It’s always challenging to permit clichés in writing, and particularly when one demands to be used in the very introduction of a long, deep-dive conversation with a man who needs no introduction (there, we couldn’t keep it out), you have to use it. Our industry thought leader on Leaderspeak this time, is Vikram Sakhuja, who, with 30 years of enormous experience, is now spearheading Madison Media & OOH along with the original visionary Sam Balsara, as Equity Partner and Group CEO Madison Media & OOH at Madison WorldGroup.
Tvnews4u.com met up with Sakhuja to bring you a free wheeling conversation on the beliefs and values that move the man along with some of the strategic insights he has for his company, the industry, and the professionals on both sides of Mission Marketing.
Welcome to a deep dive with Vikram Sakhuja. We promise you a long, leisurely and very beneficial read.
But before you curl up with your device or laptop, check out a little video message from Vikram for the users of tvnews4u.com, below. – Chief Mentor, TVNEWS4U.Com (email@example.com)
Vikram, what’s it been like, this journey of over thirty years of enormous experience with sector- and industry-leading organizations?
It’s not a cliché when they say, enjoy the journey rather than worry about the destination.
For me, it was some time after my engineering and during the early parts of my MBA when I said, “Marketing karna chahiye” (I must get into marketing). At that point in time, I wasn’t very clear about what it was, but once I got into it, marketing became a passion… a core interest area. I tried to decode the definition of marketing as getting more people to consume more of your brands more often and hopefully at a higher price than competition. The minute I get a focus in terms of marketing means something which grows the topline of a corporation, it sort of gives you a sense of clarity of what this game is all about. I think that is important because sometimes marketing can get fluffy, and everyone talks about brand building and everybody talks about ideas – and they are important – but end of the day, it is about a demand-creation exercise, so it is about growing brand sales, and profitably at that.
I think that focus has kept me going over the years, and there have been lovely experiences one has had in great organizations like P&G and Coca Cola, very briefly in the broadcasting side like Star TV, and then of course for the longest time in the WPP Group.
Here’s where the journey continues, because somewhere I feel that while most marketers know that marketing is an investment, the reality is that they treat it like a cost – and I’m talking about evolved people. And the reason they do that is that when push comes to shove and the bottom line is being threatened, it is an expedient cut that marketers sometimes take. It’s a large cost to the P&L, and it’s with a heavy heart or whatever, but they do take the decision and make the cuts.
I don’t think we have cracked the code where we can tell the marketers that the cost of cutting the marketing budgets could sometimes be more than the cost of some other painful cuts. Now if, in this effectiveness journey, we can come back and actually talk about why marketing can actually grow, both short-term and long-term, the sales and brand evaluation, I think it will have been a worthwhile journey.
So, lots to work with. And at least from the media standpoint I keep telling this to everybody: always talk about effectiveness and efficiency. Efficiency’s been put under an electron microscope, and with the rise of procurement, it’s become more and more, ‘Bring cost down, bring cost down, bring the price of media down’, and I think that’s important, but if that’s the be-all and end-all, it’s very limiting.
It gets much more inspiring if it is actually about driving the topline. So that’s what’s keeping me going at the point in the journey.
Since we are speaking about media buying, what will it take for the industry to get to applying a uniform yardstick or measure of buying audiences across different kinds of media? Right now it’s different for every kind of medium.
I’ve always been a believer of CPT or CPM, whatever you want to call it.
But let me move back a little. Media has moved from multimedia planning to integrated marketing to what is now more real-time consumer journey-oriented, and ideas-led.
Multi-media planning was all about taking a TV plan, a print plan, an outdoor plan, radio plan and cinema plan. That was your multimedia plan. And pretty much, they all existed in silos.
An integrated plan typically had an idea which was central to it, and then you probably had a number of touch points that you would exploit to get the idea home.
