Isobar was launched in Sri Lanka a year ago, it’s already the fastest growing digital agency locally with revenue growth of 166% and a pitch winning rate of 92% (22/24 wins)
“Response” is the creative arm of isobar, the most talked-about campaigns locally such as, Ara wade – UNICEF / A chair worth fighting for (Game of Thrones) – JAT / Wish I had a Strepsils – RB / Wilbert uncle – FriMi were a result of this collaboration. Many campaigns to be the first of its kind locally and one global first campaign that drove actionable results.
MediaNews4u in conversation with Chamith Buthgumwa, Director Isobar Sri Lanka and Shamsuddin Jasani – Group Managing Director, Isobar South Asia
The agency has also won a maximum number of pitches, your take on this?
Chamith: We go from listening to briefs to actually experiencing the product, along with our competitor products. Making calls to customer service, visiting sales conventions, talking to both believers and critics of the brand are all valuable means for us for getting an edge over the competition during a pitch. In just one year, Isobar has developed a reputation for building brands that have made real people sit up and take notice of – perhaps even wish lived out their brand values! This drive and labor of love have been a part of what goes into our 92% kill rate.
In Srilanka what works better? Traditional Media or Digital Media?
Chamith: While traditional media still dominates, the growth of digital media is doing a lot of damage – to print and radio advertising in particular. TV holds stubbornly with its 80% penetration and still attracts the largest budget allocation, with digital often relegated to the third or fourth-largest spend by clients. However, with the current pace of growth shouldn’t be long before digital becomes the main player in the market!
How have brands there taken to Digital Advertising?
Chamith: The technology has created brand new ways for consumers to locate, experience and share ideas. At the end of the day, it’s perhaps more so than ever before, still a game of creating ideas that keep people engaged. Just that space and methods are more exciting than ever. In Sri Lanka, digital businesses are as inescapable as repeat purchase reminders on the internet follow you like cheap perfume. And they are all promising things faster and cheaper. However, the brands that stand out from mere products, are the ones investing in stories that stick.
You have talked about experimentation, how are brands opening up to this?
Chamith: Brands are starting to invest in experimentation, and that’s absolutely exciting to me. As technology makes experiences such as audiovisual and sensory – and other possibilities once just open to experts – accessible even to low budget, quick turnaround requirements, we are seeing clients and brands take the leap to be brave and original. This is bringing color, diversity and unpredictably into the world.
Isobar is known for technological innovations how is it going to be implemented in Sri Lanka?
Chamith: The new tools like a deep fake, AI, machine learning and voice assistants are all a part of what is inspiring the evolution of our industry and how it’s experienced. These absolutely thrilling possibilities could take shape in the form of concept visualization, production or any other part of the campaign, and would be some of our focus areas in 2020.
The agency has in a year come out with brilliant campaigns, how is 2020 looking for you, and what will be the areas of focus for you?
Chamith: While we will continue to nurture and shape meaningful brands, we will be growing in our areas of product and experience design. The rise of our programmatic business which took off in August 2019 and raising a new generation of top-notch digital media planners will be other priorities. With hotter and hotter opportunities available for top talent worldwide, we’d love Isobar Sri Lanka to be where the world’s best want to work.
Sri Lanka, when did this idea come about?
Shams: In Sri Lanka, we already had an acquisition, which is our own acquisition and there was some very rudimentary work happening up there very, very basic, when I was given the charge of South Asia, the first thing I decided was I need to do something in South Asia and especially in Sri Lanka, I went there, met a few people. When you want to start something in another country what people generally end up doing is that they send someone from India and start the business there, but that is not a very successful model because people like locals. My vision, was that if I needed to start something in Sri Lanka get a person from Sri Lanka whois a leader there, it makes a big difference versus the person going from India. In large organizations it is a little different, where the setup is already there and running so, you could have someone coming from another place and running it as the team is already built, but here you want to build a team and you want to build something from scratch. It was the same when we started Isobar India almost 10 years back. It was that the market like Sri Lanka needed a full-service digital agency.
It’s about the Sri Lankan market, it’s a few years behind in terms of maturity and digital, it does not need, ten digital agencies means one agency can go to a client and say we can solve all your needs. That’s how we started Isobar India and now Isobar Sri Lanka.
The first thing was identifying the leader, and that’s what we did. We identified Chamithand he came on board, then he got the next two people on board and it’s been an amazing run in one year. In one year we have done some amazing work. The first couple of years for any organisation that is started it is all about the body of work, building the body of work is the most important target for the team, then comes the profit, revenues, etc. Once you build the name and credibility in the market is when people start talking about you and your work. So that was the vision to build credibility, build a body of work, which is very, very important and the greed to be successful at that, and some great campaigns, and we acquired some great clients in the past year. It’s been about 25 odd clients in one year’s time. We’ve had, you know, some great successes, broken lot of Sri Lankan records in the viewership and online ads attribution perspective. Lots of records that were broken were done organically, it’s a very new market for digital, the level of the spend is not very high but still, organically we got a lot of good traction on the work that we have done and it is a phenomenal start.
