We will be the largest communication startup in India: Saurabh Varma

Varma, in conversation with e4m, recounted his 17-year-old journey with Publicis and opened up on setting a platform-specialist agency, its pricing strategy, talent and more

e4m by exchange4media Staff
Updated: Jan 16, 2020 10:23 AM


Saurabh Varma

After spending 17 years at the helm of Publicis Groupe, Saurabh Varma, India & South Asia CEO, Publicis Communications, decided to move on to set up a cutting-edge platform-specialist agency. “Leo Burnett created his agency during the Great Depression in 1935 and built something spectacular. I want to see if I can do the same. I want to reach for the stars. We have an opportunity to create something disruptive in an industry that stubbornly refuses to change,” Varma told exchange4media.                                          

Recounting his years in advertising with Publicis, Varma said, “The last 17 years have been an absolute privilege. When you’ve been with a company for that long, you don’t even know how to create a profile. For me, Publicis has been this incredible story and it has been a powerhouse in India.”

Varma joined Publicis as a senior planning director, a role he held for almost 2.5 years.

He narrated: “I had the opportunity to move to Singapore where I had an incredible unit set up between Starcom and Arc Worldwide, which was The Greenhouse. There we set up all the strategic functions from the media and creative agency to this single function.”  

 Varma spent eight years with Leo Burnett in Singapore. From senior planning director, he went on to become the South-Asia Planning Head, and eventually, the Chief Strategy Officer, APAC.

“It was such a great experience. My mandate at one point encompassed 16 different countries. So I would wake up one morning in Malaysia and in the afternoon, I would be in Bangkok. I would visit two to three countries in a week, at times,” he said.

 “We built an amazing culture in Leo Burnett. I also became a part of the global leadership team that built HumanKind and rolled it out across APAC,” he remarked.

 He then had an opportunity to come back to India with Leo Burnett. “This was another adventure. My predecessor Arvind had built a real powerhouse. One of the first things we did after I took over was agree that we would disrupt. We wanted to challenge every status quo,” he added.  

When asked about a memorable hiring story, he recounted: “At one point, we realised that we needed a new-age talent who could think differently. I then met Raj (Rajdeepak Das). Initially, we wanted to hire two NCDs. But when I met Raj, I said that there has to be only one CCO.”

Varma remembered pursuing Das for the role: “The first time we met, we had a great conversation. And the next time I met him, I met him with a contract and said that you have to sign this and join me. He thought that it was the NCD job and was actually the CCO job.

Varma entered the industry filled with very senior CEOs at age 39 with “very little to lose.”

“The idea was to be brave and chase glory. If you really look at Publicis at the moment, I could not have done more,” he asserted. 

Spilling the beans on his highly-anticipated venture, Varma revealed that the whole idea is to create a platform-first agency.

“If you see communication firms today, you will notice that they are too fragmented and lack the ability to solve client problems. They are still structured the way they were 15 years back. If you see clients and their problems today, you will notice that the environment that they operate in has become more complex. So we want to be a platform-first agency,” he pointed out. 

Varma explained that being platform-first means moving away from the constraints of the discipline (PR, digital, etc).

“Today, people live on platforms. It could be Jio, TikTok, Facebook or YouTube. Yet, our understanding of these platforms is very limited. If you look at the capabilities that exist in the industry, we still measure people from the perspective of an English Copywriter, Hindi heartland copywriter or an Art Director but don’t measure somebody as an Instagram Expert or a TikTok expert. And I feel that is where the disruption will be. We will be India’s first platform-specialist agency,” he remarked.                                                        

From a geographical perspective, Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore will be the main hubs and Varma plans to take it to other regions in the country too, eventually.

“Our focus will be to understand the medium and the best way to optimally create value for our clients is by leveraging the medium. I think that it’s much more difficult to create a platform-first agency when you are dealing with a legacy set-up. And it’s much easier to do it on your own,” he contended.

According to Varma, the two core capabilities that the agency will focus on will comprise data and content. Moreover, voice and vernacular will be other big areas of focus.

“When you talk about platform-first, we are talking about deep, meaningful relationships with platforms. We are talking about organising ourselves across specific verticals. Initially, we will build capabilities across two verticals which will then be scaled up,” he added.

When asked whether it will be a massive set-up, Varma asserted, “We are talking about the largest communication startup in India, ever.”

On the kind of talent that the agency will look at acquiring, he said, “We are going to work with talent that believe that they can disrupt the current narrative and in the idea of a platform-first agency.”

On the agency’s pricing strategy, he revealed that the fee structure will be objective-driven and result-oriented. “We now have the ability to get out of the commission/retainer/project-based model. Our structure will let us explore completely new models and move us away from the current constraints that the industry operates with,” he shared.

Varma headed all the agencies under the Publicis Communications gamut in South Asia including – Leo Burnett India, Leo Burnett Orchard, Publicis India, Publicis Beehive, L&K Saatchi & Saatchi, MSLGROUP, Indigo Consulting, Publicis. Sapient, Digitas, Arc Worldwide and Prodigious. 

He was appointed as CEO of Leo Burnett Group India in November of 2013. In late 2014, he was elevated to the CEO of the Leo Burnett Group across South Asia. And just a year later in 2016, he rose further up the ranks, being named the CEO of Publicis Communications, South Asia. 

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