The real-time aspect which digital is bringing in is allowing us to actually understand the consumer’s purchase journey and be with them right through. So now the entire integrated marketing communication picture is consumer-journey-led, and this further allows you to make the plans a little seamless and even a full-connection plan – sometimes TV can throw you to mobile and mobile can throw you somewhere else and more, from where you can come back. So the integration between the mediums and the media touch points is becoming more intense and intricate. And at this point in time, from an efficiency standpoint, you will need to look at one versus the other; you need to able to compare.
Currently, at least CPM gets you there. It becomes a common currency which, while not exactly apples to apples, is at least closest to being apples to apples. But that said, it has to be understood that CPM is a metric, but not the only metric.
There is a lot of talk happening about programmatic and ad fraud, with bots impacting impressions and what not. Now if I just took a CPM without the filters of who’s seeing it, and whether it’s your target audience etcetera, then the CPM alone can be misleading right? So you do a proper maybe demographics-based TG which kind of leads us to take a CPM there. And you take a vanilla impressions CPM which is coming on say the online space – the two strictly speaking, are not comparable. But CPM at least makes it closest cost per impression. It’s better than looking at it as CPRP in one medium, cost per square centimeter in another, cost per spot in a third, and so on and so forth. So I think a common metric helps, but it has to be supported by a few more things.
And how much of such missionary zeal does the media planning at Madison use and demonstrate?
One thing I’ve noticed at Madison is, it’s a very pure what’s-good-for-the-brand-approach kind of advice to clients. I would say we have a higher rigour on effectiveness so we like to see what the outcomes are on the various areas of awareness and preference building for our brands. To some extent it’s in the area of leads, and moving on to the areas of social outcomes like shares and advocacy and other things like engagement outcomes which have to do with again shares and second clicks… You know, you need to find surrogates of what it is that people are finally wanting to do with marketing. It could be awareness, it could be some degree of engagement, some degree of getting leads or sales, it could be about in-use experience, it could be about advocacy.
Now the ability to actually start leading the output variables like reach, frequency, GPRP, CPRP and all of that a little bit to areas like ‘So what did I do for awareness, or preference, or whatever else, is a better way to go about it.
So the DNA of the agency is driven towards that kind of stuff, which is very welcome.
Internationally, the main yardstick of effective marketing is its ROI. To what extent do you use ROI – at least internally – to measure the effectiveness of the agency for its brands?
Marketing ROI is simply the return on marketing investment — what is the kind of profit that you make for every dollar that you spend on advertising. We do some of that, but what are more prevalent are the interim variables like awareness, preference. That’s where more work is happening. We won’t fight shy of using the standard media deliverables, like we’ll have a point of view on what are the threshold levels of advertising that will make a palpable difference on its on-the-mind-matrix, what is the role of continuity… you know, the standard media principles; we examine them all the time.
How’s it been for you at Madison, so far?
In a word it’s been fantastic. I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s been close to eight-nine months now.
What I love about it is the entrepreneurial zeal which Sam (Balsara) brings to the party. I love the client focus.
We recently did some client referral ratings through a third party to check what clients have to say about us. We did it for the first time here, and I was happy to see that we were significantly higher than the India average. That’s a great validation.
So I love the client orientation. I like the fact that it is entrepreneurial so it’s very fast; we don’t get bogged down by bureaucracy. A challenge in global organizations is that end of the day, there’s a global P&L that you have to manage. If you look at India now, compared to five or six years back, it is playing a huge role in the contribution to growth at a global level because this is where the growth has been coming form, the country has been doing well, and there are very smart people. So the net result is that if the reliance of global organizations on India increases, their pressures on (their) India (operations) also increase. For me it’s actually very liberating in a sense to be free of that pressure, because here, I’m sure that my counterparts in most of the other groups, despite doing pretty stellar jobs in growing their businesses locally, will still be hamstrung to get a lot of decisions on investments in people, systems, needs, all of them will be held up because at some level there’s a global P&L which is getting affected and even the performing markets have to contribute towards that. So on the bureaucracy point, we are saved, and I’m relishing that piece!
