Ad before agency: Saurabh Varma reverses launch order

Varma has created an ad campaign for gaming site Nazara.com before the launch of his agency, says the official launch will happen once lockdown ends

e4m by Neeta Nair
Updated: Apr 23, 2020 9:39 AM
Saurabh Varma

If his sudden exit from Publicis after close to a decade-long association with the network and the decision to start his own agency came as a surprise, his return has been just as unpredictable. Saurabh Varma, former India & South Asia CEO, Publicis Communications, is back with an ad campaign for one of his new clients - Nazara.com - even before the official launch of his agency.

In an interview with exchange4media, Varma tells us why he has an advantage over legacy agencies, and why he simply believes this is the best time to build his own agency. 

You are off to a fresh start with the launch of your own agency, for how long have you been planning it?

It has been a couple of years really, an idea like this takes some time. And I have always said that you need a model which is relevant in today’s day and age, without which some of the large agencies may not survive the obstacles that come in their way. To be honest, there is no better time than now to actually build an agency. The symbolism around when Leo Burnett launched his agency and what we are trying to do now, should never be lost, because that's what inspires us to ultimately reach for the stars.

For most, the launch of the agency comes first and then the ad campaigns. You have done the reverse with the launch of an ad for Nazara.com? Why?

Currently, if you look at the economy, it doesn't seem like the right time to launch an agency, but it does seem like a perfect time to create great work. That's what this is about. Right now, it is about helping our clients navigate through this very complex environment. And that has to be the biggest focus rather than ourselves. I have always done things differently. For me, it has always been about, ‘People, Product, Profit’. When you have great people, your next focus has to be the work. All my prior success came from keeping myself at the service of our clients, it wasn't really about ever putting yourself in the limelight but about putting a client’s work in the limelight and that has to be the core and the DNA going forward. As far as Nazara.com is concerned, it is a huge mass media campaign. Simply because of the category they’re in. Gaming consumption is really looking up, and there is no better opportunity to create a brand of this scale than now.

So are we going to see more ad campaigns before the formal launch of your agency?

We are not requesting our other clients who we are in conversations with to spend money at the moment, as it makes no sense. We are advising most of our clients to conserve the liquidity to do more digital campaigns. We are working on a few of them even as we speak. Of course, a lot of them differ in terms of size and scale. A lot of work is happening as we speak and so you will start seeing some more work in the near future.

But isn’t this a bad time to start an agency, with brands cutting advertising spends?

Clients who want to work with us will work with us anyway. The economy was already slowing down in December, when we got together to do this. But we are lucky that we're not sitting on a lot of legacy structures, it is easier for us to adapt. The typical traditional network is going to be in so much pain right now, but nobody really is speaking the truth. A lot of legacy structures will get challenged now. Another big difference is that we are more of a tech company rather than a communication or advertising agency. All our business models are built on partnerships with very large firms. Also, we can be cost competitive and a profitable business by simply not having the real estate costs like the legacy agencies. We are going to lock up 50% of typical network real estate costs by using technology like Microsoft teams and other tools for a connected experience and a connected platform.

 Tell us about your team…

We have never really had a problem with attracting talent. The best talent in the country wants to join us as we scale up.

 You always have been a torch-bearer for in-house production houses. Is that on the cards?

We are not going to do any work where we don't control the production. The production will be absolutely integral to any solution that we create.

 Give me a sense of when you're going to launch the agency

Our original date for launch was July 1, but now it is a question of when the lockdown ends.

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