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We are now the only agency for most of our clients: Amit Akali

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We are now the only agency for most of our clients: Amit Akali

Being someone who always believed in media agnostic ideas – and that solutions could really come from anywhere, be it activation or even product design, Amit Akali launched a full service digital agency uniquely named ‘What’s Your Problem in May last year. “ It came down to two things; what excited me as a creative and marketing person and what we thought was the need-gap for clients,” says Akali on what prompted him to launch WYP, coming from a traditional agency himself (Akali was formerly NCD of Grey).  

He launched WYP at a time when everybody was speaking integration, but nobody was delivering it. Digital agencies delivered technology but the strategy or creativity was always missing. On the other hand, mainline agencies got strategy and creativity to the table, and had bought over or grown in-house digital agencies, but they hadn’t really ‘integrated.’ The mainline teams yet cracked the big idea; the digital teams added to it and if it was a digital led pitch mainline probably didn’t get involved.

Nobody really married strategy, creativity and technology, the client had to hire numerous agencies, usually 1 for mainline and at least 2-3 for separate ones for digital and didn’t really get integrated ideas,” he recalls.

 “We believed that if we married technology with strategy and creativity, we could really be the only agency a client needs. Thus, we positioned ourselves as a full service digital agency – one which brought strategy and creativity (basics of mainline marketing) to digital execution and therefore could easily do more than digital; positioning, brand identity, television, below the line, activation – basically anything needed to solve marketing problems,” he adds.

For WYP the emphasis was on ‘full service digital’

The agency was launched with an awareness of its core strengths being strategy and ideation and wanted to build capabilities in execution across all digital services, mindful of their core strengths. The aim was to create a full service digital agency to solve marketing problems.

There was one small hitch; I had no clue of digital. I, along with most NCDs that time got away with saying that digital is just a medium and once you’re good at ideating you can crack it. Not true – you need to understand it.” confesses Akali. 

 39 year old Akali went back to school – taking online digital courses, to get himself well versed with digital.

 If being a mainline guy in digital wasn’t enough learning, being Chief Creative Officer at sister (or rather brother) Healthcare agency Medulla was an eye opening experiencing, claims Akali.  “When I left Grey, Praful and me spoke about how the work in a niche sector like healthcare shouldn’t be any less creative than what mainline agencies churn out. But none of us expected to become the No. 3 Healthcare agency at the Cannes Healthcare Lions, that too in the first year(2015) that we took part. Out of the 10 shortlists that Indian agencies won, 6 came to Medulla, and the other 4 were shared between two mainline agencies. This year, the ‘Last Words to Nurses’ campaign for palliative care went viral, trending no. 3 on Twitter, picked up by hundreds of publications. It goes to prove that work done in any medium and for any sector can go mainstream,” opines Akali.   

A year later ……….

One year later, WYP has billed over 4 times what Akali and Praful had targeted a year ago, the duo had also put aside a certain amount to invest before the cash flow broke even. Fortunately for them they had to invest only 1/3rd of what they put aside and the businesses started running itself just 3 months down the line. From 4-5 employees and a 300 square-foot office space, WYP has added a new 1000 square-foot office and nearly 30 plus employees.

 Together with Medulla they are 80 employees plus, and are now concentrating on senior level hires, and will soon be announcing a 5th founder member along with a slew of senior level hirings across creative, technology and servicing.

  “We spent a year getting the right digital people on board. In fact I was the only mainline person in the founding team. Huzefa Roowala, ex MTV Promo Head and a founder member of Ping, comes with YouTube and digital-video expertise, along with a streak of creativity and an understanding of digital audiences. Hammad Khan is a rare ‘full service digital’ expert, with experience in everything digital; web development, digital media, social, content, digital video, mobile, analytics, social media and digital activation.

Praful, of course brings the experience of running an agency (Medulla) from scratch along with strategy expertise with his IIM marketing lineage. More importantly, all these guys are creative people at heart and believe in marrying strategy, creative and technology.”

 As far as the clients are concerned, the WYP portfolio includes startups who’ve grown with the agency like Pico, Cocofly and Wedding Wishlist, plus blue chip brands like Bharat Matrimony, Flipkart, Kotak Securities, Franklyn Templeton and now even a biggie like ITC. The agency has been working on one of ITC Foods soon to be announced, biggest luxury brand launches for the last 6 months.

 Akali gets candid about how the gamble of full service digital paid off, why he has learnt more in the past 1 year than, his previous 20 working years and why WYP  has been saying ‘no’ to more business .

Edited excerpts:

When you launched the agency it aimed to marry strategy, creative and technology, how does this work in the real world? What are the challenges?

It is just a mindset change. We believe that digital is just a medium or a means to reach the consumer.  Even if we have to just develop a website or do social media, we start by understanding the brand and the consumer. We brought mainline processes into digital execution. We create a look feel template for social media, so that every piece of communication adds back to the brand. Much like we create a design template for print.

Yes, the challenge was in getting the right talent. People from the digital space understand technology but not strategy and creativity. And people from mainline agencies get strategy and creativity but don’t understand technology and digital platforms. So, everybody at WYP, whether they’re digital or mainline experts, whatever their strengths be, have to believe in all three of our pillars; strategy, creative and technology. Once the basic belief is there, they easily pick up the skill sets they lack, that’s what excites people to join us. I personally have learnt more in the past 1 year than in my previous 20 working years. 

How has this decision of full service digital agency positioning paid off?

Brilliantly, I am glad we stuck to this positioning and launched as a full service digital agency. There were enough friends and supporters, questioning the merits in starting a digital agency. ‘Are there enough monies?’ ‘What will make you better than the digital experts?’ But it’s the best decision we took.

We are now the only agency for most of our clients. Which may not have happened, if we would have gone to them as a mainline agency.

When you launched did clients get this concept?

This was something we gave a lot of thought too.  Clients needed to know what to hire us for and what pitch to call us for. We could have easily positioned ourselves as a truly integrated agency that gets digital. But I believed ‘integration’ is a bad word, much abused by agencies and therefore not believed by clients. Also, that would have pitched us against all other network and independent mainline agencies. So, we purposely positioned ourselves as a full service digital agency that does more.  While clients had come to terms with their mainline agencies, they believed that digital agencies hadn’t cracked it yet. They all agreed that digital agencies were yet to bring strategy and creative inputs of a mainline level to the table. So, it was easier to get a foot in the door as a digital agency. We pitched against digital agencies and won because we came with strategy and ideas, deliverables that clients expected but probably didn’t get out of their digital agencies. Once we got in, as a digital agency, we were involved with their brand on a daily basis –  Social media campaigns happen daily, unlike print or television, which happen maybe once a year. And therefore got their brand understanding better than any of their other agencies, if they had other agencies, and slowly we did everything they required. For all our clients, without exception, we’ve gone beyond digital deliverables, doing their TVCs, radio, brand identity, packaging, below the line, print and outdoor.

 What are your focus areas for the next one year?

The challenge, touchwood, hasn’t been getting business. In fact, we’ve been saying no to businesses if the deadlines didn’t match. The worst thing a start- up can do is take on business that they can’t do justice to. This year we want to stop saying no to more business. Therefore the focus is on building an equally invested team, especially a strong second and third line to the leadership team.

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