. Excerpts:

How has the journey been so far?

About six months or a year ago, we announced our intent to become the No. 2 agency by the end of 2017. There were quite a few sniggers. Now it seems that we will get there much before the target time. However, I would like to announce that later. For the last 80 years, WPP is the No. 1 agency in India, followed by IPG Mediabrands. It needed a lot of good work and a comprehensive offering ? in order to compete with these great agencies. So, we started building our teams and businesses and focused on high potential areas like digital and out-of-home ? the areas where our clients wanted us. At the end of the day, in the marketing communication business, you have to work on idea and creative, you can't concentrate on one without the other.

Winning awards was not our objective and we did not start off with this; rather, we empowered our managers and set a target that the creative quotient has to improve across the board. It's no surprise that Taproot Dentsu is one of the most awarded agencies. They have always been doing it, but the challenge was for the other agencies which were not that attuned to do that level of creative work. Also, there was a second impression that they mostly do Japanese client work and were less creative. We wanted to change that. We have won bronzes and even silvers for some of the Japanese clients, like Omron.

What, according to you, spurred the change?

We empowered each of our agencies, be it my Executive Council ? Amit Wadhwa (CEO, Dentsu Creative Impact), Harjot Narang (CEO, Dentsu Marcom) or Simi Sabhaney (CEO, Dentsu Communications), or my Creative Council ? Saumitra Karnik (Dentsu Creative Impact), Titus Uputuru (Dentsu Marcom), Vipul Thakkar (Dentsu Communications), or our creative advisor Narayan Devanathan. We asked our employees to be bold and confident and do some great work. Once we had a great body of work, we then said that it will be very encouraging, especially for the younger managers and client servicing managers, that the industry recognizes that. We decided to enter all our group work, but selectively. We posed about 150 entries from the group.

We also put some money – ultimately, award entries are an expensive process. Also, we peculiarly wanted all the people who have worked on those specific campaigns to go attend the Goafest. Hence, one of the largest contingents this time was ours. I feel Goafest is not only for the senior management. Plus, they need to understand in a competitive sense how others were doing some great work.

Who were your closest competitors for the kind of work you submitted at the fest and won awards?

Frankly, the number of awards really don't matter. What is good news is that all our agencies have upped their creative work in a short period of time and ultimately that resonates in business. In 2015, we won some great clients too. Taproot was the second highest awarded agency, with three of our other agencies ranked in the top ten.

Taproot is known for the equation ? 40 people = 40 awards. Do you think smaller teams are more efficient?

Every agency network has a different culture. For us, additionally, each agency has a sub-culture of its own. It might be correct that after a certain level, it is tough to ramp up the creative work. But if you see globally, what they call a big agency has about 1,500 creative people and there is no agency in India even closer to that. There isn't any formula. In the past, some of the very large agencies have done good work and won amazingly. Taproot Dentsu is a spectacular case study. For us, the bigger satisfaction is that all our creative agencies fired at the same time.

Do you think sustaining this flow will be tough?

Of course it will be. We have raised our own bars and now we have to go three steps ahead. Though we will never bother about the number of awards, but you only set your target higher and higher, which makes it harder and harder the next time. Luckily, we have great talent, while more keeps joining us. The only thing I am mindful of is that I don’t want to infuse a culture in the agency that is obsessed with awards, because I have seen enough agencies get destroyed because of that. I want to keep the focus on doing great work for our clients. Because of this brilliant work, we may enter awards selectively. I am not in the game of winning the highest awards, I am in the game of giving some most productive creative solutions to my clients. Usually, experience has shown that both go hand in hand.

I would urge my creative leaders to be selective in the award shows that they enter. Awards are very important and we must win, but an award obsessed culture is dangerous. I have seen malpractices and lack of focus coming into teams, and agencies getting destroyed because all they are doing is chasing awards.

As you just said most of the credit for winning awards rests on good people. How difficult is talent acquisition in this industry?

Globally, since I ran South and Southeast Asia for Aegis, I believe that Indian managers are second to none, whether it is account planning, digital, business management, creative or any other aspect of marketing and advertising. That’s why you see a lot of them succeeding so well, even globally. On the other hand, our biggest constraint is talent. The quality of talent coming into the industry, I feel, is lower than the quality of the people that were coming in a few years back.

