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BY Beryl Menezes

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Today, the advertising and marketing industry is a microcosm of the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, thanks to the prevailing economic environment. VUCA has now become par for the course as marketers and their agency partners grapple to find the best way forward in the rapidly evolving consumer landscape. So what are some of the key things that have changed in the industry, more specifically, in the media agency business?
Consumers today are present across multiple platforms and devices, the smartphone boom and Jio wave adding tremendously to this. This makes choosing the marketing mix even more complex. Secondly, while everyone is embracing Digital, dealing with Big Data is ambiguous and simplifying data insights, even more so. Thirdly, despite mining data, proper planning and choosing platforms targeting a specific consumer set, business outcome and ROI measurement is often uncertain. And fourthly, dealing with a volatile economic scenario means having to anticipate challenges and remain prepared for dynamic changes, which means centralised or mass media buying may not always be the right approach today. What then is the solution to tackle this in the most effective way possible, while keeping an eye on growth opportunities?

While most media agencies agree that there is a need to reinvent and go beyond the traditional planning and buying model to meet the dynamic requirements today, finding the right strategy for this execution is key.
A key aspect in the transitioning journey from a traditional media agency model to a modern one is keeping Digital at the centre of all operations. While most agencies today have embraced digital transformation and claim to use Big Data, analytics and more, they struggle with how to handle the data to present effective business outcome measurement to brands.
“As the country gets more and more digitized, consumers are leaving behind a huge digital footprint. Now, media agencies have to learn how to best use this, by developing abilities to understand Big Data and MarTech. For marketers, data needs to be simplified and presented in a manner which they can use for the digital market, with programmatic built into it. The lack of presenting this data in an effective manner to clients is what is leading them to state that the ability to use data by most agencies is abysmally poor, especially in terms of search and performance,” says Ashish Bhasin, CEO APAC and Chairman India, Dentsu Aegis Network, adding that almost half of the network’s business is from Digital today and the company has put significant efforts into building its digital, research, search and performance and MarTech capabilities, be it through DAN Data Labs, Sokrati or the One DAN solution.
Adds Priti Murthy, CEO, OMD India, “Today, it’s more about real-time, business KPI-driven and more nimble, agile processes. A lot has to do with how digital has transformed targeting, and the need for brands to react to all the changes with better decisions, faster.” So while Omnicom’s Omni platform helps fuel greater custom audience understanding and stronger delivery on clients’ KPIs, OMD Design, an end-to-end planning process, leverages data dynamism to create more meaningful brand-consumer connections.
While multi-national networks such as GroupM have proven digital might and top market-share, the home-grown Madison Media has moved to up MarTech capabilities; launching new initiatives such as data insights platform Datask and integrated planning approach TV Plus to transform the agency’s digital capability.
As building this digitally-driven scale and agility is a key component of developing effective business strategies, hiring the right talent is crucial.

Talent is needed to use technology in a much more efficient manner. However, given that media agencies work on such low margins today, they are unable to match the quality requirement in terms of talent, which calls for a lot more investment, believes Raj Nayak, Founder, House of Cheer. According to him, disruption doesn’t necessarily mean thinking out of the box but just thinking about how to do the same things differently, where having the right talent makes a difference.
“The ability for an agency to attract talent and then hone that talent to deliver on client expectations will solve a number of issues,” says Shashi Sinha, CEO, IPG Mediabrands.
And while there is a constant debate on the young versus old mindset within the agency, it is as important for the older people in the agency to learn from the young, digitally-savvy employees, as it is for the youngsters to learn vital aspects of brand strategy from seniors. Thus, learning and unlearning and having a start-up-like mindset even in a large organisation, can also aid in quicker reskilling that is needed in this Digital age.

