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Digital is now becoming the point of discussion in boardrooms: Rajiv Dingra, Founder & CEO, WATConsult

Digital agency WATConsult completes 10 years on January 10. In a freewheeling discussion with Best Media Info, Dingra tells us about the journey, being part of a large network, and the future plans of the agency

Roshni Nair | Mumbai | January 9, 2017

Rajiv-Dingra Rajiv Dingra

When 21-year-old Rajiv Dingra stepped into the world of digital advertising, he was fresh out of college with big dreams. Today, 10 years down the line, he is Founder and CEO of WATConsult, one of the top digital agencies in India. Best Media Info caught up with Dingra to chart his 10-year journey, the move from an independent agency to being acquired by one of the biggest global networks, Dentsu Aegis Network, and what the future holds for WATConsult. Excerpts:

The agency just completed 10 years. How has the journey been?

It has been long, it has been a rollercoaster, highly enriching and a learning experience. I got into digital advertising at 21. I barely had a clue of what I was getting into but the enthusiasm that I brought along as a 21-year-old helped me tide over the waves that seemed insurmountable at that time. Digital wasn’t the most sought after by marketers then. It is only in the last two to three years that digital has become the number one discussed channel among marketers. I have been fortunate enough to have that experience and even more fortunate to have worked with some amazing brands in the last few years. Even when we were independent two years ago, we were winning awards alongside large agencies. After becoming part of DAN, we have taken that a notch higher. In the last two to three years, we have won five ‘Agency of the Year’ awards. It has been an amazing journey to say the least.

Take us through WATConsult’s story. How it all began, why the name, everything…

Not many people know this but WATConsult started as a blog. People themselves approached me for solutions and that is how WATConsult came to be. The name WAT stands for Web, Advertising and Technology. Initially we were just a team of four people but today we are 280 people plus and we are the largest digital agency within the Dentsu Aegis Network. Over the years, we have transitioned from being a social media specialist to a full service, true hybrid agency. Today 51 per cent of our revenues come from creative, tech, social and video services and 49 per cent comes from media buying and planning services. This just shows how we are truly full service in our offerings.

“A lot of people think big network agencies are monsters that will disrupt everything. But that has not been the case with DAN. They have given us the creative freedom to work”

Your digital research arm Recogn was launched in August this year with only one client, NRAI. What is the speciality of Recogn when there are so many research agencies?

We are definitely not looking to be a research agency but we want to provide research solutions to our clients. We have added three more clients – a major electrical company, an FMCG brand and automobile company. Also, having a research division gives us more depth in both our insights and our solutions.

A lot has happened this year with the launch of Recogn and InnoWAT. What are your plans for the future?

Recogn and InnoWAT are part of our five specialised solutions offerings. A lot of times, clients need specialised solutions but their current agency is unable to provide the same. Over the last two years, we have ventured into ecommerce consulting through eCommencify, social media command centre via SocialCRM24*7, our own innovation solutions via InnoWAT, audience planning and buying consulting with Audientise, and research services on digital via Recogn. Clearly, we are investing ahead of time in some of these areas and we know it but it’s our way to predicting and betting on what will be the trends in the future.

WATConsult was acquired by Dentsu Aegis Network in 2015. How much has the acquisition impacted the work at WATConsult?

It has had a positive impact. A lot of people think big network agencies are monsters that will disrupt everything. But that has not been the case with DAN. They have given us the creative freedom to work and do things our way. Also, WATConsult was there for eight years before it was acquired. That much time is enough time to bring in your own. So, no negative impact has happened on that front. What it has given us is the platform to scale that we required. It has brought in global exposure, local competitiveness due to scale, process orientation to drive efficiencies and much more.

You have been in the industry for 10 years now. What are the changes that you have seen in the industry from a digital standpoint?

The change has been humongous. If there is one thing I have learned, then it is to be always optimistic. When we started, I remember that there was this client who told me social media will never take off. Look at where we are today. I think change happens much quicker than you and I can adapt. In 2007, social media was not on a marketer’s agenda but by 2010 all that changed. By 2010, no one was creating video content for digital but by 2014 all that changed. By 2012, few brands were spending one crore a quarter on digital but by 2015 all that changed. I think change has come in the mindset of marketers where digital is no longer a tick box but ‘the tick box’ for them.

Rajiv Dingra Rajiv Dingra

Are brands more open to spending in digital as much as they spend on traditional media?

There is more discussion happening on digital. Today when I meet brands, I don’t meet anyone under the CEO or the CMO level but there was a time, when we had just started, I would be interacting with the PR person or at best the Marketing Manager. This change means that digital is now becoming the point of discussion in boardroom meetings. Although the spend is still traditional media heavy, we will see the change. In three to five years, things will be different. In the UK, the digital spend share is 51 per cent. India will catch up over next three to five years in a big way.

Do you think brands value digital innovation or is it all about the numbers and the reach it provides?

I think it is both. In the end, even marketers have to show some numbers and the same goes for agencies. There was a time when marketers were only interested in numbers. But today I think it is 50-50. I think numbers are our daily bread and the innovation is the one big thing we do in a year. So, while brands still want their daily bread, they are more open to taking risks and spend on innovations too.

“I think change has come in the mindset of marketers where digital is no longer a tick box but ‘the tick box’ for them”

How do you ensure that WATConsult stands out? What is your USP?

Responsiveness. WATConsult has been built on responsiveness. In the digital industry when everything changes so fast, I think it is of importance that your agency is agile enough to adapt to the changing dynamics of the market and is also quick enough to do real-time changes to campaigns to make them successful.

Do you think it is a challenge for small agencies to remain independent? What are the pros and cons of getting acquired by a global network?

Depends on each agency. If you want scale then looking at a global network is a good idea but if you want to stay a boutique agency, working with 40-50 people, then you can work independently.

The pros according to me from my experience are, first, the scale it provides. A global network gives you the scale than you can’t achieve by remaining a boutique agency. Independence is the other pro. In my experience, as long as you are doing good work, they leave you to do whatever you want to do. The third pro according to me is exposure. The kind of exposure you get working for a global network is not possible if you are working independently. You won’t be able to attend the conferences that they organise where they talk about a lot of great case studies. Also, you are exposed to so many other aspects of the industry. You get to know what is working where, which industry is growing and which is not and which clients have faulted on payments. These are things you can’t get your hands on if you are an independent agency.

The cons, according to me are, when you are working for a global network your finances have to be in order, there has to be discipline. Many agencies are headed by creative guys who don’t understand finance, so although it brings financial discipline, many may see it as a con. Another con is that IT costs per person go up when you get acquired by a global network. If you are an independent agency, you can make do with some things but that is not the case with a global network. So if agencies are working on a thin margin and barely getting, by then getting acquired could also mean going under.

“Numbers are our daily bread and innovation is the one big thing we do in a year. So, while brands still want their daily bread, they are more open to taking risks and spend on innovations”

Any word of advice for young minds aspiring to start a digital agency?

Find your niche. Like when WATConsult started, social media was very niche. Find your niche, get deeper into it, build your expertise in that area and only then expand horizontally, that is, if you want to expand at all. We at WATConsult have grown to a 300-people full service, true hybrid digital agency where 51 per cent of our revenues now come from creative, tech and social services and 49 per cent comes from media buying and planning services.

Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

Right now, for the next three years, WATConsult’s vision is to build its revenues and recognition. We want to be known as the best digital agency in India. We also want to do good work that gets recognised at global awards.

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