It’s been over a year since Sanjay Thapar took over the reins of Bates CHI & Partners (then Bates Asia) as group CEO for India, moving from a successful stint of 14 years at Ogilvy in various capacities. The former group president (North and East) at O&M has been addressing a different set of challenges at the minnow (in comparison). He’s also been largely away from the media, prompting the industry to wonder what’s brewing.
“It’s better to start doing things and getting your house in order before you start speaking,” says Thapar, signalling that the efforts are now showing results.
Thrust on advertising
A lot has changed at Bates, informs the group CEO, who took over in the wake of some senior exits.
“There was a huge amount of inherent strengths in this organisation, whether it was the offering on the Wallstreet (OOH) side, or on the digital activation side. We had a lot of robustness in various offices on the advertising side, but that’s the side which saw much slower growth rate. It saw some amount of loss of clients before I had come in. Not that it was bleeding or in the red, but it was still going through some stress. The whole focus was to strengthen what we already had, and start building on some areas where we dropped a couple of notches,” he explains.
Advertising, which contributed 40 per cent to the total, now matches revenues from other streams. And from a growth rate of ‘5 to 6 per cent’ a year ago, it is now growing at double digits. Thapar adds that the real benefits of the efforts will show only now, though there are already new business wins to announce. The assignment started, as it always does, with people – and collaborations, in line with the ‘&’ in its new identity of Bates CHI & Partners.
“The strategy was simple. If you have to strengthen yourself, you can’t do everything yourself. We needed to start collaborating and partnering with people, without reinventing the wheel and building everything within. You always have a finite amount of money,” reflects Thapar.
On the people end, he has a philosophy at work: “It’s not about lighting a fire below people; it’s about lighting a fire within.”
The agency hired a team of creative directors in Bengaluru, a creative director in Delhi, and NCD Sagar (Mahabaleshwarkar) started playing a ‘more hands on role’ both in Mumbai and across the country. On the planning end, it roped in Sourabh Mishra as chief strategy officer. How difficult was it attracting talent to Bates? We asked the CEO.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg story. If you have the right people leading the businesses, talent comes. The moment we had Saurabh come on board as head of planning, we had three or four people come on board almost immediately. It’s not that they all worked with him, but he managed to get them on board. Similarly with Sagar, it’s not been so difficult to get people who would want to work with him. The trick is to have your leadership in place,” notes Thapar.
He cedes that there exists the mindset of being in a large organisation, and says, “People who have that mindset may not want to come into a Bates. People with an entrepreneurial streak, who want to create a mark for themselves, those are the people who would be more than happy to come in over here - and stay back.”
The last six months or so have seen the agency bagging Uninor, Hamilton Beach (home appliances), Schnieder Electric, PC Chandra Jewellers, Turtle and Kumar Properties. According to its CEO, the agency is on the verge of closing a few more.
“Barring one (Century Ply), we haven’t lost any clients this year. And every client we have has either been stable or has grown. If I have to guess, half of the growth we have had would have been organic,” he adds.
Thapar is cognisant of the mood in the market. He sums up his reading thus: “It is tough times in the market; there is no doubt about that. In the beginning of the year, there was more optimism, peppered with some amount of caution. I don’t think it has come out so much in the open, but it has probably reversed. But it’s not pessimistic, still. We’re at a kind of tipping point. It could tend towards pessimism, or it could go back into cautious optimism.”
But the momentum of clients who have come on board gives him the encouragement, says Thapar, ‘that the ‘baby steps’ we’ve taken have started yielding results’.
“Coming from a market like Delhi where I’ve grown business at 15 to 20 per cent per annum, it’s (advertising business growth) not in that league, but is definitely in double digits. It gives the encouragement that we are on the right track,” he notes.
Collaboration as a model
The focus on collaboration starts at the pitch stage or prior, explains the CEO. While the agency works with GroupM on media monitoring, and engages technology partners including for data sourcing online, there’s more to the approach than that.
“We have four people below 20 working on a youth brand that we are pitching for. We got people who are just out of college, who wanted to get into the communication business from a planning and a creative point of view, and asked them to come on this project and work with us,” he explains.
On Dell, a client in Bengaluru, the agency has roped in business consultants (IT pros) to understand the business better, and then give a communication solution. “When you talk about this, people might ask, ‘Isn’t this something which everyone should be doing?’ Of course yes, it is probably the right and logical thing to do. But I don’t know if everybody does it,” reasons Thapar.
The agency has started talking to sociologists and psychologists, among others, depending on the brief and work that comes in.
“This piece of saying that we need to stretch ourselves more than being a pure communication play, by getting the understanding by getting the relevant people around the table, is becoming more critical,” he adds.
While the new business wins give Thapar and his 240 member team (across the group in India) encouragement, he surmises, “The work has to speak for itself. You will see a lot of that happening. The proof of the pudding is in the work.”
And there’s a lot of work beyond TV that’s making a difference to client businesses, reminds the agency head.
The article appeared in the issue of Campaign India dated 4 October, 2013