Saurabh Varma on WYP’s acquisition: It’s time for a strong Indian agency network

Saurabh Varma & Amit Akali talk about sharing the vision that brought them together to lay the foundation to a strong agency network and why creativity will be at the core of the business at Wondrlab

e4m by Neeta Nair
Published: Dec 9, 2020 9:15 AM  | 8 min read

It is not often that a one-month-old company acquires one of the top independent ad agencies in the country. It’s one of the reasons why Saurabh Varma’s newly founded platform-first martech company, Wondrlab’s acquisition of the five-year-old What’s Your Problem is rather unique.

This is Wondrlab’s first acquisition and here on WYP’s founder Amit Akali will be Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of the parent company. WYP will, however, remain a separate brand and become a part of Wondrlab’s content platform.

In conversation with Saurabh Varma, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Wondrlab and Amit Akali, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer, What’s Your Problem on how WYP’s acquisition is the first step in giving the country a strong Indian agency network.  

What will this acquisition mean for both Wondrlab and WYP? What kind of expertise will WYP bring to Wondrlab?

Saurabh: From a Wondrlab perspective, we have three key pillars – Content, Experience and Digital business transformation.  Each of the three has a very large service component and product component. So, from a service component perspective, if we were to build this capability organically vis-à-vis, what Amit has worked very hard for with this team in the last five years to build, it was quite an obvious solution. So, currently, our game plan is very simple, to retain WYP as an individual entity. It will become a Wondrlab company, but will retain its independence in terms of winning in the market through the incredible talent that we have. We will keep adding to it in whatever way possible.

So, WYP will be one of the key creative agencies in our portfolio and even if we acquire more, everything will ultimately rest with Amit from a CCO perspective. He has joined as a Co-founder and CCO. There are several things in the pipeline that make Wondrlab a complete mix, some from a technology perspective, some from performance but while those things unravel, the core of the business will have to be creativity. Amit is such an incredible leader, and so passionate about what he creates for clients, that's what matters ultimately.

Amit: I am looking at Wondrlab as a network, which has already got the best technology, already has the best brains in the business in terms of strategy and business heads. And now we have the best creative team in the business too. And while we have been talking about platforms and products, the differentiator is creativity. So, it’s a perfect match.

What were the factors that led to this acquisition? Saurabh, why specifically did you lean towards WYP and Amit why did you agree to be part of a relatively new agency brand?

Saurabh: A few months ago, as a consultant for one of our clients, I was judging various creative agencies, when WYP presented against the who’s who of the agency business. Everyone’s opinion was asked after the pitch and I said, ‘The business should go to WYP, in fact I am so impressed that I feel like buying them off’. I said it more like a statement at that point but I could hardly sleep that night because I felt something should ideally come out of it. So, I reached out to Amit who had also designed the Wondrlab logo for us about a year ago. We have been good friends all this while but honestly when I saw the agency as a part of that pitch, I realized that amongst the many startups that exist not many agencies are structured for the modern era. But look at Amit’s team, they’re able to create experiences, do digital and creative work, build a platform, manage their production in-house etc. So, they were doing many of the things which I felt were very critical to the building of the future agency. And I think beyond that it’s all about the chemistry, liking each other and wanting to work with each other.

Amit: Interestingly, long back Saurabh had interviewed me but didn’t give me the job. I keep reminding him about that at every opportunity. But on a serious note, honestly, I don't see us being part of any other network. The fact that we had exactly the same vision sealed the deal. Only difference is that we started off five years ago and met Saurabh along the way who has exactly the same ambition. In fact, there are certain qualities at WYP, which are amplified further at Wondrlab like hunger, the fact that everybody over here can work beyond what their designation calls for. There is a flat hierarchy and all team members get additional responsibility that helps them grow. There are people in my team who have been with me for as long as five years and I felt this was the correct move for their growth as well.

Amit, you have been one of the staunch voices in favour of independent agencies in the past. How will the acquisition by Wonderlab change that? How different is it from being acquired by a network agency like WPP?

Amit: I wouldn't want to talk about that. But yes, I want to talk about the advantages. We have been a startup for the last five years, and with Wondrlab, will continue to be so. We have been very ambitious and will still continue to be so. Similarly, we have been nimble and brave and will have the same qualities in the future as well. So, I think I just wanted to be part of this journey and story which Saurabh is penning down.

Amit, we remember, Taproot’s acquisition by Dentsu was heartbreaking for people rooting for independent agencies. Does the acquisition of WYP give weight to the argument that the goal of even the most successful agencies is to be acquired in the long run?

Amit: One of the advantages of being a part of Wondrlab is that we will get independence and continue to have all the advantages of an independent agency. At the same time the vision is about building a network. We also believe we have the advantages of a network agency. So, I think we are combining the two really well.

Saurabh: There are advantages of being part of the network, like access to talent, expertise and services you can cross-sell etc. Most networks have grown on the back of acquisitions. In India, we only think about building agencies, and not about building companies. That’s what we want to do i.e. build a network. The disadvantage of a network is that they're constrained by their own thinking, by their vision, ambition, and in believing that they're only in the service business. But we’re not constrained by that. We will talk more about it over the next few months. But our big belief system is actually based on building martech platforms, which are going to be invaluable from a client’s perspective and that’s what the last nine months have been about. That is something you don't see of a network because they are constrained by the legacy structure they created. We, on the contrary, don’t have any structural issues.

Saurabh, you mentioned that more acquisitions are on the cards, so what is the timeline you have set for yourself to become a well-established Indian agency network?

Saurabh: We really believe the time has come for some Indian company to create a strong Indian agency network, at least in India. So, that's really what we're trying to create. And by the sheer fact that we have acquired something, we have already started our journey as a network as far as India is concerned, because that is what networks do. They build on their own, and then they acquire. So, we've already done some part of that through this acquisition. However, while the question is relevant from the perspective of the market and the investor, it is not so much from the perspective of the client. What they are interested in is, do we have an incredible skill set of specialization which we can put together to solve their problems. And I think some of the steps we are taking in that direction are actually way beyond what anybody has thought of. When we look at solving a client's problem, of course, you can use a service layer to solve the problem. But guess what some of the big problems actually require — scalable platforms and technology. And that is what we believe is something we can bring to the table. It has been just a month since we launched. As a team, we are still at the base camp and we have a whole Everest to climb and Rakesh, Vandana, Amit and I are very excited about the next step.

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