Rana Barua, CEO, Contract Advertising and Prashanth Challapalli, Sr. Vice President & Digital Head, iContract at Contract Advertising, talk about the challenges of building a genuine digital agency iContract which they define as ‘a digital agency with an analog heart’.
With a client list that includes Wills Lifestyle, Sony Music (6 brands), Star Network (6 brands), VIP Industries, Shoppers Stop, Asian Paints, HSBC, Sugar Free, UTI Mutual Fund, Barua and Challapalli share the roadmap for future growth.
What was the mandate given to Prashanth for iContract that was relatively unknown? This was also at the same time that you were setting the pace for Contract Advertising, how did you strike the balance between the two ?
Rana Barua: The biggest mandate given to him was build a digital culture, which is genuine, which is good, truly digital and not just one line extension you are building out of Contract. Contract is known to be a creative agency. Like you said this was while we were rebuilding Contract and trying to get its vision back, so we were very clear that if we are also going to build digital then let’s be true about digital. Each reputation can build on to each other or destroy each other. While you have a strong creative reputation it should also have a positive rub-off and build digital and vice versa.
The other choice would have been let’s create it after 12 months, because it is such a big thing to put into place, but the challenge was to build it parallely. Today both the teams sit together and ideas are getting all intermingled. Our entire global mandate in digital is to integrate, for us the beauty is that we have already been working like that.
We have seen the small things make a huge difference with clients where we are getting repeat business. In six months from having a zero business with Star, who are not just our largest client, we probably are the largest digital engagement they have with any agency now.
In the current list what is the ratio of iContract clients and Contract clients won by iContract?
Contract clients who are also iContract clients
· Shoppers Stop
· Asian Paints
· Sugar Free
· UTI Mutual Fund
Exclusive iContract clients:
· Wills Lifestyle
· Sony Music (6 brands)
· Star Network (6 brands)
· VIP Industries
What is the mix of work done for the diverse set of clients, from creating experiences to social media?
Prashanth Challapalli: There are two different types of clients who come to iContract.
Clients who are only engaged in the ATL with Contract so far are now saying it makes sense for the same agency to handle my entire business. The second type is the client who doesn’t have a relationship with Contract which is a pure play digital business that we get. Maybe their ATL is handled by some other agency. A majority of the business we got in the last one year was clients in the second category. But increasingly we are seeing the number of clients that Contract worked on, (which started a relationship with iContract as a project) are now moving their digital business with us.
iContract handles Shoppers Stop digital business and the loyalty program. Now we have UTI Mutual Funds which was an integrated business we won. Asian Paints has been a long time client, they are building a content platform. Increasingly a lot of our clients are split equally between being pure play social media clients like Sony Music, and clients who are into content platforms where you need more than social media to build their online presence. This will involve building microsites, applications, onground activations. There are clients like Wills Lifestyle, for whom we just did a massive activation at the Wills India Fashion Week. Star is our largest client. We handle about 5 to 6 of their brands.
The interesting thing is that most of the clients we handle are either category leaders in their own space or they are in the top three. It is a conscious decision to go after clients who have scale, who believe in digital not as an add-on, they have to believe that digital is a very core part of their business plan. We are very serious about the digital business. We want people who are really good. If you want to grow as an agency, you can do it two ways. You can have 70 clients with 150-300 people model, which is what a lot of independent agencies do, but we have no pressure to be evaluated. We are saying no to clients also because of what we bring to the table. A certain expertise and culture, the kind of people that we have and more importantly the kind of vision we have for iContract. It needs to be a partnership. It cannot be ‘I will take every pitch or every new business that comes my way’. Because then out of the 10 pieces of work we come out with, maybe two would be good.
What are ‘the right kind of clients’ in your view?
Rana Barua: Winning a campaign or a pitch, it’s a great habit to have. But you need to go and win the right kind of clients, when you have clients who are gamechangers in their categories, they believe in rapid growth.
Are clients investing enough in digital?
Rana Barua: They are open to the thought but everybody is going through a learning curve. We all want to go there because a lot of consumers are there. TV can never die in this country, it will remain universally the No. 1 medium because of the way this country, population and strata is structured. Digital will keep growing. All clients are going into the medium, monies are not changing in the way it should but it is definitely getting more prominence than other mediums. Let’s say if TV is your lead medium, then they will pump in more money in digital than let’s say radio.
In a classic pie example let’s say 70 is TV and 30 is other mediums (big spenders), it’s moved up to 60-40 in the last one year. In that 40, one of the biggest winners is digital.
How do you differentiate iContract in a space where you are competing with standalone digital agencies, media agencies as well creative agencies ?
Prashanth Challapalli: We have a 90% strike rate in our new business track record. That’s where the power of common sense of picking what you go after comes. Second thing that differentiates us is we are a home-grown agency. We are not an acquired agency. 98% of all digital agencies which a mainline agency has are acquired agencies. If iContract was acquired, Rana Barua will have had a huge headache that how do I integrate this culture. How do I get them to understand that digital has to be a part of the overall offering? One of the reasons I came here was to create a digital ecosystem within a mainline agency. It’s a game changer.
From setting things in place in 2013 and aggressively going after new business what is your approach for 2015?
Rana Barua: Let’s say in 2013 the ratio was wait, watch, look, build, this year it was changed to say acquire win, maintain. In fact last month onwards, we have gone back to the momentum, of saying win win win. We’re in the middle of multiple pitches. Last few months it’s only been work. Whether Docomo, Celebration, UTI, Domino’s. Next year will be again growth with maintenance but of a better equilibrium.
How has the journey been coming from Jack in the Box?
Prashanth Challapalli: It’s been a massive challenge. It’s not been super tough. It’s not been super easy. It’s not an independent digital agency where you can do whatever you want to. I have worked with Rana Barua before. I knew the kind of person he was. I knew what I was bringing to the table, but I knew he would teach me too. It’s been a very steep learning curve for me.
What are some of the decisions taken by Rana that made that were pivotal to building iContract in your view ?
Prashanth Challapalli: Couple of calls he took about hiring people when I needed them very desperately which probably wouldn’t have happened due to other rules and regulations. There was never a question of we will try. Either you do it, or it doesn’t work. More than anything the faith he showed in us throughout really helped.