The objective is we wanted to take two-fold, one was to build a great brand for Dentsu, we already have a great mainline agency and the leading online agency they needed an equally powerful Digital Agency. In the one year that we have established ourselves, we’re actually leading a lot of new businesses for Dentsu. Within one year we are opening the doors for the entire network to get into it, and that’s, that’s very credible for a one-year-old agency.
It started off with my vision of growing Isobar in the region and growing digital presence and we’ve been successful in doing that.
You have talked about Digital growing at 120% in Sri Lanka, in one year’s time what has been the growth? Is Sri Lanka a traditional market or open to new age media?
Shams: Sri Lanka like India about seven to eight years back is moving in two directions, Sri Lanka is actually a 4G market and technology superior from a mobile perspective but on the converse, the database is not as cheap as what India offers to its consumers but still a lot more people are consuming videos, etc. It’s a mobile-first market again like India. So the consumers are already shifted and a lot more consumers are tuning on. The advertiser market has not and it is still a very small percentage of this digital phenomena.
So what phase we are in from the market perspective is that yes, it’s grown, but then the base is small from spends perspective. Even if it goes to 200- 300% of spends it’s not a very big number, because it’s still 2- 3% of the spends on digital, we need to make that 10- 15% as we look at the future, a much faster turnaround as compared to India, to reach up to this figure it took us 15 years.
I think Sri Lanka will grow much faster. It’s about just going there and educating the marketers on how big a difference it will make, it’s not just about pure marketing and communication. It’s a lot to do about actually making a difference to your business. I think that is what we are doing presently in Sri Lanka. We are still in that phase and we will remain in that phase for the next two years.
Digital is on a growth curve in Sri Lanka, how is the advertising pie in terms of traditional versus digital?
Shams: It is still a small percentage, then, of course, some clients are evolving, the other side has been on education and we are still doing a lot more in terms of educating clients the target is for at least the DAN Group of clients and trying to make them spend10 to 15%in this year. The market and might be at 4 or 5%, but we want us to be in the bracket of 10 to 15% of digital spends. We have established ourselves as a strong agency in Sri Lanka now and clients are listening to us. What we’re also trying to do is that we’re trying to work with the industry to make people a little more aware of Digital reach. So again, from an industry body perspective, from a government perspective, it’s important for the agencies to contribute to be able to work together as an industry. As isobar, of course, we want to grow the fight for digital, but as the Advertising industry and as a Digital industry we want to work with our partners, we want to work with other agencies which are also important. That’s another thing that we’re investing in the future is how can wework as a part of the industry to further the cause of Isobar. As I said, our target is about 10 to 15% and as the largest agency there it will surely make the market grow.
Our vision to in Bangladesh is slightly different unlike India it is not our own entity, there is an agency called DReach that is powered by Isobar. We work very closely with them on a lot of pitches. So, the only difference is that it’s not named Isobar but pretty much everything in terms of work that is being done there we are working with them very closely and support them.
Vision for Isobar in South Asia is not only growing Isobar as a brand but more importantly, we want to be able to work with, especially the creative agencies within the DAN group to be able to give them the edge on digital. That’s where I think we have been successful, most of the other agency networks clearly have a distinction in the creative and digital agencies. The creative agencies, the mainline agencies aren’t able to adapt to digital as well but the reverse is happening much more quickly. Digital agencies or what we call ourselves as digital-first, were able to adapt to their world much more quickly. We’re trying to use our experiences, our capabilities, to power a lot of our sister agencies in the DAN network to be able to give our clients expertise across the gamut of creativity. The vision that I have is to able Isobar to be at the core of brands, digital needs, especially on the creative side and work with all our sister agencies and give our clients an integrated solution.
I think that’s one big vision for this part of the regions we want to be contributing much more towards that. Second is again, from an Isobar perspective we want to be a digital-first agency and not a standalone digital agency and I’ve said this in a lot of interviews is that we are now working with clients on their entire strategy and spend 70 – 80% on digital, they’re looking at us as their agency and they say, okay, you get someone to do the production for print and we are more than happy to get into that as it is part of the complete strategy, if they’re spending so much on digital, they want a digital-first agency.
There are lots of clients now not just the digital-first clients but a lot of clients like Diageo for example and some of the other brands we are the full-service agency where they want us to give an end to end solutions for them.
Finally, again, going back to the ethos especially in this part of the world, Isobar will never leave its roots of being a full-service agency, by that I mean that media will play a big part, a very strong in our media focus.
So for us, it’s very clear the future focus of what we are, is going to be on the media, again, whether it is the idea for Isobar to contribute, again on the media side as well to the DAN network. All the agencies that are there in the DAN network which are requiring specialist services or even on the media side of the business we want to be there as we have a large team in place
The focus is coming back to more integrated solutions and Isobar being a much bigger cog in the DAN Network.