The part which I think we could do a little bit more on, is the flip side of the entrepreneurial strength where a lot depends on the individual person driving it. I think we can build in a few more systems which allow the propagation of learnings on a more institutionalized basis… the way we work… I’d love to take the cross pollination of best practices and make an agency best practice and take it forward. Things like that.
We’re focusing a lot on training areas to build on those—there’s a lot we can do in terms of the development of people. Especially in the areas of data, tech… that’s a long drawn process for agencies including ours, and we’re making a lot of investments there.
So there’s a lot of conventional good that is there, plus this new institutional plus data tech piece which we’re building.
That was Madison. How is it personally with Sam?
Getting to partner with Sam has been one of the most exciting things for me, because during my formative years in the industry Sam was my agency both at P&G and Coke. So for a good eight-nine years we were partners. I used to love working with him then, and I love working with him now. And I think it is his genius that has given Madison all the kind of things that I’ve been talking about. As the founder and pioneer of this space, and the fact that as an independent agency, Madison is the second largest in the country and for all the accolades that it gets… it is a huge testimony to the man who has built it to this. There’s obviously a certain magic to the man – I can see it in action. It’s his ability to keep it simple. There is a simplicity in profundity. You take an issue, you cut to the nub of it, and you solve it. That’s a strength of Madison. There can be complex issues which might take a little time to solve, but we just do it. It’s that let’s-do-it culture; we don’t let obstacles come in the way…
…make it a matter of personal pride, even?
I’m sure there’s pride somewhere, but more than that, it’s a calling. We’re in the service business. If a client has come back with a problem, we’ve got to fix that problem. It’s as simple as that. And at times when we don’t agree with the point of view a client has, we’ve actually risked the relationship and gone back saying sorry, we think you shouldn’t be doing this, you should be doing this.
When you’d partnered with Sam, you’d said that you would be open to an international association provided the valuation and the intrinsic value that came in from the international ‘partner’ were commensurate and acceptable. Where are things on that?
I think that question is best put to Sam. But I think that position stays.
Having run an agency globally, my view has always been – and it is reinforced – that media is a local business. So from that standpoint, I have struggled to see inordinate value coming in from a global network to a local partner. Yes, the learnings, tools… those are the kind of things that are bandied about, but the only thing that truly adds value is for multinational clients who’ve got international structures. So if as an MNC you’ve got international structures at global, regional, local levels, and you want your agencies to mirror that, then obviously there’s a structural issue if you’re not part of the global network. But even then it is more information sharing, best practices dissemination… those kinds of things. And hand on heart if you speak to most people, they’ll come back and say that ninety percent of the billions or whatever my local partners are bringing to the table.
We lost Mondelez , but the client loved us, we loved the client, I think it was one of our best relationships… we did some fantastic work on them. But this one was a straight network issue. There was a regional alignment at the APAC level not even at the India pitch, and you’re not invited because it is a global alignment and that’s that. Now those are the only kind of situations where you feel pretty helpless at that point in time, so it’s not nice.
So if the trend is moving inexorably in that direction, maybe it becomes incumbent upon us to consider it. But if it is not, then the position, as I said, continues.
So Mondelez has been an unfortunate loss because of circumstances beyond your control. What were the gains like?
I think we won about 16 or 17 businesses. Just a little while before I joined we won Oyo Rooms, we’ve won LeEco, the hyper-local market place Zopper, Gopalji Ananda which is a dairy company, Policy Boss which is a new GI portal, we won Pepper Tap but unfortunately the company has wound up now. We won BPL, which will be coming back with a relaunch very soon. We were the agency which launched BPL several years ago, and they talked to a few people and came to us. We also won SBI General Insurance. In fact our biggest point in 15-16 was Snapdeal, Freecharge. That was huge. That came in shortly after I announced my decision to join here, but that time I hadn’t joined – I had a 6-month cooling period. But overall, we’ve hugely increased our client base.
