Digital work in India is not done with a creative bent of mind: Rajiv Dingra, WATConsult

Dingra's WATConsult celebrates its 12th anniversary today

by Venkata Susmita Biswas
Published - Jan 10, 2019 8:13 AM Updated: Jan 10, 2019 8:13 AM
rajiv dingra

For Rajiv Dingra, who is celebrating the 12th anniversary of his agency WAT Consult, 2018 could not have been better. Dingra gushes as the list of awards that his agency has won roll off his tongue. In 2018 alone, WAT Consult won awards at multiple international award festivals, including the Lisbon International Advertising Festival, CLIO Awards 2018, Prague International Awards Festival, Tangrams Effectiveness, and Shorty Social Good Award 2018.  

It’s not just the wins that have made him ecstatic, even bagging a nomination at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity has made him proud. That’s primarily because although Indian creative agencies have been winning Lions and typically have a respectable show at the award festival, Indian digital agencies have failed to make a mark. 

Pointing out why India has not been able to make any headway in the digital space at international award festivals, he said, “Digital work is not done in India (and I’m generalising here) with a creative bent of mind. The reason for that is digital, for the longest time has borne the burden of being an ROI medium, so creativity usually takes a back-seat to results, hence these challenges.” 

Dingra is not just content with the agency’s performance at the award festivals but also business-wise. He told exchange4media that over the past year WAT Consult has grown close to 30-35% YoY on revenue and bottom line. He said that WAT Consult will strive for creative excellence in everything it does while using technology to escalate the impact of the idea. 

Further, Dingra, Founder and CEO, of WATConsult, spoke to exchange4media at length about his learnings from winning at international award shows and what he thinks will shape the industry in the coming years. Edited excerpts: 

What has the journey been like these 12 years? What were some high points?
I think last year has been quite a significant high for us. Over these 12 years there have been a lot of highs and lows, but last year, it’s a dream for any Indian agency, digital or non-digital, to win at Spikes, to be nominated at Cannes Lion, winning a Grand Prix in Prague, and to win 2 bronze medals in the digital category at the London International awards (LIA). We also won a bronze in Lisbon. 

So last year has been a high point on a whole. It’s a great feeling because we’re the first digital agency to even be nominated at Cannes. TBWA, BBDO, and the Ogilvy’s of the world get a lot of nominations, and a lot of their nominations are for non-digital work. So, to actually put a pure-play digital entry and be nominated for that as a digital agency is a great feeling. Even though we are now part of Dentsu Aegis Network, our DNA still remains as pure-play digital. 

As you said, India is not known for digital work. Where are Indian digital agencies or agencies as a whole lacking in this digital or tech thought process?
I think the reasons for this are diverse. It’s not that we don’t do good digital work, but I think in India, in general, we are bad at packaging our work for global awards and that goes for all agencies. The ones that do it really well are obviously the agencies that are great at storytelling, which are the creative agencies. This is why at global awards we see agencies such as BBDO, TBWA, Cheil and Ogilvy actually win. They are great at packaging a case film that will move, engage and make sense to the jury. 

Secondly, these agencies also come from a mainline bent of mind, so a lot of work which is submitted and packaged well, is mainline work. Digital agencies have little or no experience in submitting, let alone winning global awards. 

The other fact is cost. It is extremely costly to submit work for global awards. You need to be a very good agency, revenue-wise and profitability-wise, to be able to submit work for global awards. Each entry is between $300-$500, which in the Indian context is between Rs 30,000- 60,000 per entry. So first you must have confidence in your entry, to be able to spend that much money on one entry in one category, and then you need to have the money to submit to global awards. Half of the entries don’t get to the global awards because digital agencies usually cannot afford to submit their work. 

The next point is that digital work is not done in India (and I’m generalising here) with a creative bent of mind. The reason for that is that digital, for the longest time, has borne the burden of being an ROI medium, so creativity usually takes a back seat to results, hence these challenges.

