An advertising agency is most justly judged by its body of work. It must also be judged by business growth, which is almost always linked to the former. The intangible thread that ties everything together is the talent. How it takes care of that talent and prepares them for the future is another critical yardstick that determines the fortunes of an agency in the business of building brands. While the first two could at times be blips, the last link is tested over time. That said, six months is a reasonable time frame in which one can judge where an agency is headed. In the context of this story, it is agencies within the fold of MullenLowe Lintas Group (MLLG) that are in focus.
Since the exit of Joseph George, and Arun Iyer thereafter, the duo of Amer Jaleel and Virat Tandon held fort at MLLG. In an unexpected turn of events for a planning head who had partnered all of them, he found himself in the hot seat.
S Subramanyeswar (Subbu), Group CEO – India, CSO – Apac and Global Chair – Strategy, MullenLowe Group, was getting ready to move to the US in early 2023 in a global planning head role when the news hit. Since taking on his current mandate as head of the MullenLowe Lintas Group, he has approached the task with the rigour of a planner.
‘I didn’t know where to start…’
In conversation with Medianews4u over coffee last week, the unassuming agency head recalls strolling endlessly on Orchard Road in Singapore thinking about the task ahead of him.
“The organisation has given me a lot. It made me who I am. When it needed me, it was my responsibility. I knew it was a challenging situation. The industry stood disrupted. The organisation needed changes. But I had spent time in the system. I knew the people, the people knew me well. The clients knew me well. I said to myself that it’s a great place to start. It’s been a fantastic journey over the last six to seven months,” says Subbu.
No agency can rest on its laurels and the same held true for Lintas. Subbu took a call against acquiring a digital agency to become future-ready, choosing instead to incubate change within. The thinking manifested as Lowe Lintas DX and digital training modules.
In a presentation to the team on completing six months, Subbu said, “Acquiring an outside company or creating an independent unit unconnected with the rest of the agency is like launching a speedboat to help manoeuvre a large ship. I felt, instead of launching a speedboat, we must create a “landing dock” where new initiatives, or speedboats, can dock, leverage the power of the mothership, and help create its course overtime.”
He reasoned that if one knew 10,000 words in English the person would be Shakespeare, but the knowledge of 3,000 or 4,000 words would suffice to be an effective communicator. The task was to equip the team with those ‘3,000 words’ for the digital realm.
In the first two to three months of taking over, the Group CEO strived to meet every client of the agency. While there was overwhelming feedback on the need to emphasise on digital, there was also a pressing gap cited – on the need for digital to build brands. A partnership with Meta came about with that stated purpose. Within days of the announcement of Lowe Lintas DX’s launch, new business came in from existing clients Britannia, HUL and Tanishq.
The unit’s purpose was articulated as: ‘It will “expand what we sell” and “evolve how we sell”.’
“When people grow, as a byproduct the bottom line also grows,” reflects Subbu. He cites a move from a know-it-all culture to a learn-it-all culture.
A partnership with Digiaccel is also in place. It is an e-commerce and applied marketing academy run by a bunch of professionals also upskilling managers from Unilever, Amazon, Godrej, GroupM, Flipkart, Nykaa and Johnson & Johnson. It was Unilever that recommended Digiaccel to the MullenLowe Lintas Group.
A learning academy branded Lowe Masia – inspired by FC Barcelona that counts Subbu as a fan – has seen 333 learners pass through with 2,500 learning hours since he took over.
“Continuous learning is going to be an integral part of the culture,” adds Subbu.
Attrition at the agency is down by 30 pc (in the last six months). The diversity ratio has improved with the split now being 59:41 (M:F). The goal is to reach 50:50 by end-2025. The current talent inflow sees 49 pc new male recruits being outnumbered by 51 pc women.
There was talk about mass exodus at the behemoth but Subbu denies that and notes that there is a lot more clarity now within, on roles and responsibilities.
“Effective teams have clearly articulated roles. My job is to ensure that, not hope to find it along the way,” the CEO reasons.
On the creative side, Prateek Bhardwaj took on the responsibility of Lowe Lintas. Sagar Kapoor took on the role of CCO – Global Brands. The agency welcomed Ram Jayaraman from Meta to steer Mullen Lintas.
