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Focusing on new-age app clients for growth, says Niti Kumar, COO, Starcom

In her first detailed interview after taking over as the COO of Starcom, Niti Kumar talks about growth areas for the agency, overall business recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and a range of other issues

Niti Kumar

After winning a string of new businesses which include several traditional and new-age clients, Starcom is all set to target the app-based businesses category for fuelling further growth. Starcom will leverage its tech, data and digital capabilities to deliver enhanced impact for clients.

In an interview with BestMediaInfo.com, Niti Kumar, COO, Starcom, said the agency is on a high growth trajectory and capable of serving the evolving requirements of clients, "The focus is on servicing the clients and keeping up with their requirements. The spaces we are seeing a lot of actions are data, technology, automation, eCommerce and content."


How was 2021 for Starcom from the business perspective and how do you see it panning out this year? Has the business surpassed pre-Covid levels?

The silver lining of the Covid-19 period has been that we have seen a lot of resurgences. In 2020, everyone was figuring out how to deal with Covid. But once everyone got the hang of it, 2021 became a great year. The ad spends bounced back. We won a lot of new businesses in 2021. We have been getting good organic growth from our existing clients that increased spending on the digital, eCommerce and content front. The agency surpassed the pre-Covid levels in the middle of 2021. 

Recently, we won many new businesses, including Stellantis, Mobikwik, Fresh To Home, Abbott, Vadilal Ice Cream, and XYXX. New business is one area around which we are quite upbeat. In our case, the share of digital businesses is very high in comparison to traditional businesses because we have several app economy clients who do a lot of digital and integrated marketing. Along with new business wins, we also have long-standing relationships with brands including Dabur, Visa, Jeep, Axis Bank and Nykaa. We have got a large base of new-age clients and that’s the space we want to grow and develop even more going forward. 

How are you expanding your scope of services and streamlining the businesses?

We focus on servicing the clients and keeping up with their requirements. The spaces we are seeing a lot of actions are data, technology, automation, eCommerce and content. Publicis Groupe launched “Power of One’ in January 2020. This helped us during the Covid as one could dip into Groupe’s capability and all the practices the network has. In 2019, Publicis acquired Epsilon, which has fantastic data capabilities to help clients be ready for the cookieless future by creating unified IDs for them using data that they have. 

Would one see brands’ reliance on social media platforms decreasing in the times to come? 

The role of social media will evolve. It already fulfils more upper-funnel metrics like awareness, engagement and reach and that will continue. Through data-based marketing, reaching that scale will always take time. Therefore, for reaching out to the consumers at scale, brands will always pick social media above others.

How can one marry data, technology and digital to fetch maximised ROI for brands? How prepared is Starcom on this front? 

I will explain this with one example. We did one campaign for Pharmeasy, which is a brilliant example of data and technology. We picked up Sony Entertainment’s property KBC where we did an integration through quiz for the viewers. To answer the questions, the viewers had to go to the Pharmeasy app. Like this from TV, we created a direct call to action in form of app download, which was one KPI for the campaign. This helped Pharmeasy get a lot of users. 

What was the strategy for retaining the consumers that came to the Pharmeasy app only for the quiz?

That’s where Epsilon came in. We analysed the database and did a lot of messaging to the inactive consumers about Pharmeasy. That is how we converted the inactive users to active ones.

This must have been an expensive campaign to execute? 

At the moment it requires an investment. When it comes to data marketing, one must be ready from a data infrastructure perspective. There needs to be a data warehouse interlinked with different servers in order to get the ads going live. A part of the investment comes from the client and part of it we already have. 

Do you help brands build data capabilities at their end?

Publicis Media Consulting helps clients to build this. While app economy clients are more evolved as they exist in this digital ecosystem, more traditional clients need a lot more handholding and advice.   

What are the roadblocks in this journey?

There are two not very significant roadblocks. Firstly, there is a learning curve that’s happening with the clients. Often, the conversations need to start from a very ground level, which is an education process. It gets a little time intensive for getting clients on board. Secondly, clients need to increase investment in building data infrastructure at their end. Of course, the agencies will do their bit. Clients have to be ready to do that. Slowly over time, there has been a big change in terms of how brands approach the marriage of technology and data. 

What is one major challenge for media agencies to retain businesses and even acquire new ones?

We have a very high retention rate. Over the last two years, we have won much more than we have lost. The challenge one needs to overcome is keeping pace with the market. The changes that were supposed to happen from the digital perspective only got accelerated during the Covid period. Publicis Groupe has been able to do that very well. Our tech, data and digital capabilities are very strong. 

