'Agencies will now have to be business-first and not just digital-first’

Vinod Thadani, Chief Digital Officer of Mindshare, talks about his journey at the agency, the digital transformation that is taking place in India, and more

e4m by Javed Farooqui & Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: Dec 22, 2020 8:56 AM
vinod thadani

Media agency Mindshare has been an early believer in the power of digital. Realizing the impact that digital would have on the media industry, the agency roped in Vinod Thadani as its Chief Digital Officer in 2014. To scale up its digital practice, the agency has been making significant investments in product, talent, technology, and training.

Six years on, digital has overtaken print to become the second biggest category, after television, in terms of attracting AdEx. The exponential growth in gross ad billing of tech giants Google and Facebook is a testimony to the fact.

exchange4media caught up with Thadani to talk about his journey at Mindshare, the digital transformation that is taking place in India, and how are agencies and brands rising to the digital challenge.

According to Thadani, clients are seeing media agencies as partners in their e-commerce journey from platform building to performance marketing. He also said that digital is both, core to business as well as innovation-led growth for Mindshare. Thadani believes that agencies will now have to be “business-first” and not just “digital-first” in their approach.

Edited excerpts:

It's been over six years since you joined Mindshare as CDO? How do you look back at the journey?

When I look back at 2014 when I joined Mindshare, the agenda was a total refresh & transformation of the digital product, business, process, and team. From the point when digital was getting to its tipping point of becoming potentially mainstream to 2020 where it has truly become mainstream finally, the entire journey has been immensely fulfilling and enriching. Every media, when matures, has its own set of redefined milestones and workstreams. From being an evangelist & a passionate propagator of digital, I have personally matured into a person with a more strategic mindset focused on constantly raising the bar.

I feel the digital media and I have evolved together, and the story continues towards a new path.

 

Six years back, digital was not as big as it is now. How do you see the digital transformation that has taken place in India in these six years?

When you turn the pages of history or if you have ever watched Mad Men, you know that every shift in the advertising business comes with its challenges, but will meet with its eventuality. Digital media too went through the stage of speculation of being a new-age media to an inseparable part of the marketing process today. The transformation, once you begin to analyse closely, was mainly possible because of consumer adoption. If you and I as consumers did not catch on to the internet revolution, the mobile phone wave, and the power of access at your fingertips, marketing would not have played along. I would say the Indian digital advertising industry developed slower than consumers and sometimes played the catch-up game. But the more you start to put the consumer at the center of the process, transformation becomes easier and almost intuitive.

2020 accelerated the pace of change and the acceptance of digital was adopted tremendously, thereby making it the single most important media channel today. I have been honoured to have personally witnessed and been an integral part of this transformation story across so many large advertisers in Mindshare. As this decade sees its end, I see a new beginning for digital altogether. The next decade will be about being better, and being great, not just good, and at Mindshare, we have been preparing ourselves to be future-ready. It is our responsibility, as the largest agency in India, to shape the future for this exciting and ever-changing media channel.

 

How are media agencies and marketers adapting themselves to the new normal under digital?

Agility & collaboration have been the core and crux of the new normal, as things changed every month.

  • Agencies & brands have responded with the highest agility to adapt & iterate based on changing market conditions

  • Collaborating to work as one team in these testing times/conditions has defined success & failure

  • Thrust on digital transformation is a big priority across the board. It is no longer just a buzz word, but we see automation and digitization across sectors and functions

  • Disruption is the norm in digital and the cycle of new discovery/adapting is a constant for any digital marketer. Just that this year, the pace of disruption has been on a higher scale with a lower time to reorient and adapt and those who have kept pace are today seeing the result of agility

From an agency’s perspective, in the marketing & advertising (M&A) ecosystem, the place of an agency continues to be in the sweet spot where logic and magic comes together, where art and data of the craft collide. 

  • Medium agnostic planning and buying will no more be the only key focus for agencies, but there are other areas that have emerged in the last few years. Clients are seeing media agencies as partners in their e-commerce journey from platform building to performance marketing

  • Simplification of data and tech trends to actual marketing application will be needed. Agencies will have to evaluate the relevance and proof of concepts before rolling it out at a scale to drive business outcomes for clients. With the new age developments in AdTech and MarTech, agencies are exposed to a plethora of options available in the marketplace, but articulating it to “what does this mean for (client’s) business” is a skill in its own

  • Ensuring transparency and accountability and making it a safe place to business for the clients. Pre-empting risks and frauds possible within the current setup. Protecting marketers from misuse of data or ad fraud. The agency has to safeguard advertiser’s best interests and command a clean business practice, with all the current 3rd party tools and tech available

  • With a massive change in the way entertainment is being consumed, media agencies, that have the pulse of the industry, are also having a stronger role in content creation & amplifications on digital platforms

  • With the advancement in attribution techniques and the way consumer buying behaviour has changed over the last few year, especially 9-10 months or so, everything we do in marketing now is performance marketing

 

Being an early adapter, where does Mindshare stand as far as the digital media practice is concerned?

