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Margin will improve if agencies are more accountable and clients more enlightened, says Govind Pandey of TBWA

Pandey tells how he intends to expand base in India, his ambition to build the first digitally native creative company in the country and the need to get much better, much faster

Govind Pandey

The man who never minces his words, Govind Pandey, CEO, TBWA India, has been busy making the agency a stable ship in India. In his previous role, Pandey was the COO for 14 years at McCann Worldwide in India. He has also worked with JWT, Contract and Ogilvy & Mather in the past. Pandey, a compulsive book buyer, keeps a low profile and loves to stay behind the camera. Also an avid mountain trekker, marathon runner, music lover and a long distance cyclist, the responsibility of building the agency in India doesn't allow Pandey to follow his interests as often as he wants. But he still tries to make time for them.

In an interview with, Pandey explains why he moved to TBWA, how he has not just managed to stabilise the business but grow it in India, his future plans for the agency, use of technology, pitches, reducing profit margins at creative agencies and much more.


TBWA had a rough past in India. Its top management has seen a lot of turbulences. You were with McCann for so many years. What attracted you to an unstable ship?

TBWA is, and always has been, a great network. In India, it is relatively young, and in spite of this, it has all the right building blocks of a 21st-century agency – a nimble and progressive mindset with a unique operating system in the form of Disruption®. The Collective also manages some of the world’s most valuable brands both globally and locally including Nissan, Adidas, IDFC MF, Standard Chartered Bank, Modern Food, Fractal Analytics, JSW Group, Jyothy Labs and so on. All this makes TBWA the perfect playground for people who are looking for more than just being a cog in the large network agency machine.

Now, when you have ideas about creating an agency from first principles, what you see is not the instability of the past but the possibility of creating a fresh new-age future-facing agency. Incidentally, in both my previous agencies, I joined at a time when they were undergoing a fundamental transformation.

Do such turbulences actually matter when it comes to winning clients’ trust and if yes, up to what extent?

Clients, who operate in turbulent times, look for dependable partners to navigate uncertainty. Which is why trust, during these times, is not a function of the longevity of relationships, but about the quality of solutions you can provide along with the dependability and speed of response. My agenda is to do everything it takes to make our clients experience this quality of thinking and speed of response, to help them navigate this uncertainty.

What has been your priority since the time you joined TBWA? Have you been able to set the house in order as we speak today?

Our ambition is to build the first digitally native creative company in this country. To do this, very simply, we need to build a great team, with the culture of disruption at its core. We needed to learn to win in the market and ultimately, create pride-builders. We have made substantial progress on all these facets.

Year one was about getting the blueprint right and ensure we have the best mix of talent so our client partners feel confident about the quality of interactions and work thereafter. I am proud to say that in terms of people and culture, we now have some very talented people with an amazing diversity of skills and talents.

We have a cutting-edge design lab. We have a substantial digital offering that offers Disruption Live to help brands participate in real-time conversations in culture. To further assist in this mission, we have also invested in a digital video content factory called Gun Powder.

We introduced DAN (Digital Arts Network) – an in-house set-up of experts that offer digital, social and tech-first solutions, alongside handling the social mandate for MasterCard and Airbnb. Unlike any other agency, they don’t sit on a separate floor or office area. They actively cross-pollinate on every TBWA India project.

We built our design offering with TBWA design lab, from scratch, to offer solutions like story design, visual design, verbal design, material design, brand identity, packaging and so on. It is already creating its own portfolio with key assignments on JSW and Fractal Analytics while helping TBWA improve the aesthetic sharpness for all its clients.

Our consulting team is immersed in providing solutions for Open Magazine and VIP bags through our ‘Disruption Consulting’ practice. They have been working on some very interesting client problems with serious implications on their businesses.

There has been some very interesting new business wins. Alongside, we have also had a couple of buzzy campaigns – Datsun #VoteForChange, and Modern #BeLikeBread. Also, we are getting back into awards with wins at the local and regional Effies, D&AD, Kyoorius and some short-lists in Cannes.

