India is a strong market both in terms of talent and business performance: Toby Jenner

Wavemaker Global CEO Toby Jenner speaks to exchange4media Editor Naziya Alvi Rahman about the agency's five-year journey in India, and more

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Published: Nov 21, 2022 8:29 AM  | 7 min read

Wavemaker completed half a decade in India this month. As the agency celebrates its achievements of five years, Global CEO Toby Jenner is all appreciation for his Indian colleagues. Jenner, in an exclusive conversation with exchange4media Editor Naziya Alvi Rahman, shared that South Asia CEO Ajay Gupte’s team has “continuously impressed” him with their work and that he believes India has the ability to head the APAC region as the fastest growing country globally.

Jenner, who like Gupte, took charge of the agency just months before the Covid pandemic hit the world, also opened up about dealing with the crisis by turning it into an opportunity, importance of agility in the media agency business, maintaining a healthy client-agency relationship in today’s times, and more.


Edited Excerpts

Wavemaker India has won many accolades across festivals, including the Cannes Lions
Festival, for its innovative campaigns. As the agency’s global leader, how do you look at the work done by the team in the last five years? 

I’m continuously impressed with the quality of work that comes from Ajay and his team. They go from strength to strength. Even during the height of the pandemic, Wavemaker India was producing award winning work and winning new business. When traditional media like print, TV and outdoor suffered, our teams pivoted and presented clients with strong ideas for digital, OTT, content, influencer and performance marketing. 

Shah Rukh Khan My Ad – the case that won big at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival, among others, securing us one of the coveted Titanium Lions (the only one for WPP this year), is a fantastic example. It is the work of an exceptionally strong client team, comprising Wavemaker and our creative partners at Ogilvy, and a brave client, Mondelez, who has never been afraid to challenge what good looks like. Provocation like that is never easy, but Wavemaker India is doing it so well, and winning & growing because of it.  


Where do you place India as a market in the global scheme of things for Wavemaker? Also, how has Wavemaker India done as compared to other markets globally?

India is such a strong market both in terms of talent and business performance. India consistently tops not only award leagues but also the COMvergence rankings. I really feel that India, and APAC as a whole, is a continuing growth opportunity for us. At the moment, APAC accounts for just under a third of our global business, but I expect double digit growth from the region in 2023, and India to head the region as the fastest growing country globally. 


Both you and South Asia CEO Ajay Gupte took charge close to the pandemic. You both have said that you saw the crisis as an opportunity and not a challenge. Can you share more about your strategies that helped Wavemaker and its clients brave the pandemic?

When the pandemic broke out, we had just completed a transition plan to completely reinvent Wavemaker’s positioning, product, attitude and identity. That meant we went into the pandemic as an energized and unified agency, connected globally through technology. In that way, we were lucky because the lines of communication were wide open across the agency. We were already discussing our development roadmap and keeping each other up to date on the challenges and opportunities we faced. This helped us immensely once the pandemic hit, and we had to think and act quickly to support our people, clients and business.


You have repeatedly emphasised on the importance of agility in the growth of media business. Can you give us a few examples of how Wavemaker has practised it?

The best and the most important example was the creation of Maximize, the first end-to-end planning platform to use AI. It allows our planning to change direction and re-plan thousands of scenarios in real time. Through machine learning, it removes the tedious elements of work for our planners, leaving them to do what they do best; adding human brilliance and creativity to a client’s plan, improving what has gone before year on year.

We were also the first agency to give our clients access to Amazon Advertising’s ‘Overlapping Audiences’ API, which provides brands with insights to help understand the relationships between a brand’s audience and other audiences on Amazon.

We’re constantly developing our offerings to answer clients’ most burning questions and help them to better growth. We’re never complacent, we never feel that something is good enough. We’ve got a fundamental restlessness at the heart of our business that propels us forward.


You have been instrumental in building a consulting business within a media agency. Do you see consultancies such as Accenture or McKinsey as potential competition to your role as advisors and partners to clients?  

We formally launched our consultancy business about two years ago to join the dots between global and local experts and create a consistent way of operating. Since then, the consultancy community has evolved into a strong practice of exceptionally talented people who answer the most demanding client questions and deliver services that drive and future-proof our clients’ growth. As the media and advertising landscape continues to change, they are the provocateurs we need to keep Wavemaker ahead of the competition.

Consultancy services now make up around 25 per cent of our business and it’s growing. Everyone we pitch against is competition, everyone who has a relationship with our clients beyond WPP is competition. In the right environment, we can, and do, co-exist and work well together. However, we as an industry are exceptional at execution as well as strategy, whereas the consultancies tend to be better at the theory of media than the all-round execution that media agencies provide.


As the Global CEO of a leading agency, what according to you are some of the biggest challenges towards fostering a healthy client-agency relationship in today’s times?

The biggest component to a healthy agency-client relationship is one of mutuality born of trust, although I accept there's always been a challenge between short and long-term success and getting the balance right so all partners can make a meaningful contribution. It's incredibly easy to say no, but the great clients know when to say yes, they have a seat at the board table and have demonstrated to their CFO and procurement colleagues the growth their media agency can deliver. If this is not the case, then it can be much more of a supplier than partner relationship. This tends to be built on inputs (measured by legacy intermediaries) and not the outcomes we can increasingly deliver to drive a growth-orientated solution. 


Advertising agencies are believed to be facing their worst talent crisis ever. Post the pandemic, the attrition rates grew across agencies, with younger people not too keen on a career in advertising. How at Wavemaker do you make it attractive for employees to continue?

When we evolved our proposition to be Positively Provocative, it was with a simple ambition at its heart: to empower every single Wavemaker employee to have a point of view. Regardless of how experienced or not our team is, everyone has the right to influence the direction of our clients and our business for the better. It's this attitude which hopefully ensures our teams around the world feel as though they belong to an organisation that listens to them, encourages them to be themselves and share their point of view. I want to hear from everyone in Wavemaker, regardless of their background, they have a place at Wavemaker, and they can make a difference to our business. This is how we are focussing on developing an inclusive and dynamic workplace, and hopefully, we are attracting and retaining the very best people. 




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