Being an early adapter also means that we are constantly learning and exploring new and better ways of working and delivering solutions that drive brand and business growth. We also work closely with media and technology partners, and making digital marketing an essential skill across our business units is very much a part of our culture. It has always been a connected world of platforms, where it is platform first, audience first & privacy first. In fact, as an agency, we play a bigger role in various aspects of a client’s business besides media planning & buying. We have been business first and not just digital first in our approach.

Upskilling talent is the topmost priority because COVID-19 has taught people digital transformation, developing foresight for what consumer behaviour shifts will remain vs. which will revert to a back-to-normal state. We have a perfect opportunity to drive behaviour change, for good in these times. We are industry leading in terms of numbers. But more importantly, we lead and guide the industry in qualitative aspects also (like BAV, etc.) to define value for our clients and industry stakeholders as a whole.

 

What differentiates digital media planning from traditional media planning?

Fundamentals of planning remain the same (be it digital or other media), the change is in terms of outcomes we chase, be it brand or demand. Digital has added the dimension of real-time data and measurement loops which enables seamless optimization. We need to acknowledge that unlike traditional media, digital is a 360-channel ecosystem in itself. There is a fragmentation of platforms like search, social, video, display, e-commerce - each with its own user experience and ability to nudge consumers deeper into the marketing funnel.

This fragmentation comes with its own unique set of complexities.

  • Now, unlike linear TV or print, consumers experience various platforms or channels within digital very differently and even the mechanism of advertising is platform-dictated. For example, a 30-sec TVC across TV channels is and can be delivered in the same manner. On digital, however, the ads have to be tailored to deliver the key message most effectively on YouTube and Facebook

  • It is a closed-loop system wherein we just do not plan upfront but keep optimizing/modifying plans in line with defined media or business outcomes/KPIs set by clients

  • Nature of buy – traditional fixed cost buying to platform-led biddable media buys

  • Metrics differ – there are so many numbers and metrics. There is a lack of standardization

  • No single source of measurement or industry-wide unified norm to calculate campaign level reach

  • Walled gardens further add to this complexity of a single view of consumer and ad effectiveness

 

E-commerce is becoming a part of people's daily lives. How important is it for marketers and agencies for reaching out to consumers?

Comms/commerce/content is key for connecting with consumers. E-commerce is becoming a high impact growth stream, with India turning the corner from early adoption to massification. This is driven primarily by the growing internet user base, rising wallet share of digital natives, and cheap & ubiquitous data plans. Consumer activation was always there, just that it is more action & demand-oriented media planning & buys and communication. It has grown from small single digits to almost double-digit share for brands. Every brand is trying to increase share in marketplaces, share their overall e-commerce component & possibilities to open D2C channel.


How important is performance marketing in the overall digital marketing ecosystem?

With the advancement in attribution techniques and the way consumer buying behaviour has changed over the last six months or so, everything we do in marketing now is performance marketing. The line between brand campaigns and performance campaigns is diminishing. The pandemic for sure has not only brought the scale in terms of more people buying goods and services online but has also opened more options for consumers now than they ever had. With more buying options, the brand loyalty advantage is at stake and the challenge of customer retention has become much tougher for marketers than earlier. This essentially means that the product, UX, brand, marketing, data, strategy, and performance teams are no more a disjointed unit and are working very closely to both acquire and retain customers.

For a lot of businesses like consumer tech and online services, where their outcome metrics are realized online, for example, online sales, downloads, MAUs, subscriptions, performance marketing takes up more than 90% of their advertising and marketing efforts.

To sum it up, everyone even remotely associated with marketing has to transform into a performance marketer.

 

Many experts believe that pandemic and the resultant disruption in the economy has been a blessing in disguise for digital? Do you share that view and why?

I agree, there are no more fence-sitters. Now, there is no more ‘why’ since it is all about ‘what’ am I going to do in digital, ‘how’ & ‘when’...with great urgency.

