Upclose with Rohit Ohri, Dentsu India

02 Dec,2014

 

By Pradyuman Maheshwari

 

After 21 years at JWT, Rohit Ohri moved to head Dentsu India in mid-2011. A scuba diving and golf enthusiast, Mr Ohri completed three years at Dentsu in August this year. From an all-Japanese client set, today over 70 percent of his clients are homegrown.

 

With Taproot and WebChutney in the fold, Mr Ohri is now looking at more acquisitions – Public Relations consultancies, Activation companies and even regional agencies. Excerpts from a freewheeling conversation with Rohit Ohri:

 

Over two decades at JWT – 21, to be precise and now three years at Dentsu. How was the transition and the journey been thus far?

Three years have been enormous in terms of learning. For 21 years in JWT, I learnt at a particular tempo and pace. Being the largest advertising agency in India, there are systems and processes which kind of work on their own and you don’t really need to do much around them. When I joined Dentsu, the entire organisation had to be built. From IT to HR to the talent and client management systems, all that had to be put into place. While the previous management did a pretty good job in terms of launching Dentsu in India and getting clients, the fundaments were pretty weak. One of the big things we needed to do was to put these in place. It wasn’t just a quick-fix to get the organisation back on track, it was really about transformation. In the three years, we’ve grown significantly. In 2013-14 we’re the fastest growing Dentsu branded agency in any country anywhere in the world.

 

When you joined, it was a depleted set of accounts…

After the previous management and the top bosses moved out, there wasn’t any Indian leadership. There was an exodus of Indian clients and a lot of the Japanese clients weren’t really happy with the instability in the agency. There were challenges on every count. All the Dentsu-branded agencies were in the red. When I joined, I didn’t realise how big the mess was, but I knew it needed much fixing. Eight-nine months is a huge time for an agency to lose a lot of its momentum and its business.

 

The fact that you have to build afresh must have also been an opportunity for you to set up an all-new organisation.

Yes, we built the whole agency again ground-up; I dipped into my years of experience at JWT, into what was the University of Advertising, and I was fortunate enough to pick out the things that would work and leave things that wouldn’t.

 

As you look back, would you say joining Dentsu was the right decision?

The amazing thing is when the news broke on my joining Dentsu, many people called and said: ‘Are you nuts?!’

 

Some of us in the media also thought the same.

(laughs) They said I must be crazy. If I waited little longer, I’d be the head of JWT! Why quit? Today, the same people say this was an inspired move!

 

21 years at JWT is not a short time. Clearly, the path to ahead was known to you. If it wouldn’t be JWT directly, a Contract, etc?

Yes, but it wasn’t defined. It would’ve been a zig-zag road and gone up there eventually, but I don’t think we had great clarity behind that at that particular time.

 

Many people have left JWT in their prime. Wonder why.

It’s different strokes for different people. I felt whenever I needed growth, JWT was able to provide me the space. When I was in Kolkata from just being an account executive to heading all of account management, I said I needed another opportunity and I was moved to Delhi to head of Pepsi. That was a fantastic time. I absolutely loved the seven years I spent as head of Pepsi, we did some of the finest work Pepsi has ever done in this market. That was hugely satisfying! Then I headed the Delhi office which was another huge challenge and hugely exciting. We grew rapidly and Delhi became the largest office of any agency in India and one of the most profitable offices of JWT worldwide. It was very strong and when I quit, we were at the peak. To me, it’s very important in life to time your exits and entries.

 

But at the fag end of your JWT stint, there were some dampners like a bit of Pepsi and Airtel going to Taproot, right?

Not really. When you look at the time when I’d left, it was a Rs 112 crore revenue for JWT Delhi office only, larger than many agencies put together! That time it was the fourth largest advertising agency in India as an independent office. We were growing very rapidly. To my mind, one of the big reasons to move out was not the slowing down of JWT, but it was about the opportunity.

 

Did they try to hold you back?

Yes, of course. There were other options to go abroad and at that time I wasn’t so keen on moving out of India.

 

You had some fantastic clients you were virtually married to at JWT. Didn’t you think of bringing them to Dentsu?

Not at all. While I had relationships with many clients, to my mind the most important thing was that I didn’t want to run before we could walk. The agency had to be built first to a particular strength and capability before you could take on a big client. You can get a client but you can lose a client even faster. In all fairness, Dentsu at that time had pretty big clients. Toyota, Maruti Suzuki, Honda, Panasonic, Hitachi, Canon, we haven’t lost any. When I joined we just had the Japanese clients.

 

So you consolidated and then the Taproot acquisition.

