Leaning into change with Kartik Sharma

20 Jan,2015


For the Maxus South Asia Managing Director, last year was a huge high for more reason than one: 20-plus new clients, Rs 300 crore+ business, many awards, including the biggest of them all – the Emvies. Pradyuman Maheshwari caught up with Kartik Sharma who completed a year at the helm earlier this month.


Fond memories of 2014?

Last year was fantastic in many ways. Apart from the role change for me personally, we got many new leaders into the system. Anand Chakravarthy, Navin Khemka, Monaz… a lot of internal teams got promoted. Business was fantastic! We earned about Rs 300 crore of new business, we had 20-plus new clients added to the roster.


Vis-à-vis the rest of the industry?

Different agencies have got new businesses. Twenty-plus is a big number for us. We haven’t had so many wins in a single year. We focused the beginning of 2014 on 3-4 key pillars – people strengthening, new business and product. Product, in terms of how we deliver client delight every single day.  A lot of emphasis on strengthening products. We launched Resolve which is a global proprietary planning tool and Moribus, our behavioral science unit.


How was it stepping into Ajit Varghese’s shoes?

Both internally and personally I don’t think anyone was trying to make any kind of comparison. Each leader has a different style of working. For not even a single moment when I stepped into the role, had I even thought of how Ajit would have done it or this is what I need to do. That puts artificial pressure on you. A directional understanding on what you want to do for Brand Maxus was very clear from Day1. Then you actually set out to do it in the best way possible, using your own way of working.


If you were to compare your style of working with his, what would be one key differentiator and the one thing in common?

Obviously, each of us come with a different perspective to business, Ajit has his own way of wearing his lens and looking at situations. I have my own lens and somewhere we complement each other. Even now, whenever there are challenges, we talk and try and solve a problem.


The perception is that Ajit is very aggressive in his approach, even in the way Maxus has to be projected, whereas you are cool and calmer?

That’s the way we are. The way we convey our thoughts is different. I’m equally aggressive when it needs to be. There’s an external side and there’s an internal side. It’s how you convey it. We express it in different ways for a common goal. I can’t change my style. This isn’t a surprise feedback. That’s the way I am.


Ajit had you around. Do you have any one as your second-in-command?

I have the entire Maxus team with me. I’m not just saying it for the sake of it. I have a very strong team, a very diverse set of management team members, which is actually helping me. We talk to each other on a daily basis. We understand all of them as people first. There’s a huge level of understanding and comfort, as individuals, as professionals, which actually helps us solve all problems.


Having Anand from broadcast, Navin from another network makes it a melting pot of various cultures?

We always wanted to have a very diverse set of people, not just agency people. That was a very conscious decision. They bring in freshness, different points of view, which is very critical at this stage of building a business.


Last year, one of the biggest highs was the Emvies. In fact when dna interviewed Ajit when his elevation was announced and when we asked him if there was an unfinished agenda, he said it was winning the Emvies. Twenty-plus clients, Rs 300 cr-plus business, top talent… would you say coming out tops at the Emvies was the biggest high of the year?

It’s one of the biggest highs. We’ve always wanted to win Emvies. It’s recognition coming from clients. It was very important for us. When a client or a larger universe, ecosystem says that you’ve done a good job, it helps us to see ourselves in a very objective way. Some of them are even competitors sitting and rating you. That was an important aspect for that. We’ve come very close to winning in the last four or five years but we missed by a whisker. We wanted to win, with a big margin, which happened! There was a lot of hard work at the back of it.


How much of winning the Emvies is a joy more because you’ve beaten sibling Mindshare?

I think more than beating, we’ve always wanted to win. Our goal is not just to beat Mindshare. It could be any agency for that matter. Mindshare is a great agency, we respect them.


In your typical bouquet, how much of the work is full-service?

It is increasing, if you’d asked me this a couple of years ago, it was little. Now, more and more have seen merit in doing it through us, I don’t recollect a number but it is definitely more than it was two to three years ago. At least about 10% plus.


That’s a significant number! 10% of Maxus business is full-service. But, does it worry you that 10% of Ogilvy’s or any other agency’s business also could be full-service?

We’re in a competitive world where the competition is not just creative agencies. We’re in an interesting space where everybody is competition in some way. Media owners, creative agencies, IT companies, there could also be a lot of boutique companies who could pay huge competitive consultants. The ecosystem is too large to worry about competition. That worry will never make you perform to your best. All you have to do is, run as fast as you can.


Does the fact that programmatic buying and that you’re going to have number crunching outsourced, are these the things that are worrying signs for an agency like yours?

No, we will be part of this in the next few years and we’re building skills in each of these areas. It’s not a major concern at this stage. It’s a major concern of the business. As the business is changing, the same question about creative, 8-10 years ago, nobody would’ve thought media agency and creative. We’ve seen the shift happening that media agency can also make creative. It’s more and more of getting ready and leaning into change.


Leaning into change is the credo of Maxus. What are the leanings you are looking into for next year?

Leaning into change is a philosophy, a guidepost for us to change ourselves and also the clients we work with, get ready to see and do things which have not been done before. An example of that is Moribus.  There is no previous benchmark of how a behavioral science unit should be. Even when we started creative as part of our offering in digital, there was no prior things saying these are things you can or cannot do. Each of those elements to me, is about leaning into change.


What’s the target for this year?

We would like to continue the momentum from 2014. We will be aggressive in our pitching. We don’t want to speculate a number. But, definitely, we want good business. Digital continues to be the focus and things like programmatic will gain more prominence in the next two years. You’ll also see a lot more focus coming in on content initiatives, Power of 49 was one stellar example, but we’re doing many more. A lot within the next 3-4 months will come on product also.


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