This is happening at two levels:

Brands are venturing into newer product lines that they would not have thought of earlier. For example, alcobev & fragrance companies venturing into the hand sanitizer line or fashion brands making face masks, and so on. There is a disproportionate focus on digital marketing in every sector, be it FMCG, retail, or any other category. Marketing strategies are being relooked at and talent transformation has become the key agenda for every marketer. As far as agencies are concerned, I would rather say there are more advantages than challenges in this new normal. The biggest advantage is having access to a talent pool across the globe since the new normal is all about being location agnostic.

The second advantage is the fact that media agencies will play a bigger role in various aspects of a client’s business besides media planning & buying. Agencies will now have to be “business first” and not just “digital first” in their approach. Upskilling talent should be the topmost priority because COVID 19 has taught people about digital transformation, developing foresight for what consumer behaviour shifts will remain vs. which will revert to a ‘back to normal’ state. The marketing, media and advertising industry has a perfect opportunity to drive behaviour change – for good in these times.

 

FMCG, which is the biggest advertising category, has been considered a fence-sitter as far as digital is concerned? Have FMCG players joined the digital bandwagon in 2020 in a big way?

Yes, and they are aggressively leading the charge to make up for lost years. Now most of the cutting-edge work in content/commerce will be from our FMCG clients. The question most FMCG brands are asking is not ‘why’ digital, but ‘how’ to master their marketing game on digital. Strong evidence and proof points exist regarding the effectiveness of digital platforms and ad exposures to impact brand metrics and even influence offline sales. We also know of some FMCG brands that are digital-first advertisers where digital takes a disproportionate share of their media investments. Many FMCG advertisers are also exploring D2C as an extended trade channel and driving that with performance marketing.

 

How big is the SME opportunity on digital? Do you see them as the future growth drivers of digital advertising?

Digital by design capitalizes on longtail- be it in terms of demand or supply. SMEs in fact make up a disproportionate percentage of Google and Facebook’s advertising revenue! We even have independent entrepreneurs and home business owners leveraging digital platforms to scale their business and gain a wider consumer base for their products.

 

Can you list the top 5 or 10 key digital trends in 2020? 

  • Consumer tech as the new FMCG: It is an app world! When you think mobile, think app; when you think mobile marketing, think app inventory

  • Hyper-local is the new business model of the new normal: Hyper-local physical availability calls for geo-fencing and data powered micro-marketing. Consumer goods businesses warrant a grocery.com channel strategy

  • Conversational commerce: The ubiquitous ‘Shop Now’ button and cold emails have a 1% open rate while private messages have a 92% open rate. Make user engagement on messaging apps a lucrative channel to build relationships with your audiences

  • The AI of Everything

AI to enable a return to contextual targeting

AI to provide new opportunities to find meaningful consumer segments, beyond the cookie

Brands will explore the use of AI in creativity

AI to revolutionize communications planning, especially in low involvement categories

  • Voice & visual search: The next frontier: Design comms CTA around voice or visual search to enable interested consumers gain access to more information. Get ready to move from SEO toward SCO (Search ‘Channel’ Optimization)

  • Audio is the new black - As per a consumer survey by IFPI, the average time spent by an average Indian internet user on listening to music is 21.5 hours per week. It is 21% higher than the global average time of 17.8 hours per week. Design assets for a screen-less interaction. ‘Voice’ command is a natural response to an ‘Audio’ stimulus

  • Micro-content and ephemeral stories - Keep it simple short, silly! Establish a brand and key message within the first frame. Consistent branding

  • Data privacy & the imminent death of the cookie - Data wells likely to dry up, fast! Your 1pd data strategy requires future-proofing, now!

 

Will digital surpass 2019's ad numbers? What kind of growth do you expect in 2020?

According to industry reports for 2020, this was the year where we forecasted digital will overtake print to take up the second place after TV in terms of ad spending. The consumer shift in behaviour in the new normal has only accelerated this trend, and perhaps digital gained its position even faster than what was predicted.

 

How important is digital for a media agency from a topline and bottom-line point of view?

I do not think any media agency can ignore or downplay its importance, unless they have been living under a rock! Digital is ubiquitous among consumers and so it is important for marketers and agencies as a channel to connect with consumers. For us, digital is both, core to business as well as innovation-led growth. We have been making consistent and significant investments in terms of product, talent, technology, and training over the last decade. Our streak of winning and managing the digital mandate of 150+ clients is a testimony of that.

 

 

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