Business in July-August this year will be in line with 2019: Ajay Gupte, Wavemaker

Gupte, CEO, Wavemaker South Asia, talks about the resilience the agency has shown in these tough times. From retaining key accounts to winning new ones, Wavemaker India has kept it going

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Jul 13, 2021 8:46 AM
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In today's edition of 'The Resilience Story', e4m editor Naziya Alvi Rahman speaks to Ajay Gupte, CEO, Wavemaker South Asia, who tells us how the second wave of Covid affected the industry, the resilience that the agency has shown in these tough times, how he's looking forward to the festive season to get the growth back on track, and more.

Edited excerpts

Wavemaker recently retained the Rs 750-crore L'Oreal account. You also won some new accounts like Luminous. How is the sentiment on the floor?

Winning is always great, it lifts spirits. And that's something that’s very important in these times. We've continued our winning streak. We've had a great year. It is very gratifying. I'm very grateful to the team who has put in a lot of effort. It is not easy to pitch in these times; preparing for the pitch without actually being physically together. All the pitches are taking place virtually, there are no physical meetings. So it is very challenging. Especially when all the videos are off, and you're not seeing any expressions and you don't know how you're doing and whether you're going on the right track, it is not easy, it is challenging. But in spite of that, we have put in the effort and we have been successful, for which a lot of credit goes to the team. And I'm grateful to the clients to have seen the value. 

The industry was hit hard by the second wave. Your parent company GroupM, in its TYNY report, claimed that the company will see a growth of 23%. But this sudden second wave disrupted the entire ecosystem. How much has that affected the industry and your business? 

Overall, we are still good with that 23% prediction. We started the year with a bang. We actually took on from 2020 when the last few months really picked up. Jan, Feb, March did extremely well and showed a lot of positive growth. In fact, if you remember Jan and Feb of 2020, there was no Covid, yet we have exceeded those numbers. So it's a very good positive trend. Yes, after the second wave hit us, there has been a reduction. But this time, we had the benefit of experience on our side. Unlike last time, where everyone just stopped advertising. This time, clients are a little more cautious. It is not a pull-the-plug situation. So in that sense, we are actually going quite well so far. The first half of the year hasn't been as bad as last year. We've done okay.

Talking about the drop, compared to the first quarter, April-May would be about 70-80% of what we expected it to be. July and August are typically lower advertising months and that trend will continue. So we will be in line with every year’s strength and the seasonality patterns.

I'm very hopeful for the last quarter of the year starting from September; the cricket tournaments and festivals will get the growth back on track. I think it's all going to come together very well, the way it did in 2020. 


We also discussed how the July-August period this year looks much better or comparable to 2019. Would you want to explain it a little more?

That's right. July-August this year will be in line with 2019. And that's great, considering how 2020 went. 


The second wave was very tragic in a lot of ways, there were personal losses. So, how has this impacted the consumer sentiment? Do you see this continue till the festive season or you think people will overcome it by then and things will be back to celebrations?

There are a lot of trends that we've observed. Compared to the previous wave, there have been some changes that we have observed this time, though some things have continued. So when the first wave went down, people got a lot more confident and were going out. Some offices also reopened and things were getting back to normal. And then the second wave hit us. I don't think we were ready for it mentally because we thought that this is all behind us. But the hit was tremendous. Like you said, we've all been hit personally. And that's a very sad situation to be in.

The consumer reacted in a similar way as the last time, a lot of media viewing went up because a lot more time was spent at home, OTT viewing went up, viewing on the mobile went up, and people got a lot more comfortable ordering on ecommerce, online. Unlike last time, where a lot of hoarding happened, this time hoarding didn't happen. People knew that you don't need to fear that things will not be available.

The other thing which has continued and kept growing is the sentiment of health. One of the key trends is the consciousness towards a healthy lifestyle. So the number of searches around healthy eating, healthy recipes, yoga, and healthy habits went up phenomenally. The whole trend has continued and has possibly grown. I think brands could use this very effectively by learning or finding ways to talk about how they could benefit from a health perspective or associate with that. This is another trend that we have seen.

The other thing you would have noticed, which is a very interesting, is that, in the earlier phase, there was a lot of sharing happening, like, I have made this coffee, I have cooked this new dish. I've learned this new trick. All of that happened a lot in the first wave. It didn't happen in the second wave. The second wave was a lot more about caring for others, about doing something, about asking for help. I think it was due to the intensity of it. Having gone through the first wave, people were a lot more conscious of the situation that is going around. That was another big thing that changed.

Also, people are being more value conscious. Value for money became a lot more important. Established brands and brands with a lot of equity benefited a lot more in terms of sales. 

Also, unlike earlier, when not too many people were involved in gaming, we've seen a lot more serious gamers spend a lot more time on gaming. So that is another key trend we've seen. The other, from a media perspective, is audio. Podcasts have taken a lot more space. Edutech also is another trend which has taken off. I think people have begun to believe that you can do a lot more with their screen, than earlier. Another thing is hyperlocal. A lot of media consumption is local. There is a lot of wanting for things to be delivered to you quickly and therefore there has been the usage of the local network to buy stuff. 

