Tech is fine, but relationships will always be there: Jasmin Sohrabji

28 Aug,2015


Omnicom Media Group CEO India and South East Asia Jasmin Sohrabji says the agency goes public only when there is a need, like the establishing of its second agency, PHD. But who needs a constant spotlight when you’ve got a full trophy case and several ‘firsts’ in the industry to your name, particularly in the digital and mobile space, she tells Pradyuman Maheshwari. Hmmm. Read on…


There is a perception that both you and OMD are extremely low profile. That you are doing great work, but you never talk about it!

I set up a brand which didn’t exist in India, so there was some conscious effort to establish the brand. In the first four or five years, everything we did — every win, every office opened — we made it into a PR story. Once the brand was established, the focus was on internal consolidation of the second brand and the group. That’s why I think you won’t see the sort of media coverage we sought earlier. We did it again when we launched our second brand, PHD, year before last. We did the big Cannes wins that we had last year. And while we’ve been inundated with awards we’ve won, particularly for PHD, we didn’t PR the whole thing. By that time, we believed our fraternity and our potential clients, already knew us.


Others who are well-established, are also high profile. Is this [reticence about PR], then, OMD’s personality?

No, it’s not a personality and it’s not even my personality. We go in cycles of doing PR when we need to. We went through a cycle of establishing OMD, then establishing our second brand. Now the focus is on the overall group, and we will make a big group hiring. When we hired Shavon Barua as Managing Partner for PHD, we did some PR around that. But I think maybe you are right, to an extent we have not [gone public much].


How is OMD doing? And PHD? What is your self-assessment?

We’ve done very well in the last few years we’ve been there. Our growth has never been under 25 to 27 per cent. We’ve done very well both in terms of organic growth as well as new business. Not all of it is announced, or can be, sometimes. It’s not just the growth per cent, but we’ve established ourselves quite well across markets. When OMD launched, it was first a Mumbai entity, and later went to the south and Delhi. With PHD, it’s the other way around. We won the HP and SC Johnson [accounts]. The geographical balance is something I’ve always valued, because if you’re going to establish yourself as a group and grow, you can’t be seen as a one-city, one-market business. If you look around, many of the agencies – not just the top ones – have struggled to establish themselves in the south, west and north zones. I think we’ve been fortunate with our brands. Though OMD is stronger, PHD is relatively new since it’s been around for only two years. And so it still needs to be established and that’s why you’ll see more buzz around that.


Other agencies have branched out into various areas like outdoor, digital, even activations. What about you?

So have we, and on that we’ve done a little more conscious thinking. We’ve been one of the key agencies in the digital space, and it’s helped because of the kind of clients we’ve had. I think the biggest strength we had in digital is not just client and leadership, but the fact that because we were relatively new and launched in the heart of the digital era. In our case, digital didn’t come as a little add-on to offline; we’ve evolved it as a product as we’ve grown.


You were among the first one to bring in mobile too.

We’ve done a lot of firsts in digital. That’s been our key strength. We’ve focused on creative and content, in terms of both alignments as well as internal hiring, in digital. We’ve not done that much in the offline space. We focused on mobile too, very early on. I think the out-of-home space is an area we haven’t built, in-house.


There are rumors that Mudra Max might merge with OMD

When there is something to share, we’ll do it. Right now, there isn’t. Mudra is one of our partners. We’ve never gone the route of just one alignment because a lot of the clients are looking for a whole mix. So the pitches happen separately. The agency selection process is also quite different, and doesn’t always come as a part of the mix. So if you win the business, it doesn’t mean that you [automatically also] win digital and outdoor.


Technology is virtually ruling the way business is done today. Is that a worry

God, no! I think it’s great. It’s a huge positive for various reasons. New media has driven technology into the future. Old media has not seen the change as much yet, but it will. The change we’ve seen, however, are just in the efficiency of tools. We’ve not seen a smarter technology, just tool efficiency which means I can get my teams to finish their runs faster and spend time on the more interesting parts of brand communication. Although we haven’t seen a big technology change in the offline space, I believe it’s just a matter of time before they merge. It’s my belief that the more we go into technology, the smarter the machine becomes and the more important it is for us to then keep ahead and be smarter than the machine. The day we let the machine decide, I think we’ll have lost a large part of the value we bring to the client. We operate a lot on gut, so I think, we need to be smarter and always one step ahead of technology.


And relationships do matter, don’t they?

See relationships will always be there.. They will go up and down in terms of relevance, but will never go away. But if people let technology decide or guide their plans and think therefore they’ll sit back and see a run being done I think somewhere that, that individual or that agency will not be ready and prepared for the future. My expectation is, the more we advance in technology, the more quality people we’ll attract, the better our industry will be. Think of the kind of work that’s happening in our space today.. What was the conversation all you media people came and asked us about 10 years back? Every conversation is that do we have enough talent available. Why are people going and joining channels? Why are people going away to Asia? Remember all those conversations? Today who has that conversation? Today, we can attract very good talent because of technology. Because today our industry seems so much more in the front rung of decision-making.


Are you able to attract talent from top B-schools and such?

