Gunjan Prasad
Jul 18, 2012

Updated: WPP’s digital pure play VML makes India foray

Q&A with Jon Cook, CEO, VML and Tripti Lochan, CEO, VML Qais (Asia); video from the launch event

 Jon Cook, CEO, VML and Tripti Lochan, CEO, VML Qais (Asia)
Jon Cook, CEO, VML and Tripti Lochan, CEO, VML Qais (Asia)


VML Qais, the Asian arm of WPP-owned pure digital play network, VML, announced its official launch in India today. VML entered the South East Asian market through the acquisition of Singapore-based digital marketing agency, Qais Consulting, which has a presence in India too.

While VML boasts of clients like Colgate-Palmolive, Dell, English Premier League, Gatorade and Kellogg, Qais' clients include Sony Electronics, Hilton Hotels, Tata Motors and Sony Pictures. The two have joined hands and will operate as VML Qais under the Y&R Group Asia network.

The agency will offer services like digital and marketing strategy, user experience, technology development, research and analytics, mobile and channel management, social media, search marketing, online advertising, and media management services to clients in Asia.

In India, VML Qais has been handling clients like Mahindra & Mahindra, ICICI Bank, Revlon, Tata Motors and Mahindra (two wheelers) for the last 12 months while setting up full-fledged operations.

Campaign India caught up with Jon Cook, CEO, VML and Tripti Lochan, CEO, VML Qais (Asia), to know more about their growth strategy, timing of entry into India, and synergies within the WPP Group. Edited excerpts:

Campaign India: VML has been in existence for 20 years, the last 12 as part of the WPP Group. It is only since 2009 that the agency looked outside the US. What prompted this need for expansion?

Jon Cook: VML started out 20 years ago as an advertising agency that happened to get really good at digital. We made some smart decisions in late 1990s to not just start a digital arm but become fully digital. It was acquired by WPP about 12 years back and came into the family as WPP’s largest wholly-owned pure play digital network. The agency grew much larger than it intended to - from 30 people to about 1,200 now - and has been servicing some impressive clients such as Colgate-Palmolive, Dell, English Premier League, Gatorade and Kellogg. We always knew that we had to expand our footprint globally but not just because it was fashionable. By the mid 2000s, we definitely had the scale to expand and realized that if we didn’t expand we would be limiting ourselves. Also, while we were doing path-breaking work locally, it needed a global perspective.

Secondly, and most importantly, the driver came from our clients like Colgate Palmolive and Kellogg that had seen exponential growth in regions like Asia and South America. They thus needed VML to have a strong presence in these markets too. Further, most of the big pitches we’ve been a part recently of have global expectations from us.

Thus, three years ago we started out on our global mission and besides the US and London, where VML was already present, we opened offices in Sydney, Sao Paolo, Prague and most recently Singapore, through an acquisition that has led us into Jakarta and India.

Campaign India: WPP is known to be pursuing a target of 35 to 40 per cent revenue from digital assets - which include Wunderman, OgilvyOne and VML - in next five years. Is this expansion drive a ‘fast forward’ way of contributing towards this target from Asia?

Jon Cook: It has been a bit of both. In South East Asia, it was clearly an acquisition – of Singapore-based Qais. In other markets like Sydney and Sao Paolo, we have taken over assets of WPP and have rebranded them as VML.

However, in both the cases we have joined hands only with partners we have worked with earlier and whose work philosophy and culture closely matches that of VML. We are extremely protective of the VML culture that has led to great retention, attitude, leadership and career paths and didn’t want anything to be a part of our network that did not fit our culture.

To make acquisitions, the driver has purely been VML-centric - about needing to expand our footprint globally. The contribution to WPP’s targets has been a by-product.

Campaign India: Isn’t VML’s entry into India a bit late; considering most of the big digital brands are already here – including WPP’s own global digital agencies Wunderman, OgilvyOne as well as Possible (through Quasar)?

Jon Cook: It was only when we were sure that we’ve reached the size and the scale to support expansion that we started expanding our global footprint. We didn’t enter Asia till very recently as we hadn’t found the right partner like Qais. Anything else would have been forced. A lot of our competitors enter a market just as a check on the list of global offices. They then come and go back or come and fail. So far, we have followed our clients into markets and this strategy has worked well for us.

Tripti Lochan: Even within Asia, while we have been working with clients like Mahindra and Vodafone (where we completely revamped their site and it became a blue-print for all emerging markets), most of the work was being done out of our Singapore office. It is only now that Indian clients are looking to expand their footprint in a truly global sense; we feel that the time is right to give them local support through an India office. We will start our operations from Mumbai, but have requirements from clients to have a Delhi presence before the end of the year.

Campaign India: VML Qais will operate under the Y&R brand. How easy is it for three strong entities to marry their ideologies, best practices and client lists together; especially when there already exists a big digital sister – Wunderman – in the same house?

Jon Cook: Just to explain the structure: VML, Wunderman and Y&R Advertising report into the Y&R Group which also houses agencies such as Burson-Marsteller, Landor Associates, Banner and Cohn & Wolfe.

Specifically, within the group, VML and Y&R Advertising have partnered together for the last 10 years as we share a lot of clients around the world. VML-Y&R Advertising’s partnership manifests in a couple of different ways: in some markets, VML stands alone as a fully independent digital agency, independent of Y&R and competing at one level; while in the other markets we are digital partners and share a lot of new businesses and client opportunities. The structure essentially depends on clients’ needs and we have successfully partnered with them for some important accounts like Dell, Colgate Palmolive and Revlon.

For an agency like VML that has zero heritage in Asia, it makes perfect sense to enter the market with an acquisition that has (proven) success like Qais, and a partner like Y&R that has history, roots and a solid infrastructure in these markets.

Wunderman, which is a separate entity altogether, is a friend, partner, a fellow WPP agency and at times competition. And that is how it is going to be in India too.

Campaign India: Increasingly, clients are looking to work with boutique digital shops, specializing in search, social, etc. Do you see them as competition? Are there any more acquisitions of such shops on the cards?

Jon Cook: Till about three years back, we used to see these ‘specialties’ as competition. But then we dissected the various specialties ourselves and made clear, conscious decisions on how to embrace each one of them as a broad digital agency. The digital agency of today is like an advertising agency of 10 years ago that is required to be a holder of various skill sets. Thus, we decided to make some specialties resident strengths and looked to partner with some smaller assets, within the WPP framework and sometimes even outside, to get the kind of depth and expertise needed for some other specialties.

For instance, the social media space is VML’s resident strength and we provide full services to our clients. In search, we prefer to have search leadership so that we can handle it ourselves or partner with local agencies in cases there is a depth or geography we can’t handle. For mobility, we have joined hands with an existing WPP agency, Ikon mobile, which now is a part of VML and has its own mobile platform and a global footprint for implementing mobile.

It would have taken us years to build such capabilities. There are similar strategies planned for each of the specialties and will also be extended into India.

Campaign India