The reason we were successful, is because we actually invested in upping the creative acumen of our team. Over the last three years, we’ve actually an international creativity trainer (Yonathan Dominitz, Founder of Mindscapes) who trains at Cannes Lions, and who for the first time came to India to conduct an exclusive training for WatConsult. We’ve had training sessions in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The training involved the basic tools of creative thinking and getting our team to go beyond just people in a room brainstorming, and making it more professional from a creative thinking standpoint. 

You spoke about how one of the reasons why digital work is not usually creative because digital seems to be an ROI performance-driven platform. The work that has won significantly has also been for an NGO, so do you see brands changing their attitudes towards digital and using it for brand building, where maybe there is scope for creative digital work? 
Definitely, and I think we at WatConsult are best positioned for that because our positioning in the market is not performance-driven. We are a full-service digital agency that is known for doing creative, content, social, video, tech, etc. Now we are focusing on creative excellence as the value we bring to the market as a digital agency. For example, if we look at our campaign for SBI, again, it is creative, there is storytelling, of unique stories across India. Or even our Raksha Bandhan film for Dominos, “The Letter”, if you see that you would not be able to tell that this was done by a mainline creative agency or a digital agency. 

If you see today, creative agencies are trying to go more digital, but digital agencies, because some of them are very performance-driven, they are not able to make the leap into becoming more creative. We have made that leap and we continue to push the bar into creative excellence as we go along. 

Last year, our entry and win at multiple awards was a step in that direction to stamp our authority as a digital agency that can compete with the best in the global awards on creativity and we hope to continue raising that benchmark each year. Now with our complete video and tech prowess, as well as our ability to come up with a creative campaign, we are positioning ourselves as a creative/brand digital agency. 

I am seeing clients clearly wanting to do work that has meaning and purpose beyond just their brand attributes or product attributes. We are doing a lot of work where brands are looking at a purpose, positioning and meaning with what their communication is with engagement.

Because of the lack of diversity on international award festival juries, do you think that the burden of being from India and sending entries that feed into the White Man’s Burden is impacting India’s performance in the digital space?
It is helping India’s performance as well. I don’t think this is a hindrance, I think this is a learning experience, to ask how you can use a local insight and cultural nuance to leverage it in digital. And digital is not always AR, AI or the extreme end of innovation. But sometimes in trying to do all of that we forget what the real message is. We have to stick to what the creative idea is and then see an execution which applies to it. But I think the cultural insight is important. 

From an awards standpoint, it has been a great year. What has business been like this past year?
It’s been a very good year. Just from the like-to-like perspective, we’ve grown close to 30-35% YoY on revenue and bottom line. It’s been a year where we’ve won some really large brands, Dominos and Tata Motors are such brands. So it’s been a good year in terms of wins and also in terms of diversity of business. We have produced at least 120 digital films throughout the year. And if you look at the amount of content we produced on platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, etc, that goes into thousands. So from our creative perspective, there has been a lot of work. From a media buys standpoint, we’ve done about Rs 200 crore worth of media buying on various platforms. It’s been a good year overall for business.

In terms of the number of people, we are now the largest digital agency within the Dentsu Aegis Network with an employee strength of nearly 400 people.

Is AR and VR still something people want to experiment with in India or was it a fad that lasted a short while?
Yes, it still is. In India, brands and clients still look at it as a one-off investment and not as a way to build a brand. Brand managers, up to the CMO, look at films as the ‘holy grail’ of creative and messaging communication. It is for a good reason because they’ve done that for TV for many years, and also because currently in digital, video is the most important currency in communication. Across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, video is the No. 1 inventory. So I am not surprised that brands invest most of their time looking at what kind of video content they can create. That is why AR and VR are secondary because it’s the same amount of money and energy which will go into creating new-age content that would be consumed by only a fraction of the overall audience.