How big is the digital piece and how strongly are you pushing it?
It’s very big, of course, and it’s responding very well. Right now we have some 60-65 people, providing services across the board, like display, video, search, social, content, programmatic…
How big is content?
It’s very strong. Saffola Search Foodie is arguably one of the top five branded content sites in India. That is entirely done by us. Backend, content, the plumbing as well as the interfaces.
And programmatic? How big is that now?
It’s still small – it’s probably a 10-percent-of-our-digital-billings kind of thing. But it’s growing. An important point in programmatic is, it could be misused; you keep reading about ad fraud and stuff like that. End of the day, when you’re buying through machines and algorithms, it can lend itself to misuse. So we want to make sure that we get programmatic right. Are your right TGs, and the sites on which you expected it, getting it? Are the ads you’re serving being seen? Are they being seen by humans… WFA has warned that Click fraud will become so rampant that by 2025 it will cost advertisers more than 50 billion dollars. Their April ad is actually quite frightening.
At one level, the established media owners and publishers make sure their houses are clean, but with a number of publisher networks, ad exchanges… if you’re not careful, you’d get into trouble.
There are so many digital awards, and even at the last big B2B digital media awards, there wasn’t a single award for the best work in Digital or Social Customer Relationship Management…
Rather than using CRM, I think now they’re increasingly talking about data — whether you want to call it big data, or data analytics or first, second, third party data, and the entire ability to use data. I think the lines between CRM and Media are now blurring. We still haven’t heard so much about data; I saw so much more of that in the US, the UK, in some parts of Europe – more in the Netherlands and less so in Germany where it’s used primarily for trading. But this data piece can be pretty exciting.
How important are blogs today – each one an individual little publisher, really. I mean, I know the answer to that, but if I were to put before you a scenario: Let’s say, there’s a tiny 50-word brief on at the bottom of the first or last column of a business newspaper, or there’s a detailed blog about the entire news, obviously going to a much smaller number of people. What, as a brand custodian, would you be inclined to favour with a bigger focus?
I would be looking for any piece of editorial to be read with some degree of engagement. If that tiny print piece you are referring to gets read with whatever degree of engagement it offers and gets the basic information or message across, more than a full length blog, I’m happy with that. I definitely wouldn’t generalize. I wouldn’t want to paint everything with broad brushstrokes. The good thing about digital is you can actually prove the engagement.
You’re with Media and Outdoors. How is Outdoors shaping up?
Within the entire conventional outdoors we’ve got activation, we’ve got rural, we’ve got retail…
How well is outdoors synergized with digital on processes, technology, data, insights for strategic planning…?
I would say our digital product is very good when it comes to the planning piece. We use data well. We have very good tools. There are four tools we use – View on Street, or VOS, which takes the visibility aspect of sites, and we are actually trying to propagate it rather than using cost per square foot as an efficiency measure and down the road see how we can move to what we call Cost per VOS. I think it’s a very sophisticated and robust piece of work that we’re doing on visibility out there.
Similarly, there’s another tool called Vicinity, which gives us the ability to block sites by say, schools, temples, business parks… We’ve got very good Adex benchmarking tools which are very good because when at any point in time a category wants to see how it’s been spending, by markets, etcetera… we have creative evaluation ability. So I think the tools aspect and the way we use them is quite nice. Our servicing overall is pretty good. We’re now putting into place some kind of central systems where we’re trying to consolidate our buying and bring a little bit more discipline and scale-leverage into that buying area.
What is the average client relationship like?
I think in the first 10 or 15 years, Madison was very selective about having a few large clients, and really most of the business was around those. Most of those clients – not all – have stayed with us. We’ve had very long associations.
What are the values any professional must have to be successful?
