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CVS ’Venke’ Sharma

Senior Vice-President & Director | 07 Jan 2008

All the money that’s spent on your ATL and BTL converges at retail. In India, marketers are just waking up to the fact that the shop is where it all matters. The fact is that many still look towards London or the US for solutions to retail design. While the work done in London and the US in the retail space is phenomenal, we need to understand that the purchase path of Indian consumers is quite unique.

A business management professional with over 12 years of experience in building and managing strategic business units in marketing communication services and IT, CVS Sharma, better known as ‘Venke’, is currently associated with the Publicis Groupe as Senior Vice-President and Director for Arc Worldwide (India). A Gold medallist in MBA, Venke began his career with the Indian Navy. At 22, he started 3I Promotions, a market research, events and promotions company. Thereafter, he formed Sphinx Infotech, a web solutions company. In 2000, at 24, he joined Mudra as Business Manager in Hyderabad and later handled various responsibilities as Corporate Manager and Divisional Manager.

One of the most significant accomplishments of his career includes turning around the fortunes of Magindia, a marketing, advertising and media resource centre, within a short span of six months. In the process, he found a successful business model for the digital agency, Digital Branding Solutions, which later became Tribal DDB India. As its Founder and Country Head, Venke has been instrumental in making it one of the most successful digital agencies in Indian advertising history.

He has handled a wide range of exciting and prestigious client engagements ranging from Citibank, Reliance Industries, Reliance ADAG, LIC, MSN India, Air France, Malaysian Airlines, Crompton Greaves, IIM-Ahmedabad, Green Peace and Madura Garments, among others. He has also built insourcing models to cater to clients in Europe and the US; the most notable being British Telecom, London.

In the last eight months of his association with the Publicis Groupe, Venke has built a successful integrated marketing services agency model for Arc. At present, Arc in India has offices in Mumbai and Delhi, and has clients like Centurion Bank of Punjab, UTI Mutual Fund, ICICI Prudential, Procter & Gamble, Samsung IT, Petronas and Reliance Communications.

In conversation with exchange4media’s Pallavi Goorha and Rosy Ngaihte, Venke talks about the Indian retail space, Arc’s ‘Effective Solutions Planning’ approach, and more. Excerpts:

Q. Tell us something about the India operations of Arc Worldwide.

Below-the-line services in India are extremely cluttered and unorganised. Currently clients are forced to deal with multiple agencies that push packaged competency sets like an interactive division, outdoor division, DM division, events and promos division, etc. Often this turns out to be a nightmare in coordination. The specialist units often miss out on the bigger picture. For a client, the issue is not just getting a website up, a DM campaign running, an event organised or an ad released. It’s all about delivering the marketing numbers. The line is becoming irrelevant – above and below. The future belongs to agencies that can deliver through the line.

Arc in India is one such agency which is focused on delivering specific measurable results to the client’s marketing challenges with innovative ideas, skill combinations and customised execution approaches spanning direct, interactive, out of home, promotional and shopper marketing. Often our brief is just a marketing challenge faced by the client. We get back with an idea that is not married to any one medium. This is backed up with a robust execution mechanism, which uses multiple touch points and results are tracked. In the last one year, Arc has won many believers to this approach – P&G, ICICI Prudential, Tata Salt, Samsung, HP, Centurion Bank of Punjab, Petronas, Reliance Communications and UTI Mutual Fund. Apart from these clients, we have been successful in attracting some terrific talent across disciplines that have chosen the integrated Arc path.

Q. Arc Worldwide has been appointed as the interactive marketing agency for beinggirl.com, the website for teenage girls created by P&G’s female care brand Whisper recently. Tell us more about it?

It’s a work in progress and it is too early to comment on it.

Q. Which are the companies you compete with and what kind of differentiation do you bring to the table?

I cannot recall any other agency operating on the same business model as we do. As I said before, most of the agency marketing services arms are rooted in their specialist units. Globally, Arc has been tremendously successful with this integrated approach. While we think media-neutral, we have specialists from each discipline like direct, retail, digital, promotions, and well-defined processes to ensure the execution is best in its class. The result is a campaign firmly rooted in a RoI-based approach.

If you look at Arc’s ‘Effective Solutions Planning’ approach, we start with the marketing challenge, identify whom we have to influence and thereafter distil the brand essence by marrying the latent and visible needs of the TG with how the brand meets with those needs. Then we try to understand how the TG is currently purchasing the product or service and where could our ideas make the biggest impact in the purchase cycle. The result is a master brief. Therefore, we don’t always expect our clients to be ready with a brief, because we believe a good brief is half the solution provided. They just need to give us their challenge and we will help put a brief and revert to them with an idea. Be it India’s longest clothesline or treasure hunt on marine drive – these ideas are a result of our ESP approach. Thereafter, we look at all the contact points and pick out the most RoI efficient and effective touch points to execute the idea.

