Q] Earlier this month we saw Dheeraj Sinha’s exit from Leo Burnett. In 2022, when Subhash Kamath had moved on from his role at BBH and Publicis Worldwide India, the responsibilities were divided between you and Dheeraj. Now that Dheeraj is also moving out, are you going to get the responsibility of an additional agency?
The development is very recent, no conversation to that effect has happened yet. So, I am not aware of the Group’s plan as of now. But Leo Burnett is a very big ship. It has got a solid leadership team. Raj is at the helm of that affair. Also, my hands are pretty full with the mandates that I look after.
Q] You’ve hired quite a few people recently, but you do not have a CCO at LKSS or Publicis WW. Don’t you think it is important for a CEO to have one creative partner at the top level?
Of course, it is extremely important for a CEO to have a strong creative partnership. However, creative partnership is not defined by a designation. I have four very strong creative partners to work with: Kartik Smetacek and Rohit Malkani in L&K Saatchi & Saatchi, and Srijan Shukla and Pratheeb Ravi who lead the creative mandates for Publicis Worldwide India and Saatchi & Saatchi Propagate. All very senior leaders with rich and diverse experience as solid as any CCO in the industry. But if it is simply about the ‘designation’, it reminds me that we must do something about it.
Q] When agencies are walking on a new path, which LKSS is currently, they tend to get a star CCO, like how Havas roped in Bobby Pawar and Dentsu hired Ajay Gahlot. Did you ever feel the need to have a heavyweight CCO, like they did?
To succeed, every creative agency requires a very strong partnership at the leadership level. Not only the CEO and CCO, but also with the Chief Strategy Officer (CSO). At Saatchi we have a strong partnership between CSO, Snehasis Bose, the four creative heads, and me. It’s an eco-system that works together, wins together and when we lose, we learn together. What matters is not superstardom, but the value the leaders bring to the table. It’s no more about personalities in advertising. Instead of getting some heavyweight with a reputation which is in the past, I’d rather look at whether the person fits the role. That has worked wonderfully for us.
Adding to the power of this team are Oindrila Roy, the Managing Director of Publicis Worldwide India; Prachi Bali, Head of Saatchi & Saatchi Propagate; Tejal Shastri and Mayur Shetty, the leads at Publicis Beehive. It’s a leadership team that is robust, believes in performance and has proven itself against the best, in any room. We’ve never felt that we are lesser than anyone and to think most of us are not from a celebrity background.
Q] You’ve won more than 25 new businesses for LKSS this year, what was the strategy?
Our Year-on-Year growth percentage over the last three years has been in the high 20s. This includes the new business wins as well as the organic growth. From the peak of the pandemic (mid-2020) to last year closing (Dec 2022), our growth has doubled. Be it in earning the trust of new clients or consolidating the confidence of existing clients, our teamwork and determination has shone through.
Q] What are the major account wins for you this year, and which are your long-standing relationships?
Hero MotoCorp, ITC, Dabur, Renault, Jockey are some of the long-term relationships that we are very proud of. In the last few years since the pandemic, we have added over 90 new businesses. These include retainer and project mandates across our mainline, digital and media entities of reputed and large businesses like Nivea, Audi, Standard Chartered Bank, Grupo Bimbo, Dunkin’, Reliance Digital, JioMart, NPCI, Jio BP, AU Small Finance Bank, Relaxo, Greenpanel, UPES, Zepto, etc.
Q] Which markets are currently your strongest? Which offices are performing well, and what capabilities do you plan to add in the future?
Delhi has seen significant growth over the last three years, and we are looking to focus strongly on the South and developing a strategy for the region.
Q] How many people are you planning to hire in the South and what is the overall size of your workforce?
Business expansion and resourcing for it will go hand-in-hand. It will be a concerted effort to expand, currently it’s an open area for us to explore. The L&K Saatchi & Saatchi team has increased in size significantly over the last few years to its current strength of over 400 people across four geographies.
