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Old advertising model not working but the shape of future isn’t clear either: Govind Pandey of TBWA

In an interview with, the India CEO of TBWA talks about the challenging times ad agencies are facing and how TBWA is making itself future-ready to be India’s top digitally native ad agency on the back of a disruptive model. Pandey also reveals the agency’s growth strategy for 2019

Govind Pandey

Only learning faster than the change can save the current day ad agencies from becoming dinosaurs in the future, believes Govind Pandey, Chief Executive Officer, TBWA Group India. “The industry is going through a big shift. And as an industry, our reaction to this change has been incremental and short term. We need to experiment and explore and learn faster than the change. Unfortunately, we are not doing that enough in marketing and advertising,” Pandey told in an interview.

The CEO, who has been steering his agency through the changing times to make it future-ready in the millennial world, said the old model of advertising wasn’t working anymore but the future wasn’t clear either. “The shape of future is yet to emerge but agility, ability to imagine unconventional solutions, and an owner mindset will be critical ingredients for the agency of the future.”

Pandey is also a firm believer of disruption and says TBWA works on a completely different approach as it provides convention-breaking solutions to clients by looking at every problem uniquely. “We believe in partnering the brands through their entire customer journey and owning the journey,” he said.

Highlighting the rise of online, he said digital is being embedded in all other platforms and looking at it in isolation or as a silo won’t be right.

Talking about the growth plans of TBWA, Pandey said the agency posted a strong growth in 2018, surpassing all expectations, which was not entirely dependent on the creative operations but also on the design lab and disruption consultancy. “In 2019, we want to be India’s top digitally native advertising and disruption company,” he said, adding that two top objectives of TBWA in 2019 would be to be a preferred partner for the CMOs and to strengthen the disruption culture.


Ad agencies are facing rough winds globally as the entire advertising model is going through a change. What does the future hold for agencies?

Arguably, more has changed in the last five years for the advertising business than in the preceding 50 years. We are in the middle of a big shift. What is clear is that the old model no longer works, but the shape of the future is yet to emerge. Whether it will be an ideal mix of the old and the new or something totally new remains an open question.

I don’t believe in the school that claims the new will kill the old. One hears things such as “VR, IoT, AI will alter marketing, Amazon will kill retail stores or the TVC is dead, the only audience is a ‘purpose-driven, authenticity-seeking millennial’ and being ‘woke’ is the new business strategy.”

These, I believe, are just dramatic headlines and lack nuance. I believe 1984 and Think Different is still building Apple, the brand, after all these years.

We are currently in a phase where we underestimate the long-term impact of brand platforms and good ideas while overestimating the importance of clicks and impressions. We need to recognise the difference between ROI for the money invested in a particular campaign versus long-term marketing effectiveness.

But we must also acknowledge and recognise the change and what’s new. We must learn the new, learn it fast and use it well. Our response, as an industry, to this change has been incremental and short term, which gives one a sense of progress along with a false sense of being responsible.

Actually, the smart thing to do in this environment is to seek intentional discontinuity. To place bold bets on the future, to experiment and explore and to learn faster than the change. We are not doing that enough in marketing and advertising.

There is no such thing left today as ‘experts who know it all’. Reputations built on the past paradigm are increasingly becoming irrelevant. We need fast real-time learners, people with different mindsets and different skills in the mix to be able to learn fast as an organisation and as an industry.

Agility, ability to imagine unconventional solutions, and an owner mindset are critical ingredients for the agency of the future. It definitely helps us to be an agency with Disruption® as our operating system. It is in our culture to be the pirates and not the navy.

Agency compensation needs a disruption also. Rather than being a procurement-led race to the bottom, we need a value-creating and accountable model that helps the industry attract and retain the more diverse and rare talent, that is needed to serve the clients.

One major trend that the industry saw last year was the phenomenal growth of content marketing and branded content. Do you think it is here to stay?

Media consumption patterns of consumers have been changing constantly over the last decade. Branded content is one such change that has been fuelled by the primacy of smartphone and the nature of consumption that it drives.

In such a situation, more than ever, it is important to reaffirm belief in media-agnostic platform ideas that consumers love, whatever form it may be delivered to them in.

From a time where one-way transmission of messages defined marketing, the key difference is that now we must respect and value the time that people spend on ‘advertising’. I think that is a big factor in driving all the innovation that we need to drive. And this will drive the nature, the quality and the usefulness of the content that we create. Otherwise the consumers will seek ad-free environments to consume content.

You call TBWA a disruptive agency. How has it helped your clients?

At TBWA India, we live the philosophy of disruption on an everyday basis. It is the best time to be the disruption company in this country.

We do not start with a preconceived channel-centric solution and treat every challenge as unique that needs a first-principle based, digitally-native solution.

This is because being the disruption company helps us call out the elephant in the room, the ‘holy’ convention that is holding a brand back.

We aim to provide such convention-busting solutions to all our clients, and propose it as a way of brand solutions on each of the new business pitches that we participate in. Our track record of campaigns during the course of the year is a testament to this.

Our best illustration of this year — Blink to speak, one of the most globally awarded creative ideas this year is not just another campaign, but a genuine design solution that helped tens of thousands of patients and caregivers.

You have won a lot of awards and acclaims at international platforms this year. Has it helped in attracting new businesses?

