He is the man responsible for the growth of one of the most popular Digital agencies in India, Isobar, and a few months ago began leading one of India’s oldest ad agencies. In conversation with Neeta Nair, the CEO of Wunderman Thompson, South Asia, Shamsuddin Jasani talks about his vision for the network, the ongoing transformation, improving WT’s metal tally at big awards, bringing back Contract Advertising’s mojo and why despite all the technological push after the merger with Wunderman, he feels they are still a creative brand at heart.
Q] You switched from heading a purely digital agency, Isobar to one that is taking giant rides towards technology and digital after the merger with Wunderman. What is the biggest challenge for you here?
Isobar was a very young organization and it was very easy to mould things because it did not have a history. Wunderman Thompson, on the other hand, has a great ninety-year-old heritage. So now my greatest responsibility is to take this forward without changing a lot, and to make sure that people know that we are a creative brand at heart. We also want to adopt more technologies and commerce in future. Therefore, it’s all about finding the right balance between respecting our history and continuing to build on the amazing foundation that we have, and thereby take to the future.
Q] Three years ago, the placement of the word Wunderman before Thompson was called a big blow to the traditional agencies. And that too in a market like India where Wunderman didn’t really have a strong presence. Do you feel that brand Wunderman Thompson is resonating well with clients today?
It increasingly is. Wunderman Thompson has made a very big statement not just by changing its name, but also by bringing in someone like me with a digital background and thereby signalling what the future is. Globally, Wunderman Thompson is moving at a very fast pace towards a technology and commerce driven world. But in our part of the world, brand and brand experience also play a huge role. So, in the next two to three years my goal will be to accelerate the marriage of Wunderman Thompson.
Q] We want to believe that it’s not just a cosmetic change in the name and leadership. What has actually changed on the ground?
The transformation process that we are undergoing, is still on. We have always been the pioneer of advertising and were at the forefront for the past nine decades. That will continue without any change. But now digital has started playing a bigger role in Wunderman Thompson. We have integrated our acquired agency, Mirum to be able to leverage the digital and technological capabilities. Creativity will always be the bread and butter of Wunderman Thompson but our evolution will be to give solutions to clients on the entire customer journey and not just brand experience. The final conversion will come from commerce where we have a strong team. But we are always going to be a creative agency. The solutions in the CX and consumer experience space will always be delivered through creativity and great storytelling.
Q] So, you are not going to be like Dentsu, which is known for its digital expertise?
Around 70-80% of the ads on IPL 2021 were by digital first brands. But they still need to be able to create brands and have an agency which does that for them, even if they are primarily on the digital medium. So, it’s about how I can marry the amazing expertise in creating brands (which we have) with the digital expertise and the technical expertise that we get from MarTech capabilities. If you have one, but not the other, you cannot succeed. The clients also do not want to bifurcate those two. That’s really what makes Wunderman Thompson a differentiator globally as well as in India. And that’s where our future lies.
Q] What kind of specialist units are you going to launch this year?
By next month we’re going to launch a very competitive and a differentiated product, powered by digital, content and great brand experience in the health category. We will focus on combining design with experience design before end of the year. Mirum, which has a very large MarTech business, is going to power the entire Wunderman Thompson group strategy on MarTech. We will invest a lot on MarTech, and plan to hire at least 500 people for it by the end of next year. Wunderman Thompson commerce also is making great strides in India. And finally, what we are going to strive for is better creative products via awards, and being brave at the work that we do.
Q] Between 2017 and 2022, Wunderman Thompson has won one Bronze Lion at Cannes. And this is an agency which brought home India’s first Grand Prix for TOI in 2008. How do you go back to being that award winning agency?
We’ve done great work in the past and so far, this year too. It’s just about finding the time to push it. We will need to try harder than we are used to. So, while work has been flowing, I feel we’ve not had enough time to really put it forward because of the constant influx of work. Also, it will be about how do I use the new platforms and technology to drive creativity? That’s where I see a change and that will help us.
Q] Tell us about Wunderman Thompson’s revenue growth in the past year and the big accounts won?
We have done a good job in terms of the growth from 2020, can’t disclose the exact numbers though. Over the next three years, we want to double our size with regards to revenue and looking at the scale of Wunderman Thompson, that’s a very big ambition. Last year we won accounts like Vedanta, Dell, Skechers, Shell, Tata Pipes, Birla Estates, L&T Realty, CavinKare, Kotak Mahindra Private Limited etc. We’ve done well on new businesses in 2021. We are a nine-decade old agency, so we also have clients who’ve been with us since forever. We’re not just winning traditional and mainline businesses, but also digital which holds us in good stead.
Q] As per R3 new business league study, the revenue from new business wins in India has doubled in 2021, do you feel pandemic was the watershed moment for most clients to re-evaluate which agency they should be with in future, past bonds not withstanding?
Today clients are looking at an integrated approach. So, a lot of pitches are now integrated pitches. What’s driving them is that clients are not only re-evaluating the agencies but also re-evaluating how many partners they want. The larger clients want to consolidate and go with agencies that can deliver everything and therefore pick partners like us. Hence, pitch sizes have gone up as digital was never considered when the overall pitch was mentioned. Now I think it’s across mediums.
Q] What is the break-up of revenue between projects and retainers today at Wunderman Thompson?
We want to be able to do great work, be it through project or retainer. Finally, it’s about the relationship. Clients who have done projects with us year-on-year, have not changed agencies. They’ve been with us, but it’s still a project-based client, because that’s the way they operate. If they go with different agencies, they gain fresh thinking but may lose out on consistency. As far as our revenues are concerned retainer is a still a sizeable amount of the business. For an agency like ours, that’ll always be the case, because of the legacy business that we run. And it’s good because it allows us to invest a lot more in newer parts of the business and newer sides of the business.
Q] Contract was once the choicest of agencies for young guns in creative industry, but ad folks say it has lost its mojo along with some marquee two decade old accounts like Dominoes, what is your strategy to bring back its former spark?
Contract has always been the exciting, boutique kind of a brand that the clients always yearned for. And I think over the last couple of years, it has done very well. The Bata international win, for example where they are doing the entire global work for Bata out of India. Shoppers Stop has been with Contract for the longest time. So, I think the agency is getting its mojo back. We’re just waiting for this year and the next to really prove it.