It was when the Carat-Percept JV Carat Integra was called off in 2006 that Allied Media was born. The going has been fairly steady since then, recounts the man who was with Integra, and has been at Allied since day zero, current CEO Shripad Kulkarni. But the media planning and buying agency of the Percept group is looking to shift gears now, while retaining the core strengths on which it has been built.
The focus was squarely on execution and buying when Allied Media was launched, says Kulkarni. “To date, I would say we are best-n-class on those fronts,” he adds. Working on a set of Japanese clients has helped figure a rigorous set of processes, he quips.
Point out to him that execution should be hygiene, and pat comes the response: “No, it isn’t. That is the biggest bug bear for a lot of clients. A lot of big agencies falter on that. It’s ultimately what you are delivering for the brand.”
He states the basics needed for the agency to deliver: process, precision, commitment. Add to that being ‘live’, especially in the festive season. Be it on innovation, sponsorship, GRPs, brand integration, impact buys or more, the intent has been to ‘deliver’ as promised. Over the last year and a half though, a new area has come into focus at Allied: strategy.
Focus on strategy, data
‘Creative-neutral marcom planning’ is the agency’s reason for existence. The approach is different from what the agency did earlier, and different from what others are doing, claims Kulkarni. How does this reflect in the work? For starters, there is focus on data.
“Earlier, the full service agency planners used to be the custodians of client data. Today, hard data is not in the creative agency ecosystem. If media agencies are looking at it, they are doing so for additional revenue, not for the basic planning,” reasons the CEO.
He furthers the case for staying creative-neutral, taking on the ‘creative agency approach’ of sticking to one USP.
“I might have a situation where people are not convinced about my product. When I identify them, on digital media, we have to do something else with the proposition,” he reasons. The case being built is on the basis of the customer decision journey -- split as pre-purchase, active buying mode (when the consumer behaves very differently), and post purchase. Arguing that pre-buying is where all research is focused, Kulkarni and team are now engaged in last mile research.
“We talk to the trade and we look at consumers serviced by the trade in a local geography. Across categories like detergents, milk, flat screen TVs, retail and children’s stationery, we have done primary research,” reveals the media veteran.
A second part of the change is message and media optimisation calibrated based on the customer decision stages. Kulkarni notes that while classically, buyers in the pre-purchase stage were addressed by TV, active stage buyers addressed by activation on digital and point of sale, and those in post purchase stage by advocacy, social media and the like, there is a need to apply science to the process. To that end, Allied Media has forged a tie up with an international partner, which does message and media optimisation.
“We study the relationship of different media and their drivers. Then you relate data points and come up with modelling to see change in parameters and effect on brand KPIs,” he adds.
The study is currently underway. Application of the tool has started within the agency. As Kulkarni explains, “This is my getting ready to make sure that all large clients get a strategic perspective from us.”
The agency with 110 people and capitalised billings of over Rs 1,000 crore, services clients including Future Group, Panasonic, Toyota Kirloskar Motors, Line, Tupperware, Toshiba, Canon and Just Dial. For Allied Media, Japan-origin clients account for half the business.
The overall business is also of a significant size today, Kulkarni explains -- the agency recognised that it would take some special effort to grow from where it stands. The focus shifted to strategy, research and ‘higher order 360’, as the CEO puts it.
That led to the agency getting an ISO certification. “We realised that we have such rigorous processes, so why not get certified?” beams Kulkarni. Asked if clients have responded positively to the certification, he says, “It’s yet to be seen. But every client likes processes.”
A ‘perception’ shift
Kulkarni, who started work with Roda Mehta at Ogilvy & Mather, credits Mehta with being a mentor, and his understanding of business and management principles to everyone he has interacted with, besides the Singh brothers helming Percept.
Cut to the present. His understanding of where Allied Media stood circa 2013 convinced him that there was a need to change perception around the agency.
“We identified that we have to change perception. We want to be counted among the top agencies on the basis of what we can deliver,” he adds.
The pace at which the efforts have been made are evident - the agency chose to go with a ready research tool instead of developing one, for starters. So what else will change? And what won’t?
On the talent end, there’s a mancom which meets every Thursday now. “The way we are structuring it, we don’t want the way business is managed to change. We have delivered so far and will continue to deliver for brands and campaigns,” he explains.
As an agency, has attracting talent been tougher for Allied Media as compared to the larger networks? Kulkarni admits that it might seem tougher as on date, but adds that that’s part of the perception change agenda.
He surmises, “We couldn’t have such a large operation without the talent. People have grown with us. We (probably) have the most stable senior level of people in the industry.”
For a man who admits to having been written off by some in the industry years ago, Kulkarni has managed to ride the crests and troughs and make Allied Media count. Now he wants to make it count for more.