Awards are not everything but they are important. Awards have helped us create a real difference in our reputation in the kind of work and thinking that we believe in. We are the restless underdogs of the industry and it feels good when exciting talent and serious clients look at us as an alternative destination and solution.

As a network globally, TBWA has also been nominated as Adweek Global Agency of the Year, 2018. TBWA is an exciting and progressive creative company globally and we are building a modern, exciting and progressive Indian TBWA here.

How was 2018 for TBWA in terms of revenue growth?

We exceeded the objectives we set for ourselves in the beginning of the year. TBWA India grew at a rate higher than 2017. All things considered, overall uncertainty and a general drift in the environment, what we are really happy about is the quality of our growth. Apart from the core business of the lead creative agency, the share of our growth coming from disruption consulting, design labs and digital arts network has grown. We are learning on all these disciplines faster than most agencies.

We continue to have deep relationships with our global clients like Nissan, Datsun, Schaeffler and Standard Chartered Bank, etc. Equally, we have progressed on our partnerships with local Indian clients like JSW Paints, Marico Industries, Cipla Health, etc.

What makes us different from other agencies is our disruption philosophy that has been fundamentally aligned with our clients. This makes us their preferred business partner for continued brand success in the marketplace.

What are your growth targets for 2019 and how do you intend to achieve them?

We hope to continue on our growth trajectory and beat our 2018 growth rates. More importantly, we are looking to make this growth secular, in line with our overall vision of being India’s premier digitally native disruption company.

We have two big goals for 2019, in continuing with our theme for the least two years.

Our first goal is to be the preferred partner for the CMOs as they transition to a 21st century way of marketing. Our second goal is to strengthen the disruption culture internally through an ecosystem of the best fit people, processes and systems.

Now we have two strong offices in Mumbai and Gurgaon and an outpost in Bangalore.

The Gurgaon office is a relatively new office. It has a strong energised leadership in Amitesh Rao, Antony Rajkumar and Ashwin Parthiban. Equally, the Mumbai office has a stable, committed and proven leadership in Subu, Parx and Abhijit.

TBWA is one of the few agencies in India that provide integrated communication solutions. How has it been beneficial for your clients?

Integrated communication has many meanings. The old model was to leverage different communications tools appropriately to maximise their integrated effectiveness. The modern narrative is to bridge the fault-line of either being a culturally-led brand advertising agency or be a more data-driven performance marketing agency.

We believe that the new agency needs to have both the culture engine and the acquisition engine. We are working with our global clients like Nissan and SCB to create an agency that truly partners them through the customer journey.

In a nutshell, we believe that owning the journey is the future of integrated communications.

How much does digital contribute to the overall revenue? Do you see the ratio of digital to traditional media changing in the coming years?

Our view is that there is no longer any silo called digital. Anything and everything we do have been fused with digital at its heart. Hence, we no longer distinguish between digital and non-digital revenue. We see a future where every media and touchpoint has digital embedded in its heart. OTT platforms are doing this to television content. QR codes are making print advertising digital. And, it’s only a question of time before all conventional media goes this way.

The industry has been facing a massive talent crunch. How do you tackle that?

We are our people. Talent is central to our vision of TBWA\India as the disruption company.

Attracting and retaining the right talent is always a challenge.

What were the key decisions that helped TBWA steer through 2018 with a strong growth, especially in the times when the industry as a whole didn’t see a very strong growth.

We undertook five big initiatives for 2018. Some of them furthered the initiatives we started in the previous year, but improved them with previous learning. Other initiatives were seen to be essential to deliver our positioning and strategy, both internally and to the market.

We have four practice specialisations — Disruption for big growth platforms, Disruption Consulting for solving branding-led business problems, Disruption Live that helps create culture-driven communities with real time conversations and Design Labs for creating identity, experiences and prototypes.

To place businesses and brands on what is rising in culture, we invested further behind Backslash, India’s foremost cultural research initiative, in 2018. Quite likely, this is the single largest on-going cultural research initiative among all marketing organisations in the country. Our enlarged spotter teams identify emerging cultural narratives trends in culture for us to be able to keep our brand relevant to our consumers. We then put out these trends on our own social page on Instagram @backslashtbwaindia.

Last year, we had launched Disruption Consulting to help clients tackle interesting business and marketing problems, without necessarily tying them up to a classical campaign solution. Subsequently, during the course of the year, we learnt that many of our solutions became more potent when they found a design expression. Hence, we fused our consulting and design initiatives into one potent offer. This has found immediate resonance among the CEO and CMO fraternity.

To further our positioning among all stakeholders, we launched a platform for well-known disruptors (across various industries) to share their learnings with the world-at-large. We called these disruptors once-a-quarter for a coffee chat with our CEO and live-telecast it across all our social channels. While this happened, it also galvanised our staff to think differently about their own client problems.

As we were putting together the building blocks of a new-age agency in a millennial world, we realised the need to engineer the right ecosystem of people, processes and culture to deliver the agency’s positioning. While this was a soft aspect, it was critical for everyone in the TBWA team to have shared values and behaviours that helped them become superstars. To this end, we put together a Culture Manual — a ‘what we believe and how we behave’ of what we seek in every TBWA\Indian. This is meant to be a primer to every new person who joins the company. It was also a guide for senior managers on the behaviours that create culture.

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