Top B-schools are not easy right now because of cost reasons. Top B-school graduates expect to get paid more than someone who has five or seven years of experience in our industry. We can’t give entry-level people those kind of salaries. So I may not be able to get that kind of talent yet, but in future I think we will. There is only plus and plus coming for us. The kind of work that we are seeing, that our network is doing globally in combining both offline and online data to better our strategies and such. When I see that, I wish I was still a planner at that time.


You’ve been on the Cannes jury and you know that not too many Indian agencies make it [there]. So how do you rate our work versus the rest of the world?

Firstly, I did media and we only get to see about 20 per cent of the work that’s out there. I didn’t see too of the India work, but I do know there was work like the Touch The Pickle Campaign this year, which generated a lot of talk. So while I think we have huge potential, we’re not up there on storytelling, when compared to work done globally. I don’t think the work is such a big issue with us as much as the way we tell our stories. If you’ve to wait for the idea after almost a minute into the video, that’s not good.


OMD is not too active on the awards circuit in India, especially the Emvies

OMD has not been as high profile as PHD. Yes, we aren’t at the Emvies. We don’t dominate that. Only PHD has been doing it, we’ve not been doing it.


Any reason why?

There is no reason; it’s just not happened. But this year we have. I’m going to send you a list of this year’s wins of OMD because I think you’ll be a little surprised.


Do awards matter?

It’s client specific. I feel the quality of your work, your team, your efficiency and savings takes precedence over winning awards, but it’s good PR. However, I don’t think that’s the reason we could be winning. Our product has so many elements to it; a big part is on savings, rates and negotiations. I don’t think [awards are] winning us pitches. So it’s important, but not the most important for a new business, for sure.


Where do you see yourselves in 2020? How do see the business shaping up

Earlier, I was a seeing a lot of data analytics and insight-informing strategy work. It was being done a lot more efficiently with technology in the digital space. Now all the conversations are looking at data across, because while digital makes sense in the evolved markets, data leading to insight-leading to solution-leading to optimisation may not work in India where there are a large number of activities happening offline. Four years later, I hope we will not be having these conversations and will have better integrated [online and offline] media. So there will be people who understand data well, and there’ll be people who can ideate and optimise from that data. Technology will help drive it, and I think people will eventually become online, rather than offline, specialists.


Do you think going forward, media buying will get integrated as against just print or television or digital…

I think it should. I really think it should because today you can afford the isolation but or the separation but I think as we go forward if there is a conversation… a buyer should know a conversation about buying a video versus buying a channel. And why am I paying this versus that? How can there be two separate conversations? It should be a video conversation. It shouldn’t be this channel and that Youtube kind of conversation.


In terms of the kind of media you do, how do your digital spends compare with the rest?

Our digital is way higher than the industry average. I think our digital spend is more than a component; the skew is more than 20 per cent of our overall.


Over media investments?

As a percentage of our overall media investment. We are very high on digital which is why our focus has been so much on the kinds of platforms we are launching, the technology we are investing in, the people we are hiring. When you think of long-term investment in other media, there’s an industry average. Everyone’s spends have similar amounts of outdoor and activation in their mix. But they are not growing at the same rate. Today, we are all at one level. Two years later, I might still be spending only 10 per cent on these mediums. But when you look at digital, it may have moved from one to five to 10 or even 20 per cent.


Going forward, what new things can we expect from you?

Now that our second brand is also established, I think the focus will be on consolidating individual brands and consolidating as a group. The work that we are doing in digital, research and technology, will be of benefit to all the brands. Earlier, we were carrying out initiatives for individual brands. We’ve hired a senior investment lead because it was time for us to compete at a group and brand level. Earlier we did have brand-level investment and trading leads. But now we feel the need to do a lot more of our initiatives, not just at the brand but also the group level. We recently launched a study called Touch Point Analysis, an OMD initiative. There’ll be more things which will benefit both groups.


Is it the knowledge you provide or is it finally the kind of discount you offer?

There is no one person or client in a pitch. There are multiple kinds of clients. For some, your rates have to be the best. For others, it could be the quality of your future thinking. How much are we able to read the future in our industry, and the quality of our people, is driving the pitches. That’s why clients want to meet more of the people going to be involved in the business.


In your business, you can’t be isolated from the environment around you. Do you look at how others are playing? And where do you want to be, say, two years from now?

Of course we do. When we started out eight years ago, we were very clear in our minds that we had to quickly catch up [with others] in terms of scale. Clients want to give their business to someone who is well established. The focus at that time was to ramp up very quickly, which we did really well and balance the geographies. We’ve seen agencies who’ve just focused on one market or another, and not been able to maintain their momentum over the long term because they’re seen as a Delhi or Mumbai agency, not a national one. Today, while we look at other agencies, we don’t look at what someone is doing right or doing wrong. I don’t think any agency styles itself on another agency. People just compare to see where are we on digital versus someone else on digital, or talent, or buying capabilities.


And where would you say you are?

We are always No 1 on everything. We’ve built a strong business for ourselves.


This interview first appeared in dna of brands on August 24, 2015


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