It has been a glorious year for Dentsu Webchutney. Earlier this year, the agency topped the league at Goafest for the first time. But it was at Cannes Lions, where the agency had not even bagged a shortlist in the two decades of its existence, that Dentsu Webchutney probably outdid its own expectations. Campaign India's Prasad Sangameshwaran interviews Sidharth Rao, CEO and co-founder Dentsu Webchutney on what this year's performance means for the agency and its global aspirations.
What does your agency showing at this year's Cannes mean for the digital agency ecosystem in India?
We have said this before, awards or not, digital will force traditional advertising to be transformed into a more capable service provider. If you see our performance this year across Goafest, Kyoorius and now Cannes, we outperformed our peers including the ones in mainline advertising. We won our first Effie last year. We have made our mark across digital, PR, direct and media. What you saw today makes it abundantly clear that the last line of defence for mainline agencies, one that promised “integrated communications” across the funnel, has definitely blurred. By 2021 digital’s share of advertising will stand at USD 3.52 billion in a pie of 12 Billion USD, a total of 18 percent.
In the United States alone, the time spent on mobile surpassed TV for the first time ever. Mobile is where the attention is and one that Webchutney is uniquely suited to take advantage of. What won today is a sliver of the content, brand and media work we have been doing. This year’s wins are a celebration of what makes us, well, us -- digital, social and forward-thinking technology. In the next year, you will see us come out with more integrated marketing solutions that push against the establishment and the ecosystem’s preconceptions of what we’re capable of.
Considering that your agency never received a shortlist at Cannes till this edition of the festival, what did you do differently this year?
It wasn’t just a year-long effort. A lot of groundwork has gone on for many years. We built our Bangalore team with bold bets that surprised people. We redefined our Mumbai office’s culture and let Gurgaon be the home for tech-first solutions, all while adding media and strategy at the centre of our three branches. This has given our creative teams a renewed sense of excitement for campaigns, as they can get a sense of really scaling their ideas to cover the ecosystem. A large part of this is digital media penetrating more markets. But I can say that even before today’s results, our clients appreciate holistic solutions we bring to the table.
We are elated to have objectively received half a dozen Lions, but the story is that the campaigns that won were as effective as they were creative. This is a result of an integrated unit sitting in the same floor. It was work that made the creative cut while experiencing the realities of BAU Indian advertising. Be it Hagglebot, Voice of Hunger, URI the winners, or Infant CPR which gave a an Indian hospital a breakthrough way to raise awareness and take action on World Heart Day.
Does this achievement put on a lot more responsibility and pressure on your agency executives to retain the reputation? What's the way forward?
We walked in with real work which our peers had also publicly appreciated. A friend from the industry put it very well. She said, “The the best part of our work was that there was no social experiment, no social cause, no people with disabilities, no setting the world right. Just great work, that steered clear of these award cliches.” Even our social work previously was time-bound and objective-driven — so we have stayed true to ourselves, despite winning or losing. And I hope that’s a flavour of our work for years to come. As the lines blur, the differentiator isn’t often in a line or a creative, rather in the long-term working relationship. We often ask if an idea is “Webchutney enough”, and I’m thrilled that has a whole new definition going forward.
Does the agency have international aspirations? How do you differentiate yourself from the other agencies in your network, both in India and globally?
Philosophically, we want to believe we are geographically agnostic and unrestricted. Our doors are open to brave clients with great ambitions on what we can achieve together. That said, there is so much action within India right now that there is enough for us to do. India is a hunting ground for every major brand in the world. And figuring it out isn’t easy. We don’t look at India as one country -- we see it as 31 different ones. And it’s almost as though only 5-6 of those were exposed to what we know as advertising. In our world of understanding and building for the Indian internet, the treadmill won’t stop for the foreseeable future.
Would the victory have been sweeter with a Gold Lion to cap your performance? What are some takeaways for your agency to come back bigger at Cannes Lions 2020?
We would be lying if we said it wouldn’t make a difference if we managed to win a Gold. But when we landed in Cannes, having never won before, not least a shortlist, we truly walked in with a beginner’s mindset.
Everyday was taken on as it came, Day 1 was one shortlist and we were okay with it. Day 2 came with 10 shortlists and then 6. We tallied 17 shortlists to lead the Indian entries. Only then it began to sink in what was really going on and could happen. And an expectation of a Gold somewhere must have emerged. Eventually six Lions is no small feat. We aren’t honestly thinking about next year right now. The team has taken this moment to reflect on our progress in the last two decades and chosen quickly to figure out the next 20 years. Gautam’s (Gautam Reghunath, EVP and branch head of the agency's Bengaluru operations) tweet said it best: “Our current mood across emails, WhatsApp groups & phone calls? So bloody proud, humble, excited, thankful & absolutely hungry for more.”