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We are all a team of marketers, say White Rivers Media founders

As the digital ad agency completes six years, speaks to founders Shrenik Gandhi and Mitesh Kothari to know scalability and profitability issues of digital advertising, how it is like to compete with giants and the opacity in the medium

Shrenik Gandhi and Mitesh Kothari

Having completed six years in the digital advertising domain, White Rivers Media has built an 84-member strong team. And each member is marketer in their minds.

Shrenik Gandhi, Co-Founder and CEO, White Rivers Media, is very clear about one thing when he hires people from different walks of life – no matter whether you are an engineer or a digital or a creative person, everybody has to understand the fundamentals of marketing.

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“We create team structures as and when we have a requirement. I would like to say that we have a team of marketers. That is a bigger skill set that we see before hiring anyone,” he added.

The digital industry has grown phenomenally in the last six years owing to internet penetration, mobile phone adoption, Jio and the consumption of VOD – it has changed the game.

Mitesh Kothari, Co-Founder, says the coming few years will be a great time to work with people and brands – decoding a medium that is building up right now but which will be native to future generations.

White Rivers Media has always been keeping a close eye on international digital trends and happenings, tracking them and evaluating how it can work for brands here. This is being done by almost every player who wants to work with a great marketing edge. Kothari explained another aspect, “We have also been looking at mar-tech closely; the technologies available internationally and if that would make sense for Indian clients – mid-sized or large-sized organisations. That has to make sense to the overall Indian sensibilities since India is a very different market.”

White Rivers Media was one of the first partner agencies to work with Snapchat in India. The company has also been partnering with a few European organisations for their re-targeting solutions that can be used for Indian e-commerce companies; to help them with better RoI and better apps for their customers. That is one of the key focus areas for the agency, to keep evaluating technology internationally that will have Indian fitment and then, to bring them to India at some point in time.

Head-on with giants?

Now when margins in traditional media are decreasing, media agency giants are also focusing on digital in a big way. Plus, there are digital agency shops at every nook and corner of the industry. How rapidly are digital spends increasing to feed so many mouths?

Gandhi mentioned how digital is the fastest growing medium at 30% year-on-year growth. “Jio has increased the digital consumption by about 10 times. Masses are consuming digital, social media and everything on digital. The market size has gone up by about seven to eight times in the last two to three years. You have to keep evolving as a digital agency, irrespective of the size of your outfit.”

Having said this, the giants have more muscle and might. Is the competition fair? Are independents like White Rivers Media on a head-on fight with the biggies?

Gandhi said, “Everyone has their own space. A larger stakeholder in the ecosystem will have a bigger hunger. Not all clients necessarily want to go to larger agencies because everyone has their own advantages and disadvantages. A client will go wherever he finds the optimal mix.”

Is there anything special that independents can offer and these giants cannot?

Kothari believes everyone has their strong points and stronger offerings. “We have been able to work with the clients sustainably for about four to five years. We have been able to add value to their business. We have been able to work with them as partners, more than as their agency. Whatever you do should be long term and sustainable.”

A lot of independent agencies partner with the network agencies on a project basis or due to client’s demand. It might be helping the smaller partners to learn, or does it feel more interfering than facilitating?

Kothari said these partnerships are more of tactical decisions, not strategic ones. “As an agency, I cannot have a strategy that to be a subset without being a part of the group. It can be tactical in the sense that if my client also needs a particular tool and partnering with a giant helps; Or if partnering on a project gives me an ‘x’ amount of financial benefit. Learning might be limited, since these are very short-term partnerships, not long-term strategic business decisions. Such relationships, if at all, have to be more symbiotic,” he explained.


White Rivers Media also does a lot of programmatic advertising. One of the reports had suggested that about 55% of the total money spent by clients go to middlemen and intermediary organisations like DSP, trading desks and some others. Who exactly are these bodies? Are they a part of the digital agency?

Kothari decodes this, “When you partner with a technology solutions provider who gives you something innovative that no one else has in the market and if they charge a premium for it, then my client’s money goes to them. Then, there are data brokers. If they have the right kind of data and they are going to charge me an ‘x’ amount for that specific data which is crucial for my campaign, I will go across the data.”

DSPs generally help agencies in getting to the right place where they are supposed to be. “Depending on whether they are adding value to the chain, the practice will remain. If they are pure-play brokers who have no intelligence to be added, then it is a matter of time that they will vanish,” continued Kothari.