We must be passionate about the brands we’re working on. We must feel that this brand should be the most important thing for whatever the target audience relevant for that is. Now, Nine out of ten cases it might not happen – I mean, how many brands are there where people are really passionately involved? It might be just some kind of replenishment thing you have to do. It’s not a very easy mission to have, to be the most important brand for a consumer. But at least the custodians of the brand do not have the liberty to say, ‘I’m just selling a toothpaste, or an e-commerce product or a financial product’. I think they must have that belief and conviction that my product needs to be the most important for the customer, and why is it? That’s my mission in life — to communicate and get that across.
That sense of mission and calling gives us a purpose which is important, and sometimes lacking in today’s environment.
I sometimes worry about the short term nature of young people coming into the industry. I’m not really sure why they’ve come into the industry. When you ask them what it is that they’re trying to change in marketing, what it is they’re trying to do, it’s very superficial, tactical. The motivation, or what’s really driving them, is not very clear. Whether it is the creative or media side of marketing, at the agency or the brand side in the client organization, you need to be passionate about the brands that you have to build. And I think the sheen has gone off that in the last 10 to 15 years, and needs to be brought back. Brand stewardship I think is not looked at so closely… the relationship that you’re forming with consumers…
I mean the people who’re doing it well — the Unilevers… the Proctors of the world… the traditional marketers – I think we should learn, we should get inspired by them also… whether you’re taking up a cause, and then through that cause becoming the most important…
So at one level, the passion or the sense of mission – why you’re in it is most important for people to ponder about.
That’s on the personal aspect. What about in the interpersonal space?
There, I think there’s an increasing need for collaboration, because earlier, there was one agency which looked after all the marketing needs, but we have five, six, seven shops now. We like to think we can be the one-stop shop, but there are times when the client is looking to see, ‘What is the best I can get from each one?’ So I don’t know how that trend will go, but if we have to deal with multiple partners, we will have to collaborate. Like I spoke about the media planning to integrated marketing planning to that entire piece about consumer-journey-led seamless thing, it, by the very definition, requires very seamless working with the creative agency, with the digital agency, whether it’s in your own shop or outside, the social agencies… as analytics people need to be out there, looking at real time data.
So for the ability to work as one composite team, the collaboration piece is very important.
In fact, (Sir Martin) Sorrell has been calling this out for some time. He’s made this horizontality piece within WPP as one of his strategic pillars. Of course he’s built that capability within the WPP Group, and he’s exhorting more and more his clients to benefit from that. His entire point is that if in WPP, all the tribes can organize themselves coherently and seamlessly for a client’s purpose, that can provide huge service. And I know that on some of our clients, where we work more closely with the creative and other agencies, the results are better.
So from an agency’s perspective, three things — a sense of mission at the individual level, collaboration at the collective level, and institutionalizing best practices whether at a systems level or whether at a soft-skills, talent level – especially at the talent level – are important areas.
I just feel that because this industry has reached a critical mass, we cannot just be the entrepreneurial cottage-sector kind of shops. We just have to look around and see the kind of institutionalizing that companies like McKenzie and Accenture and some of these have been able to do while arguably not losing their core completely. I think a little page out of those books would be something good for us to follow.
The company shouldn’t rely only on the brilliance of the top man or the founder or just one talisman, but really I’d love it if every client leader that we have, could bring in a certain service code that would guarantee a minimum Madison service quality. That would be great.
You go to any event or conference that’s examining the state of the advertising and marketing industry in India from a B2B perspective, you get a sense of Déjà vu – talking heads going on about the same problems and needs to be done to help invigorate the industry. I’m not bucking that trend, because we want to hear your views on what are the opportunities and obstacles in the space of the media agencies business in India?
OK, so let me answer that from a not-clichéd standpoint: I think that at one level, as media agencies, we are slightly schizophrenic about whether we exist as agents or principals. And that has far-reaching implications. Clients really want us to be their agents and represent them, and that’s how we behave for all practical purposed. But when it comes to Media Owners, they treat us as principals, and when it comes to payments and even if the client doesn’t pay, the media owner still comes to us and makes us pay for it. So there we’re treated pretty much like a principal.
