We can’t sit on past laurels…

12 Nov,2018


It’s been a year since GroupM merged its two leading media agency networks – Maxus and MEC. We spoke with Kartik Sharma, CEO-South Asia of the merged entity called Wavemaker on how the business has been in the past year, the credo of ‘Rapid Growth Planning’, winning awards, talent and more. Excerpts from Part One of an interview with Kartik Sharma…


A year on since Wavemaker was unveiled in India. Can one say you’ve been making waves in this last year?


Wavemaker was setup with the merging of two GroupM agencies and it’s possibly easier when you are acquiring an external agency and than when you are merging an internal one. How has the process been?

For the merger we had lot of support and help from our global teams. The starting point was that culturally, our organisations were very similar. The issues only tend to happen if any other culture doesn’t match. But in this case, the cultures both globally and locally are very similar. We also worked with many of the senior leadership teams here locally and also globally. So while there were these questions at the back of one’s head, when the actual process of integration happened, it iwas very smooth. In fact we did it in record time!

Culture is the word. Mergers are perhaps more about people, leadership and all that

Culture is about how you do things. I could do something in my own way. Somebody else could do it in a very different way. But fortunately there were no issues how we approach the problem, the integration process was easy. We did it in record time. In fact while those questions were at the back of our minds, at the ground level, it was pretty smooth. There were no problems.

Finally, it’s is the external customer who matters most. How much time would you say from the germ of the idea (of Wavemaker) or when you were spoken about it did it take for the merger process to be completed?

Actually all the clients – both the erstwhile Maxus and MEC clients –  were aware of this merger and when it was made aware to us, within a short period of time, this was communicated to our clients. Nobody raised any issues or any concerns and that was very heartening to see. So both the agency managements and the GroupM management worked together while addressing clients. Internally once we set the date, there were a series of processes on how and what we would do. There are a multiple elements like what will you do from a branding standpoint, then in terms of structure what will you work upon. There was guidance given by global teams. We adapted them locally and we went with the teams.

In many ways, it was more than the merger of MEC and Maxus. It was also the setting up of a new team at Essence and some people from within the fold moving there.

On the Essence movement, we assessed the business which needed to be aligned with Essence. That process happened first. As I said, if the teams were unknown to each other. I don’t know what turn it could have taken. But fortunately both sides, we knew each other very well. We had to worry about the client first and that’s what we did and clients were very supportive and I still remember there were a couple of clients who asked if the same team was there. If the name was changing. I had changed a few structures. They said as long as business association is the same, we have full support.

So other than the name change, what actually changed?

I think a lot of tools and processes and the way of working has changed. In all this change, we have ensured that the clients were not affected much. Of course wherever it was needed for some team alignment. For eg, if we wanted to increase the strength of a team, we did that. For us it has been a way of working. The entire thinking starts with a client’s business around growth. A process for managing that is called ‘rapid growth planning’ which is a kind of mantra. The reason for existence on what we do for brands. That training, those tools, techniques, the process, that was a fundamental shift for both sides. The rapid work planning is underpinned by a huge research that we run globally and locally and came from the erstwhile MEC.

It was there earlier?

Yes, but it got enhanced. And new tools got overlaid on top of that. There was a lot of internal training on what rapid growth planning means, how do you imbibe that rather than just a tool if we really  need it in the real world. How will you use it on a client? Those were the focus areas for us along with the other things.

Were there things that one had to unlearn?

So the entire rapid growth learning was a new way of looking at plans for Team Maxus. There were a lot of training sessions we had to conduct. We did a lot of webinars. We had to give a lot of  printed documentation… how do you think, we also consulted our global teams having multiple calls saying hey, what does this mean in a certain step or process. Yes there is some bit of of it, but I wouldn’t say total unlearning. But understanding what It really means and what does it translate to. Because there were enough senior people from the MEC side who had done this globally who would guide us at every level.

The proof of the pudding is of course, the fact that you have done fairly well. You have won new accounts – some big ones like Eureka Forbes which has done fairly well at the EMVIEs. So would you say the merger has helped leapfrog business?

Definitely what the market will not get to see is that all these techniques and process are developed to deliver growth for a client’s business. And our solutions need to reflect that. Clients obviously know their categories brands very well. Many of the clients – be it Eureka Forbes or any other client – have been at the back of all these things which has come on board and it is almost like a mantra. We start initially as a new process but everyone now understands there is shared learning and understanding, case studies. We keep on building, we keep on reflecting, we make a presentation and say hey this is how it means, when a client gives a feedback how do we make it better… so it’s an ongoing process.

