Advertising Interviews

R Gowthaman

Leader | 21 Jan 2011

For clients, apart from media agencies, there are at least 150 other companies in the marketplace that can offer an array of solutions -- web, tracking, search and so on. There are many stakeholders who approach clients -- ours and competition’s. This is a challenge because it means marketing managers have more than their own agencies, to discuss communication problems today. We believe if we are able to understand digital domain well and start giving clients due recommendations, we can earn our respect back from where we are today.

R Gowthaman, aka G’Man, is on the Asia Pacific EXCO of Mindshare, leading the Mindshare business across India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In this role, his focus is on transforming Mindshare from primarily being a media planning/ buying agency, to a provider of integrated marketing solutions, with capabilities and products in the marketing analytics, strategic marketing consultancy, content development, digital marketing, channel planning and buying for traditional channels like TV, print, etc., as well as emerging channels in experiential, retail, out-of-home, mobile, etc.

An alumnus from BITS, Pilani, G’Man has more than 20 years of experience in the Communication Channel Management Service, with experience across multiple categories from FMCG, Durables, Automobiles, Liquor, Tobacco, Financial services, Airlines and Banks. He had launched the Six Sigma/ Lean process improvement training for the employees in Mindshare Fulcrum – only unit in the industry to do so. He is also in the board of Media Research Users Council. He plays a key role in industry initiatives, improving measurement metrics, particularly of emerging media.

In conversation with Noor Fathima Warsia, G’Man shares Mindshares plans for 2011, the key focus areas, growing the talent pool in the industry, leveraging digital more efficiently, and more...

Q. Let us begin with how 2010 has been for Mindshare?

2010 has been a very good year for us for many reasons. It was the year when the new Mindshare philosophy came fully in place, which meant we completely moved away from General Managers to Client Leaders across 14 clusters. The discipline leads on business planning, digital, content, and for the first time, instead of just trading, we have moved into the exchange concept of tactical planning supremacy. That new thought process fell in place in 2010 in a good way. Two things happened because of that --- business grew, and for us the growth in business is only through additional value-added services because we have virtually clients across every category. And it is important to note that more than half of our business is from fee-based clients. Our growth is not going to come because the client is spending more.

Q. What is the fee-based and commission-based ratio for Mindshare?

65-70 per cent is fee-based clients for us. Hence, growth came predominantly from sources where we gave clients good analytical solutions, digital solutions, content solutions and so on. 2010 was also the year where we have won every single industry award there was -- we won Emvies, digital awards; Mindshare India won awards in the regional and global level. We managed something that would be very difficult to repeat. That way, it has been a good year -- we cannot complain.

The other thing that I was happy about was that we did not lose talent. We had some chinks in our armour, especially in the Southern market, in Chennai. Chennai was a market with 60 clients, long-tail clients in a way, and we could not service some of them, and lost them to our competitors. But we made up by winning new business over there, so net business wins was more than Rs 250 crores. If I add up in terms of overall billings, the incremental billing should be placed in the region of Rs 250-300 crores. And if I go by the figures, Mindshare should have billed Rs 3800 crores, as an AdEx share. As I said, we can’t complain at all.

Q. And what plans for 2011?

For all practical purposes, the plan for 2011 is three-fold. We believe we have yet not become the absolute trusted advisors to clients. I would not say that each of the 14-client clusters we have, is doing a perfect job. Some of them are doing an excellent job, but there is still a lot to do to plug the gap. Our focus is to ensure that all the 14-client clusters have fires in all cylinders, in all forms. Just by growing each of our clusters, our estimation is that we should be able to grow by 20 per cent. Clearly our game plan is to delight the clients as much as we can, and ensure we provide full value-added services for as many client clusters as possible. That’s the first part.

