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In-depth: The un-agency and innovative models standing apart

Amid a sea of creative agencies, to run differentiated models like Hyper Collective, Sideways, Triggerbridge, Harris-mint and The New Business is not a cake walk. BestMediaInfo caught up with the people running these innovative setups to understand the need to set up these models and how different are the challenges and learnings from the usual independent creative agencies

What is common between Abhijit Avasthi, Colvyn Harris, KV Sridhar, Shiv Sethuraman and S Yesudas? It is to stand out like a flamingo in the fleet of pigeons. All these names are advertising veterans who ventured into the ocean of creative, digital and media agencies with their unique ship models.

As the world talks about technology giants buying media, digital and creative agencies, traditional models of agency setups are getting redundant, AI and VR, shrinking profits and consumers becoming intelligent, these people are trying to make a difference and stand out with their innovative business models.

Avasthi and Sonali Sehgal launched Sideways two years ago, Yesudas, Ajit Nair, Amit Tripathi’s company Trigger Bridge is also two years old. Sridhar’s (Pops) Hyper Collective and Harris’ Harris-mint were launched less than a year ago and Sethuraman’s The New Business is fairly new and has only existed for four months until now.

Before talking in detail about such differentiated and innovative agency model setups, it’s better to understand what each brings to the table that normal agency setups don’t have.

Abhijit Avasthi and Sonali Sehgal

Avasthi’s Sideways Consulting

Sideways Consulting calls itself ‘Creative problem Solvers’. Unlike a normal agency set-up, its team comprises engineers, product designers, technologists, behavioural architect and others. Avasthi said, “We have people from different backgrounds and this gives us the advantage over the others. We call ourselves a problem-solving company. We are solving problems, issues, exploring opportunities across the spectrum.”

For example, Avasthi is doing a project for Disney by helping it solve its sales problems. Sideways is helping the company design a toy that can take care of its limited toy distribution network in India. Another project is for a Singapore fintech company, for which it is designing a product that might ‘create a bit of revolution in the digital payment space’.

Sridhar’s Hyper Collective

Hyper Collective is positioned as a technology company that binds the creative and strategy aspects of brand communication, by pooling in expertise from data science, analytics and tech experts, to cater to the new-age advertising and marketing solutions for clients.

Hyper Collective has 21 collaborators on board namely, Ormax (including Ormax Money and Ormax Rhodium), Sharpener, Wolfzhowl Strategic Instigations, Ping Digital Broadcast, Umbrella Design, Supari Studios, Meraki VR Studio, NetBramha Studios, Fanatics, Simple Creative Inc, Experience Commerce, Windchimes Communications, Made by Fire, Candid Marketing, Moonraft Innovation Labs, Phoenix TalentX Branding, 17Seven, Tookitaki and Triggerbridge.

“I saw an opportunity in collaborative because nobody can claim that they are a specialist in everything. Technology companies are trying to hire brand experts, content creators and softer aspects of communications and are unable to do that because it is not in their DNA,” added Sridhar

Harris’ Harris-Mint

Colvyn drives Harris-mint on his own and connects agencies with the clients or accesses global design, which his clients find much cheaper. Harris-mint does not work on a commission model and gets directly paid by clients.

Sethuraman’s The New Business

Along with a team of three freelancers, Sethuraman helps mid-sized and small agencies to grow the business and help win new clients. In this venture, Sethuraman has successfully worked with WWP company Landor and independent agency Onads.

(L-R) Ajit Nair, S-Yesudas and Amit-Tripathi

S Yesudas’ Triggerbridge

S Yesudas along with Ajit Nair of MX Advertising and Amit Tripathi of IdeateLabs launched Triggerbridge, an “unagency” that aims build bridges of relevance between them and their clients, and their clients and their consumers. Triggerbridge's endeavour is to future proof a model that will be the need of the hour, now and then by clients, disrupting the age old advertising.

Triggerbridge is also building many products for the very first time, moving the business away from a pure service. One such is a digital platform that aggregates storytellers and tech producers for brands to pick and choose from a variety of options, most curated and created by real consumers.

Need for the different model?

Avasthi started on his own for his personal adventure, while the others believe the classical agency model is not viable and will cease to exist.

Clients are now more aware and believe in transparency from their agency partners. They do not wish to support a costly corporate structure.

Harris said, “The percentages of cost are linked to regional and global overheads, which have no direct impact on the client or the brand. If a company is operating on large margins and it has to support a global superstructure of a holding company, then there is very little money left to invest in the talent.”

The second element is the non-working cost, which is a cost structure that does not directly benefit the brand. “The cost of agency is actually listed separately as non-working media. And that cost over many years has inflated beyond any reasonable basis. The third is when the creative, media and digital agencies started fragmenting and breaking away in specialist groups; each had its own cost structure,” added Harris.

