Advertising Interviews

Sandeep Lakhina

COO - South Asia | 14 May 2010

While we are behind WPP, we do have full intention of moving ahead with speed. Our creative agencies have a good set of clients and the media agencies have been growing rapidly. So, in the next five years we will see the Publicis Group companies growing, but it will be a while before we catch up with WPP. To some extent, I agree that we have not been as media focused as we could have been, but we would like to change that very soon. The biggest client in India is with WPP for creative as well as media, so that tends to give them a lot of attention. We, however, intend to catch up soon.

Sandeep Lakhina is a management professional with over 18 years of rich cross-functional and global experience with leading companies in India and the US. He joined Starcom MediaVest Group in 2007 after moving back to India from the US, where he worked for eight years. As Chief Operating Officer for South Asia, Lakhina leads the Starcom team with a mandate to provide strong service delivery to clients, and grow the business in the region.

Previously, he had worked with The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta, leading global initiatives on strategy and operational effectiveness across the company and the bottling system. Prior to that, he was with Deloitte Consulting USA in their strategy and operations practice, working with Fortune 500 clients such as AT&T, Coors, JP Morgan Chase, JC Penny, K-Mart, Zales, and Blockbuster. He also consulted middle market clients during the dotcom boom era, helping develop their business plan and launch portals in the online retail and loyalty programme space. Immediately after moving back to India, Lakhina was part of the management team and heading the Indian operations of a UK-based digital marketing company.

Before moving to the USA in 2000, Lakhina had worked with Zenith Computers in sales, EuroRSCG Advertising in client servicing, and Ebony Retail, heading their marketing function. He started off in the early 90s, running his own company in the apparel trade space, after spending a year with Bajaj Electricals as a management trainee.

Lakhina is a double MBA from IMT Ghaziabad and the Cox School of Business, SMU, Dallas, Texas. He is a technology buff, with interests ranging from reading and movies to surfing and cricket. He is in the process of relocating to Mumbai.

In this interview with exchange4media’s Khushboo Tanna, Lakhina speaks about Starcom’s journey in India, growth plans and the future focus on digital media.

Q. How was the year 2009 for Starcom?

Just like globally, 2009 was a challenging year for Starcom as well. We saw a hit in some sectors such as aviation and financial services, where we have clients, but we also saw a rise in some sectors such as FMCG and consumer durables. While one client stopped spending, the others increased their spends and so it was a mixed bag. Overall, we came out reasonable well. We grew a little, but not like we are used to growing in double digits. It was a little hard on the people management side as this was a year where we could not give promotions. However, people understood that this phenomenon was across industries and across the globe. We did not have any layoffs as we follow the people first approach with the companies in our group. We did not do salary cuts at most levels, only the top management took a small cut.

Q. Has your key responsibility changed with the introduction of Vector?

No, Vector is our OOH arm and is a second brand for the OOH sector, while I look after the mainstream media. When the OOH industry bounced back in the second half of 2009, it bounced back pretty big. We always wanted to launch a second OOH arm and this was supposed to be launched in 2008, had it not been for the downturn.

Q. How has the response been for the course on Integrated Marketing Communications that was launched by SMV in association with KJ Somaiya Institute?

It is an 11-month residential programme that offers a very unique experience, which gives students a fully well rounded approach. We are setting up a laboratory in our office, wherein they can access data and global case studies from here. One interesting aspect of this course is that each student will spend one week with the consumer and stay at the consumer’s house for a week. We are going to identify households across the country and we are sure we will find households that will be open to this idea. This course will train them in all aspects of marketing.

Q. Starcom seems to be focusing a lot on education and campus activities. Is there a short term plan to launch an arm focusing exclusively on education?

There is a requirement for that in the industry. The talent that comes out will go to companies like us and we are hoping that other companies will do so as well. What we believe is that the more we train youngsters and young minds, the more they will be able to appreciate IMG. We have a very strong connect with students. We are the only media company that has been hiring interns from management schools. But we don’t intend to launch a separate education arm.

Q. Globally, the Publicis group is very strong – both in media as well as advertising. Whereas in India, the WPP group is more recognised. Is it because that the group is a little media shy?

It is because of a couple of reasons. The first one being that the WPP companies have been in India for a much longer time, so they have the first mover advantage and that has given them that scale and size. Having said that, while we are behind WPP, we do have full intention of moving ahead with speed. Our creative agencies have a good set of clients and the media agencies have been growing rapidly. So, in the next five years we will see the Publicis Group companies growing, but it will be a while before we catch up with WPP. To some extent, I agree that we have not been as media focused as we could have been, but we would like to change that very soon. The biggest client in India is with WPP for creative as well as media, so that tends to give them a lot of attention. We, however, intend to catch up soon.

Q. What is your vision for Starcom for the next five years? Where do you want to see Starcom in the next five years?

We have been on a growth path and we want to continue with growing our key and diversified businesses. We launched a lot of businesses such as entertainment and OOH in the past five years, and in the next five years, we want these businesses to reach their full scale. We also want to very aggressively look at digital. We feel that digital will be a game changer in the next five years and we will look after organic growth and acquisitions as well.

Q. Do you think mobile marketing and digital marketing will pick up in a fragmented market like India?

The ground reality is that there has to be path breaking thought in terms of consumer knowledge. The consumer is spending a lot of time online, we are seeing a shift in the way Internet and mobile is used by consumers and the penetration of this media in the Tier II and Tier III cities. I don’t think we have reached critical mass as far as online marketing is concerned. Mobiles, while they have reached critical mass in the number of handsets and the amount of active connections, a huge number of mobiles are used for voice and SMS. That is where the game has to change. A faster adoption of a service like 3G would help to change this segment. The low cost of the handset will drive the growth of 3G in the country. There is also a need to have a sharper understanding of how the consumer uses the mobile phone. From the consumer side, it will be the ability, the willingness and the knowledge to be able to use his mobile phone to its full potential. Indian consumers are used to free content and it is unlikely that they will pay for content on mobile phones. But they are ready to pay a small amount to better their mobile using experience.

Q. Do clients prefer to work with a digital arm in a media agency or are they more comfortable with a small independent digital shop?

Consumers do not view the final product as digital versus non-digital. For the consumer, the entire communication must be seamless and should have one core thought. So, in the long run, I feel it is better to have an in-house digital team.

Q. How does Starcom measure its success? Do you compare the numbers year on year or is the number of awards you win in a year a measure of your success?

We measure our success based on certain parameters. The first is client success and what role we are playing to make the brand a success. The second measure is our people and the third is our numbers. All three factors determine our success. We have internal global awards and they motivate our people to do work that is creative and out of the box.

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