Q] Many agencies today are categorised as creative agencies, digital agencies, or traditional agencies. Do you think operating in a well-defined zone is important, or can you maintain a fluid approach?
It is the toughest phase for an agency when you are replacing the founders, for us it was worse because I took over in Jan 2020 from Anil Nair and immediately ran into the pandemic. But we saw this as an opportunity to redefine ourselves and to put in place a new market proposition. We were seeing the transformation of marketing all around us, the significant evolution of the role of the CMO, with CEOs and boards looking to them to drive growth. Therefore, the CMOs needed partners who closely understand the communications need and business need while navigating this rapid transformation. This led to the belief we live by, ‘Our Client’s Business is Our Business’. Thus, we don’t position ourselves as creative, digital or traditional, but as a partner who is aligned to the client’s transformative journey. And the range of services we offer, from brand consultancy to creative to media to digital to the bottom of the funnel, helps assist our clients in this journey. With the four agencies I look after, we span strategy, creative, digital and media. And this gets bolstered by Publicis Groupe’s Power of One eco-system, giving us end to end domain expertise over data, experiential, shopper, e-commerce, PR and Performance Marketing. And you see proof of that in how around 70% to 80% of our business comprises integrated Power of One mandates, using two or more services from within L&K Saatchi & Saatchi or the Publicis Groupe.
Q] Clearly, there is a changed client-agency relationship, but how is the agency’s revenue model, which is always under pressure, also responding to these changes. As a network agency, are you allowed to explore models like having a stake in the brand or revenue sharing which independent agencies are trying out? How are you addressing the fee challenge?
You’ve raised a critical issue because it’s one of the biggest challenges we face, primarily due to rising talent costs, which account for nearly 40-50% of our expenses. This puts substantial margin pressure on us. Talent is multi-disciplinary and most of the talent that you deploy should understand the entire funnel. This means that you need to hire higher-quality and more capable talent, which isn’t easy. So, while we are open to all kinds of models, most of our relationships due to the long-term nature and deep associations are retainers with built-in incentives and bonuses.
Q] Because L&K Saatchi & Saatchi is a future-looking agency, where does this talent come from? Are you hiring a lot of tech experts, or are you trying to reshape the way traditional professionals work?
The advertising industry has never really invested in a talent pipeline, unlike BFSI or CPG which had established talent sources. Recognizing this issue, both L&K Saatchi & Saatchi and the Publicis Groupe have heavily invested in campus programmes, in an effort to hire the right talent and grow them through the ranks. We bring in graduates from fields such as mathematics, economics, or psychology and fit them in the right roles within our businesses.
Q] In today’s time, what would you consider as success for LKSS?
The key elements that define success for us are the three Rs: Revenue, Respect, and Results. Revenue, stems from our business growth strategy. Our aim is to break into the top five creative agencies in India in terms of size of revenue: an ambitious target given our presence in India has been much lesser than most of our counterparts. Many a time, the challenge is that people don’t know the work has been done by Saatchi. That’s probably the reason that we stay below the radar. But there’s been a lot of focus on the work. The second ‘R’, Respect, comes from the quality of product and we have demonstrated consistent creative excellence. We were so focused on pushing the product, that we were as surprised as the fraternity at being ranked the Number 2 Creative Agency in India at Abbys. The third ‘R’ is for Results. If we claim to understand our clients’ businesses, then naturally, we must drive tangible growth for them. We firmly believe that we bear the responsibility for our clients’ business outcomes, and most of our work is delivering the expected excellent results.
Q] Now that you have experienced consistent growth, in the past three years, is the next step to become the most successful creative agency within Publicis?
We don’t view it in that manner, to be honest. There is a vast world outside the Publicis Groupe, and we all compete there. We function as a family with a shared destiny. We collaborate, share our learnings, celebrate our successes together, and strive to contribute to each other’s victories. Within the Groupe, we’ve four creative agencies, and all have very unique DNAs. Together, we cover the market comprehensively and pursue different types of clients and offer distinct market propositions.