If we talk sector-wise, which sectors appeared most resilient to the second wave?

When the secondary wave was at its peak, consumption went down dramatically. But we are seeing things coming back for most categories in the FMCG space, I think FMCG space hasn't been affected. Talking about spaces like banking, finance, all of these areas have continued to flourish. Categories in the retail space have been affected very badly. Categories in the hospitality space have been very badly affected. But in general, consumption is not that badly affected this time as it was last time. And I believe things will get better as the festive season comes back. I am hopeful. Because finally, everyone is looking to come out of this. And one of the ways to feel liberated is to spend and to feel good about the fact that you can do something. So I believe we should be off it. I just pray that the third wave doesn’t hit us. 

Wavemaker has launched a new AI-powered platform called Maximize. How is it different from the platforms that other agencies have launched? What are its USPs and how's it rolling out in India?

Maximize is something that I'm really proud of. It's a massive differentiator and something that will help clients make better investments. This is being launched globally. And currently in India, we are rolling it out with the teams. A lot of training has been going on at a massive scale. And we are getting our teams used to using the platform. We are also taking it to some of our clients and working with them to start getting them to get a feel of the platform.

What is great about Maximize is its ability to look at multiple situations at the same time. So as an advertiser I need to make decisions around which target consumer do I go after? Which medium do I target? When I decide my medium, and how much do I invest in which medium? We also have a proprietary way of looking at the consumer journey, which is called momentum. In momentum, we say there are four stages. There is a priming stage, when you're not actively looking to purchase something. But at the same time, your mind is open to input coming in, from advertising or from anywhere else. So take an example of a car. You may have just bought a car, and you're not looking in the market for a car, but then you keep seeing advertising or if some friend or relative buys a new car, it registers in your head, that's the priming stage. Then there's a trigger, your car gets old, or there's a sudden income increase, which requires you to or which allows you to make a new investment in a new car. So there's a trigger, and then there's the active state. In the active state, you behave very differently. You go to showrooms, you will go and search and ask questions, you're not passive, you're very actively searching. And then you make your decision and you buy.

Now, what stage do I really need to invest in? Where is my brand today? Is my brand actively in the consumer’s mind? And therefore, I don't need to really invest there, but I need to invest when they're searching for me or when they're looking for me. Then I need to invest in the priming stage. There are millions of permutations and combinations. Should I invest in the priming stage, or in the active stage? Should I invest on television or radio or influencers? What this tool does is it looks at various consumer groups, it looks at various stages, it looks at various media, and tells you how to invest in each of these variables. So it's a multi-dimensional tool.

Have you started using it for your clients in India? Or is it still in the rollout phase?

We have started with a few clients. And we are still looking at how the results are, and we are training our people to use it. So I guess in the next one or two months, we should be able to go out to all our clients, and all our people will be in a position to use Maximize. The beauty of this is the data which goes behind it.

GroupM has M platform. Our platform has 380 million user IDs on it, which is a massive base, it is the largest base that you can get in the country. And on top of that, we have what we call a live panel, which is a panel of about 25,000 people linked on M platform. So, Maximize works on the live panel. The data is very, very robust and the information is real time. Nothing like this exists anywhere else. Given the thinking and given the kind of robust data that it has, we have a winner in our hands. Right now we're focusing on making sure that everyone at Wavemaker is fully trained and equipped to use this better for our clients. 

Globally, business is picking up, as a lot of pitches that were held back in 2020 are now on. How much do you see India gain from the overall momentum?

Yes, at Wavemaker, we've had a very active pitch season. Honestly, we've been at it since January. I think there hasn’t been a single time in the last six months when there was not at least one pitch at any point of time. So that's the way it has been. To answer that, yes, 2020 was a time when a few pitches got postponed. But now there is a fair bit of action going around. And so far, we've benefited from it. So I look forward to it.

We have named this interview series around resilience, because this was a difficult period for all of us. What kind of initiatives did your agency take on building trust with co-workers?

This has been really tough. Honestly, I believe that no matter what we try to do, it is just not enough. The kind of personal losses that people have gone through cannot be compensated by anything we do. But we've tried our best to support people in whatever way we could when the peak happened. And I love the way it wasn't just the management trying to do it, but the teams got together on our WhatsApp groups. The groups were buzzing with people trying to help with beds and oxygen. I was really heartened to see that happening.

At our end also, we tried our best to help and support in whatever way we could. But it has been hard. We try to do small things, very small things given the magnitude of the challenge. And the small things include a few holidays here and there. Support in terms of mental and physical health, from training in yoga to helping people talk to health services. And we hope that we've been able to help our people. I personally feel that no matter what we do, this kind of a situation is just overwhelming. I really feel for our people. And I'm so proud that we've been able to stick together and hold hands and come through this together. I wouldn't say completely unscathed, because a lot of us have been hit personally. But at least we are coming out of it together.

I think the biggest thing is that we are really very, very conscious of the challenge. Whenever there is an opportunity to support in whatever way, we try our best to do whatever we can do.

(Transcription credit Rasika Kiran Upasani)


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