Chutney’s future isn’t strictly digital: Sidharth Rao, CEO Dentsu Webchutney

Dentsu Webchutney, one of India's leading digital agencies, was founded in 1999 by Sidharth Rao and Sudesh Samaria. The agency will turn 20 this year.

e4m by Venkata Susmita Biswas
Published: Jan 29, 2019 8:26 AM  | 8 min read
Sidharth Rao

Sidharth Rao, the CEO of Dentsu Webchutney, one of the first few digital agencies to be acquired by the Dentsu Aegis Network in India, believes that the future of the agency isn’t strictly digital. 

Rao was 19 when he co-founded Webchutney in 1999. He started out at a very volatile time in the Indian internet space. Over the last two decades, he survived the dot com bust and his agency was acquired by DAN India in 2013. In the meanwhile, Rao continued to invest in a wide range of start-ups from media, fintech, commerce, content, etc. Webchutney has grown into one of the leading digital agencies in the country servicing clients such as Flipkart, Airtel, Bacardi, Red Bull, PepsiCo, Mastercard, and Microsoft. 
Nearly 20 years after Rao quit college to start his agency, he reflects on the position of digital in the media landscape which he has watched grow and come of age in India. In the rapidly evolving media ecosystem “the only way to secure the agency’s role in the environment is to stay undefined,” he says. 

In a candid interview with exchange4media, Rao spouts wisdom, lays down the guidelines for the agency of the future, and shares his single point mantra to stay ahead of the curve.

Edited excerpts:  

The agency will turn 20 this year, how has the attitude of marketers changed towards digital over the years? 

I’ve stopped seeing the digital agency as the custodians or experts of the medium alone. In 1999, it made sense to enter the advertising market bearing the badge of the tech geeks who know what all the buttons do. But today, there are multiple partners who can help a marketer with that- including Facebook and Google reps themselves. Digital has won. Digital agencies are still winning. The only way to secure the agency’s role in the environment is to stay undefined. Today, marketers are comfortable expecting (and accepting) the thinking from their digital partners to extend to an expert understanding of their brand & their audience both- and not just the medium. Webchutney itself, as exhibit A, acts as the lead agency for many of our biggest clients. It’s a capability we’ve built simply by being alert and predictive of how the road might sway.

Digital is largely seen as a performance vehicle and therefore brands do not spend heavily on digital for brand building purposes. Do you see this trend changing?
Yes, big time. Short-termism in thinking has always been the enemy of brand building. And digital (agencies) have been guilty of digging themselves into a hole by coming across as tactically sound, without much respect for the idea of brand building in its traditional sense. But that’s been changing over the last 2-3 years. Largely attributed to a talent influx from ATL agencies into digital- strategists, especially- who’ve been able to make your ‘traditional digital agency head’ understand and prepare for what it takes to build a brand. Webchutney has been fronting this charter with some of our biggest clients: Flipkart at the helm of it.

The Indian digital advertising industry has not received much international recognition. Why is this the case and how can the Indian advertising community change this?

We often attribute ‘digital advertising’ to digital agencies. It isn’t always the case- just like ATL advertising can’t be attributed to mainline agencies alone. What matters is that a lot of work that has technology or the internet at its core has been winning: Vodafone’s Sakhi and Kan Kanjura Tesan are great examples. Juries, publishers and audiences alike are welcoming technology-powered creative solutions from India. How can we improve it… well, the simple answer is to produce more great work. As always, the hard way is the easiest way?

Digital is a vast medium and you provide services across the spectrum, what are the key areas that you want Webchutney to build and consolidate expertise in?

The word ‘Web’ will soon begin to exist only in our name. Chutney’s future isn’t strictly digital. Simply because there’s nothing strict about digital, anyway.  

Everyone either claims to be a full-service agency or hopes to be a full-service agency. Do you think full-service as a model works in a world where specialisation and super-specialisations are in demand?

We entered as a specialist agency in ’99. I’d be a hypocrite if I turned a blind eye to the benefits of running a specialist agency. But I think the definition of ‘full-service agency’ has been distorted. Most brands on an everyday basis don’t utilise the ‘full service’ nature of their agencies- they have no need to. So instead of accumulating infrequently used capabilities in-house, you can very well flaunt the ‘full service’ tag on your credentials by simply having a robust, dependable network of transparent outsourcing and supervision of projects that need it, partnering with specialists. It is a new reality which makes perfect economic sense to both us and the brands, without compromising (in fact, in most cases, accentuating) the output.  

Ten years ago when the digital space was not as developed as it is now, Webchutney was leading the Viral Marketing game. Now you are tapping into micro-influencers. Through dissimilar, the two modes of reach are critically dependent on people taking part in spreading the word. How crucial is influence to a digital marketing strategy? 

We’ve always looked at ambassadorship as a core part of branding. Until the 90s, celebrities- sports or film icons- reaped millions of out this. But they were never ‘actual customers’ of the product- we don’t know if Sachin actually drank Boost or every Bollywood female star bathed with Lux. Digital added authenticity into the mix. Now, on one side, ambassadorship isn’t singular- but more about a community of customers like you- and secondly, it isn’t an oversimplified endorsement. Influencers have broadened the definition of ambassadorship to a reflection of an authentic customer experience. So yes: not only is influence crucial, but it is a very real and effective substitute to the idea of endorsement and ambassadorship overall.

Influencer marketing itself has come under severe fire from leading marketers like Keith Weed. And with Twitter also constantly purging the system of locked profiles, where do you see the future of influencer marketing?

There will always be exceptions in the rising stage of an innovative marketing approach. But I don’t see influencer marketing going anywhere south because of it. For instance, the very visible ‘paid partnership’ callout which publishers and platforms (read: social media companies) have adopted for eliminated native advertising overall. Is that an inconvenience to boundary-less creative thinking? Maybe. Does it in the larger context aid the user? Definitely. So agencies and brands have both figured workarounds. Bottom line, influencer marketing is “e-word of mouth”. It’s only going to get bigger.

How do you address the talent deficit in the industry? How much time and effort do you as an agency invest in skilling and re-skilling talent?

Funnily enough, this was the topic of a session that Webchutney Bangalore’s Gautam Reghunath and PG Aditiya conducted at last year’s Spikes Asia. Meaning we have enough material on this particular question to cover close to an hour’s worth of conversation? 
TL; DR- Webchutney’s people are Webchutney, and that’s how it’s been for 20 years.

Management consultancies are acquiring digital agencies, and some brands are taking the digital media buying bit in-house. Of the various services that agencies offer, do you think digital is the most threatened? 

Webchutney’s credentials and capabilities have been re-invented every 2 years, over the last 2 decades. I’d say an open mind is my executive committee’s best friend. So, nothing for us poses a “long term” threat because we’re built in a way where we are nimble and dexterous in our decision making and implementation, no matter how large we grow. So, no, not really: digital isn’t under threat, it’s only begging to be optimized every once in a while.

How are you staving off the various threats, and what is your advice to other digital agencies to safeguard their businesses?

Carpe Diem, every day.


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