Rana Barua Unplugged. Building a full-service Havas

18 Dec,2019

 

A candid conversation with Havas India Group CEO Rana Barua on how he and his agency network are doing. This interview was taken a day before the Publicis Groupe news broke, else we would’ve touched on that too. Enjoy the chat with Rana Barua, who has spent around a year and two months helming Havas India as Group CEO. Enjoy

 

So is it Achche Din at the Havas group in India? How’s it doing?

You may call it ‘Good days’ because there is a roadmap. There is a clear vision,  there is definitely a clear direction and for us it’s a journey which has just begun. In a way it probably started a year or year-and-a-half back some months before I walked in. So, yes, Achche Din for the people working in Havas. For people like me, Bobby, everybody who has been working together and who will join us.

But while internally we are going about doing our job, when we go back to the client’s business, one will have to be extremely cautious, about how we are budgeting, how we are planning our costs.

 

You said that if you’re going to be cautious about costs, but you are also looking at hiring more. A bit of a contradiction there?

No, it’s not a contradiction because these are all linked to plans. What I meant is that if you realise that a lot of these things have been linked to a business model and those costs have already been planned. So, it’s not cost linked to client revenue or something. If we are acquiring certain agencies, if we are getting bigger in size, then there are certain profiles or certain kind of expertise we require. Either we are getting it as an acquired agency or we are going to acquire that person from the market. So those are key profiles that we will require to manage this ship now, because from a three-agency structure we have now become five, very soon we’ll become six and the group continues to believe in investing in India.

 

You mentioned about three agencies and the buzz in the market is that you are looking at acquiring something in the areas of experiential and public relations. I’m sure there’s a method to the entire plan.

Yes it is.

 

What is your 2020 vision? What will be discussing a year hence?

The year 2019 was a foundation for us in a way. As I was telling some people recently, from a nobody, we’ve suddenly become a somebody in ecosystem. Even though one is much smaller than the rest of the networks, one is still a somebody. Why? Because, from 300-odd people, we have grown to around 700-odd people. With our final acquisition, we will cross around 1000-odd people and that’s a decent size for a network which was very small and unclear about which way it was headed. But next year, it is very clear that we have to not only grow all the verticals or all the companies that are going to come together. There are certain mandates that the group will be working in a very strong integrated way across all the companies which is why you are right, some of these accusations are being thought through very, very, very clearly. How it will fit into the overall Havas ecosystem? How will it benefit Vivendi as a group also? So, it’s keeping both the factors in mind that will it overall work for Havas? Which is a very strong advertising media and a help network globally, how does it also work across with our concern of Vivendi.

 

This Vivendi bit sounds very good to talk about, but is there really going to be some integration with it?

Yes it is, because I’m just keeping it very simple for you I will not even get into the very evolved model, what they work globally in. In India, even if I see just two parts. If I see music, which is Universal Music and if I see gaming, which is Gameloft. If I can manage to get integration with these two people right and if I see the kind of audience profile that India has, if you look at the people, the youth, the SECs, if you look down the line when you get into smaller towns and all across and if you say that music cuts across, so does gaming.

If you ask me ‘have we kind of even dabbled on it?’ No, we haven’t. We haven’t dabbled at all because the year one has been extremely different challenge for us. But in a year or two, you’ll probably see a lot more of conversations around both UMG and Gameloft working with Havas. And to answer your question, clients are excited. They are definitely keen to know more.

 

Excitement is of course is one, but at the end of the day, they have to put money on the table…

You will see some examples by the first quarter next year. As we speak, there are conversations that have gone into the fast-forward stage. It was just a matter of time before we worked together on it.

 

Let me ask you a very unfair question. You joined in October 2018 and have spent at a year and two-odd months at Havas. How would you rate your own satisfaction level with the way things have shaped up? On a scale of 0 to 10.

So I would say, I’d probably be around 5-½-6 from overall rating points.

 

You’re being unfair on yourself.

No, I would like to score myself at an average of 8, which is what I normally work at. I would love to imagine a 10 always, but let the world decide that for me. I work personally at a rating of 15 out of 10. That’s the level I want to achieve for me and definitely my core team.

