Wavemaker completed half a decade in India this month. The GroupM-owned media agency has been on a roll since its inception with many milestones to boast of. Formed from the merger of GroupM’s two star agencies Maxus and MEC, the agency has won and retained clients like Mondelez, L’Oreal, Myntra, Netflix, Perfetti Van Melle, Tata Consumer Products, Mother Dairy and Policy Bazaar. Even in its early years, Wavemaker
successfully converted the pandemic adversity into an opportunity, helping brands navigate the crisis with solutions that resonate with their purpose. The much-talked-about campaign for Cadbury with Shah Rukh Khan, conceptualized with creative partner Ogilvy, won Wavemaker five Cannes Lions, including a Titanium, apart from other accolades across events.Be it winning prestigious awards, acquiring new business or building future-ready capabilities, the last five years have given Wavemaker enough to celebrate. The agency is believed to have added 10% in new billing from inorganic business wins in 2021 alone. Its consistent performance helped it clinch businesses worth Rs 1,500 crore between 2021 and 2022.
Despite losing an account as big as ITC Foods (estimated to be worth Rs 600 crore), Wavemaker added Rs 750 crore more to its billing in 2022. Some of the new clients
added in its kitty in last two years include VIP Industries, Danone, TrueCaller, KreditBee, Sharekhan, Kisna Jewellers, CoinDCX, PayTM First Games and Audible.
So it’s not hard to guess why Ajay Gupte, CEO of Wavemaker South Asia, is a happy man. His boss Toby Jenner, Global CEO of Wavemaker, can’t stop praising India and Gupte’s leadership. “I’m continuously impressed with the quality of work that comes from Ajay and his team. They go from strength to strength. Even at the height of the pandemic, Wavemaker India was producing award-winning work and bagging new businesses. When traditional media like print, TV and outdoor suffered, our teams pivoted and presented clients with strong ideas for digital, OTT, content, influencer and performance marketing,” said Jenner.
Ask Gupte and he will attribute most of his success to the vision of CEO Jenner and the legacy he inherited. “It’s all a part of the plan that we are all meticulously working towards. Firstly, I think we’re all driven by our global CEO’s vision to be the world’s most wanted media agency and we all are passionately making sure that we hold the mantle of India’s most wanted media agency. Right from the Maxus days, we have been very innovative, always trying to do something different.”
Gupte claims that the vision to stay ahead of the curve was conceived way back in 2005 when he was part of Maxus as its Head of operations. “Not many media agencies then thought beyond radio and television with a little bit of digital, which was at 1% spending those days. Despite which, we had a strong digital and content team even then,” he added.
Going forward, the agency aims at building newer avenues for growth. In the middle of the pandemic, it formally launched its consultancy business to help brands navigate through crisis. In the last decade, the media industry perceived consultancies like Accenture and McKinsey as potential competition to their role as advisors and partners to clients. But Wavemaker entered the space and now consultancy services alone make up almost 25 percent of their business.
“As the media and advertising landscape continues to change, they are the provocateurs we need to keep Wavemaker ahead of the competition. Consultancy services now make up around 25 percent of our business and it’s growing. Everyone we pitch against is competition; everyone who has a relationship with our clients beyond WPP is competition,” says Jenner.
While they are in a happy place, both Toby and Ajay want to enter their sixth year of their service at Wavemaker, hungrier and more restless than before. “We’re constantly developing our offerings to answer clients’ most burning questions and help them grow better. We’re never complacent, and we never feel that something is good enough. We’ve got a fundamental restlessness at the heart of our business that propels us forward,” Jenner adds.
As the company celebrates its achievements of five years, Global CEO Toby Jenner is all praise for his India counterpart. Jenner, in an exclusive conversation with Naziya Alvi Rahman, shared that he believes India has the ability to head the APAC region as the fastest growing country globally. Jenner, who like Gupte, took charge of the agency just months before the Covid pandemic hit the world, also opened up about dealing with the crisis by turning it into an opportunity, importance of agility in the media agency business, maintaining a healthy client-agency relationship in today’s times, and more.
Q] Wavemaker India has won many accolades across festivals, including the Cannes Lions Festival, for its innovative campaigns. As the agency’s global leader, how do you look at the work done by the team in the last five years?