The changed media and consumer ecosystem also calls for removal of silos. Says Mohit Joshi, MD-India, Havas Media Group, citing the example of Havas Village which has united its Creative, Digital and Media under one umbrella, “Agencies have to be more integrated in their approach, given that content creation falls in the domain of both media and creative agencies today. Being ROI-driven and leveraging data and analytics to ascertain impact on a brand’s KPIs is also critical.”
In PHD’s recently released book Overthrow II, where challenger brand strategies in the current era are examined, what stands out is that brands today seem to be less interested in efficiency metrics like media pricing, campaign ROI, and AI/ML enabled data solutions and are instead keener on creating disproportionate attention, leading to disproportionate brand score and share of mind and a disproportionate share of market. Elaborating on this, Jyoti Kumar Bansal, CEO, PHD Media India tells us, “Clients expect us to deliver a complete solution anchored in multiple platforms, some of which may not traditionally have been the forte of the media agency, including data, technology and content-led interventions. The conversation thus has to move from eficient media solutions to effective media solutions that deliver to real business objectives of clients. This becomes especially more important with in-house solution-sourcing by clients.”
Thus, a more collaborative approach between different agency teams to present marketers with a seamless, end-to-end strategy to execution solution encompassing all media touch-points is key, rather than specialists working in silos and adding to the overall cost for the expertise they offer individually. “At MediaCom we are already moving away from silos and have integrated teams across clients. Clients appreciate this and know we are able to effectively deliver media neutral solutions. Working in silos, teams have their billing and revenue agendas to push and at times brand needs can get compromised,” explains Navin Khemka, CEO, MediaCom South Asia.

Pricing is yet another hurdle which needs to be tackled diligently. While the pain of pitch discounts seem to have comparatively reduced thanks to the efforts of the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), the ROI measurement conversation between media agencies and marketers still needs to go beyond numbers to a more value-add business outcome conversation.
“We need to reposition ourselves in our clients’ minds as being able to go beyond gross rating point (GRPs), rates, cost per rating point (CPRP), reach and frequency to deliver value in terms of business results. There is no other business that I am aware of which offers the advertiser so much value in return for so little,” remarks Sam Balsara, Chairman, Madison World.
The other aspect to the price conversation is marketers themselves trying to see how best they can target consumers without sizeable marketing spends, looking for effectiveness and innovation within the chosen mediums, instead of buying it all.
“The conversation is not as linear as it used to be earlier. Companies are reinventing their ways of working to make sure that they are relevant in this day and age, and across the board the conversation has changed from how we can get clients to spend more to how can we get them to sell more, be more succesful. As agency partners, we are here to drive business for our clients. As long as we can do that, whether it is by using tools or talent more effectively, or by decoding the data and the consumer footprint much better, if we can make a case to the marketer that our solutions will drive business better than yesterday, then we will be successful,” believes Amin Lakhani, COO, South Asia, Mindshare.

Chairman, Madison World

“We need to reposition ourselves in our clients’ minds as being able to go beyond gross rating point (GRPs), rates, cost per rating point (CPRP), reach and frequency to deliver value in terms of business results. There is no other business that I am aware of which offers the advertiser so much value in return for so little.”

“The short answer to winning client business is with ideas and analytics. If you give them great ideas, they will buy them. If you give them reasons to spend, they will spend it. The bottom line is, effectiveness has to become more important than efficiency. The efficiency story is easier to tell. The effectiveness story is a little bit more difficult to understand and we will have to get better at this,” says Vikram Sakhuja, Group CEO, Madison Media & OOH.
Providing more ‘effective’, value-oriented solutions can also aid agencies in pushing for the move from fee-based compensation to commission-based compensation linked to business outcomes. After all, communication is all about building brands and that goes beyond price to the value add an agency can provide, says Sinha.
Elaborating on the importance of brand-building in the media planning space, Ambi M G Parameswaran, Brand Strategist and Founder, Brand-Building.com says, “Indian media agencies have managed to transition into a stronger position with respect to clients by embracing digital and data at the core of their offering. Unfortunately the typical digital agency knows very little about brand building - they focus on performance marketing- while the traditional mainline agency knows branding work but does not understand digital/performance marketing. Media agencies, on the other hand, can straddle the two and figure out what will work where. Media agencies have invested significant money in understanding the numbers. Now, they may want to invest in the qualitative aspects of consumer behaviour, or what the traditional account planning function used to do in mainline agencies.”
That said, moving sales numbers beyond message amplification is also important, feels Pradeep Dwivedi, Founder & CEO, Divitiae. “Marketers today require end-to-end tracking and measurability of the impact of the investments that they are making. The problem is that in the traditional model, a lot of agencies have been promising brand scores which are not always certifiable. Brand scores are seen as fuzzy, and not a very clearly defined metric. What marketers are really looking for and what they themselves are being measured on, is the ability to move sales numbers. So, the focus for marketers is also shifting from just building a brand and amplifying a brand message, to actually moving the sales and the business revenue numbers,” he says.