 

The Rana Barua one has heard of in your previous stints, you are known to be very aggressive at Contract… almost like were a contract-killer. That doesn’t seem to be the case now.

That’s also because the mandates are very different. Contract was a creative agency, just-get-it-off-the-ground kind of a mandate and, secondly, Contract had a massive, good reputation. All one had to do to ensure was to get the right people, get the energy back and you could get going from Day 1. I think in Havas’ case, the mandate has been very different. First to get it off the ground ws itself a big task. So I changed my entire approach here, You’ll [soon[ see the way I work. You’ll probably be witnessing a bit more of the last month or two because we’ve become very active in the business world and social media world, the kind of work that we have started putting out. There’s a lot more of integration stuff that is happening because the first three to six months was also about getting one of the biggest things back into order. So, I was extremely low profile.

 

Which is what?

Which was our very, very strong relationship with Reckitt and Havas Creative. That was a very large mandate for us to ensure that…

 

Yes, that a lot of people have been talking of…

Yes, of the 180 days in the first half, 120 days was spent in Delhi and Gurugram

 

Tell me something, you know the unfortunate factor is that people look at , ‘what new accounts have you won?’ and at the end of the day, one expected you and Bobby to move with accounts from the previous job, but that hasn’t happened. Unfortunately nothing [much] has happened. Is that something that worries you?

No, it’s not. Actually what has happened on the contrary is a lot more clients have come in and consciously one of the decisions has been to keep it off a lot of media conversations and just ensure that we get work out, rather than talk abou it. So we’ve won a lot of businesses, which is why the business has turned around for us this year.

 

On the creative side?

I’m talking about, just the creative side. Our next year is definitely much better than this year also because right now as we speak, we are probably going to be landing with at least three or four more clients. And these are all pretty large scale pitches.

 

You are in the perception business so, if you don’t give the names of the accounts or clients…

We have the names, we’ll give you all of the names of the accounts. So, we’ve got a list of clients that we won over the last 2-3 months which is pretty sizable clients and pretty good clients. And that’s keeping us busy.

 

With decent retainership?

Very, very decent retainers. Some of them are very, very large scale retainers. So, we are pretty happy and comfortable with where we have reached and to be honest that’s also the feedback from our global teams. Because they have seen the numbers and are pretty happy with the kind of clients. Our client base is about 20 close to 25 now and was abysmally low when we came on board.

 

Let’s look at Havas business by business. First, Havas Media. Anita Nayyar has moved on to a larger role and Mohit Joshi is incharge. There were some murmurs of some disconnect at that time between Anita and the current dispensation at that time, but I think that‘s kind of eased out. How is the media business looking?

 

Media business will be good this year. I don’t see any concern because we have had a tough Diwali. But if you see all our clients, nothing or nobody’s dropped out. So everybody stays.

Overall, for media next year will be tougher. You can see the overall crisis that’s happening in the economy. That’s going to have an impact.

 

You have Auto…

We have Auto, we have e-commerce. We have probably got a healthy mix of; we may not have the largest mix, but we got a healthy mix of new clients. We got a lot of digital clients also, we’ve got digital business so, I cannot pinpoint and say that the mainline business is going down.

 

But the general sentiment is that the retainership monies in [Havas] Media are not very high.

Actually you can never build a model with retainership. It’s overall scale of the business that will help you and of course if you are sharper and if you’ve got a bit more of the larger digital pie, it helps.

 

And then creative? What’s the scene now with the change of leadership in creative? The earlier person moved on and Bobby Pawar. You also had some others join in?

I think Bobby and I are very clear about the roadmap. While we’ll keep growing and you will hear more about the client acquisitions, you will see more work coming out. But we’ll probably need one more year to get it off the block. By next year, we’ll become a decently midsized agency, from being a relatively small agency, which had maybe one large client called Reckitt. By mid-2020, you will see Havas Creative finally attending a midsize proper status.

 

See, one is of course size, the other is in terms of the kind of creative work that comes out when you do have some small agencies also doing some great creative work, winning awards, etc. That also doesn’t seem to have happened.

