Publicis eyes the Top 3

11 Mar,2015


Nakul Chopra, CEO of Publicis South Asia, has had a long innings at the agency. Over the past 17 years, he has led Ambience in its transition first to Ambience D’Arcy and later Publicis Ambience. Today, he leads the operations of the multiple Publicis units in India in addition to overseeing the French network’s affiliates in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In a freewheeling interview with Pradyuman Maheshwari he says that with some of the best minds in the business already on board, and with fresh talent coming in, Publicis has set a course for its reinvention. Something that he hopes will buoy it to the top soon.


You’ve had a long innings as head of Publicis in India, and over the last three or four years, we’ve seen Publicis take on a renewed focus what with Bobby Pawar and Partha Sinha on board and a slew of acquisitions. Your view on how the business has been?

I’ll respond to your question in several parts. First, I haven’t been CEO of Publicis for such a long time. Second, you’re right; in the last two to three years we’ve acquired talent, agencies and clients too. But reinventing ourselves, or bringing in fresh talent, or making acquisitions is not new. If I go back to the time prior to the 2003-2010 period, Publicis concluded four acquisitions then, including Ambience, Zen and Madhyam in Delhi.


We are one of the last entrants in terms of the Top 10 networks in India, so our relative youth also reflects in our size. We had to play a lot of catch-up with the rest. There is no published data in our field. You can only assume the size of your competitor, you can’t be 100% sure. But, by our estimates in 2003, our entities were at No 15, according to size, whether it was Ambience or Zen. Bringing them together and building the organisation through Phase 1 got us firmly into the Top 10 bracket. We’ve conducted acquisitions and — according to what we’ve been able to organically build on the basis of the strength we’ve gained as an organisation — we estimate ourselves to be at No 5. We made these moves with the clear view that we need to become one of the Top 3 players in this market. Of course, there’s been a huge qualitative upgrade with people like Bobby and Partha coming back…


Do you think you could’ve moved a bit faster after the two stars came in?

When I look back, one area of dissatisfaction could be the speed of our ambition to take things, versus the speed at which we’ve actually travelled. There are two factors we need to talk about in that regard. You can take small organisations, wipe the slate clean and give them a fresh start relatively fast. Partha and Bobby came into a relatively mature organisation where the pace of change has to always be measured by the ability of the client relationships to make that change. We are now the dominant agency for a lot of big clients like L’Oreal, Nestle, Citi and Procter. But we can’t drive only our change agenda; we have to drive our clients’ too, and pace ourselves by that. If I factor that in, I have nothing to be dissatisfied about. We’ve set some internal benchmarks too; if we’d set five or six goals, we’ve probably achieved four or five of them. We’ve not quite got to the 100% mark that we wanted to, but I think that’s within a normal margin of error that you have when you set out to do these things. It’s impossible to meet your ambition on every single index. You always set your three-year plans on a given set of market assumptions. But as you go through that three-year period, not all of them occur as predicted and you have to re-prioritise things.


But the expectations were huge. They were expected to produce some magic…

I wouldn’t say they haven’t. They both joined together and some of the industry controversies that preceded them, came along as well. It was a Big Bang arrival. Given that, you might just set yourself up for disappointment because they’d have to achieve something.


In terms of creative awards, the best benchmark for excellence of a creative agency are the Effies and you haven’t done well there

Let me put it to you like this. Have we met our own expectations with regard to the Effies? We haven’t. I can’t say that, being No 5 last year and No 6 this year, though there’s a very large gap between the Top 3. I don’t think it is a fairly big step for an organisation that’s not been on the map of the Effies, ever. But this year in particular, even Partha wouldn’t mince his words to say, that we’d expected to do better. What would I have done differently over the last 12 months to achieve this result? I don’t know. I’m not dissatisfied with the effort I’ve put in. With the material we had, we’d hoped we’re going to win more. But you win some, you lose some. Our first and most important focus has been on how much difference we can make to the clients’ business.


Do you think your work did improve the clients’ business?

I’m 100% sure of that, and I have enough client testimonials to go by.


What’s the most effective work you’ve done over the last year?

I think we’ve done very effective work for JK, for some of which we’ve won an Effie. We did very effective work for Ambuja Cement. I must confess that I – along with Partha and Bobby – was a little disappointed this wasn’t recognised at the Effies. I’m not pointing fingers, just expressing disappointment. We’ve done effective work for Nestle across brands as well.


