The term ‘media agency’ is a bit outdated: CVL Srinivas

14 Jan,2014


When CVL Srinivas’s name was announced as successor to Vikram Sakhuja as CEO of GroupM South Asia, not many were surprised. Srini, as he’s known in the industry, had worked in GroupM before and had established himself as a seasoned media agency captain. While his tenure required him to ensure GroupM business was as usual, he took measures to steadily get the media services group to reinvent itself, without disturbing the status quo.

In a free-wheeling chat with Pradyuman Maheshwari of MxMIndia, Mr Srinivas talks of his year at the helm of GroupM South Asia , how 2013 was for the business, his plans for 2014 and how he misses being a media planner/buyer in the digital age.

Excerpts from the interview:


As you look back at 2013 which has just passed us, how would you describe it? Annus Horribilis, as Queen Elizabeth had termed the year 1992 in a speech? Was it a good year, or a year that could’ve been worse?

It was the year of the perfect storm. On the one hand there were structural and policy-level changes especially in the broadcast sector. On the other hand, we had a bit of a yo-yo year in terms of ad spends, up in the first six months, a slowdown post-July and a minor blip towards the year-end. Having said that, it could have been far worse. Given the fundamental strengths of the economy, advertisers continue to invest in brands and media organizations continue to innovate and diversify.  Things continue to keep happening in India, no matter what the economic or political scenario is. I am just back from a long overseas trip and I can definitely say that the most exciting market to be in today, at least from a media industry perspective is India.


It’s also been a year for you as head of GroupM. How has it been for you, personally?

Its been a satisfying year for me personally. All our agency brands and specialist units did extremely well in a challenging year. We won several new businesses, retained all our key clients who came up for a review and continued to innovate in terms of our offerings.  We launched a few interesting tools in 2013 to help our agencies manage the transition from offline to online and for sharper planning in smaller towns. GroupM agencies and specialist units continued to dominate all industry awards. We won the coveted Porter Prize for leveraging unique activities, the first for any media or ad agency. Its also been a year where we launched several initiatives on the Talent front. Including Y-co, our Youth Executive Committee. We’ve had our lowest attrition compared to earlier years. None of this could have happened without great team work – GroupM is a fantastic example of how team work can deliver great value.


The digital media agency has become a full-service business. Are you also offering that at GroupM?

GroupM has been an early mover in the digital space and we have scaled up our practice over the years. So while most of our competitors are acquiring digital agencies to build scale, we are taking our digital practice to the next level by integrating it a lot more with our core product and moving to the next level of sophistication in content, analytics and  activation, thereby providing a lot more value to our clients.


You mentioned that digital is the centre of everything you do and if indeed digital will become the centre of most advertising, does it worry you that you will also have various players also doing media kind of work – including those from agencies within the WPP network?

The ecosystem is extremely fragmented. Increasingly we get this feeling from our clients that they are looking for  integrated solutions. Clients are looking for ideas that can explode across multiple touch points with scale and  measurability . Ultimately it boils down to a deep consumer understanding and therefore the need to analyse data which is going to sit at the heart of the advertising product. I believe media agencies have an even greater role to play going forward. In fact with so much of expertise built in areas like consumer understanding, data management, analytics, experiential marketing, digital and content, I think the term ‘media agency’ is a bit outdated.


But, digital continues to be a low-spending sector.

Relative to TV and print, digital is still small, but it has been growing at 30-40% year after year. We have just crossed 200 million internet consumers in India and by end of next year could be hitting double that number. With improvement in digital infrastructure and growth of video advertising on the internet, we are bound to see digital hitting a double digit contribution of the AdEx very soon. Also, digital as we have known it (internet and mobile) is expanding into many more platforms including TV with convergence technologies.


As someone who’s seen the business for a long time, do you think the reason for this is that the best creative work is not done in digital? And what fuels creative agencies is TV commercials which are more expensive to make and hence generate more commissions.

That was a problem some years ago, but I think it’s changing. We have a whole new generation of fresh young creative minds who are born in the digital era. GroupM is attracting talent in this area and we have done good creative work for some of our clients.