There’s going to be another debate coming up in the context of the GST in agencies – whether it’s going to be a P-to-P or a P-to-A. All of this can have long-term existentialistic implications for media agencies.
Earlier we used to be called media agencies, but today we’re introduced to the world as media buyers. Yeah, sure, we’re the planner, but I wish we could get paid more for planning, but at the end of the day we get paid only when we actually buy and implement a particular media plan, so there are very few planning-only assignments that most of us have.
So as a media buyer, the game is slowly moving to media trader, especially in a digital environment where you’re using data tech on top of inventory to be able to serve ads in an intelligent manner. We are in a situation where media owners – the Googles, Facebooks of this world – at one level Google would make money on the back of a supply-side platform which is all about trying to increase the yield for publishers whom they were representing and putting their ads on. They also have a demand side platform product — but it’s like a news channel, a Star TV, a Zee TV, whatever . At one level they’ll obviously have to increase their yield, because that’s what their business is. So if they also would come out into the market and say we’ve got a client solution… now that is where increasingly agencies are finding the need to come out with standalone demand-side platforms to counter the supply-side platforms of the media owners. Now if it’s going to move to that environment, we need to also have an understanding with and acceptance from the clients that they are ok if actually we operate as traders and not as agents. If it’s P-to-P, then the way we come across to the advertisers and the clients needs to change.
So I think it’s a very large issue, and probably not one that one whinges about all the time. It’s important enough to be discussed, especially in the environment of digital, programmatic and the way moving forward.
And what are your views on the industry-wide quality-of-talent issue?
That’s the second issue, and it is of our own making. I feel we have dumbed down on talent, and we’ve not been able to attract the best talent. This is nothing new, everybody has been talking about this for a long time. Partly it’s the economics of it. At the levels at which procurement has driven the pricing down… earlier 3.5% on traditional media was the very norm. And 3.5% was for a very large advertiser. Now large advertisers are talking ridiculous numbers! Now on those numbers if you do a back-of-the-envelope on whatever billing they do, you see the kind of money they make and you see what the overheads are, and everything else. What is left to actually pay?
So end of day, where does the problem lie? It lies fairly and squarely with us! Why should we agree to do work at levels where we make a loss? The reality is that it’s a weakness on the agencies’ part – the media agencies, the creative agencies, everybody – because somewhere you’re allowing yourself to be commoditized on something that should not be commoditized. And perpetrating the vicious cycle.
The problem is that a large part of the premium is paid on thinking, and it’s always been difficult to monetize the planning or the thinking.
So this is the economic aspect of it. And coming from there, you go to the kind of talent that you go to.
The other part is that a large part of the media implementation work is not very glamorous. If you go past the first few years, which are the boot-camp equivalent, it becomes truly exciting. But the reality is that in the initial phase, if you have to make a 15000-spot TV plan along with the log files, you have to implement it, you’ve got to do it on a monthly basis to see if the monitoring is actually happening… it’s grunt work.
To some extent, we’ve tried to automate the entire process to make lives slightly better. But it goes back to the calling at the junior level. When I came in as a routine brand marking or marketing research-something, I used to do a lot of grunt work! Doing a lot of field work, filling up questionnaires… for six months you were a sales rep, visiting 40 shops a day in 45-degree heat, trying to sell Vicks or something. But you just did it because you wanted to do and learn. And those are the memories that are the most enduring. That experience builds the mettle in you. It gives you substance, it gives you roots.
Out here also, it’s a base expectation that if you join a media agency, you will take pride in making sure that the plan you’ve made is error-free, there should have a certain quality to that plan, and you should take pride in doing it! But youngsters just say this is just one more thing I have to do, I’ve done it, out of the way!