Is there any unfinished agenda on the merger?

The merger has multiple phases. Phase 1 was the integration of the two teams and that’s done. We have ensured that we don’t lose any clients. I think that’s done. We have to ensure we win new businesses. It’s an ongoing process. Yes, we have won big. We have also won awards which is a byproduct of the good work done. So it is overall extremely satisfying that we have been able to achieve many goals that we set for ourselves in a very short period.  More than unfinished agenda, it has been a journey where our constant focus is on improving our product. Because the world is changing so fast, we can’t sit on past laurels and say I did this and I did that. That’s over. That was yesterday. How do I do it for today. How do I do it for tomorrow and the future. So the entire senior leadership team and their teams below their focus is great and it’s fantastic. What next? What are the things we are going to do? Keep the awards aside for the time being. Because we don’t do work to win awards. We do great work which eventually wins awards.

Well, Maxus has won the EMVIEs Agency of the Year in the past. And last year too, you’ll were very close. This year, you were No 1 with a significant margin. Would you say that in a sense the kind of clients Wavemaker has – especially from the erstwhile Maxus – tend to innovate more versus the others?

Not necessarily true. The goal do great work and keep the awards aside. You may win some, you may not win some. Our first goal is solutions to solve our clients’ problems, whatever the problems may be. There are clients with awareness problems. There are clients which have sales problem. There are clients which have ‘how do I improve my consideration’ problem and so on and so forth. Our solutions are designed to address those problems. Those are real problems which clients go though. Also, doing more of the same is often not the solution. That’s when innovation happens. We look at the past what has worked and what has not worked and you craft solutions. Many of them are loosely termed as innovation but it is a different way to solve a client problem and in the process when you enter into an awards like EMVIEs if they win, it is satisfying. If it doesn’t, it’s fine. You say, what could you have done different. The goal is not to start by saying I will win awards.  The goal is to continuously see how to do great work.

Moving on, while you have won quite a few things. Any regrets. If you had to relive the last one year. Anything you would change? Or look at differently?

I don’t think there are any regrets. As I said, we set many goals: how to integrate your internal team. How do you keep winning new clients, how do you keep your existing clients. We have also done while we speak about new business, we have retained a lot of businesses which is even more satisfying. Broadly speaking, the direction in which the agency and the company has to go we are deeply satisfied and personally satisfied. It’s not an easy journey but it’s a journey I wouldn’t want to change any part of.

A comment on loss of business/clients?

When you lose, you feel bad about it we take lessons. It will be arrogant to say that we will keep winning everything. A few losses here and there, it will keep happening. It’s a part of any business. As long as those losses are contained and we learn few lessons from those losse. Sometimes clients change because they have been with the agencies for too long. Often there are commercial reasons. There are multiple reasons why clients move. But the losses have been far lesser than the net gains. The net gains have been fantastic this year. I don’t think I could’ve asked for more.

In terms of talent how has it been. Obviously talent is what makes the agency.

True. Talent has always been one of the strengths for us particularly the senior leadership that we have. Fairly stable team. Now we are diversifying the team with a good mix of people who have done some of the legacy media. Also people who are coming from the new age of new media. We’ve also added a lot of skills in the area of technology and data. Not just as positioning but actually people. We set up a strong analytics team less than a year ago. That is giving us a lot of understanding about how businesses move. What are the various marketing inputs which impact businesses?

Ecommerce is a journey which we had invested in almost two years ago. Diversification is helping so it’s a diversified talent. In fact it’s not more of the same talent, it’s a good balance between what is termed loosely as traditional media, legacy media… so its an ongoing process. Having said that. getting good talent is never easy for any organisation. We are always on the look out for that talent. I am always looking for fresh talent. Within diversification it’s also how we can nurture younger people. Young people coming to the agency. They are being given extra projects to look at so like GroupM has the YCo, we have taken the spirit from the YCo. We don’t want to create another YCo but we looked at younger team members who have some great talent. And one of the visible things in the EMVIEs is that most of the people who presented were under 30 years of age. Many of them probably will be 22-25.

What is the average age of the talent at Wavemaker?

The average right now is 26 years of age.


Read Part 2 of the Interview with Kartik Sharma tomorrow, Tuesday, November 13


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