During my Lintas days, we used to go to management colleges and hire good potential people. Today, any agency wouldn’t go to a business school because the entry level salaries in an agency are much lower than what is offered by banks and consultancies. I think that, as an industry, needs to be sharpened. We have been very lucky because our senior management team has been top class and not a single person whom we wanted to keep has left the network. It has been consistent and that’s a big strength for us. They have been training and nurturing people in the same culture and values, hence building them up. There is a quality talent shortage across the industry.

Consider OOH, our three agencies have close to 35 per cent share of the market, and there is no point in cribbing about there being no talent in the market. Finally, two of our agencies have tied up with Northpoint and will soon conceive a training course for OOH. So, we will possibly have the first high quality OOH specialized course, not just theory, but also getting trained under the practising managers of the industry. It will be a postgraduate programme, and it will also be open for working professionals. We are also planning to tie up for digital because it is a booming vertical and the talent isn’t very well equipped. These are just some ideas that we are working on.

Unfortunately, the players in the industry have largely focused on poaching talent rather than developing it. We are trying to focus on that; however, it does not mean that there will not be any lateral hire. Unless and until we as an industry try to increase and develop a pool, everyone will keep suffering. Being one of the fastest growing groups of the country, it is in our interest to build this growth, since this growth also makes us the fastest growing recruiter.

We have been very lucky in acquiring talent. Agencies are built on momentum, and we have never seen anyone not wanting to join us. When I took over, there were about 60 people in Aegis, which I brought down to 45, and today we are 2,100. And we have hardly used any headhunters. Everything has helped us in attracting talent, even this win at GoaFest will do so. I think it is more about culture building.

How tough, then, it is to retain talent?

It is a big issue in our industry, with attrition rates being at 25 per cent. In digital it is over 35 per cent. In a sense, you have a new agency in less than three years. We have been lucky to have half that attrition rate, but even that is quite high. You do need some level of attrition to keep the teams fresh, but industry levels of 25 per cent and 35 per cent are totally ridiculous and in fact they are only growing.

Retaining talent is the key, but throwing money doesn't solve it. First, your managers should be fairly paid, because you should not test their loyalties. Disproportionate payments to get one guy is not the game we play. We don’t give jobs here, we offer careers at Dentsu Aegis Network. If you want to join us for a few years, it is the wrong place for you. We are offering a career which comes with its own ups and downs. I think that is resonating well.

We have a young team, and we have a college-like culture, with smaller celebrations like Desi days, pot luck lunches and all the festivals. We have a strong CSR involving all our employees. People don’t realize that such engaging culture is much more important than money. We are all bound by common values and a vision. Our vision is, innovating the way brands are built. That is the higher order objective. We have a set of values, and we ensure that the talent coming in will preserve them. This has made it a team of 2,100 like-minded people working in the same direction, and this has enabled us to do anything.

When we were just 40 people, no one gave us a chance in hell. People would have laughed me out of the room had I told them at that moment, ‘One day we will be more than 2,000 people’. But now, I am telling you that just two years down the line, we will be more than 3,000, and that’s the growth rate we want to sustain. Because I think India is in a great shape. It is a growing economy, and we are an under advertised agency looking for someone to catalyse it.

Do you think that clients are also now more open to experimenting and innovative work?

You have to earn the client's' trust, then they allow you to do good work. Plus, yes, in the last 16-18 months, we have had the maximum new business wins compared to any other network. Carat won Nokia, Sony, Microsoft, Mondelez, while we also won Panasonic, the creative account for Maruti. It is with clients with deeper pockets that we can do a lot of work, and only then can you do it creatively and do it well. Our clients are the ones who have really helped us change the momentum. A healthy mix of clients-global, Indian, Japanese.

We are not hired by clients to win awards. Obviously, they are happy when we win awards, but we are hired to build their brands and to make them successful. I attribute this growth to my entire executive and creative council; with the creative more than the executive. Even though all our agencies have different objectives, but all those objectives converge onto one theme ?innovating the way brands are built.

People are talking about how there has been a turnaround since you took over...

I am so thankful to all of them who were not saying this a while ago! Well, my role is that of a catalyst, enabler and facilitator. The credit really goes to the 2,100 people who are working hard and are led by the executive and creative councils in the right direction. I am lucky and privileged to be leading a team like this. We have a business objective and we achieve that.

We have people who have been working with me for over a decade. The former Aegis team that I had handpicked and hired has been working with me for twenty years! The rule for my executive council is that you come in vertical and go out horizontal (laughs). We are more like a family. It should never be like a relay race, where one waits for the partner to pass on the baton. You have to trust them and empower them with full responsibility and accountability, and then you have to back them.

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