Arati Rao
Jan 28, 2011

Profile: "Big ad agencies haven't got the DNA of digital"

VivaKi India's Srikant Sastri explains why digital is one space the idea could come from anywhere


From wearing two hats for the whole of last year, Srikant Sastri began 2011 by fully transitioning to the role of VivaKi chairperson. “Through 2010, I continued to remain the managing director of Solutions Digitas and I also started wearing the second hat of VivaKi chairperson. But I was spending only a small part of my time on the VivaKi role, I was focussing only on a few things. At the end of December, I have effectively given up my operational responsibilities at Solutions to the co-founder Kanika Mathur who’s now the CEO of Solutions Digitas. I am now 100% into the VivaKi role, where as the chairperson, I have responsibilities for all the agencies, including Solutions Digitas,” he said.

There are many other hats that have been donned in a career that has spanned more than two decades. Sastri spent the first four years of his career in sales and marketing at Pond’s at Unilever after a campus placement at IIM Calcutta. This was followed by a three-year stint at Tara Sinha McCann Erickson (TSME). “I had always wanted to be in advertising, even when I was studying because I did believe that for consumer understanding, an advertising agency was the best place to be in. But I also knew that starting a career in advertising is a bad idea as I wanted a grounding in sales and marketing first that would give me a realistic view of the market,” he said. “Tara Sinha was nice enough to also involve me in the agency’s research business (AdMar) besides asking me to run RESULT, which was then an activation and direct agency.”

Then in 1995, Sastri decided to become an entrepreneur and set up marketing services agency Solutions Integrated. Publicis Groupe took a 60% stake in 2005, and somewhere along the way, he also set up a second salesforce staffing firm company -Team4U- that got acquired by Dutch giant Randstad. Sastri explained, “We wanted to expand more in Asia Pacific and wanted to be a regional or global player, and we thought of finding a global network as a partner. So I actually went out and ‘interviewed’ 9 agency networks and then we shortlisted that to about 3. So it was about us looking for a partner and finding Publicis, based on the chemistry and culture fit, rather than the other way around.”

Coming back to his taking on the role at VivaKi, Sastri explained that Publicis Groupe created the agency two years ago as a significant strategic initiative to bring together all its media and digital assets under one roof. Elaborating on the responsibilities assigned to him, Sastri said, “The mandate has been, and will remain: to attain digital leadership, to leverage VivaKi’s breadth and depth of marketing services to build unparalleled, integrated solutions for clients, and to create scale in traditional media via disruptive strategies. We have great leadership in all our brands as well as VivaKi Xchange, and we are raring to move forward.”

Sastri says that it’s been interesting to observe and analyse how the media agency business is at an important crossroad. He elaborated, “First the commoditisation trap: profits seem to be hard to come by for media agencies as well as many media owners. Second, time to re-invest: agencies have valuable skills and talent, but substantial re-skilling is required, and profitable business models need to be created.”

One of the areas where a media services agency could be a true integrator is digital, especially in a scenario where the lines are blurring between media and creative. “I strongly believe that media services agencies, because they have a complete overview of where the money is being spent, are well positioned to become what I call the ‘integrator’: to take a great idea, and see which is the best engagement channel for it. Very frequently, the creative idea is also coming from within, and when it comes to digital, it’s especially so,” he said. “What tends to happen in the digital medium is that big advertising agencies haven’t got the DNA of this medium very well, whereas the way to engage with digital consumers is completely different – you have to provide experiences on the net which are completely different. ”

The digital landscape itself, is of course, also changing dramatically. Sastri stated, “The big ad spenders are getting curious while categories such as tech, auto and telecom are moving into high double digits with respect to percentage spent on digital. A big reason why this interest has not translated into spends is that agencies haven’t told this story well. Agencies have also not tapped the potential of mobile, especially voice. Finally, media agencies as well as owners are guilty of putting digital in a silo. ”

On interesting work in digital in India, he said, “Until now, we’ve only seen lots of tactical stuff, and cute ideas that creative guys and techies like to play around with. What we haven’t seen in a big way are path-breaking campaigns that truly relate to the digital consumer. What we also haven’t seen are campaigns that meet the scale need of a mass marketer. With 70 million internet users, and 500 million plus mobile users, there’s enough scale of potential out there.”

This isn’t the case abroad. “We’ve seen some great work in the FMCG and auto space in the US for people like Kraft, General Motors, and for TGI Friday’s (the Fan Woody campaign). The reason I admire them is that they bring deep consumer insights, which lead to great campaign ideas, and from a business angle, they lead to long term revenues for those clients. It really captures the consumer life cycle, leading to sales,” said the VivaKi chairperson.

Wrapping up, Sastri emphasised VivaKi India’s importance to the network.

“There will be lots of big moves in 2011 in the digital space, where we aim to become a clear leader. We will also address real client needs in a segmented manner with solid value propositions. You will also see us winning significant new business this year,” he said.
The lowdown

2011 Chairperson, Vivaki India

2006-2010 Managing director, Solutions/Digitas

1995-2005 Co-founder, Solutions Integrated & co-founder, Team4U

1992-95 Chief executive officer, Result McCann

1989-92 Account director, Tara Sinha-McCann Erickson

1985-89 Sales manager, Pond’s/Unilever

Campaign India

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