I’m continuously impressed with the quality of work that comes from Ajay and his team. They go from strength to strength. Even during the height of the pandemic, Wavemaker India was producing award winning work and winning new business. When traditional media like Print, TV and Outdoor suffered, our teams pivoted and presented clients with strong ideas for digital, OTT, content, influencer and performance marketing.
Shah Rukh Khan My Ad – the case that won big at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival, among others, securing us one of the coveted Titanium Lions, the only one for WPP this year, is a fantastic example. It is the work of an exceptionally strong client team, comprising Wavemaker and our creative partners at Ogilvy, and a brave client, Mondelez, who has never been afraid to challenge what good looks like. Provocation like that is never easy, but Wavemaker India is doing it so well, and winning & growing because of it.
Q] Both you and South Asia CEO Ajay Gupte took charge close to the pandemic. You both have said that you saw the crisis as an opportunity and not a challenge. Can you share more about your strategies that helped Wavemaker and its clients steer through the pandemic wave?
When the pandemic broke out, we had just completed a transition plan to completely reinvent Wavemaker’s positioning, product, attitude and identity. That meant we went into the pandemic as an energized and unified agency, connected globally through technology. In that way, we were lucky because the lines of communication were wide open across the agency. We were already discussing our development roadmap and keeping each other up to date on the challenges and opportunities we faced. This helped us immensely once the pandemic hit, and we had to think and act quickly to support our people, our clients and our business.
Q] Where do you place India as a market in the global scheme of things for Wavemaker? Also, how has Wavemaker India done as compared to other markets globally?
India is such a strong market both in terms of talent and business performance. India consistently tops not only award leagues but also the COMvergence rankings. I really feel that India, and APAC as a whole, is a continuing growth opportunity for us. At the moment, APAC accounts for just under a third of our global business, but I expect double digit growth from the region in 2023, and India to head the region as the fastest growing country globally.
Q] You have repeatedly emphasised on the importance of agility in the growth of media business. Can you give us few examples of how Wavemaker has practised it.
The best and the most important example was the creation of Maximize, the first end-to-end planning platform to use AI. It allows our planning to change direction and re-plan thousands of scenarios in real time. Through machine learning, it removes the tedious elements of work from our planners, leaving them to do what they do best; adding human brilliance and creativity to a client’s plan, improving what has gone before year on year.
We were also the first agency to give our clients access to Amazon Advertising’s ‘Overlapping Audiences’ API, which provides brands with insights to help understand the relationships between a brand’s audience and other audiences on Amazon.
We’re constantly developing our offer to answer clients’ most burning questions and help them to better growth. We’re never complacent, we never feel that something is good enough. We’ve got a fundamental restlessness at the heart of our business that propels us forward.
Q] As the Global CEO of a leading agency, what according to you are some of the biggest challenges towards fostering a healthy clientagency relationship in today’s times?
The biggest component to a healthy agency-client relationship is one of mutuality born of trust, although I accept there’s always been a challenge between short and long-term success and getting the balance right so all partners can make a meaningful contribution. It’s incredibly easy to say no, but the great clients know when to say yes, they have a seat at the board table and have demonstrated to their CFO and procurement colleagues the growth their media agency can deliver. If this is not the case, then it can be much more of a supplier than partner relationship. This tends to be built on inputs (measured by legacy intermediaries) and not the outcomes we can increasingly deliver to drive a growthorientated solution
Q] You have been instrumental in building a consulting business within a media agency. Do you see consultancies such as Accenture or McKinsey as potential competition to your role as advisors and partners to clients?
We formally launched our consultancy business about two years ago to join the dots between global and local experts and create a consistent way of operating. Since then, the consultancy community has evolved into a strong practice of exceptionally talented people who answer the most demanding client questions and deliver services
that drive and future-proof our clients’ growth. As the media and advertising landscape continues to change, they are the provocateurs we need to keep Wavemaker
ahead of the competition.
Consultancy services now make up around 25 per cent of our business and it’s growing. Everyone we pitch against is a competition, everyone who has a relationship with our clients beyond WPP is competition. In the right environment, we can, and do, co-exist and work well together. However, we as an industry are exceptional at execution as well as strategy, whereas the consultancies tend to be better at the theory of media than the all-round execution that media agencies provide.
Q] Advertising agencies are believed to be facing their worst talent crisis ever. Post the pandemic, the attrition rates grew across agencies, with younger people not keen on a career in advertising. How do you make it attraction for employees to continue at Wavemaker?