One of the key highlights that everyone’s made a note has been the creation of the Y-Co. How’s it doing? But, first, tell us how it happened?

While working on our ‘New Me’ vision, one of the things that came out very clearly was in a digital era, if knowledge is equal to power, most of the power rests with the younger lot in the agency. So we felt that the ExCo (Executive Committee), which is the senior leadership team at GroupM, needed to have a closer connect with what’s happening on ground and needed to have better insights and better input when it came to areas like digital. That actually led to the creation of Y-Co: we got 15 of our brightest stars who’re all in their 20s to get together and form this body to actually complement the ExCo.Y-Co worked on several strategic initiatives through the year, in the areas of digital, talent retention, profiling, etc.


Looking back, any key learnings for you from Year 1?  Any key differences that you’ve managed to bring in to the successful structure you inherited?

Having worked in smaller outfits, including start ups, I realise the need to be constantly restless about the future, no matter how big or strong you are, in order to stay relevant for our clients. A key learning from last year was the need to bring in a lot of focus starting with a clear articulation of where the organization needs to be three years from now. And then aligning everything to this vision, the organization structure, talent, investment priorities, day-to-day processes, etc


At the start of the year, GroupM senior leadership along with several of our key team members worked on creating a ‘New Me’ vision and a roadmap for the next three years, given the opportunities and challenges in the market place. We did an organization-wide cascade of ‘New Me’ that has helped bring focus and purpose into everyone’s day job. We simplified our organisation structure, embedded more specialist resources (digital, content, data experts) into agencies and built several partnerships, all tying in with our ‘New Me’ vision.


On a very personal level, has it been a fulfilling experience?

Yes, indeed.


You were of course very familiar with the GroupM structure and the people…

The best part about my job is that I work with a fantastic team. I have great support from our global and regional leadership. Having been a part of GroupM India during its formative years I am quite aware of the system and that really helps.


From whatever one has seen of you, you’ve been exceedingly hands-on everything yourself… including receiving the media communiqués directly from you… until you had a full-time person heading that function. Do you prefer a federal structure where you have individual business heads doing their own thing or a more hands-on approach for yourself?

I obviously got a lot more involved in some of the activities which I thought I had to personally drive last year like digital initiatives, talent, internal and external communications. At the same time, I don’t interfere in the day-to-day running of any of our agencies or specialist units.


Do you miss getting your hands dirty with client acquisitions, servicing and all of that?

I really miss being a media planner/buyer (laughs). Especially in the digital age, when there are so many fascinating opportunities you have in front of you and you’re sitting and working on a media plan… In fact, just the other day I was trying to strike a deal with one of my media planner colleagues to see if we can swap seats for a day. And I’m seriously planning to do that soon.


You’re joking, aren’t you?!

No, I am not.


As you look at 2014, other than the routine things, could you tell us of a few key activities you plan to undertake this year?

At a GroupM level, the focus on digital and the new core is going to continue in 2014. We could see a few more partnerships happening across areas of the new core, be it in digital, content and analytics. We’ll continue to focus on talent. In fact, on the talent front, we’ve started broad basing our profile and today we attract talent from different streams. For example, we are hiring a lot of people who have expertise in content, technology, data management etc


More partnerships lead to more acquisitions?

We’re not into acquiring for scale because that’s something we already have. We’re more into acquiring to be able to give our clients a more relevant and solid product.


If you had to play soothsayer, is there any one new thing you think will happen this year?

I think it’s going to be the year for digital video. We’ve seen a fair amount of traction last year especially from large FMCG players who are very heavy on television. A lot of them are moving up the learning curve and it’s only a matter of time before it gains a larger share of the media pie.


And is there one thing that you wish had happened in 2013 which did not happen?

I wish as an industry we could have better handled the regulatory and structural changes that happened last year.


Any other pan-industry issues which you think should be tackled this year…

We need to work a lot more closely across all industry bodies to be able to grow the industry. I think we’ve spent a lot of time trying to manage environmental issues and we hardly have time for constructive discussion in terms of what we should be doing as an industry, how do we ride the digital wave, how do we bring in more accountability and so on.

I think a lot more of that needs to happen and I wish 2014 is the year when some of that starts happening.


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