How much do awards finally matter to an agency? While at one level, one is doing a fair amount of business and clients continue to stay with you, at another, you’re getting some awards but not the numbers which the Top 2 or 3 players get?

Awards matter a lot. Maybe not as much as the clients’ sales figures, but they matter because they represent recognition by your peers, and that can be a great motivator. You make an effort and it gets recognised. That gives you courage and motivation to do more of the same. Creative awards also matter, not just the Effies. It would be naïve to think that awards are an end in themselves. Winning lots of creative awards if you’re not making a difference to the clients’ business and if you’re being unable to grow your own business, is not an end in itself. In 2009-10, Publicis ranked third two years in a row at the Goafest for Creative Awards. It was very fulfilling for us.


This was when Ogilvy was participating and was No. 1?

JWT was No 2 one year and DDB Mudra was No 2 in another year. There was some controversy about the latter. By my reckoning, after they returned the medal, they should’ve been No 2 that year. Goafest does not, in any case, give you points.


What about Kyoorius?

Kyoorius is a very new phenomenon.


You mentioned you want to be among the Top 3. With Ogilvy, Lowe and JWT already in that bracket, displacing one of them is a huge ask, right?

When we were No 12 and I said we want to be in the Top 5, it was a huge ask. But we’ve made moves in the past three or four years which have startled people. We’re now in the Top 5. It’s not going to happen by doing business as usual. At the same time, we can’t startle and surprise people every year.


Is there a target year by which you want to achieve this?

We’d given ourselves three years to get firmly in the Top 5. We’ve achieved that. The next three years is when we seek to make the next move. But that depends on us being able to do some things other than great or effective work for our clients.


Such as?

It’s about how we build up our skills and capabilities. When you compare us with Ogilvy or JWT, or Lowe or even DDB, which is at No. 4, their range of services and therefore sources of revenue at this stage, are wider than ours. So it’s about finding effective solutions on that side too. Now we’ll have to see if we’re going to get those capabilities or acquire them


How have your inorganic growth efforts been, since Beehive and Market Gate and I-Strat?

I think all three have been performing fantastically well for us.


Is the integration total?

Integration is not a 24-month process; it takes longer. Our integration expectations from the three are quite different.


Are there any other specific areas or gaps you’d like to look at filling by way of acquisitions?

I’d answer this slightly differently. The gaps we’re trying to cover are in the experiential marketing and some specialised skills in digital.


So will acquiring an experiential agency happen soon?

It’s a question you all ask at every interview and it always begs the same answer. You’ll know when you know. It’s a capability we’re seeking to build, whether we build it via an acquisition or organically or through induction of talent.


How has the situation with new talent, accounts etc been, apart from the big ones in the last three years?

We’ve not only been hiring people, I see Publicis as an organisation which is constantly in metamorphosis. For me, the difference between Ogilvy, JWT and Lowe is that they seem to be organisations who’ve reached a destination. On the other hand, we see every year as a year of reinvention. For us, we’ve had a steady change or upgradation of talent across all disciplines.


Are you looking at any new direction of business and of clients? Your peers have got into political advertising.

As a group policy, we don’t do political work. You’ll notice that no Publicis group company has been at any of last year’s hectic political campaigns. Many of us were approached, but we don’t do it.


Among the various agencies you have, will any of them see a significant change over the next few months?

I don’t foresee that, with this being a fairly intense period of reviews. We may be unhappy with ‘x’ aspect in one unit, and ‘y’ in another, and we have the managers address those. Talent acquisition is a continuous process. We’ll continue to see that happen.


If you were a 20-year-old, would you have joined an agency today?

If you’d asked me this when I was a 20-year-old, my answer might have been ‘No’. But I did end up in an agency and never left. If I were a 20-year-old today, would I join an advertising agency? The answer is probably still a yes.


It’s still a big bad world. You’d have possibly made more money on the client side.

I think I had several occasions to do that throughout my career. As somebody who’s been in this business for more than 35 years, I just had a genetic match with the profession. Is today’s 20-year-old choosing advertising over other professions? Probably not.


Personally, what goals have you set for yourself? Publicis is doing well, it’s going to be on course. Is there any unchartered stuff you are looking at?

As an individual, I have a re-purposed life. At 54, I have a two-and-a-half-year-old son. The challenges and goals I have for myself have undergone a metamorphosis in the last three years and I’m not completely sure I’m up for all challenges the situation poses. But I’m doing my best to cope.


A slightly shorter version of this appeared in ‘dna of brands’ on March 9, 2015


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