That will all happen next year because I think, this year was naturally an extremely challenging year for us. First we had to get clients into order then we had to get people back into shape. I think, by June onwards everything started getting going on. If you see the list of clients that we won post June, that’s when the game started.

 

Let me put an uncomfortable question to you: while this thing about it taking time for things to happen is fine when you have ordinary generals, but here you have yourself and you have Bobby Pawar – the big shots, the maharathis of the business. Why should it take so much time?

It’s not taking time, that’s what I’m saying. Let me repeat again. The first six months was putting house into order. The last six months which is post July, is when we’ve gone back into the market – starting pitching selectively. We’ve won businesses. It’s showing in our new business list. We’ve moved up to a position of around 8th or 9th. That’s why I keep saying, from a nobody to a somebody…

Second stage would be now, putting the work out because all these businesses have come in the last month or two. If you look at Hike messenger service, the entire business was Harmon Kardon, picking up a very large-sized project from Dabur, then all the pitches that have happened in the last one month of which some announcements you’ll get to know maybe in a week or two. Again, we have picked up two. We are now being invited for the pitches which wasn’t happening at allWe’re getting invited for pitches for Delhi, because now they know there are people. They have reference points, because it’s not just us as reference points. We just tell the clients that why don’t you speak to this client who’s just signed us on and that feels good because, honestly, you’re right six-nine months back it was a bit of a thing that what do you do? How do you manage? What’s your story? What are your credentials? Because credentials is where you win a lot of these conversations.

 

So, you’re saying 5.5 on 10.

Okay, 6. For a person who works at around 9 and 9-½, it’s a 6 because of my last few months.

 

How are the acquisitions looking?

Acquisitions are looking good, they’re probably falling into shape slowly. There are a lot of plans at work. Think Design, Langoor.

 

But they are small ticket.

Yeah. Overall, yes. Easy to manage also, so it helps.

 

Yeah, but small ticket means low revenues

Yes, it helps. I’ll tell you why. Because, it’s easier to integrate. It’s easier to work together. It doesn’t really create an obstacle.

 

How has it been culturally, in terms of the integration with the teams?

With all the teams?

 

Yeah.

I would presume like any other initial time, it takes a bit of time, but then slowly and steadily once you get your backend, systems and processor working together it just makes it easier.

 

Hmm.

We have been having many conversations on many things.

 

Conversations are good, but sometimes there’s overdependence on meetings and conference and workshops, etc.

I agree.

 

I’ve been pictures of many, many workshops that you have. Just too many of them?

Not really because I think for us, it’s necessary. Since we are trying to built a culture

 

But what really matters in most such businesses is the ‘dhandha’. If the ‘dhandha’ is there then everything falls into palce.

So, that’s the point. I think you’re right. So in the next year, with the delivery of numbers I think, the overall morale will be in a much better shape. That’s what we need to do.

 

Are you saying it’s not too great now?

Definitely it is good. We’re all so new together. Somebody just walked in two months back, somebody walked in three months back, somebody is going to walk in a month later. I think, the idea is that how do you have six or seven companies together come together? Same vision, same purpose and ensure that you deliver to the common goal.

 

In terms of people, are you looking at adding on some more folks on your creative and media, media for instance, earlier you had Mohit reporting to Anita. Now, it’s just Mohit so it there somebody whom you’re getting?

No, so Mohit will continue to report to me and what we are trying to do is to just change the structure and probably look at some other resources which are required in the media world, in terms of certain profiles which probably are very necessary for today. We did get a head of investments, who came back. There are certain profiles that are clearly required. We have a digital head in the media world also, in the media agency. So to answer your question, there will be some very clear profiles we want to bring on board in media, but nothing in between Mohit and me as of now. In the creative world, yes we are going to chase…

 

A deputy for him… in terms of looking at the Mumbai office?

Yeah, so there is somebody within the system who’s been asked to work closely with him, who’s currently looking after the Delhi office,We also want to build Bengaluru, havin a big client in Swiggy there.

 

And for creative?

Yes we are relooking to restructuring the overall creative bit also. There will be some more names. A. a lot of business has increased so we need people. There’s a lot more of expectation from us on Reckitt so we are going to change some profiles.