When we evolved our proposition to be Positively Provocative, it was with a simple ambition at its heart: to empower every single Wavemaker to have a point of view. Regardless of how experienced or not our team is, everyone has the right to influence the direction of our clients and our business for the better. It’s this attitude which hopefully ensures our teams around the world feel as though they belong to an organisation that listens to them, encourages them to be themselves and share
their point of view. I want to hear from everyone in Wavemaker, regardless of their background, they have a place at Wavemaker, and they can make a difference
to our business. This is how we are focussing on developing an inclusive and dynamic workplace, and hopefully, we are attracting and retaining the very best people.
Ajay Gupte took charge as Wavemaker’s CEO, South Asia just six weeks before Covid hit the world. He has now broken all traditional codes of a media agency and has built a strong digital and content team. Adding to these achievements was a remarkable run at Cannes but he is hungry for more, and now wants Wavemaker to be the most-wanted media agency.
Q] Wavemaker has been doing well ever since its inception, and most remarkably, did not slow down even during the pandemic. What magic formula have you used to transform the company into a new-age agency?
It’s all part of a plan that we are meticulously working towards. Firstly, we’re all very driven by our Global CEO Toby Jenner’s vision to be the world’s mostwanted media agency, and we hold the mantle of being India’s most-wanted media agency.There are two key elements to this. First is our basic DNA, which has always been about
being innovative and trying to do something different. This goes right from the Maxus days, and in India, Maxus has been a large part of Wavemaker. Back then, Maxus
was one of the most awarded agencies for many years. I was a part of Maxus as the head of its operations in 2005, and we had a content team right then. Not too many media agencies then thought beyond Radio, Television and a little bit of Digital. Digital was at one per cent spending yet we had strong digital team.
The second part of it is the wonderful leadership team that I’m fortunate to have with me. Whether it is the head of digital, head of content, head of strategy, office heads or head of trading, they’re all possibly the best in their field.
The other advantage we had is this vast basket of clients that we work with. It’s so wide and broad that it allowed us to deliver different kinds of expertise, learn from it and then take it to the other clients.
Q] Coming to numbers, how has the business been this year, considering the fact that a lot of pitches that did not happen in 2020, were finally executed in 2021 or early 2022?
We have won a lot of business this year. What makes me happier is the fact that a lot of these wins have been in new areas. So, the growth is organic, from our existing clients, as well as new clients. Whether it is performance, e-commerce, social analytics or advocacy, we are winning a lot of businesses in new areas. Clients are definitely seeing us bringing benefit onto the table.
We have added new business worth Rs 700 crore in areas like performance marketing, e-commerce, first-party data management, etc. In terms of percentage, possibly, we have added about 10% of our billing through new business, which is phenomenal.
Q] There is recession in the global markets, but India has been, so far, doing fine. Does it add to your pressure to perform extra to cover up for the global
India is a very important market in the global scheme of things. We are among the top five markets today for most industries. So, the world is definitely looking towards us and our numbers. Fortunately, despite all the pessimism and negativity, we are still growing, and at a fairly fast pace. Therefore, there’s a lot of hope and a lot of expectation from India. So, there is a lot of pressure. But I think it is good pressure. It’s for a good reason. It’s for the reason that we are growing. And I think that keeps us going. It tells us that we are leading the pack and doing very well. So, it’s a wonderful time to be in India and wonderful time to be doing well in India.
Q] Retaining talent has become a very difficult task for most leaders in the industry. How has Wavemaker been able to do that? What kind of future-ready practices have you brought into the organization?
It’s a very real challenge that the industry faces today in terms of retaining talent. Because your talent is not only restricted to other media agencies which are your competitors, but other areas like clients/brands, start-ups and media companies also offer massive opportunities, and therefore it is important for us to make it exciting for people to stay. People don’t only work for money. They want to work to be able to do something different, to be able to add to their careers. They want to solve problems. They want to add to their experiences and build successful careers. People also want to be on the winning side. They want to work where there is exciting work happening, where there is differentiated work happening and where there is recognition. With the kind of work that we’ve been doing, I’m really proud to say that our retention levels are the highest amongst our peers.
Q] What is your current attrition rate?
