The timing could not be more apt. Two weeks ahead of Isobar India’s 10-year anniversary, the agency’s first team member and Managing Director, Shamsuddin Jasani, was handed the reins of the South Asia operations for Isobar. It is perhaps a testimony to Jasani’s leadership and the success of Isobar India as a full service digital agency over the last 10 years.
In 2008, when the entrepreneurial bug bit Jasani, a chance meeting with Ashish Bhasin, then Chairman India & CEO South East Asia, Aegis Media (the Dentsu deal happened in 2012, post which it was christened the Dentsu Aegis Network or DAN), led to the creation of Isobar India. Isobar was the first full-service digital agency that the erstwhile Aegis Media debuted in India, prior to going on an acquisition spree around 2012. By the end of 2008, Isobar India had six clients, one of which - Reebok - continues to be its client 10 years on.
The year 2008 was an interesting time to launch a digital agency. The global economic meltdown had just hit, and as a result advertisers had slashed TV budgets. With the limited ad monies they had to spare, advertisers experimented with digital. “This helped us push digital as a medium to advertisers. Since we were a full-service agency, we could offer much better ROI to clients in comparison to two separate agencies doing the same work,” says Jasani as he reflects on the early days of Isobar India.
ROADMAP FOR THE NEXT DECADE Digital marketing has come a long way since 2008. Marketers are not experimenting with digital anymore and instead are expecting better results and ROI on the money spent on digital. Digital is changing how business is done beyond just marketing communication. As Isobar enters the next decade in India, it is evolving into an agency that will aid business transformation.
“The first years of Isobar were about being a digital marketing agency. The future is about Isobar being an agency for the digital age,” says Jasani about the road ahead. “While digital marketing will be at the core of what we do, we want to work with clients on using digital to make a difference to their business.” Jasani says Isobar is already working with clients on aiding business transformation through digital.
e-commerce is also a big part of Isobar India’s next decade strategy. Earlier this year, Isobar introduced the commerce practice to India. “e-commerce is already bigger than the advertising industry. India is still a third-party e-commerce marketplace. But this is changing; brands will soon have their own e-commerce platforms,” he says. Through its commerce practice, Isobar will consult with brands and help them navigate the complex e-commerce ecosystem. “We strongly believe that the next wave of growth will be e-commerce,” Jasani adds.
Isobar seems to be taking on the role of a consultancy with its clients, so is this a reaction to threat from management consultancies? Jasani does not deny that management consultancies are entering into the business of agencies, but says that Isobar is not responding to that encroachment. He says Isobar’s objective is to not just consult and offer suggestions but execute the plan and deliver results. “If there is a business problem that can be solved using digital, we want to be front and center of that,” says Jasani. In fact, he identifies this as less of a reaction to a threat and more of the evolution of the agency. While as an agency Isobar may have to limit itself to the number of areas it can specialize in, it will acquire agencies to add capabilities, says Jasani. “Digital is very dynamic where new technologies are continuously emerging. We as an agency will decide on certain key technologies and platforms and build capabilities in those areas. For the rest, we will acquire agencies that are specialists in their domain.” Isobar acquired Fractal Ink Design Studio that specializes in UI/ UX in 2016.
ON TRENDS IN THE DIGITAL DOMAIN Talking about where ad monies are shifting, Jasani says that more brand safe avenues like overthe-top players will gain precedence. For example, he cites that YouTube’s biggest drawback is usergenerated content while OTT players like Hotstar have complete control over the content shared on the platform. Jasani does say that ad monies not supporting user-generated content defeats the democratic nature of the Internet. Therefore, he says, “User-generated content is a big part of the Internet. We just need a better way to manage content. It is a challenge, it is humanly impossible to vet everything, we need to do the best we can.” He hopes that in 3-4 years, AI will be able to weed out bad content without human intervention.
“Voice is going to be a game-changer,” declares Jasani. “It is not a fad. It is going to change the way human beings interact with things around them. It is not just an advertising phenomenon.” He says that as the use of voice increases, there will be a drop in screen time. “Soon, a large part of our investment will be going into creating capabilities around voice. We wish to be front and center of that change as well.”
SOUTH MARKET READY TO EXPLODE Over the last 10 years, Isobar India has expanded to three cities - Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai - and has more than 100 clients across India. Isobar has a keen focus on the South India market, a market Jasani believes was ignored for too long. The Bangalore office was launched in 2011 and in 2013, a 10-member Chennai office was set up. “Bangalore is where the new ideas and thoughts are germinating. So, the future is about working closely with the start-ups there on both the e-commerce and agency side of the business,” says Jasani. “We have just scratched the surface as far the South market goes. All the markets are waiting for the right kind of exposure. We are just not able to do it because we have too much on our plate right now!
Jasani believes that going forward, the South market with Bangalore as the hub is going to be very important for Isobar. “There is a lot of untapped potential that we can go after, both from the start-up ecosystem and traditional legacy companies which need to use digital,” he comments.
ISSUES THAT NEED TO BE ADDRESSED Jasani believes that the whole industry needs to start thinking digital: “Offline media agencies are thinking digital. But the mainline creative agency which is often the custodian of the brand does not still completely think digital.” It may be an unpopular opinion, but Jasani feels since mainline creative agencies are the ones to lead the account planning and the strategy, they too need to think digital. “Some are changing, but the change is not taking place at the pace that it needs to,” he observes.
Another point he makes is that though digital is extremely measureable, clients come back saying digital is not measurable because there is no common metric. “We (globally) need to work together to find a better and simple way to explain how a campaign works and compare across platforms,” Jasani says.
The lack of talent is one area that he wants addressed at the earliest. He believes that postgraduate programmes in Marketing must include a comprehensive course on digital marketing as part of the core syllabus.
TEAM WORK: ISOBAR’S TRUE STRENGTH Jasani says that Isobar India’s true strength lies in its people. “Over the last 10 years, my focus has been on building a great team and today, I can say with pride that ours is one of the best teams in the industry.” Jasani says the team’s efforts reflect in the awards that Isobar India has bagged, not just as an agency, but also for individual members of the agency. Jasani says he has followed Bhasin’s advice on team-building: “Don’t be afraid to hire people who are better than you.” Taking off from that piece of advice, Jasani is trying another approach. “I want to make myself redundant in the system,” he says. “I believe that teams need to be empowered and nurtured to be able to run for 20, 30, 40 years later when I am not around.” That, he says, should be the legacy a leader must leave behind.