 

How are you in terms of your bottomline, topline? How is that working?

It’s pretty healthy this year so from what we were… yes absolutely profitable.

 

Are you earning more than you’re spending.

Yes, absolutely.

 

Are you looking at winning awards and participating in award show?

Yes, we will. Yes.

 

What is it that, is there something that keeps Rana Barua awake at night? Is there something at all? Or are you sleeping well? Given of course, Havas.

Coming from networks where I have seen integration can collapse, you can just work in silos. Because, without any mincing words, if Havas doesn’t come together as a group of agencies, which is truly integrated and works with the scale and size it will become a huge challenge for itself. There are already too many large-size networks out there, right? So, I will never be alone, Havas Creative taking on some creative agency. I will never be alone, Havas Media taking on some other Havas Media agency. So, what is a big challenge I see for myself? If I have to keep on working it month-on-month, is to ensure that the group is truly working in a strong, integrated way.

 

But that’s easier said, right?

Yes, it tough.

 

Do you think it’ll help in just destroying the existing structures and just making it one agency? Because right now you’re still Havas Creative and Havas Media.

It is one, that’s the lucky part.

 

P&L wise it still is…

No, no. We’re sitting together. So, your creative and media, everyone is sitting together. Everyone sits together. It is genuinely working together. Most pitches are happening together because people don’t even ask for resourcing or support. In most networks, at least some of the size networks I come from, you would reach out via email to say that who will work with me. Here, the guys just walk into each other’s cabins, but they are all sitting next to each other.

 

Would you like to call Havas a full service agency?

It is a full-service agency.

 

You still have different letterheads.

No, that’s just the expertise for the clients but if there’s a creative presentation, the media head also goes as a partner and nobody even knows. You don’t get to know. So they’ve just don’t two pitches, where the creative and media agencies have gone together and pitched.

 

Are you looking at outdoor also? Acquiring something…

No, we do have our own outdoor unit and have a collaboration working with All About Outdoor. We are not looking at acquiring anything.

 

I was asking you specifically because whether you were looking at the Dentsu route to grow and acquire.

No, we are keeping it simple. We will only have one expertise and will never have multiple expertise.

 

So let me ask you the question once again: how much would you’ve grown if we meet this time next year. Don’t give us numbers, just a 1x, 2x…

In terms of people,  we’ll probably officially land up with 2x from where we are today.

 

Revenues?

In terms of overall toplinerevenue, we will definitely be double of where we are because of both acquisitions and organic growth.

 

How would you like Havas to be described as? Cool, hot, profitable. Any word descriptor that you would like to give to Havas?

If Havas can become genuinely, full-sized… what was the term you used?

 

Full-service

Full-service agency! It will truly be a kick for us because that will differentiate us as an outfit outside. Because that’s the intent actually.

 

If you were to say how far are you from the target? Say if you were to give a Mumbai to Delhi travel example… where have you reached?

In being a full size agency?

 

Have you reached Borivali or, say, Mathura?

As I said, I don’t see any results before next year. I’m very clear in my head how we are going about the entire…

 

Are big bosses abroad happy to wait for the one year?

As long as you are delivering the number, it is fine, but it’s sum of all parts working together. The individual parts have to deliver. Then overall as a sum, you have to deliver. Right now all the individual sums are working together and delivering.

 

Well-oiled and no rusted components?!

As of now, none. Like I said, it’s new. It’s so new. The creative has fallen back into shape. Media had a moment to just ensure that the momentum is far more. If you say, what do I lack? If you see, a lot more of aggression across the group. The group lacked aggression, the group lacked presence, the group lacked intact. The group lacked a lot of these things. You will see a lot of those happening right now. Because no point in being an empty vessel and making a lot of noise without clients, without issues. We had so many issues, so many problems. Plus we had to streamline all of that. First, get that out of the thing, get the people, then you’ll see a lot more of conversations.

 

All problems over.

All problems are definitely not going to be over. Problems will continue. I think idea is to just…

 

But the big problems…

Big problems, yes, you can say are over. Big problems are pretty much now been now taken care of.

 

No rusted components now?

No, I don’t see any of this.

 

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