One common element is the cost, which is a good reason to review the current agency structure. The second is talent. “If the agencies are still hiring at Rs 3-4 lakh annual salaries, you can’t get the best of talent. So as a result, the best of talent now goes directly to other sectors.”

Sridhar found loopholes in the existing quadrants: traditional advertising agencies, technology companies, digital agencies and media companies in the branding and advertising world.

Sridhar explained, “The traditional advertising agencies, which drive on print and television, are struggling with the clients and the people. Their struggle has pushed them to do only long format videos for Youtube and social media posts. By technology quadrant, I don’t mean digital agencies but Wipro, Accenture and Infosys and consultancies like IBM and Mckinsey's’ of the world. They help at the strategy level and data analytics. In the third quadrant: digital agencies. These agencies are dominated by individuals who have been around for some years and understand building websites, do FB posts and content building on data analytics. Indian digital agencies are a bit behind the international ones. The fourth quadrant is the media companies. Because of their heritage and ease in data analytics, have naturally grown into things like email marketing and social media analytics. They are still figuring out how to steer the brand’s technology and digital transformation.”

But no can call themselves specialists at all and therefore Sridhar found an opportunity and brought together specialists collaborators that would work together to give solutions.

Sridhar said, “Of course, I could not compete with the billion-dollar companies, but bring in the expertise and collaborating with the people are at the strategic intervention and softer aspects of the brand experience, gaming, content, SMS marketing, driving traffic, working with the tech companies to integrate the data.”

Supporting what Sridhar said, Yesudas calls themselves #UnAgency. “I had written an article 10 months ago, talking about how agencies will give their business away to IT consultants. There was news just a week ago about Accenture winning the global “experience” mandate for Maserati. Advertising is largely focused on "views" and innovative look and feel of campaigns.  Our focus is on addressing the fluidity and also building consistent ‘experiences’.”

"Marketers, in my opinion are forced to shift their focus from products to relationships.  But when one approaches this through the tried and tested cognitive methods of milking the core competencies, all it does is replace the earlier, now redundant, linear purchase funnel with an attribution model. The post-sale, on-demand attention economy calls for new generation of customer connect models, bringing together both the cognitive and the intuitive. Intuitive is about looking at the customer journey map, data and other interventions including technology from a human perspective. And that is why we are here. We call this marketing 'for' customers rather than only marketing 'to' them," Yesudas added.

Sethuraman loves doing new business. He said, “The people who have set up independent creative agencies in the last six to seven years is fine but until unless you have a very distinctive model, personally I don’t think it’s a great time to be an advertising creative agency model.”

Challenges and learnings

It is definitely not easy to walk the not walked path. Generally, people leave their previous creative agency setups and become entrepreneurs by opening their own creative boutiques. Only a few have the guts and vigour to start something differentiated and innovative. It’s definitely not easy to make people understand the business idea and what can they bring to the table.

Sethuraman’s ‘The New Business’ is a brand new concept. He said, “Like all the new concepts, it takes some time for people to understand the impact it is going to have on their business. There will be a phase where I will have to spend a lot of time educating and showing people the value of the new business before they embrace it full-heartedly.”

For Avasthi, everyday has been a learning and challenging since the launch. Coming from a typical creative agency setup and to run something like what he is doing has not been easy. He commented, “I am trying to provide solutions in the areas in which I am personally not familiar with. So, for me to come up to speed with that world has been a personal learning experience. Theoretically, it is easy to say that I’ll bring together different skill sets of people. But it is not easy to get a tech guy to sit near the product designer next to a writer and converse about the same thing.”

He further said, “Explaining to people what we do takes a little of a while. Once they understand what we do, they understand what we bring to the table. It’s a new concept in India.”

For Harris-mint, Triggerbrigde and Hyper Collective, the journey has been a bit smoother. Harris-mint doesn’t need a team and hence cost is saved. Triggerbridge believes that any client who wishes to evolve will adapt their model and for Hyper Collective, Sridhar says that God has been grateful to them and have earned clients’ trust and faith.

Triggerbrigde has 14-member team from different backgrounds and has many collaborations including that of Pop’s Hyper Collective. "Contrary to popular belief that clients pay for execution and not for thinking, we are fortunate to have clients paying us for our thinking as well. It has been a very good journey. We are learning every day. We are staying curious. We work with close to a dozen clients, making a real difference to them. We were on an industry magazine cover couple of months back as one of the 8 star-ups already making an impact." said Yesudas.

Sharing an interesting event, Yesudas said, “I think more than our challenges, the established agencies look at us as their challenge. It is evident from the fact that an agency group even tried everything possible to prevent us from doing work for one of our clients where they also had a stake in. Eventually, we continued with the client and they lost out. As I keep saying, genuine purpose never fails.”

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