'I laugh at people who say that the advertising agency model has failed': Grey's Yash Samat

We caught up with the chairman and MD to learn how Grey plans to re-emerge as a force, the challenges it faces and more...

Aug 07, 2018 03:51:00 AM | Article | Raahil Chopra

It’s been four months since Yashaswini Samat has taken over as chairman and MD at Grey India and she has ambitious plans for the WPP owned agency. 
We caught up with Samat to learn more about them and what she wants to achieve before the end of the year.
Edited excerpts:
What’s been your experience at the helm so far?
YS: Jobs like these are always super exciting and energising at because there is an opportunity to lead and change. But, they are also challenging. We hear it’s a tough time for our industry and I’m aware about that.
Everyone is trying to realign the agency model and I think there are hundred experiments going on. We see Publicis looking at the integration model. There are others who are trying to create setups within client offices. There are production houses being integrated within agencies too. Big agencies are figuring out how to do things with acquisitions and we at Grey are also working out how one of these models will play out for us. We want to be in a situation where we are a full-service 360 degree agency which is very, very digitally driven. We need to figure out how to get there.
It’s also about re-inventing our legacy structures and some of the processes. To be really effective in today’s world, the level of agility needed is very different. The costs at which we play are also very different from what used to be during the TV days. The vision is to re-invent the agency and to be a modern day creative player driven by tech and data. As I am meeting clients and talking to our people within the agency, I understand how the environment is and how we have to go about it.
Very clearly, we want to add to our capabilities and fill the gaps we have within the agency. We will be talking about it very soon. We need to up our game on digital and how we participate in today’s world. 
We have great creative ideas and a good creative team. But I think adding specialists in today’s digital world is needed. And we’re figuring the best way to do it. It could be an acquisition. Or it could be hiring 10 heads.   
You’ve been with Grey for 25 years now. How has your journey been and how has the agency changed over these years? 
My journey at Grey has been pretty good. I joined it to work on P&G. I also worked on Marico and Parle. I then moved out of the country. I came back to India post that and worked on a regional role for Pantene. I then went out again to New York on a global role before coming back in 2014 and working on P&G Asia. My journey with Grey has been very interesting. I’ve seen the agency through the lens of P&G, how it has evolved and changed. I saw the transformation in New York too. I’ve seen what a difference creative fame can make and that’s what I would like to bring back to us. I think some of the work is showing that. We won at Cannes this year.
For me as a woman, Grey has been a great agency. People talk about diversity and how in our industry there are so many women at the lower end but they don’t stick. Late hours, child-birth sees people falling out. I think Grey made it easy for me to stay. There was a time I was following my husband and Grey made sure I had a great job. And then once my child grew up, and my husband was in India, I raised my hand and said I want to do more. Grey gave me that opportunity with the move to New York. I think companies that value what you help your career progression in a way that you feel like you’re not losing out and that’s great. And this is something I’d like to do with my team.
Having the right mix of people with gender and religion balance is important. The more different points of view you have, the better you are at understanding your consumer.
Do you agree with the dipping perception of the agency?
A lot of mid-size agencies have faced some struggle in the last few years. We do have a clear plan in place now. Some of the perception we have is a little unfair. The talent that we have and the work that we’ve put up has been very good. We need to figure out the right way of been seen and heard for our work.
So would you say that being in a mid-size agency within a network is a disadvantage?
I think there are advantages and disadvantages. If you’re outside of a network, the advantage is that you get to structure and process yourself in a way that suits the modern world. There are no legacy structures and salaries that have to be managed. But then they don’t also have big global accounts. For a mid-size agency, if you play your cards smartly you could have some advantages of a small start-up. I think that’s what I’m aiming for. What I don’t want is not having the agility of a small agency and the depth of a global network. Grey has always been smart in terms of empowering people that they have passion for that is also good for business.
Grey lacks the big names it used to have. Is talent in the top rungs a problem?
I’ve worked with some of those big names - Amit (Akali) and Malu (Malvika Mehra). Sandipan (Bhattacharyya) our current CCO is fabulous too. For mid-size agencies, getting people who are young and hungry isn’t a bad thing. I also hope that with his work Sandy will become even more famous than the creatives that have worked in the past. I’m very happy with the mix of people we have in the senior level for sure. On planning we have Arun (Raman). We lost some people in his team last year. This year we hope to get more planning members.
I’m not necessarily looking for bigger names, but what I want to do is getting the work better and more visible so that my current team becomes more famous. Honestly, I think for our kind of agency, talent with hunger and passion is more important. We don’t have the scale to pander to big names.
As they (the young talent) grow up, I’m hoping they have the pride to be part of the agency they have then created. They are partners and I hope they feel like equal partners. We have a lot of talented people, but I do think we need to fill gaps in digital specifically. We’re not at zero right now, we’re probably at 65-70 and need to move up the ladder.
Pitching or consolidation of current clients. Where’s growth for Grey coming from?
We are pitching for sure. I do believe organic growth through our clients is important too, and that’s a big part of my agenda. So, it’s a combination of pitches and organic growth.
Difference between working in New York and India. What does India need to learn from that office?
To me the kind of things I’m trying to do here – in terms of filling in talent and capabilities – New York was doing back in 2012. If I take two countries that are ahead in terms of cutting-edge, interesting things happening in our industry, they are USA and China. They are very different from each other but amazing stuff is happening there. India is very good at creative. Talent for storytelling is amazing. But talent in terms of data and analytics for our business - we are a little behind.
It’s not in the real tech business, where I feel India is ahead of a lot of countries. But, in our advertising business we’re lacking. It’s probably because we tell stories and our creative is so good that we haven’t felt the pressure of getting techies within our business.
Is it because all the techies are moving to the Googles and Facebooks? Can agencies attract talent moving to these agencies?
I don’t think we’ve felt the pressure of getting them in so far because our consumer is still very TV driven. But, that’s changing now.
I laugh at people who say that the advertising agency model has failed. It’s a sunset industry, but all sunrise industries are only hiring from us. Whether it’s Facebook, Google or Disney – they’re hiring from advertising. So, obviously we have talented people. It’s tough for sure as they pay really well.
But there are enough talented people in our country. I always feel there will be some people who will remain very passionate about their work in advertising. I don’t resent people moving to these tech companies. I do believe there will always be a core group that loves creativity and won’t leave. We’ll get new people who will do a great job too.
I feel quite proud that we have trained people that all these tech players want to hire from us.
The three things you want to achieve before the end of the year?
I'd want to put out a fabulous piece of work that gets the attention of the industry, win a great piece of business and become the best of the agency partners our clients work with.