Back in April 2018 when Vaishali Verma, then COO of Initiative (part of the Interpublic Group’s media management network IPG Mediabrands) took over as CEO, her vision was clear. “I want to build the best think tank team at Initiative.
The vision is to build that kind of an organisation which has diverse skill sets so that you are really differentiated and become the most sought after agency by any client,” Verma said back then in an interview to IMPACT. Two and a half years later, Initiative has sealed its place among the top three media agencies in India in terms of market share, growth rate, business win, people and overall momentum (source RECMA).
Setting up Initiative 2.0
Looking back at how far the agency has come over the past couple odd years, Verma tells us that it doesn’t even feel like it’s been two years since she took over. “It still feels like I’ve been in this role for only a year.
When I took over Initiative, it a fairly new entity because it was known as a Lintas Media Group (erstwhile LMG) and it was great to be entrusted with the Lintas legacy. However, the mandate was more about establishing Initiative 2.0, and I’m happy when I look back, because while it hasn’t been an easy ride, it’s been an extremely enjoyable journey,” she says.
Taking us through the agency’s journey since April 2018, Verma says, “Among the things I set out to do when I took over was streamlining the team because at the core of this is business is the people.
The ecosystem is such that you need to be very people centric, so streamlining teams, setting up strategy and backing up with analytics were all part of the agenda. Then of course, streamlining businesses. We were lucky that we were on the winning side for most of the pitches (of course RB was a different story!) The new businesses has taken us to where we are today, even in terms of the RECMA ratings.”
Another thing that Verma is especially proud of is the agency’s Net Promoter Score (NPS). “Initiative saw almost 97% participation with a score of over 50%, and that has been extremely rewarding,” she remarks, adding that the company’s score is one of the best in the region.
A defined strategic outlook
Looking back, Verma tells us that two big objectives – in terms of businesses and teams were met successfully. “The vision of Initiative was to always be a transformational agency.
That vision, along with the work we have done in terms of building brands through culture, and a strong strategic product have helped take us to where we are right now.” In October 2018, Alok Sinha joined the agency as its Chief Strategy Officer.
ACCOUNT WINS FOR INITIATIVE
Since April 2018, when Verma took over a CEO, Initiative India – the agency has won over 22 new businesses. Some of the marquee account wins are:
The next step was to build a strong analytics team under Sinha. Verma was clear that the agency needed differentiation, and that was driven by a beefed-up strategy and analytics team. “We now have a robust team, and that helps with the business side of things, both new and existing businesses. This has really enabled us to up the game in terms of elevating our strategic thinking and product.”
Initiative went on to win 22 new businesses under Verma’s leadership and with its formidable strategy and analytics team. Among these are Xiaomi, Unacademy, CRED, MG Motors and Qatar Airways.
“We have several new-age clients from sectors like edu-tech and we couldn’t have been successful with these if we didn’t have the right product because these are brands that look at accelerated growth. They look at agility, at speed of response, and the use of technology on the back of data. So I am sure we are doing things right on this front to convert these new-age clients,” states Verma.
INITIATIVE CAMPAIGNS BASED ON CULTURAL VELOCITY
How Initiative applied its concept of ‘cultural velocity’ to create meaningful campaigns for brands like TooYumm and Gala
Objective: Reinforce the brand’s purpose – committee to good health.
Culture Insight: In Indian culture, people pledge to give up on wrong habits during their visit to holy places. And health is one of the important aspects of their prayer.
Idea: Too Yumm leveraged on this cultural insight to propagated people to give up fried snacks by creating a communication platform ‘#Saynotofriedsnacks’ - with Kumbh Mela as the cultural context. Too Yumm created the World’s Largest Oil Lamp in Kumbh 2019 with an intention to give message that ‘Oil is good for lighting diya and not for fried snacks’. The execution was done by Initiative and Rapport, and it earned the brand a Guinness Record.
Objective: to enhance brand equity in the context of cleaning
Culture Insight: In Indian culture, people clean their house religiously during Diwali. However, people do not realise that keeping their cities and streets clean is also important.