Our attrition rate is around 24 percent, which is fairly low in this industry. There are a few things that go behind it. We’ve built capabilities in areas unheard of possibly a few years ago and not too many agencies have invested in. We’ve got audience scientists like content creators, copywriters, social media specialists, social media analysts, and we’ve got hard-core data analytics people. There’s such a vast platform for people to work in. Also, we really believe in allowing people to do things that they want to do. In our company, there have been instances when senior resources working in a particular field have come up and said that they would like to build this practice for us. And we said, okay, go ahead. We had the ability to invest. We’re building expertise. We are expanding our lead against everybody else and I think we’re building capability there.I think factors such as the opportunity to do something different, the opportunity to learn and a lot of experience (thanks to our clients) have created the attraction for us and this shows in our attrition levels.
Q] This year’s festive season did not turn out to be as good as we would have wanted it to be for various reasons like global recessions or drying up of investments. What did you do for your clients differently to help them overcome this?
I think the consumer is a lot more optimistic than the brands now. Whenever I speak with clients, they say the off-take has been very good. However, there are challenges with margins, with the bottom line and also there is the global pessimism that is affecting us. When budgets are tight, clients look for maximum return on every investment. So that is the key. We’ve been able to deliver that in many ways, starting right from the attribution journey and then being able to help our clients create the firstparty data collection ecosystem. Collecting data, enhancing it and then being able to activate the data is something that we started with a couple of clients, and now I’m happy to say that we have 25 clients on that. We are making communication addressable. It is accountable and there is guaranteed return on investment, and therefore, it helps our clients maximize revenue from their investments.
The second part of it is engaging with the consumers. This becomes a lot more important because of the amount of options they have and their short attention span. Therefore, one needs to create content which is digital and OTT friendly, and we have the ability to really put that together for clients. E-commerce is another opportunity that we have created for our clients to invest in. So, whether it is better attribution, better addressability, better engagement with the consumer or creating opportunities for commerce, we have been able to actually work across the spectrum for our clients. All of this is eventually helping them maximize return on their investments, which is a great support in this kind of a time.
Q] You mentioned that budgets were tight this year, how tight were they?
Typically, you see a massive upside getting into the festival period. You see a definite upsurge, maybe a couple of months or 45 days before the festive season
and then lasting for about a month after. I think the upsurge has not happened in that way this year.
Q] So, was the upsurge marginal?
Yes, it has been marginal. It hasn’t been the way you expect it to just jump up. There has not been an upsurge compared to a normal year (not the pandemic years). Normally, you would expect the festive season to give you a lot better impact. I think that has been a little subdued. It is better than a normal month certainly, but not to the levels that you usually expect to see.
Q] What according to you were the reasons for this slowdown, and how long do you think this will continue?
It’s a combination of pressure on margins, due to (high) raw material costs, and the drying up of investments in our start-ups from global markets. I think a combination of these two, along with a pessimism in global markets, have ensured that the festive season was not as big as we thought it would be. We have a challenge at hand, at least for the first quarter, and I hope things will get better after that because, like I said, the consumer is still optimistic, and we are in a market which is growing and there are a lot of opportunities. I think people will eventually see the benefit of investing in marketing and communication.
Q] You also spoke about creating shorter content for younger people. Can you give us some examples? The Mother Dairy campaign with Zakir Khan is a beautiful piece, what more have you done and what more are you planning to do in the coming days?
That is one of our flagship pieces of work. There have been so many more. There is one we did for Perfetti and Dharma Productions. We created a twopart short video. It was a girlmeet-boy plot beautifully done in the typical Dharma Productions style.
There is loads of content that we’ve been creating for our clients. There is Spirit of Scotland with Kunal Kapoor. Apart from that, there have been a lot of tech-enabled work across the board. There are some games being created with AR for some of our clients. It’s with the QR code. And there are other small pieces of content. There is one piece of work for MTR, for example, where we have worked with the captain of the Indian women’s cricket team.
Q] Tell us about your next Cadbury-Shahrukh Khan-like work that will make us proud at Cannes yet again.
A wonderful piece of work for Cadbury, aimed at helping small retailers and small hawkers to start selling online, is already out. It’s an excellent piece of work
and a big story for us. Apart from that, there’s some more great work. There’s a piece of data-connected work that we’ve done for Luminous. For this, we tied up
with the data source which tells us when the power goes off in a particular locality, and we use that input to communicate to users in that area saying why don’t you
get Luminous? And I think it has worked extremely well. This is a wonderful example of data and creativity working together which we are really proud of.