With newer challenges and conversations around investment, data technology, data science, analytics and the core competency areas for agencies, a standard industry measurement system will also aid in the agency-brand relationship, given that today most agencies have their own individual measurement systems or provide data to clients based on an average of a number of research reports which may not always be accurate. “The entire advertising fraternity needs to be aligned to the fact that we need third party measurement as this is the only way for our industry to mature and to bring order in the midst of the prevailing chaos,” says Anupriya Acharya, CEO India, Publicis Media.
Meanwhile, adding consultancy expertise has now become more important than ever, given the threat of consultancy firms entering the media agency space, armed as they are with data insights which are often offered at a lower cost to marketers than the media agency rate, which includes the planning and buying function.
“The challenge lies in our compensation models with our clients versus consulting firms. That’s where we need to bring the difference to influence our margins. We at Vizeum India are extremely conscious of that; hence our compensation models are linked with the client’s business success,” remarks Himanka Das, CEO, Vizeum India.
“This is the biggest opportunity for agencies. Consulting firms are very poor on the last mile, which is the actual implementation. In India, clients don’t pay money for PowerPoint presentations. They pay money for the actual execution. Agencies in general are very good at execution, but often don’t have that strategic consultancy offering. Rather than wait for them to come in and eat our lunch, we have to go one step ahead as it’s much easier for us, who have the implementation capabilities, to build consulting capabilities than for them to come downstream and build execution capabilities. For this very reason, we set up DAN Consult. If media agencies are able to build consulting capabilities, it will also improve their margins and profitability. However, this requires huge investment in building the right capabilities and talent, because the consulting ecosystem is very different,” avers Bhasin.


Increasing competition for the consumer’s eyeballs, pressure to reach them through non-conventional advertising, confusion over which medium is most effective and continuous pressure of marketing budget cuts are challenges which most marketers face today. To navigate these troubled waters, their ask is for media agency partners to guide them as best they can to reach their target audience with measurable business outcomes.
According to Ajay Kakar, CMO, Aditya Birla Capital Limited, “With the change in the range of media, what we need from media agencies is a holistic perspective and a strategy of how to reach our target audience with our product proposition. Therefore, it is not just about typical media planning, buying, attribution and evaluation, but viewing this in the context of a very fast changing world and being able to keep the client informed about the trends, the category he operates in, competition and global learnings, to prepare them for choosing the right media strategy.”
Sunita Bangard, President Marketing, Vodafone Idea Limited echoes this. “One of the most important things for media agencies now is to understand the business needs and which mediums are really effective to cater to those needs, instead of trying to get the client to spend more. Moreover, the combination of media, client and creative working together as a cohort rather than each one working in a silo will help in achieving the business objective better.”
Talking about how attention gathering is now a science and how advertising on different platforms in a synchronized manner helps in sharper consumer targeting, Mohit Kapoor, Vice President, Advertising and Strategy, Jio says, “Today the challenge is a more complex and media plans are also equally complex. So, it’s basically a combination of what happens offline, online and on the traditional mediums. This synchronization of messaging to a consumer is when the impact starts to kick in. This is a great opportunity for agencies who can put in just the right plans in the right combination of media to deliver the right results.”
Helping to simplify the fragmented customer landscape with tools to help marketers get the message out to customers in an impactful, memorable way to aid in building the brand, be it by using programmatic, social media or identifying the right kind of content which can be ignited through media is the need of the hour, says Charles Frump, Managing Director India, Volvo Cars.
Understanding digital in the context of a brand’s business needs is another issue which remains largely unfulfilled for marketers today, as a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t suit every business.
“One of the key areas of development for media agencies is in the space of digital marketing.


“Traditional media agencies still have to improve their Digital understanding. That’s where there is a lot of scope to really push the lever. For example, most of the media agencies think from TV perspective, whereas a majority of screen time is on Digital, and the approach to both is very different.”

