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VMLY&R India is here to stay: Global CEO Jon Cook

In a conversation with IMPACT Associate Editor Neeta Nair, Cook reflects on the last four years of VMLY&R and shares more about its future

e4m by Neeta Nair
Published: Jun 24, 2022 8:54 AM  | 6 min read
John cook

Cannes Lions has brought to the forefront an agency brand that gave India its first Grand Prix this year. Jon Cook, Global CEO, VMLY&R, speaks to Neeta Nair, IMPACT Associate Editor, at Cannes, reflecting on the last four years of VMLY&R and forecasting the future of the new and improved agency.

Edited Excerpts 

It's been four years since the merger of VML with Y&R, how would you describe the agency now? 

Back then, I wasn't a hundred percent sure if it was going to work, but it has been great. We had two agencies that had been around a long time and we got to create the agency that we wanted it to be at scale. In this industry, you rarely have the chance to have a startup at scale. We had an immediate global company, and we got to make it the way we wanted; which is an agency that created and connected brands. On one level, it sounds like a tagline, but it's truly very digitally led, with a huge brand building capability. 

This has been a great year for you at Cannes Lions, you won India’s first Grand Prix which was also VMLY&R India’s first ever big win at the festival since its inception. Were you always confident that the ‘Killer Pack’ campaign would win at Cannes Lions?

You can never predict a grand Prix by any means, and anybody who says they can, would be lying. What we do know is we've put in a lot of work and invested in creating a great team. Mukund Olety who is our Chief Creative Officer is relatively new, and he has brought in a lot of new energy. We hired Valerie Madon who leads all of Asia for us creatively and has motivated leaders like Pooja Jauhari, so good work follows great people working together. We have more and more talent joining us. We were relatively new in India several years ago and it took us a year or two to get our feet on the ground, but now we are here to stay.

How important are awards for you? Do you think they automatically change the way an agency is perceived by clients?

This is going to sound like a dual statement, but while they're very important and special, I don't think they define an agency. It's tempting to say that they're great recognitions of a job well done, they're great for attracting talent, and so on, but I've had a lot of times in my career where I've had work that I was just as proud of as much as the stuff that wins. 

In India, VMLY&R, in addition to the flagship agency, has The Glitch, VMLY&R Commerce and GTB, all of the WPP wings were folded into the agency as opposed to acquisitions, is WPP averse to acquisitions here as far as VMLY&R is concerned?

We're not opposed to acquisition. In fact, we're always looking. That's how we as a company were born in the US, that's how we got into both India and Southeast Asia. Glitch is a WPP acquisition that happened not too long ago. There were other parts of WPP in India that have become part of the VMLY&R family. Our feeling is that while we're not opposed to acquisition, we have built this company on chemistry, connectivity, and people who trust one another. So rather than spending a lot of time and years acquiring companies, we've built VMLY&R in India with people who we've worked with for a long time. 

We associate VML with tech-first experiences. The consumers have tasted metaverse, but brands, at least in India, have not joined the party yet. So how are you leveraging these new-age technological advances here?

We don't have specialist agencies for the metaverse or for NFTs. Of course, we have specialists and people who know it better than the others. We've got some great work here this week for Under Armor, which is an NFT work, and it's winning a lot of awards. As for India, we have the right person if and when the metaverse becomes a reality. There are very few people who are more curious and invested in the startup scene, in progressive technology and storytelling than Pooja Jauhari, who has taken over as the CEO of VMLY&R India

I was going through an article in the Harvard Business Review, and it said that marketers today are returning to traditional advertising because of the increase in clutter in digital. So how would you, as a digital-oriented agency, ensure that you're not adding to the clutter?

I've heard that notion too, which I don't think is necessarily true. We do as much traditional as we do digital. I think the way we avoid the clutter is that with digital, we become as technical and innovative as it gets and never lose the art of telling a story. I'm a journalism major and I always go back to the roots of who are you talking to, who's your audience, what's the message you're trying to deliver, how do you make it in such a fashion that somebody can understand and be persuasive with that communication? I think if we just stick to those fundamentals then we'll avoid the clutter. 

Which are some of the top brands that VMLY&R has at this point globally?

Our largest client globally is Ford motor company. We are probably most famous for our work with Wendy's fast food company. That is notable because I honestly think it's the best social media presence in the history of the universe. 

What are the kinds of creative trends you’re seeing at Cannes?

I think Cannes does a good job of making sure that the work is legitimate, credible. I think the work that is purposeful, that's saving the world is usually done for brands that have the scale to do it. It has been a trend for years, but it's especially evident this year. I do think there's a lot of ego here, and this isn't specific to any agency or any particular work, but every now and then you're reminded of the bad side of our business. I don't want to take anything away from medals, they make me very happy, but they don't define my life either.

WPP hit its 2023 revenue target two years in advance. What has it been like for a digitally led agency in a year that was known as a digital year, especially in India? 

It has been very strong. In 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, it was scary for a moment. The reason we actually grew during the pandemic and then had a record year in 2021 is because we're good at what we do. We've got a lot of consistency in our leadership. We have brand experience capability and deep customer experience capability, and we were able to pivot a lot of our work with brands. Some of the advertising slowed down, but we amped up the customer experience part of our game, our capability, and now at this beautiful point, they mesh together in a really connected way. 

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