So, I think that we have travelled a reasonable distance. We are still a still work-in-progress, but a bit more sure-footed.

It seems that TBWA is the first creative agency in India to realise the need of entering the video content space. What do you have to say about it? And now, with content creation and social media in place, what next for TBWA in India?

I am not sure if we are the first agency to get into video content space. There are some other agencies that have loose affiliations and tie-ups in the back end. But, we have gone ahead and invested in a full-fledged entity that allows flexing our muscles. Having said that, next is now for TBWA India! We need to get much better, much faster. And we need to make this a habit!

Adidas moved to DDB Mudra in India after you joined the agency. Any regrets and resolve to recover that loss?

To clarify, this was only for a project. Adidas is our global business in many markets and we enjoy a good relationship with them. We continue to be in touch with them on their future initiatives in India.

TBWA is renowned and among the top agencies worldwide. How do you intend to get the same position for the agency in India? What are your plans here?

Simply, we need to deliver on the promise of disruption with bold future-facing ideas to create an Indian TBWA, rather than a global TBWA in India. The plan is to create proof points of this practice, which in turn, will create disproportionate buzz and value for our clients in the marketplace.

TBWA calls itself a disruptive agency. What amount of disruption has the agency brought in India in which way and how different is it from the others?

Many brands in India are struggling today because they rely on flaky disposable ideas with hashtags that have nothing to do with their brands. They seek comfort in quick buzz. We have a fundamental disagreement with this kind of thinking.

Unfortunately, at the other end, disruption has become an abused and overused term across industries. It has become common parlance to describe anything ‘differentiated’. We are interested in creating big bold disruptive platforms that build an asset value for brands. This becomes meaningful when it is based on a deep understanding of the emergent culture of its consumer. And then it becomes a true solution when it is designed for the connected consumers of today with seamless, real-time conversations.

How rigorous is TBWA on the pitching front? Does TBWA pitch for all kind of clients? What are the criteria for choosing a client for TBWA?

We like pitching but we are choosy about the pitches. Our current clients and brands are our priority. Above all else, we look for like-minded senior clients seeking fundamental solutions over the surface. We love clients with interesting challenges. The more interesting the marketing challenge, the more our ability to showcase the sharpness of our bold strategic thinking, combined with our creative prowess.

Does better profit margin depend largely on better negotiation with the clients coupled with better management of the business or there are more aspects to this?

Margins are a real challenge. And I think the solution lies somewhere between agencies becoming more accountable and clients becoming more enlightened. Clients need to nourish their agency partnerships with trust and compensation to help them eventually to get better solutions that make an impact in the marketplace.

Let me explain this in another way. Our business is very unique. We don’t have one off-the-shelf product done after years of R&D like the manufacturing sector does. We also don’t have prefabricated ready-to-wear recommendations, which some management consultants have. We make a new one every day for each of our clients. The more you believe and invest in an agency partnership, the better it gets and therefore eventually more cost-effective it gets for the clients. More cynicism leads to more commodification.

So, hasn’t technology advancements made the business tougher?

I think it’s all good. The consumers are changing. Media is changing. The way one gets through to the consumer is changing. The grammar of storytelling is changing depending on which platform we are talking about. It’s just evolution of the business.

Technology advancements have not made the business tougher. It has made the life of the consumers simpler. Technology has just created many ways to get to the consumer. It has allowed us to know more about what she does with our content. It has helped crash the entire purchase journey in terms of time and space. Those who cannot change or adapt to this new normal will just fall by the wayside.

Even if things settle down in some time, is it true that the situation will not be like before where there used to be huge profit margins for both creative agencies and production houses owing to changes in clients expectations and growing mediums?

Our industry is at an interesting inflection point. The lines between management consulting, brand consulting, design companies and advertising agencies are blurring. Ultimately the game is of creating value. Profit margins will come from that. To continue doing this better, agencies will have to change and reinvent. But, I continue to believe that agencies are best placed to create value by designing meta-narratives for our client’s brands that impact their business models.

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