Gokul Krishnamurthy
Jul 29, 2014

Maxus: ‘Soul of a start up, systems of scale’

Vikram Sakhuja on the agency’s growth focus, success thus far, and his move to NYC

Maxus: ‘Soul of a start up, systems of scale’
"If I’m learning anything from Cannes, it’s (to) ‘Keep it simple’,” reflects Vikram Sakhuja, seated at possibly the only silent part of the Majestic hotel’s lobby-level coffee shop. The ice cream he has consumed does nothing to cool the Maxus Global CEO down, when he talks shop and elaborates on the change he’s striving to see.
Underlining that on average, across agencies, six out of 10 people in servicing wouldn’t know the turnover of the client brand, he explains, “We want to push the effectiveness conversation a little further.” If integrated marketing communication till date spoke of brand challenges, the idea and a plan to deliver the idea, today the conversation is about the consumer journey, notes Sakhuja. He adds, “I can see the cusp of mass media with addressable – and if I can take a 500,000 people in the TG and plot their consumer journey, then it starts getting interesting.”
At the core of the effectiveness conversation that Sakhuja wants to have with clients, are numbers. It is not the media numbers, where the agency demonstrates to the client how it has saved 20 per cent of spend, or some such metric. It is in the focused targeting, stemming from the number of consumers one needs to convert. He rues the fact that people are hiding behind the TG using the language of demographics.
“Be it a planner or a brand manager on a deo, they will know the demographic – say male, of a certain age and profile. But will they know how many such people exist in the universe? Do they know whether to convert 50,000 males or 1 million or 10 million? What is the target, really?” he questions.
Making his point, the Maxus chief exec argues that there would be very few brands that speak to over half the Indian population. “Of the Rs 35,000 crore of media spend, I would expect that more than two third, or around Rs 20,000 crore, is targeted at less than 100 million people. If I am looking at the effectiveness gain, I need to start with the number game,” he explains.
Picture this, he tells us. If there’s a sports shoe brand with a turnover of Rs 250 crore in India, divide it by the average cost of pairs it sells. At Rs 2,500, that translates into 10 lakh pairs of shoes for the year. That’s less than 100,000 pairs per month.
“Now, we know what the budgets are. Should we blow it all up in two weeks? What happens to the other 11 months of sales? Is the campaign so powerful that its effect will carry on through the year? Do you need to go for 90 per cent reach? Can you stretch it out for 40 weeks? Can the same ad, with a YouTube play (among other elements), deliver the same reach?” poses Sakhuja. And adds, “There is no right or wrong answer. But these are the questions we must ask.”
The basics
The agency has also had a lot of ‘boring but necessary stuff’ to do, reveals a smiling Sakhuja, over the last one year or so. These included areas like training, succession and KPI management.
The former GroupM South Asia CEO, whose move to lead Maxus was announced in August 2012, moved to New York from Mumbai around six months ago. While the agency had ‘wind in its sail’, he had the mandate of keeping growth going, besides getting productivity and fame up. Sakhuja explains the route that is evident: one that straddles both creativity and effectiveness. He reveals that a large part of the last year has been spent in building capability and infrastructure to that end.
“Going back to the first principles, by keeping it very simple, we can unlock a smorgasbord of options made available to us in this digital world,” reflects Sakhuja.
That’s exactly what Maxus is trying to do, thereby making the agency’s product offering more effective. The starting point is breaking up every marketing challenge into 12 tasks – smart KPIs that are simple enough, ‘to tell your mother or grandmother’. Tools and processes kicked in. The CEO acknowledges that people in media tend to make things sound complex. Not anymore if he has his way, ‘Leaning into change’. As the CEO articulated it for a global conference of the agency, the Maxus mantra is to have the ‘Soul of a start-up; systems of scale’.
Digital in the age of collaboration
Sakhuja recalls the time when people ‘saw through’ brands putting out edits of TV spots on radio. He likens it to one agency trying to do all things digital, and airs the view that the syntax for communication for each element of digital is different today – as different as the syntax for television is from that of print or radio.
Discussing the future of where digital capabilities will lie, and the role of a media agency, he notes, “People will go where the expertise is developed. My perception is that as media agencies, we are a bit obsessed about it, and we are able to build capabilities. Some creative agencies are seriously going after it, some aren’t. Some specialists are offering best-in-class capabilities. I believe clients will prefer perfection over seamlessness. That’s a challenge for all of us. If it goes the specialist route, we all need to just collaborate better.”
He adds that all best-in-class capabilities may not be under one roof. Thinking aloud, he points to ‘a debate that rages internally’, about what happens when people are pulled out of different agencies and put into one team. Supporting the case of this group evolving as an agency in itself are Red Fuse and Blue Hive. The two are ‘doing very well’, cedes Sakhuja.
For Maxus, which sees at least 15 per cent of its total billing coming from digital globally, it is not just an area of focus, it’s an obsession.
Global growth story   
India, where Maxus retained the Vodafone account this year, and the UK, where the agency saw some wins including that of L’oreal in 2013, ‘are pretty much on auto pilot’. The UK operation has moved from 40 people to over 200 in a span of about a couple of years, with the wins also having a positive rub off in other parts of Europe.
The US is admittedly a focus market for the agency, which explains in part why the global CEO is based there. There have been business wins in the US (including NBC Universal) and Canada too (including Maple Leaf, Bank of Montreal). The relationship with Jetstar has flown from Australia to Apac now.
Terming the US, Germany, China as some of the high potential growth markets for Maxus, which was nurtured to be the fourth network within GroupM, Sakhuja says Maxus might give some of them extra attention now – including assigning global resources and even P&L breaks if need be. That’s the extent of focus on growth. Also on the radar are Spain, Russia and Australia. The agency opened up a few offices last year, taking the count to 70 globally.
For the man who was based in India, albeit with a South Asia remit, the US market was a ‘colossal growth opportunity for Maxus’ to pass up. The move seems to be working. Disclosing that being located in New York also helps get things done on both client and agency fronts better, he recalls the days of being in Mumbai - where ‘moving up and down a few floors in the same building got things done quicker than sending e-mails and scheduling meetings’.
He surmises, “Fortunately, my wife is loving it. That’s important.”
(Published in the issue of Campaign India dated 25 July 2014.)


Campaign India

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