Idea: The agency converted this behaviour into an opportunity and created a consumer connect initiative ‘#WhyJustCleanHome’. Research shows that people want (and expect) brands to have a point of view and play an active role for good. ‘Whyjustcleanhome’ represents a new idea so powerful and provocative that it moved through the TG’s culture as Cultural Velocity.
Winning big with Amazon
Verma played an instrumental role in Amazon’s India launch back in October, 2014. Speaking about the agency’s longstanding relationship with the e-commerce giant, Verma says, “When we launched Amazon in India at that point of time, they were the fourth or the fifth brand in the e-commerce space.
There were others who were much ahead of them, but we are proud to say that we partnered them over the last five years. It’s this fabulous growth which they have achieved today and now they are undoubtedly most desired e-commerce marketplace model.” She credits the agency’s success on the Amazon business with the fact that they took a lot of good calls at the time of launch, which coincided with the IPL and general elections that year.
Initiative ramped up its team, adapted to the Amazon work style, setting up what Verma describes as a “24x7” workstation. The brand saw results in the first year itself, and today Initiative has a seasoned and well experienced team that manages the account. “Amazon has also entrusted us with its various subsidiaries like Amazon Prime Video, Amazon Pay, Alexa, Amazon Fashion, etc. It’s like we are now handling several mini companies now under the Amazon umbrella.
We also invested a lot in the business from a talent perspective. We leveraged our network very well on Amazon and because it is a global business, we leveraged the best practices, etc., from a network perspective,” notes Verma. Initiative walked away as big winners at the Emvies and Goafest last year, scooping up a lot of awards for its work on Amazon. “It really has been a case study in itself!” states Verma.
Here’s hoping the festive quarter brings some reason to cheer for Verma and the Initiative team, and a lot more awards in the year ahead.
THE INITIATIVE LEADERSHIP
Vaishali Verma credits her leadership team for the growth Initiative has seen over the past two and a half years. Here’s what they had to say about the agency’s growth story and conquering hurdles like COVID to keep the momentum going.
The magic has come from CIA; C – An appreciation that ‘Culturally Relevant’ media solutions have a significant impact on effectiveness;
I – Pushing ourselves to think of media choices not in silos but as an ‘Integrated ecosystem’ designed to deliver the cultural relevance for brands in media and finally A – Measuring our work via ‘Data and Analytics’ to live in a constantly improving loop especially in these times when every rupee spent is valuable to clients.
This magic would not have been visible if it weren’t for excellence in execution which has been and remains Initiative’s strength.
At Initiative, we are structured to be agile and resilient. This has helped in the recent pandemic where we quickly adapted to new consumer realities and behavioural shifts and accordingly provided solutions for clients to help their businesses bounce back.
The presence on IPL’20 by Bajaj Auto and Indigo Paints are examples of non-essential brands poised to regain their consumer’s trust through advertising.
The lockdown was challenging for all, but we turned this into an opportunity for further upgrading our people’s skills through training in Initiative’s strategic products. They say when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
This is very true for Initiative, the only difference being we were always future ready, which helped us become tougher with each year.
During the last few years, we have witnessed Initiative adapting to major changes in the marketing and media environment, consumer behaviour, client needs, business practices, digital transformation, etc.
But there are some things that have remained constant and those are the core values of ‘Client First’ and a culture of ‘people care and empowerment.’
In no other agency you will see media managers with less than two years’ work experience getting the opportunity to present to the client, at award functions. Also, we have an open policy of interdepartmental transfer, flexi hours and WFH much before it became a necessity during COVID.
I cannot forget how the management and my colleagues supported me when my wife was going through a major illness a couple of years ago.
The strategic lines that are drawn, both for us and our clients, have geared us to be up and ready for any setbacks; be it economic or the loss of a client.
The media landscape is changing fast and new learnings needs to be adopted quickly and Initiative’s infinity planning process, which is culturally driven, strategic and powered by data, helps us respond to client challenges and improve relevance with consumers.
The ed-tech category got its much-awaited push and for Unacademy, we brought alive the role of online education and it being part of future of education.
