When Vikas Mehta was named chief marketing officer in 2013, it left quite a few in the Indian market a tad puzzled. Why did Lowe Lintas and Partners, an advertising agency network, need a CMO?
Explaining his mandate, Mehta says, “The role has evolved since I was first handed it. Worldwide, in bits and pockets, agencies do have CMOs. In India, nobody does. If you look at North America, it’s a pretty common role. The more popular role is that of a chief growth officer and that exists in a lot of countries. It’s even existed in India in the past. When we created it, it was something different to what it has come to be. When I came on board, it was about putting a lot of basic building blocks in place. If you take an IT analogy, it was like building an operating system. It was to put down a process for approaching the subject of growth. In our business, nine times out of 10, growth is equal to pitches. And it doesn’t take rocket science to tell you that there’s a lot more to growth. So, that’s where things were when I started. The whole approach to growth has now changed. It’s a combination of geographic and sector focus, capability focus and putting down a road map. So, growth was an aspect.”
He adds, “The other was tomake Lowe Lintas and Partners (what we were then known as) to look at itself as a brand and have a plan for building and managing it in the country. It was about building an agency brand. The introduction that I got to my role and what I understood when I came on board was that, things that we were upto, versus what the world got to know – there was a huge gap. We were guilty of keeping a low profile as an agency. I think more than just putting down an outreach plan, it was about getting building blocks in place as to how the brand will evolve over a period of time. Then, we had to see a roadmap of capabilities. Historically, we have been a great advertising agency. While, we have and continue to have companies and businesses across the marketing spectrum, both our reality and our perception were very advertising-skewed. So, those were the aspects of the role as defined on day one when I started out. Joe (Joseph George, group CEO India, regional president South and SE Asia) was kind enough to have me write the job description when I started off. The ambition the leadership team had shared when I started off sounded very exciting. It was to take a legacy organisation and author where we are headed and put down a plan to it. Lots of ground work was put in, and I think we’ve come some distance from there in terms of work, growth, initiatives paying off as business is scattered geographically versus being housed in Mumbai. Business interests outside of the creative agency arestarting to fire. We are now beginning to be in the business end of the transformation game – from being an ad agency to a full blown marketing services business. That’s been rewarding.”
After mentioning new ‘divisions’, Mehta quickly corrects himself and labels it as capabilities. He says, “Starting new companies or divisions is something that we are very good at as industry. So, more than starting new divisions, the capability investments we have made behind those divisions have been significant. The partnership we had with Golin for our PR firm (now GolinOpinion) is now two years in action and has led to a complete transformation of our PR product. Whether it was implementing their model and practice in India, or completely changing our operating model and moving to a new organisation structure, the whole subject of online reputation management, and PR on conversation buzz and advocacy. We’ve evolved into an era where reputations are made and broken online. So, we don’t have traditional PR and online PR as two separate things and I think GolinOpinion has now got one of the strongest products in the industry. We are now doing unified reputation management mandates over the last two-three years.”
He adds, “Digital is of course something we have learnt and unlearnt. Now, we are seeing a great amount of traction in the digital agency, Linteractive. We are still small, but there’s some extremely good stuff in the pipeline. We’ve learnt from the existing companies and our past attempts in digital, and we’ve tried to build an agency model that is slightly different from the market. I think the whole subject of digital marketing has a lot of interest. But, the real subject is how digital marketing can evolve in a world that is now digitally driven. Businesses have brand problems, not digital problems. We are building an agency model that is actually built to practice that. The power of ‘digital transformation’ is to transform organisations in this era rather than building digital competencies within the agency. Our approach has been to treat our divisions as subject matter expertise and build capabilities there and then start bundling them around client problems. So we are able to function as a group offering multi-faceted options rather than having to say, ‘Here are my five agencies, and give me your five problems to solve’.”
He backs that by revealing that the group’s revenue split between advertising and other services
three years ago was 90:10 in favour of advertising; in 2015, it was 75:25.
Growing the pie
In August 2015, the launch of Mullen Lintas was announced. Seniors were shifted from Lowe Lintas to the ‘newly created second’ agency.
Mehta says that this agency is more than just having a second agency to handle completing brands. He explains, “The launch of Mullen Lintas was significant. We are not the first or the last to
attempt it (a second agency). The difference in how we approached it this time was that we made it far more significant for us and for the outside world. The challenge of second agencies, and India has seen a lot of them, is that they end up being the ‘B team’ in most shapes and forms. We were clear we didn’t want to do that. It’s the A team and we moved our best people into Mullen. This has been its first real year in operations, and five months down the line this year it’s doing much better. To give them the critical mass on day one we migrated people and clients. From January to now they’ve gone and built a list of clients that’s the envy of most agencies and are in no mood to stop. We look at this as a new company within the company. But they have their own vision and manifesto. They’re not a legacy organisation. They’re born in this era. It’s a great mix of pedigree which comes with the people they have, with remodeling of our business models because we were building it from scratch. We moved senior people because ‘new’ shouldn’t mean novices. That’s something we were very clear about. I’d be the first to admit, that attempts to start a second agency has seen more failures than success. And this seems to be working.”
Mullen’s wins include Vistara, Gionee Mobiles, Honda BR-V and Bajaj Avenger.
While the two creative agencies – Mullen and Lowe – compete in the market, the remaining offerings come together to offer multi-disciplinary solutions for clients, explains Mehta. Yet, each discipline has a separate P&L and operates as a distinct legal entity. He encapsulates the trend, saying, “Which is where we sort of take the ideology of different P&Ls with a pinch of salt. If that’s where the market is heading towards and we are driving the market, as long as it adds up to the
group P&L, we don’t fuss too much over this.”
As declared earlier, growth is certainly a part of Mehta’s mandate. So far, so good.
(This article appears in the 13 May 2016 issue of Campaign India)