Here too, like TV, choices need to be made. OTT plays a significant role as an add-on to television. Social media is seen to be important for most marketers. However, marketers too need to realise that for this to be effective, the same one-way-format vanilla advertising meant for TV is sub-optimal here. More importantly, there is a need to understand that Digital is a two-way-street and this requires a different kind of skillset to take advantage of it effectively. Media planners, besides plan planning and media buying, need to understand this aspect as well and therefore push back eager clients on the basis of this learning and ensure their money is not wasted,” explains Gurpreet Singh, Divisional Vice President, Marketing, UBL.
Says Ravi Santhanam, CMO, HDFC Bank, “Traditional media agencies still have to improve their Digital understanding. That’s where there is a lot of scope to really push the lever. For example, most of the media agencies think from TV perspective, whereas a majority of screen time is on Digital, and the approach to both is very different.”
Sharper targeting, identifying business objectives to compliment brand KPIs with creative ideas for disruptive solutions, beyond the brief is yet another expectation of marketers from their media agencies.
“It is still ultimately about the power of an idea. That fundamental role of agencies has not changed and we always look for media agencies that can provide ideas with breakthrough impact for the brand, which is more important than efficiency,” shares Sudhir Sitapati, Executive Director, Foods & Refreshment, Hindustan Unilever.
“Media agencies need to partner clients in co-creating objectives rather than making media plans on the objectives given. This includes understanding the life of the target audience (rather than just media habits) and then identifying hooks/moments that matter. They also need to demonstrate more ownership on the brands that they work for, including results of the campaign and benefit to the business. It is also critical to identify objectives and clear KPIs after the campaign is finalized and start measuring early into the campaign to ensure corrective actions if required can be taken,” explains Kedar Apte, Vice President - Marketing, Castrol India.
Indeed, using data expertise to aid with problem-solving and alternative solutions that will drive engagement with an emphasis on long-term customer value rather than short burst campaigns is what Mansoor Ali, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Hamdard India believes is necessary, together with top-class strategic planning, volume-driven work and consumer insights.
Poulomi Roy, Chief Marketing Officer, RSH Global, says, “A large section of agencies today work on buying first and planning later. While bulk or centralised buying and distribution works well for bigger brands, smaller clients suffer in the process and thus a customised approach is preferable.”
Talking about how media agencies need to be flexible and have the speed and agility to work across platforms in order to keep up with changing customer demands, Ramesh Kalyanaraman, Executive Director, Kalyan Jewellers says, “In today’s fast evolving market scenario, agency partners need to be up to the challenge of maintaining consistent messaging while reaching broad audiences in different markets across the country and addressing specific consumer tastes and needs in every market. Timing is the most critical component and the competition is always looking out to capitalise on missed opportunities.” He continues, “For a global brand like ours, it is imperative that we not only reach out to our wide range of audiences, but go deeply into each region’s social fabric. The agency’s role is to help us achieve this quickly and effectively.”
Reaching the millennial customer also requires astute media planning and projections to effectively tap them and this is imperative because of the substantially large young population who will control the economy for the next 30 years, says Muraleedharan P, Regional Manager, Marketing, LIC.

Vice President -Marketing, Castrol India

“Media agencies need to partner clients in co-creating objectives rather than making media plans on the objectives given. This includes understanding the life of the target audience (rather than just media habits) and then identifying hooks/moments that matter.”

Executive Director, Kalyan Jewellers

“In today’s fast evolving market scenario, agency partners need to be up to the challenge of maintaining consistent messaging while reaching broad audiences in different markets and addressing specific consumer tastes and needs in every market.”

Discussing the role of sharper targeting and ROI measurement, Lloyd Mathias, Angel Investor and Marketing & Business Strategist says, “Sharper targeting and understanding how programmatic can actually make the whole buying process more efficient and yet deliver on the objective is what marketers today look for, especially given the number of mediums available today. The other thing which has always been a challenge is how agencies can help measure marketing ROI. For every rupee you spend, what is the kind of return you are getting either in terms of any of your brand metrics or in terms of business metrics. That needs a lot more solidifying.”
On how media agencies today need to go beyond the cost discussion, hire better talent and help build the overall brand architecture, Amit Tiwari, Vice President, Marketing Communications, Havells India Limited says, “Today the challenge from a media agency perspective is that in the hurry to do a lot of things and trying to cope with the required marketer needs, basic fundamentals are being forgotten. The quality of servicing people from the media agencies really needs to be relooked at today. Most of the time, they don’t know that what the expectations of the client are and what is the due diligence of the media agency. Today everything boils down to rate or cost discussion. That’s a huge shift in terms of the media agencies, from providing strategy thought leadership earlier, which is actually what marketers look for.”
Summing it all up, Preeti Reddy, CEO, South Asia, Kantar says, “Agencies may need to be more flexible in the way they service clients, as it’s a tough environment for everyone. Besides, the market has multiple boutique agencies which may be more agile and faster in their client servicing ability. So agencies need to be clear in their offerings, rather than trying to offer everything and not getting it right.”

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