Kothari added, “It is a chain system. There are both backward and forward integrations. There are times when the agencies would not know where the money is going and the dealings are done by the clients. If it is not transparent and the agency doesn’t know.”

This point brought the question of why digital advertising demands more transparency? A few months back, Tim Castree, Global CEO, Wavemaker, mentioned to BestMediaInfo in an interview, “Obviously, a lot of work that we have been doing in last two years is to clean up the opacity in the digital supply chain. There was a time when it was too opaque.” He had mentioned that much more needs to be done.

Kothari suggested evolution to be the answer. “If there are 10 players doing business in an opaque environment, the environment that we are in, it is not going to take a lot of time for one new player to come, be transparent and disrupt the category. Then all the earlier ones will have to comply too. Everyone is trying to demand more transparency and dependency, at the same point of time.”

Traditional media, too, has been tackling with the lack of transparency in the system but Kothari separates the online and offline mediums completely. “Verifying the authenticity of technology is much more difficult than verifying the authenticity of people.”


As the world is moving ahead and digital advertising is growing, along with it is growing distrust in the medium. Many big advertisers doubt the authenticity of the medium, if not the calibre. Isn’t it a threat to the digital agencies, especially the independents?

Kothari feels the threat is more to the model and not the whole concept of digital agencies. He explained, “The current model of digital agencies might be under threat and they have to keep evolving. I will not go that far to say the brands will move away from digital because marketing has a very simple law – whether digital or offline – you market where your customers are. If you are talking to a consumer who is sticky with mobile, it makes sense for me to be in the medium. It cannot be the only thing but digital has to be an important piece in your plan.”

So if clients are going to continue spending on digital, the number of digital agencies will mushroom in every corner of the metros. Consolidation is inevitable. Where does White Rivers Media see itself in the next three to five years?

Kothari suggested that the huge number of digital agencies is because there is no entry barrier. “Many of these players will then find difficulty in scaling up and manage. It is easier to start with 10 people, but it is a challenge to scale up when you have 50/100 people. How do you run it in the long term? Also, digital is a game of young people. When we got into it eight years ago, everybody who was doing digital was young. Now clients are looking at talking to people who are in their late 30s and can talk more sense. It is not about a young creative start-up that I want to work with. It is more about people who know my business and they can turn it around digitally. You have to scale up in that manner.”

Adding about the future prospects for White Rivers, he added, “Consolidation will obviously happen. As of now, we don’t see ourselves being part of something consolidated. Once we have reached a scale after which we cannot perform without the help of a bigger network or a bigger entity, then we will look at it. We would like to evaluate every offer in its own merit and see what role we will play in the large consortium.”

Mentioning how scaling up and being profitable is going to be a struggle for a lot of digital advertising start-ups, it is clear that these two issues are here to stay. How long till the agencies are able to get rid of these? Because no matter what we say, despite the volume of digital advertising that is happening, the monies spent are still miniscule. Even the advertising giants are spending not more than 2-3% of their total marketing budgets on digital.

“It will be an issue for some more time. If I get into a mainline advertising business also, it would be a different set of challenge, which might be – how to counter a digital agency. In our end, nobody knows how you are going to charge; it is a very new field. Everybody has their own pricing policy with a varied market. Plus, there is no set structure for a first-time entrepreneur to understand how can I scale more or make a better profit or increase my percentage profit ratio. It is an open challenge, but there are players who have done it in a good way. It’s fairly the law of the land,” Kothari said.

Gandhi sketches a rough idea on this by mentioning that the general start-up law is that if you are able to sustain your business with at least operational profit for first five years, then you are on a better note. “One has to keep learning every single day. If you don’t learn, unlearn and relearn in digital, you are dead,” he added.

Impact of data privacy laws

It is being said that the data privacy law draft of India is much stricter than the GDPR, which was implemented in EU earlier this year. How difficult would re-targeting become once the data privacy laws come in?

Gandhi said, “At the end of the day, the Government is concerned about the data of the people. We are only working with people who are every sure of not misusing the data and are completely compliant with all the possible laws in the countries that they operate. There is an in-house legal team and we partner with any company only if the SOPs are clear.”

White Rivers Media operates on the client’s data or partners’ data since they don’t have a data pool. But do they intend to have their own pool?

“We don’t see ourselves going in that direction now, because we feel that there are third parties who are specialised in that area, giving us far better accuracy. The requirements of data are very diverse, like I might require some set of data now, and then, a completely different data at some other point. It doesn’t make sense to create my own pool unless I specialise in that,” said Kothari.

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