Whether it is designing a retail experience or a web experience, or something as simple as a call centre telecaller script – creative innovation drives all our ideas.

Q. How do you get clients? Do you also pitch for businesses?

Often you might have heard clients saying that BTL is a messy affair. The way agency BTL arms are organised is a reason to blame. More importantly, due to the vastness of the challenge, good ideas can get lost in execution. We pitch in at different points. As I said, our entry point could be an interesting problem or an interesting client. We have clients for whom we are doing website design, retail shop design, creating search and call centre optimisation programmes. For some clients we handle their feet on street (FOS) and retail activation programmes, while and or some like Centurion Bank of Punjab, we are the brand custodians providing integrated marketing communications. Therefore we have numerous entry points into a client’s business. Most importantly, since a part of what we do mirrors closely to some of the KRAs of marketing heads of client organisations, we constantly find innovative ways to address their marketing challenges.

Q. Having worked in the digital medium in India for over a decade, how do you see the evolution of Internet in the media space?

Internet as a medium has always been over-hyped. The hype has been such overkill that marketers at one point of time lost confidence in the medium delivering results. But now the expectations are a lot more realistic. There was a time when we had to hard sell to companies the need to have a well organised website. Now, most recognise the need to have a web presence. However, many think having a good looking website or an exhaustive content rich or a feature rich website is the key to maximising web presence. Information architecture, user centric design, secure site backend and a robust content updation process are the four key pillars for maximising web presence. There is also overkill on search and online advertising, with some finding nirvana in search and the rest in online advertising.

Search engine optimisation is a hygiene factor. On the other hand, search marketing can be compared to newspaper classifieds in some ways. It is important but cannot build your brand. For example, with an aggressive search marketing strategy, you will make sure your brand or service is found on every page where a user probably might go. But so can your competitor! After all, it’s an algorithm that is increasingly getting commodotised. But to make sure you get the click-in and a buy-in thereafter, not only do you need to be in the right place at the right time, but also have the right appeal. Now this appeal is something that is beyond those giant spiders crawling on the web. That’s where the beauty of online advertising, branding, and the 2.0 we all fondly talk about comes in. Having said that, classifieds do deliver results. Therefore, it is imperative that a part of your budget be set aside for search.

As far as online advertising is concerned, let’s admit it that most of us have developed a blind spot to most of the banners in the sites that we frequent. Cluttering sites with banners, buttons, site captures of all sizes and shapes are like those flower sellers and booksellers trying to stop us while driving on a high traffic street. You know where you want to go and more often than not, you do not want to be distracted. Therefore, it is not about how many impressions or how much media space you are going to buy, but how do you want to romance your customer. Analytics today give us something as close to one-customer-view. But just because you know that a particular girl comes to this particular bus stop everyday you can’t just go and propose to her. What’s your story? How are you going to build that interest, and the expectation about who you are? So, interactive communication is as much of a challenge as an opportunity. There are some fantastic global campaigns that have done the trick beautifully. Arc’s thebar.com, Cadillac campaigns and Philips Shave everywhere are a few examples. Striking a balance between content with the right appeal and media is extremely important for success in the online space.

Q. What’s your point of view on the Indian retail space?

Retail is the point of reality. All the money that’s spent on your ATL and BTL converges at retail. In India, marketers are just waking up to the fact that the shop is where it all matters. The fact is that many still look towards London or the US for solutions to retail design. While the work done in London and the US in the retail space is phenomenal, we need to understand that the purchase path of Indian consumers is quite unique. Arc has built fantastic case studies on retail design for various categories. We have a unique model that addresses challenges of marketers in Indian retail space by understanding consumer purchase path navigation, retail environment design and dynamics, visual merchandising and crew grooming as walking brands.

Q. What is the way forward for Arc?

We intend to build more believers in the Arc way of working. We intend to be the most sought after agency for solutions across the non-traditional media spectrum – direct response, digital, retail design and promotional marketing. The good thing is, clients have begun to set aside major portions of their budgets for these areas. This means we have good reason to be in the business. We had a wonderful 2007 and look forward to a fantastic 2008. Growth and expansion for us and better RoI for our clients is what we aim to deliver in 2008.

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