Anahita Goenka now heads Mumbai and the Unilever business while Navin Gaur, COO – Growth and Innovation now also oversees the Delhi and Kolkata operations. Sonali Khanna continues to handle South.
Growing with the old
New business can be tricky business. The same client and even the same brand may work with multiple agencies, making it difficult for those tracking new business. In the case of MullenLowe Lintas Group, business is up 20 pc over the previous year.
Says Subbu, “The heartening story is that we have won disproportionately from our existing clients.”
Lowe Lintas Mumbai won five more brands from Unilever (including Hamam that it won back), three more from GSK, four more from Cipla, three more from Tata Motors, besides D’décor, Storia Foods and Runwal adding up to 21 new businesses in the first half of 2023.
Lowe Lintas Delhi’s new business tally during the same period includes Livguard, HP Omen, Ixigo, Chambal Fertilisers and Muscleblaze, while the Bengaluru office has won Lifestyle, Reebok, DriveX and Britannia’s international business.
Mullen Lintas meantime added four brands from Reliance Group: Bugles, a snacking product; Dozo and Home Guard from Reliance Homecare, and Yousta of Reliance Fashion. Hubble Money, Hindware and Saffola Foods from Marico were three other wins.
Lintas Live and Lintas C:EX too have a growth story to tell.
“The USP of Lintas going forward is going to be a multi-India strategy,” notes Subbu, the planner in him coming to the fore.
He adds that the genetic code of Lintas is of a thought leader and underlines the ambition to regain that position.
As he said in his half-yearly presentation to the entire team: “One of my big dreams for this amazing institution of Lintas when I took over, was to restore the thought leadership status that it so proudly coveted in this market.”
The first step was an admittedly ‘ambitious’ study ‘State of States’ in collaboration with insights company Quantum. The study seeks to deconstruct 30 different cultures (from different states) for a deeper understanding of the respective culture codes, tensions and shifts, to craft brands of the future.
“This aligns with the rise in ethnic nationalism or localism or even ultra localism in India (and globally), in which identity is defined by perceived genetic, religious, or linguistic heritage beyond the democratic ideals or principles.
“Our timing of this study couldn’t have been better given the ‘Winning In Many Indias’ agenda for a lot of our clients. While politicians use this to whip up fundamentalism outlining their terms of engagement, brands can certainly stoke pride, becoming the firms of endearment,” noted the planner with the additional mandate of running the business,” noted Subbu.
This is not another typical market research, usage and attitudes, consumption behaviour, or an equity study, of which there are a dime and dozen available to clients, he underlines.
“Fundamental culture codes or emotions don’t change as long as humanity exists. What changes is the attitudes towards those emotions. The trick lies in how we draw those connections to create magic in the cause of brands/business. That’s the job we have to do once we have this understanding. To give cultural authority to brands beyond brand authority,” said Subbu.
Season one of the study has been completed over the last four months covering the four South language regions.
“Above all, as a thought-leading company it will arm us to lead conversations with our clients, inspire and galvanise our teams to think new thoughts, modify the way they have always done things, and embark on new behaviours, new paths, and new actions to transform the world at large. We will not have a one-India strategy any more, but a multi-India strategy for our brands.” he noted at the team briefing.
The work usually speaks for itself. In the case of MLLG, it speaks volumes in the last six months, a period when many a rumour on the ship sinking made the rounds. Among other things, one heard that Subbu the planner was not cut out to run a business.
On the contrary, the planner who is also group CEO clarifies that he is approaching the brief like a planner – with the homework and rigour needed. It seems to be reflecting in the work.
Tetley | #EveryBODYcan
Future Generali Health | D.I.Y. Health | Make Your Choice
Axis Bank | Finding the Familiar in the New
Samsonite | Tested Like Samsonite
Vim Black | More to Brag
Britannia 50:50 | Golmaal
Tinder | You Up?
Tanishq Rivaah | Ghar
Maruti Jimny | What Stories Will They Tell About You?
“There is palpable energy in the system. The work has gotten better. An agency is as good as its work. We have brought the focus back to the work,” surmises Subbu.
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