Aggie (Agnello Dias) and I worked together in JWT and while I was in JWT, he started Taproot and we lost one project in Pepsi and a bit of the Airtel business to him. We were on two sides of the fence in many ways. There was fierce competition. It’s amazing to think that in one lifetime, there was this great partnership when we were together and then we were on opposite sides of the fence.

 

The perception was that Dentsu is a Japanese agency only for Japanese clients and the creative ideology is completely middle-of-the-road! To change all of that you needed a flaming torch. That would be an agency like Taproot and quite honestly, Dentsu had not even heard of TapRoot. The Japanese took my word and we agreed this was a great idea. At that time, I think, Aggie was already talking to some holding companies and pretty close to signing on the LOI. Everyone said the Japanese will take so long! But if they have an agreement in the plan and they believe your strategy is correct, the implementation is absolutely fast! Within 10 days they had an offer on Aggie’s table saying this is what we’re looking at.

 

It was a huge high for you, a personal victory of sorts. Would you say that has been your biggest high in the last 3 years?

Yes, the Taproot acquisition was a huge high. Suddenly the industry perception about what Dentsu wanted to do in India actually changed. Fundamentally, apart from the fact that we’ve done well on a business front, changing perceptions is the hardest part in the business.

 

Taproot has been reasonably independent in the Dentsu fold. Any plans to change the name.

You’ll see some changes going forward. It’ll become a Dentsu company, the Taproot brand will stay.

 

A Dentsu in the prefix or suffix?

We’re working on the nomenclature. Taproot has a very unique culture and we didn’t want to destroy that. You’ve got something for a specific value. There were different stages in the post-merger process. In the first stage, we kept it completely separate. In this stage, we started working together. We have a Creative Council and all creative guys work with them on certain group creative initiatives. Part 2 is we’ve started pitching for clients together. Because we’re working together, we use Taproot’s creative ability and you use Dentsu’s integrated thinking.

 

This has been working very successfully over the last two years. I’ll give you an example. We’ve got NourishCo, a Tata and Pepsi joint venture. We handle all their businesses together. We have AkzoNobel here, ITC in Bangalore and we did the Congress business together. It’s a win-win situation for both.

 

What about your existing creative agencies?

We have four creative agencies: Taproot, Dentsu Communications, Dentsu Creative Impact and Dentsu Marcom. It’s not such a huge number because Dentsu Communications is roughly the same size as Taproot. If you look at just Dentsu brands, they’ve also grown on their own. In the South, we won TVS, we have MRF in Chennai, HT here and then we have Max, the agency has won a large number of clients on it’s own. The big thing has been Honda. We’ve seen enormous growth in Honda Motorcycles. Dentsu Creative Impact and Dentsu Marcom are doing very well. All of them are growing. To achieve 65 per cent growth, every single piece of that business has to deliver. All the engines have been firing. The idea is that the acquisition adds to the overall Dentsu strategy which is interconnected. The entire group benefits then, from that relationship.

 

How about Dentsu Media?

Ever since Divya Gupta has come on, we’ve made fair progress, a lot of it has been a challenge for us. This year has been spectacular for Dentsu Media. They’ve done really well.

 

How’s the WebChutney acquisition doing?

When I look at my overall strategy, I see that four or five years down the line, there won’t be separate digital and creative agencies. There will be one agency. Keeping creative excellence in mind, I was looking for a digital agency that also excelled in creative work. That’s been my greatest satisfaction to see the quality of work that WebChutney has done…

 

Is that also going to be integrated in the system like Taproot?

A lot of it is already happening. One of the big initiatives we’re doing for next year is that the creative agency and the digital agency will sit collocated, so WebChutney move in with the Dentsu brand agency.

 

And one keeps hearing about more acquisitions coming up, are they the route that you looking at?

I don’t think acquisitions is the strategy that we are following but we are looking at full-service integrated offering for clients. Here, we have a creative agency with a media agency and a digital agency coming together and creating a whole set of services, so there are very clearly some holes still left to be filled.

 

Like?

Like PR and Activation.

 

PR and Activation, and anything else?

And, of course, digital is one space we are continuously looking at.

 

Any more creative agencies?

Well, we are not closed to that, that’s all I can tell you right now.

 

You are already have a large presence in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Why another creative agency?

May be for geographic expansion. We were not there in Kolkata.

 

Is there any business there?

There is a fair amount of business in Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad. JWT’s Mindset acquisition in Hyderabad has been quite a successful acquisition for them. So the opportunities exist…

 

Lastly, a few months back, there were rumours that you were quitting.

Yeah, I heard those rumours myself, but I did clarify very quickly. There is no truth in them, but people keep talking. The interesting thing is that when I speak to my colleagues outside India, they are absolutely amazed that people in advertising agencies in India get so much of media coverage.

 

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