“I am not gunning to be the number one agency, I am looking to be a good, respectable and profitable agency. We start with knowledge and the first thing I am doing is strengthening our knowledge resources. Because that, I believe is the starting point of our demonstration. We will look forward for integrated communication solutions. I think we are best with challenger brands and that is what I want to focus on.”
Chintamani Rao has seen both sides of the table in his 36 years of experience with the Indian advertising and media industry. He began his career with advertising agency networks such as Lintas (now Lowe), Ogilvy & Mather and McCann Worldgroup. He then moved to the other side of the table and joined the Indian news broadcasting side, where he worked with companies such as India TV and Times Global Broadcasting. It was not long before he returned to advertising side of the business, when he joined R K Swamy Group as the President of R K Swamy Media Group in 2010.
His role at McCann Worldgroup saw him work not only in the mainline advertising discipline but later also on the media services (Universal McCann), CRM (MRM Partners) and healthcare (McCann Healthcare) parts of the business. As CEO of India TV, he oversaw the channel’s growth to being one of the strongest players in the domain. He retired from The Times Group as Vice Chairman of Times Global Broadcasting and advisor to Times Private Treaties.
Back with the R K Swamy Media Group, Rao brings an overall perspective on some of the challenges facing the industry and what one can expect in days ahead. He speaks on some of these subjects in this conversation with Noor Fathima Warsia.
Q. When you were leaving the Times of India Group, Mid-2010, the general impression was that you are retiring but you announced your decision to join R K Swamy Media Group, bringing you back to media agency. What triggered this?
I had retired from Times, and that part was certain for me. But I was not ready to retire from work. At that time, Sunder (Swamy) and Shekhar (Swamy) offered me this role. I did not have anything particular in mind, as in, I had no preset ideas what I wanted to do afterwards, except that I was not physically or mentally ready to retire. When Sunder and Shekhar said they wanted me to come and work with R K Swamy Media Group it fell in place. After all, this is something that I have done before, it’s familiar territory, I know them very well. I left this company 30 years ago, so it was homecoming of sorts.
Q. 2010 was a tough year for Media Direction. A lot of businesses were leaving the company or were being pitched for. How was the situation handled?
It’s not just about 2010. From an industry viewpoint, times are going to be difficult for non-multinational agencies that are seeing change in relations with international partners and multinationals making way in India. Multinational businesses, which are used to global or regional alignment, will be lost and there is very little you can do about it. There are cases where you can add value to client’s business to the extent that the client values it so much that they are willing to go against alignment, which again is not always possible, since there are many layers to such decision making. The second thing in the media business is what I call ‘the perception of values’. Somehow, value has become about how cheap you can buy and that (cheap value) you can get only in big agencies. The logic seems to be that big agencies are about buying cheap. The bigger you are, the more you buy, the more you buy, the cheaper you buy, and so I go to bigger agencies, for I think I would get better rates. But that is not the right perception…
Q. But isn’t this the industry, where perception is reality?
Of course it is, but my point here is that it’s not true that larger agencies necessarily buy cheap. I have been there, I have seen it. Agencies give you the wrong advice simply because they are so focused on delivering something cheap, particularly because they pretty much don’t care what they buy as long as they buy cheap. I know of cases where planning is led by rates, and I will sell you what I can buy cheap, as long as I keep you impressed. Now, one may wonder how long this will last, but apparently it does last. So in the current scenario, I would be worried if my ambition was to be the number one agency, but it is not.
Q. The years 2009 and 2010 saw an unusually high amount of pitches in our country, and we have even seen big businesses moving. What do you think that led to this high-pitch mode?
I am not sure if I can comment on the motivation for these pitches. However, the period has most certainly seen a high number of very large pitches. I think in most cases, the business actually moved. The way I see it, there are two kinds of pitches that I simply know because of wrong reasons.
First is because the client system requires a two-three year-end review. Essentially, this kind of a situation means that after you have worked for the client for two to three years, you need to still justify why you are their partner. A team of four people would come and give you a parade, like you have never worked with them. Why do they do this? To be very specific, more often the reasons for this kind of pitches are due to low rates. And you could ask any media owner on what happens after that. Agencies make commitments in pitches and then hope media owners would help them in achieving this commitment. Why would media owners do that today; it does not make sense.
The second reason why pitches take place is because there are agencies that go sniffing around, saying they would buy cheaper, make big promises they may or may not be able to keep. But they keep on digging till they disturb stable relationships and get a pitch; both are terrible reasons for pitches.
Q. Coming back to Media Direction, or rather R K Swamy Media Group, what are the first things you thought you should take to stabilise business, from your staff point of view, given the changes that the agency had seen last year?
When I came in, much had already happened. I was not left with an underemployed staff. From here, it’s a matter of working in a competitive market and ensuring the fundamentals are in place, and we know why our offering is different versus our competition. As a part of R K Swamy group, we start with the knowledge that we don’t just go out and develop media plans, which I think a lot of agencies do. We start with knowledge of clients, business knowledge and knowledge of consumer media habits. We are a hardworking group.
The second thing, and I hate the expression since I think it’s a terrible cliché, is offering 360-degree. People toss around the term very easily these days but we are in a business of delivering our client’s messages to their consumers in the most effective way. Planning and buying is a part of the business but not the business itself. The third thing which I think is an outcome of all this is that we make budget look bigger than they are.
Q. Any recent work, you want to talk about that elucidates that?
One that comes to mind is something we did for Siemens. We have been winning international awards for our work with Siemens. Siemens addresses audiences as a corporate brand, and the company deals with audiences across a diverse range of industries. These relationships are very critical, because they are large in value and they are long relationships. For Siemens, we are not dealing with an ad, a tagline or a slogan. We are dealing with desired perceptions. We want our audiences to think of Siemens as leaders in technology. We approach our audiences in print, TV, online, on-ground, and we work with media partners to create content. There is different content with each partner, which is unique to that partner. So we coordinate with media partners to create specific content for Siemens. The content is useful to viewers and readers and everything is pointing ultimately to your perception of Siemens.
Raymond is another very valuable relationship that I am very proud of it. Take the brand of Rasna, which is up against the entire soft drink industries as its competition. The product form is different but it targets the same people. At least the soft-drinks major, target Rasna’s consumers. But Rasna holds its own without having the same resources. It’s growing consistently in the face of all competition. I like to believe that we have something to do with that. To an extent, we amplify the money and what they get out of what they spend is more than what they actually spend.
Q. And what are the challenges you are expecting?
Challenges are pretty much the same, I don’t see any fundamental market shift happening in 2011.The advertisement business has been growing surprisingly slow, I don’t know why and wonder if someone has the answer to that, and there definitely are no reasons to expect any jump next year. To expect challenges, it’s pretty much the same. The big agencies will do what they do, we will continue to lead with whatever our strengths are, like knowledge, all round thinking. We will continue to offer what we do, especially to challenger brands.