The second is how to move out of being just transactional, even within tactical planning, to thinking. We will be reaching 550 channels in the country and the long-tail is becoming longer for planners. In the last five years of a planner’s life, for just a 1000-GRP plan, 1500 to 2000 spots are required. It’s humanly not possible. When I was a planner, I could have made a plan with 350 spots. I could remember half the spots, I could construct the plan and have a view of the plan. This transactional time is being spent disproportionately, and we want to address this in a significant way. This can be done either through automation or finding a way in which the planner’s life is made better by giving him the ability to control the impact of the plan in some form online, like managing the campaign in real time, giving him some software and tools that helps him to do half his job in an automated fashion. In short, to dislodge as much of time from the transactional side, as possible, to the thinking side.

Now, even if we managed that, the second stress is people. We don’t have adequate talent in the market, and I personally believe that we are going around chasing our own tail. Some companies pay double the salary to people, without really knowing if it is worth it, and we see the same set of people changing agencies again and again. Our thought process on that is Mindshare alone, with a headcount of 500, can do something about where we draw new talent from. It could be from other streams of business such as marketing, broadcasters, IT companies or BPOs. We really want to bring in at least 10 per cent of talent from another industry into this stream of business.

Q. But they too can move between agencies like others in the industry today?

I agree. Within one or two years of time, some will go to another agency but that is fine. I need them today, so we will actively work on getting diverse talent in this industry. At a senior level, people should look at the industry from a job enrichment perspective. Right now, many from media agency background have gone into many other industries, clients, broadcasters – I think Fulcrum and Mindshare have significantly contributed to the entire ecosystem of procurement managers today. But none of them have gone from procurement to marketing and branding – the truth is that we have not created a talent stream that can think marketing. Whoever, leaves this industry goes to the other side to do the same job. So that is an area we want to address and bring in fresh talent.

The third area of focus is digital. As an industry, with due respect to clients and agencies – us and others - we have not cracked what has to be done in this space. This is for two reasons -- even before we said display, we had social, mobile and search in the picture. Even before we could think mobile, we are already getting into smart phones. Everyone wants to be in digital but they don’t know what to do in digital.

For clients, apart from media agencies, there are at least 150 other companies in the marketplace that can offer an array of solutions -- web, tracking, search and so on. There are many stakeholders who approach clients -- ours and our competitors’. This is a challenge because it means marketing managers have more than their own agencies, to discuss communication problems with. We believe if we are able to understand the digital domain well and start giving clients due recommendations, we can earn our respect back.

Q. But how do you propose to plug that gap?

There are three to four things we can do. We are committed and we have actively pushed the agenda of acquiring web ratings. I also believe just IRS, NRS and TAM are not enough for this industry to push the agenda beyond the transactional media management. We might have to invest in category-specific, client-specific, product-specific, incremental, top-up research programmes to provide answers to some of these questions. In the digital space, we are working on creating a set of specialists, across display, search, social and mobile. Mindshare, at present, has roughly 50-65 people in the digital space. For 14 clusters, they are not enough - we should have at least 100 people in this space. Do we have 100 people in the marketplace? No. The option is to train people to get into the space and talk the digital language.

We have created our own digital day-outs, boot-camps and online digital learning programmes. Any employee can log on to the site and answer a set of questions. If he cannot find an answer, he has a mentor who can give the answers. He has to pass a test to be a digital planner - that online module is ready now.

Q. That’s just for Mindshare?

It can be made available to GroupM, because it’s the software that we have built. And there would two-three day outs, which we would do in the year, where we can invite clients to participate. Digital is a marketing channel and not a communication channel -- it’s not going to replace the 100 GRP nor replace HT or TOI. Unless and until there is a complete client buy-in on the role, digital is going to play in the entire marketing scheme of things, which means that our team members here should talk the marketing language, he just can’t go and say I will give you a media plan, then you have lost the plot.

Today, I ask people when it is easy to choose between Star and Zee, why can’t they choose between Google and Yahoo. After a while, that part is understood but the challenge with the digital companies such as these is that they are more than just GRPs, impressions and clicks, since they can do more in the marketing space from a client’s perspective. If that is not capitalised and captured, there is still a problem, which is why I hope at some point in time, the Client Leadership I will have is a bunch of marketers.

