Creative agencies have allowed themselves to be dumbed down: Vikram Sakhuja

04 Jun,2012


By Anil Thakraney


Vikram Sakhuja heads GroupM, India’s largest media buying conglomerate. In a long and animated discussion, the ace number cruncher shares with us insights from the Indian media industry. As well as his own organization’s approach to the various challenges staring at the media business.


Fifty-year-old Sakhuja is an IIT/IIM grad, and he did a number of years in marketing before he shifted to the world of media in 2001, when he signed up as Managing Director of Mindshare Fulcrum. During our meet, I could see that the outspoken GroupM boss is extremely passionate about his work, and is someone who could get easily agitated over provocative questions. Thankfully, we had a smooth run. Guess it’s all thanks to Yoga which Sakhuja has recently taken up. 🙂


You were a hard-core marketing man at one point. What prompted the switch to media?

I believe in taking the career as it goes, and taking decisions at different points of time. Let me take you through my career graph to explain this. After IIM, Calcutta, I was pretty clear I wanted to get into the marketing side of things. So I joined P&G and did eight years there. When I joined them, Richardson Hindustan Limited (RHL) was becoming Procter & Gamble (P&G). So when I started out, the company had RHL values and very quickly the organization got Procterised.


And you were not happy with that?

I was happy with that, but Procter believed in the system of specialization. So the guy who gets into sales, stays in sales. The guy who gets into advertising, sticks to advertising. I was in research and they extended that to marketing services. I learnt a lot there, but later on I wanted to move to brand management and P&G wasn’t allowing me that. And I didn’t want my epitaph to read ‘Marketing Researcher’. So I moved to Coca-Cola which was more flexible in these areas. Out there I managed the entire brand portfolio. That worked very well for 5 years. I was reporting to Sanjeev Gupta in those days, and he was handling both, marketing and bottling. And later he went on to take up a bigger job. So they got Shripad (Nadkarni) to head marketing, and I felt my job would get undermined a little bit. And so I left to join Star TV.


And you lasted there for just one year.

It was a mistake. I call it jawaani ki bhool. Peter (Mukerjea) said they wanted to start a strategic marketing function there, and it would include marketing of the creative product as well as on-air marketing, which is where the bulk of the spending goes. But it didn’t pan out like that because the programming department had a territorial interest in the programming piece. So it became very clear to me this was going to be an off-air game, and that didn’t have too many legs. And I left Star without a job. Later, Ranjan Kapur introduced me to Andre Nair (this is year 2001) who was looking for people to start Mindshare in India. We had a drink and one thing led to another. I felt a little trepidation in the beginning because I perceived ad agencies to be a little unprofessional. But later I thought about it rationally and it made sense. And so here I am.


There are large media shops under the GroupM umbrella. How do you manage to give personal attention to each one?

I am running GroupM, I am not running Mindshare or Maxus. There are capable people running those. I am a management by objectives kind of a person. One aspect of my deliverable is Profit & Loss, there’s no getting away from it. I have told my guys we should get growth from our existing clients. We should have the source credibility to go to them and manage 100% of their marketing investments. That is the agenda I drive. Then, I have to create an eco system for technology, talent and on how to do things better. The scope of service has actually dumbed down, clients are paying peanuts and they are getting monkeys. So I go and tell my clients if they want the right kind of talent and want to get the value out of it, then this is how it works.


I suppose you operate more as a coach than as a player.

Do I meet clients? Yes, I do. Am I directly involved in the day to day plans? No, I am not. Unilever is our biggest client. So every year at least one or two deals I will sit in on. Also for other clients. I love to be there for the sheer passion of it.


What is Sir Martin Sorrell’s brief to you?

Martin is pretty hands-on in most of the businesses. I rely on him more for counsel. I whet my new plans with him. For example, I went to him with the idea of celeb endorsements. And he felt it wouldn’t work, but asked us to try it anyway. And it didn’t work. Then there was a time we were offered some sweat equity in the IPL Deccan Chargers team. I took it up to Martin and he didn’t think it was a good idea, because he didn’t know the nature of the animal. But he’s brilliant, he is one of the few guys who understands our business, he wants to get in deeper.


What is your stand on the shift from the commission system to the fixed fee system for media agencies?

I definitely support the fee system. Though I would prefer a balance of commission and fee. Because in a growing economy you win with commissions. But when spends are not looking good at all, as is the case this year, fee bails you out. In principle, however, I like the fee system.


How are the clients reacting to it?

The people who take their marketing seriously believe in the fee system in letter and spirit. The top notch companies like Unilever, Ford, Pepsi, etc, totally get this. I believe clients should pay us Cost + for service, and a factor of that for the value we are able to demonstrate.


What qualities do you look for in a media buyer in today’s time?

You must understand that in our organization we don’t just buy media. I would like to believe that our agencies are actually driving the marketing agenda, probably more than the creative agencies. Most of the creative agencies have allowed themselves to be dumbed down, most of them are only interpreting briefs in a TV commercial format. They are only driven by the tactical creative idea rather than a long term view of the brand. All these wonderful creative minds should spend a little time thinking brand stewardship. Out here, we want people who can think account planning and communications. People who can understand the brand, the consumer, and then have the ability to unlock all the media solutions. So the media person needs to understand content, activation, digital, conventional media, and then he has to see how all this comes together.


Key challenges ahead for media agencies?

The clichéd one of course is that the commissions we earn are not allowing us to invest in the best talent. But we have to all individually work ourselves, show value and then ask for stuff. The other challenge is in the digital space. The erstwhile DNA of the media companies excluded digital. I believe integrated media planning is the way to go. This is distinct from multimedia planning, which had the TV plan, print plan, radio plan, etc, all working in silos. But with the increasingly multi media environment, the key is integrated planning. And digital is allowing that seamlessness even more. We have embraced this some time back.