We also won some great new clients in the slowdown like CRED and Meesho in Bangalore forging stronger partnerships in these tough times.
It is said that people make the nation and so it is with the organisation.
Our team has shown tremendous motivation, zeal and commitment towards all our accounts irrespective of size and this shows through in every action, leads to a strong relationship with our clients and good work always finds a good word in the market.
We have had the pleasure of enjoying the growth of our clients to become leaders in their respective industries and are proud to have partnered in their success story.
From a single big client dependence, we are now an agency with experience of managing a diverse range of categories – engine oils, innerwear, batteries, lighting, appliances, writing instruments, jewellery, footwear, cement, personal care, biscuits, cakes, food products, and many more.
‘WE HAVE ADAPTED VERY FAST IN this DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION AGE’
Q] In the past couple of years, you’ve seen a noteworthy rise, even going past some of the top media agencies in the country (as per RECMA’s rating). Would you say the focus on digital transformation enabled that?
There are two things here. One is the momentum on our existing businesses, right? When I say momentum, we have adapted very fast in this digital transformation age.
In the last two years, if you have seen the way offline businesses were kind of moving to online space, that transformation has been rapid and tremendous. So the speed at which we were able to adapt ourselves has helped us increase our share in the digital pie as well.
Because what RECMA also measures, is of course your overall growth as well as the growth on the back of digital. If I’m growing offline, you can only do so much.
So, I think the digital transformation has been a big one. And the other one is sheer new business wins. That’s a long list of clients, which has added to our overall growth. All of these have been on the back of our strong strategic and analytical product.
Q] You’ve of course had the one setback last year with the RB account loss, after retaining it six years in a row. How tough was it to keep the growth momentum going after that, even in this challenging year?
RB was a loss for 2020, and perhaps we could have retained the account, but we didn’t want to give a pricing that would be a compromise on the planning KPIs.
So it was almost like we gave it up. We had retained the account for almost six years and that was not purely on pricing.
Our partnership with RB was driven by some great work, and so for now, I am looking at it as an interim loss. While no new account win can compensate for that loss, we have done really well on the new business front over the past couple of years.
I have never gone for businesses that are high on volume. Because when you partner even small clients, it could be Unacademy, or even 1mg or today even CRED, you grow with them. Today, these brands are seeing unprecedented growth during this pandemic. We are proud to be partners in their growth story.
Q] You have often gone on record about the role that culture plays in connecting people, brands and business. How has Initiative successfully used culture as a tool to drive business growth?
See, basically the underlying principle is that we are an agency, which is working to grow its clients’ business through culture.
Our approach to media is underlined by a very simple reality that there is ad avoidance which is happening everywhere. People don’t want to watch ads, and so they skip ads. The frequency of ad avoidance will only increase, which will result in the continuous deterioration of our paid media effectiveness.
And hence, we believe that the speed at which a brand responds to cultural data signals and stays relevant, is something which the consumer remembers and responds to.
Therefore, the messaging must be done in a cultural context, which makes the ad far more memorable.
We have a term for this – we call it ‘cultural velocity.’ Velocity is speed, and we believe that the speed at which a brand responds or interprets cultural data signals to improve its relevance with the consumer is the key to success.
Q] This has been a highly unusual year for everyone across sectors. What have some of your big takeaways from this year been, both on the professional and personal front?
One thing I have to say is that I’ve adapted very well, whether it is on a personal front or professional.
Of course it has been challenging to work from home and then meet client deadlines and their expectations. So while the first couple of months were very frustrating, I have learned to become more patient and have now adapted very well.
The other thing is that we never let the bar slide on our performance in front of the client. If I were to look at the past five to six months, people have invested far more and they are working harder. Our overall quality of work and our performance has only gone up in the last few months.
And on a personal front, because I’ve adapted well, I’m getting more time to spend with my daughters. We’re having some meals together, which is rewarding.
I’ve also picked up my culinary skills, and my sketching skills, and I’m training in music. And of course, I love doing hikes and we’ve done some three hikes in the last four months on the outskirts of Bangalore. So I really have nothing to complain about. The business will come back. I am optimistic that we will overcome this.