All the media agencies are upping their game on the tech, data and digital front. Clients might choose the one which is able to offer the services at a lesser cost than the others. How do you beat this kind of challenge?

It depends on how smart the client is. Clients must focus on the end outcome and their threshold to pay and make a smart decision basis that. Most of the businesses we have won are not based on the price game, but on the whole package which we bring to the table. 

How prepared is Starcom for the Web 3.0 revolution? How excited do you see clients about it? 

The clients are very excited and there are a lot of conversations happening around Metaverse. We always tell our clients not to do something on Metaverse to just create noise. We are a very focused agency for business outcomes. We will recommend it when it makes sense for the business and when there is a very clear call to action which could be measured. 

According to many reports, digital is set to overtake TV ad spends. What will be the driving force for digital to surpass TV? How much of the digital spending do you see going towards OTT, digital marketing including regular social media and ad tech? 

The first driver for the growth of digital is the lower cost of entry on digital. It is primarily driven by where the consumers are going. Secondly, a lot of the younger generation are cord-cutters. In fact, a new term on the block is ‘cord-nevers’ (people who have never had a cable or DTH connection and directly buy connected TV). For audiences like this, digital has to be the go-to medium. Another driver for the growth of digital is the expansion in the options of full-funnel marketing in the digital domain. Through data and the right technology, one can actually trace the consumers. 

When it comes to video advertising on digital, it has just begun on Connected TV. There is still time for it to mature. OTT clearly takes away the major chunk of digital advertising spending. Advertising on regional OTT players has also picked up. Live sports does very well on OTT. Short video apps are also upcoming but behind OTT. When it comes to other formats of advertising on digital, then social media is the front runner. 

Do you think the lack of content to commerce options availability and third-party data for measurability is a deterrent to the growth of advertising on OTT? 

One shouldn’t buy ads on OTT thinking it will give absolute last-mile conversion and click-throughs. OTT is more about awareness and incremental reach. For lower-funnel metrics, one should opt for search and social media. 

What kind of brand associations are we seeing on OTT?

Currently, it’s mostly ads, but content integration is also slowly picking up. We are seeing a lot of opportunities for integrations and product placements in the regional OTT space. 

What is your take on the growth of advertising on connected TV in India? What are the challenges associated with it? 

CTV advertising is a growing space. It offers best of TV and digital’s precise targeting. It is like a dream come true. Although, the scale is not yet there. One can’t use it as an awareness medium, but one can get great incremental reach on CTV. So many people today are cord cutters and it helps reach such an audience base. Measurement is also one challenge on Connected TV because of the lack of unified measurement metrics or methodology like TV. Although a lot is happening on bringing in a unified measurement system for digital as well, there is still time for it. 

What is your take on bringing in a unified measurement system for digital? 

There is a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of single-source reporting of data in digital. It is already happening in many western countries. There are a lot of measurement-related challenges in India because of its diversity. It will still take time here. A lot of barriers need to be overcome. People have to come on the same platform and be willing to work together. 

We have a proprietary tool called ‘Scenario planner’ at Starcom, which uses data from different sources like IRS, BARC, YouTube etc. and fuses them together. It allows the client to get integrated reach numbers. 

How does Starcom intend to fulfil the marketers’ growing demand for TV advertising through segmentation of audiences by socioeconomics, life-stage and financial behaviours providing highly precise TV audience profiles?

Connected TV is helping us to move in that direction. But bringing everything together on one platform is still a challenge across the industry. There are a lot of macro-level changes that need to happen for this space to evolve. Our tool Scenario planner helps give brands a sense of where the audience is in terms of reach and visibility. We fuse the Scenario planner with our other studies and models. For example, we have a ‘Poem model’ which helps figure out the media consumption pattern of the audience and their behaviour. 

What does it take for a woman to succeed in the media business? Is it any different for women to work at media agencies than men?

For women, the fundamental qualities to succeed are the same as those of men. One has to work hard, be focused on outcomes, and manage the career. Publicis Groupe and Starcom have a fantastic diversity. Anupriya Acharya leads the Groupe and Rathi Gangappa is the CEO at Starcom. In the Starcom leadership, we have a 50:50 ratio of men to women. For Publicis Groupe India, over the last two years, 46% of all hiring was female. As of March 1, 2022,  36% of Publicis Groupe India’s line managers are female while 40% of the overall workforce is female. In addition, Publicis Groupe India is also certified as an "Equal Pay" organisation by KPMG India, which conducted an independent third-party study. It is not the same outside Publicis agencies. Women have to prioritise and balance work and home. But the system has to allow you that flexibility. The trick is to have the priorities right. Having a good manager who understands you well and has empathy is also very critical. 


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