And yet, the media buying business, after the unbundling, has got totally commoditized. Shashi Sinha said to me the media planner has become a zombie.

I was the first guy to bring the AOR into the country. So you can blame me for the disintegration of the full service agency. (Laughs) I would say each of our agencies has its own planning way. Maxus has something called ‘Relationship Media’, MEC has got ‘Navigator’, and so on. Each of them talks the consumer journey. They talk much more about the communication challenge. I am actually finding the plans looking more different now than they were earlier. So I disagree with my dear friend Shashi Sinha. Maybe I am not cynical. The planner is alive and kicking. It’s in fact the most exciting time to be in the media because of the large amount of fragmentation and the large amount of media choices.


You did a stint with television. Do you foresee threats to this medium in the near future?

Yes. The problem with TV today is that it has become a media game of the value of the inventory. At the end of the day, there are only about four million commercial GRPs being broadcast every year at an all India level. And that’s growing at 2 or 3% per year. This is the market for TV eyeballs. So like it or not, you have to extract value out of this. Today, at last count, we have 500 or 600 channels, and it’s getting fragmented. If an Imagine TV dies, someone else will pick up ratings. And if someone else launches, there’s further fragmentation. So the problem is that the same money is chasing some eyeballs. Until the new ratings system comes up and there’s a tectonic shift, you are talking about a metastable equilibrium. Now if the value has to go up, either you have to deliver more reach, or you have to deliver some associated imagery or sponsorships or incremental value.


When do you expect the shake-out to happen in television?

We’ve been expecting a shake-out since 1996. I guess some people seem to be having deeper pockets. I am not a finance guy so I don’t know how it works. But I can’t imagine many of them are making money.


Think the IPL is losing some of its sheen?

No. The ratings this year were a tad higher than the last year. But for all practical purposes, have held on to last year’s levels. It has stabilized at about 5 rating points. In fact, this year was the best year primarily because of the games, which went down to the wire.


And it’s a good investment for team owners?

For them it’s going to be a slow burn. You have do it sensibly, like the KKR franchise does, and I think they make money. Whereas a large number of other people don’t make money. It’s about how you manage the entire franchise.


There’s a perception that you guys are not passing on bulk rates you get from the media to your clients.

We have something called the WPP Compliance. And we take it very, very seriously. So we are making sure that we do everything as per our contract with each client. In letter and spirit. We are definitely not holding back anything which is due to a client. We have a media owner invoice and it’s backed by an agency invoice. If the clients want to audit us, they are most welcome to do so. We are a global leader in this space doing global deals, we won’t mess around with something where there’s a breach of trust involved. We can’t afford that.


Perhaps this was one of the reasons Reckitt Benckiser came up with the idea of agencies paying to pitch, and compensating them in case of a drop in ratings.

They invited us to pitch and we asked them if they were being ridiculous. We turned them down. If somebody has an obscene point of view, I cannot subscribe to it.


And yet, some agencies pitched for that account. Isn’t the industry united in these things?

I thought we were united on that but obviously we weren’t. What do I say now?


You’ve done many years in this business. Ever thought of starting out on your own?

The thought has crossed my mind but I didn’t pursue it. I am not a very entrepreneurial guy. My philosophy is: Don’t fix it unless it’s broken.


Does the lack of adequate talent in the media industry frustrate you? Is it a constant battle to find the right people?

Yes, it is. But we have to be able to pay right to get the right talent. And for that we have to work our own internal financial structures. The level at which we work, there’s only so much we can afford to pay people at the entry level.


Is there corruption in this business? There are allegations of planners taking money and other favours.

One hears about these things from time to time. There is an opportunity for something like this, and clearly we have to plug it. This is where I believe organization culture is very important. If conversations in an organization involving integrity are strong, then the one or two people who entertain these thoughts will find themselves in a very uncomfortable situation.


Have you ever fired people from your company because of this?

Oh yes, I have.


I saw a Youtube video of yours where you mention something about getting stressed out at work.

I tend to be very animated and passionate, and I do get worked up. But I have been doing Yoga and stuff like that. And that’s helped. I have also started taking it a bit easier now, we have a good team. And at the end of the day, tension lene ka nahin, dene ka! (Laughs.)




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2 responses to “Creative agencies have allowed themselves to be dumbed down: Vikram Sakhuja”

  1. Pradeep Narasimha says:

    I observe that large agencies and importantly the top twenty Creative agencies are willing to work for Peanuts, since they have a large number of monkeys sitting inside the system only to recover their cost and reduce the losses.

    This short term recovery process will prove to be a set back and hindrance to both small and large agencies in the long term. Therefore we should have a body to arrive at certain norms to stop dumping small and big creative agencies. It’s imperative that Client’s while demanding insightful strategies; should also look at their Creative Partners to prosper to retain talent and maintain resources.

  2. Mathew Jose says:

    I think you are being a little arrogant when you say that creative agencies have dumbed themselves down. They have not dumbed themselves down. Its just that they are not being allowed to drive strategy so much.
    We are going through a phase where clients are on PLAY SAFE mode, where people who manage the budget/money run things. So maybe media people (who decide how the client’s money will be spent) get more face time with clients and hence feel a little more powerful. This current feeling of hubris is why media agencies believe they can do creative as well and set up departments as well. Well, everyone feels they can be creative.
    The fact remains good media planning can only find ways to apportion spends. But if you want to multiply its impact you need a good creative idea. And this you can get only from good creative agencies.