And where does Voice fall in all of this?
Voice is definitely growing. Voice today is at the stage where social media was around 10 years ago. The only difference between voice and social media is—social media was a digital platform-led revolution, whereas voice is a device-led revolution. There are two kinds of devices which are going across; one is the mobile phone, which is now voice-enabled, and the second is a home device. I think both of these will drive the adoption of voice, but unlike social media 10 years ago which had a community and interaction angle to it, voice, for now, has a service angle. From the usability perspective, voice is more of search than social. Will it replace social? I don’t think so. Will it replace Search? The statistics on how many people are using voice for search is huge. I think the next question would be- since voice replaces Search, and Search Ads which is a huge business for everyone- how does Search business transcend into voice? But with Google and Amazon going after it, I think voice will probably be one of the topmost priorities in digital marketing. 

Given all these technological advancements we’re speaking about - voice, AR and VR - in addition to what you mentioned earlier about WATConsult’s focus on creative excellence, what are the capabilities you want to focus on going forward?
Technologically, we’ve always been on the forefront. In 2016, we had all the VR devices, and we had complete AR capability. In 2016, we made one of the first AR apps for Apollo Tyres. We have been working on AR and VR from way before. It’s not something new to us, it’s been there for a very long time. Also, we do have voice capability in-house as well. 

That being said, I don’t think technology in itself is a solution for clients’ briefs. Technology is an enabler to deliver the communication. You can deliver communication through AR, VR, or voice, you can even use AI to make the communication look more intelligent or to process data in a way so when it is showcased to the consumer it is impactful. 

When you want to use technology for a campaign, how do you differentiate between a gimmick and something that will genuinely move the dial for the business?
The first thing is, the idea has to be great. Secondly, the technology should escalate the impact of the idea. If the technology makes it a problem to experience the idea then you are just using technology for the sake of it. For example, a couple of years ago, we did a campaign for Bajaj Allianz called “Mobile Aasana” where we used 360-degree video on Facebook to get millennials and desk workers to use the phone to do various yoga poses. At that time it was new because 360-degree videos on Facebook were very new. So the use of 360-degree video technology to make people do yoga escalated the impact of the idea. 

So what are going to be the focus areas for you in 2019?
It will be a mix of technology and creativity. Creativity will be the No. 1 priority, but we are a full-service digital agency. Campaigns are successful when they meet the client’s objectives, and to do so in a creative manner makes audiences very happy. Customers and users feel connected to a campaign to a level where they want to endorse it organically. For that, the campaign has to be creative. This is why I emphasise that creative excellence will be our focus. 

What are your thoughts on the in-housing of digital media buying?
I think in-house is great for brands if they can manage it. The problems I see with brands is they have a core business, so if they take this aspect in-house, they will have employees who, beyond keeping their jobs, wouldn’t have a larger incentive to upgrade, update and scale.  Let me define what I mean by this: upgrade means to basically update themselves so that they can do better, update themselves so that they can do newer and more interesting things, and scale means they can do bigger things around it. All these three things happen in agencies by default. Which is why when you look at in-house agencies, how many of them do you really see doing path-breaking work? And in spite of having these in-house agencies, a lot of these brands go out and give projects to various other agencies. In my view, I think having in-house programmatic and buying becomes substandard after a point because employees are trying to save their jobs, not trying to excel. Agencies are trying to excel in programmatic because each of them wants to be a step ahead of the others in programmatic. But when you are doing it in-house, you will not invest in building the next architecture of programmatic for your business. Unless and until there is effort and investment from the top level of management, who is the CEO. But if it is coming from the middle level or lower than that, then I don’t see it delivering the kind of excellence that brands actually ask from agencies. 

Lastly, what are the three main areas that will be significant in 2019?
Over the last 2 to 3 years, there has been a wave of video content in digital and I don’t think in 2019 there will be a single campaign from a significant brand which does not have a video.  In my view video is going to be the primary digital asset that brands leverage for their marketing campaigns. 
Second, I think we will be seeing a lot of interesting experiments with voice. It’s not going to be mainstream, but it is going to be interesting. 
Thirdly, our media perspective: there is going to be a programmatic wave across digital, where a lot of brands will shift their spends to programmatic advertising.

Transcription Credit: Sudha Joshi

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