The client leadership team across 14 clusters are now getting trained to talk the marketing language. The people below are getting trained in the domain expertise. 2011 is very busy.

Q. You have been speaking on this move to marketing for over a year now, and one would assume that you have been successful with some clients at least...

Yes, that is right. But different clients have different ways of looking at agencies, and getting everyone on the same plane is not going to be easy. We are taking cluster by cluster for that. No one would have the bandwidth to do this for all 14 clusters. The core team, the Mindshare Executive Council that is, will focus on engaging with clients and making them understand our offering and the metric of measurement. Our objective is, when there is a marketing problem, clients should call us first. That is happening today, and I have no doubt that one day it would be true for all clients -- not only in Mindshare but in our competition as well -- but the trick is in sustaining it.

We are speaking of offering some very complex services that needs a certain kind of expertise. The core team understands that but the emphasis has to be on creating an adequate system, where more can do the same job. The client should be able to relate to, and appreciate the person, who is adding this value. Remember this is value-added, it is over and above the basic job that these media agency professionals are expected to do. So when I said trusted advisors, it was not about whether client trusts us or not. The relationships all of us have had with most of the clients are long enough to have built trust. But it’s about training people and creating a strong second line, who can do an equally good job of delighting the client. And even after all this, if the client would call us, the creative agency or somebody else and then will take a considered view -- that’s his business. But as long as we are there, I am fine. After that, it’s about execution.

Q. Unlike other services, media service brands have to deal with procurement. When you have that kind of a relation on the one side, how difficult is it to be a partner on the other side?

From a media service brand perspective, the Client Service Leader, through his team, should be able to manage the procurement person on the client side and the marketing person as well. This Client Leader will have to manage both, and the agency and the multiple stakeholders - that’s the future. If you look at our own structure, for large structures, you take Team Unilever, Team PepsiCo or Team ABG, the Client Leader will have one dedicated resource who addresses all procurement concerns and another team which addresses marketing. And it is her/his job to ensure that the procurement needs, the marketing needs and the research needs are matched. That’s the need of this business. And that’s the requirement for us to survive.

Q. In fact, Mindshare had lost some of its business to competition last year. Did the loss pinch at any point?

Every loss hurts. We are not arrogant to say it does not matter. There are things to learn, and we will not take any single business loss lightly. We will do everything to get it back. That’s the way life is.

Q. So the advent of competition at some level has impacted the market.

Yes. I will go back to my point of bandwidth. It is all a question of how often the person, say in the Chennai office, can go to the same client to service them. Even if you go six times as against 12 you went the previous year, and somebody else says I can come all 12 times, you lost the business. This can be addressed only if the volume of transaction can be made better, and the time spent is more productive than just being transactional. I won’t say the competition has impacted us or hurt us. Last year was the year of pitches -- we were probably the only ones who lived the year without losing any big businesses.

Q. Though Unilever decided to park its digital with Omnicom - did that hurt?

It did. For an agency that has put digital at the central scheme of things, that services digital for everybody else, it hurt. But we have taken it in our stride because it is a decision they have taken and we respect that.

Q. You mentioned about the talent merry-go-round in the industry? What are you doing as an industry entity to create a talent pool?

Sadly, nothing. That’s probably because none of us have the time. I can’t think of any other reason. From an industry viewpoint, we are unified. As a fraternity, we are close to each other on issues, but when it comes to talent we are awfully off the agenda. Primarily because when it comes to that, we poach from each other. In every other forum, we are all together, taking decisions for collective good. But in talent, we cannot -- there is such scarcity.

Q. But you could also do what HT and TOI did at one point when they signed the no-poach contract...

Strangely, our industry is too small for that. If you count, you won’t have more than 2500 people at best.

Q. On another note, there was a time, GroupM was quick to shuffle its senior management. But now, it has been a while since something like that happened...

I don’t think that is a question I can answer...

Q. ...But how come someone like you would not even consider options like we saw recently at Starcom Worldwide – what would be the next big thing for you then?

As I have been telling you already, there is much to do here. 2011 is going to be a very busy year for us!

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