Robert Sawatzky
Mar 26, 2024

Wavemaker chiefs vow client-centricity while consolidating product

CEO Toby Jenner brought in Sindhuja Rai from Mondelez to make the APAC business more client-friendly. Broader changes at GroupM will further facilitate this, they argue

L-R: Wavemaker APAC CEO Sindhuja Rai, Wavemaker Global CEO Toby Jenner
L-R: Wavemaker APAC CEO Sindhuja Rai, Wavemaker Global CEO Toby Jenner

In this industry it is common to hear how agency work can become a grind. It was therefore intriguing to hear Sindhuja Rai, then-incoming APAC CEO of Wavemaker explain how she felt “ten years younger” within weeks of starting her new role. 

"In an agency, there’s much more liveliness,” Rai explains, “the level of personality and authenticity people bring to the office is much [higher], so when interacting with a group like that you automatically feel charged up. So my energy levels are high.”  

Rai began her role as APAC CEO last September after a routine client-agency breakfast with Wavemaker’s global CEO Toby Jenner earlier that year turned into a rare opportunity to steal talent from one’s client. Rai was global director of media investment for Mondelez at the time, while leading the FMCG giant’s consumer experience strategy for AMEA. 

In looking at the complete end-to-end consumer journey, Rai found herself envious of agencies’ ability to understand multiple categories and trends and apply all their varied experience. 

“I just felt that I was losing out on a lot of learning,” she says. “I’m a media and marketing practitioner and Mondelez is a biscuits and chocolate manufacturing company, so not being a part of that business can limit your ability to aggressively drive certain things.” 

On the flipside, Jenner saw an opportunity to leverage Rai’s client-side experience to vastly improve their service delivery.  

“We can do a much better job of driving client-centricity through the resource and capabilities that we have both at GroupM and at WPP both in Asia-Pacific and beyond. It is my belief that Sindhuja’s got the right profile and personality to understand how to [do this].”  

Before Mondelez, Rai had worked in a variety of roles at media agencies within WPP, Havas, Publicis and IPG. From her experiences within both agency and client side, Rai has noticed a perceptible shift by clients wanting their agencies to be full business advisors at their table, rather than mere media experts.  

“With any client or category, working media is becoming a much larger part of their overall investment profile outside of capex, meaning they need to spend more behind their brands to drive business growth,” Rai says. “But the ecosystem has become very complex, so they need advisors to demystify it and practitioners to execute against a simpler way of managing it.  

“No more is it: ‘You are my media agency. Please execute my media budget and buy me a media plan.’ What clients ask for is please advise me on how to set up my ecommerce ecosystem. Please advise me on how to do my D2C director to consumer operation. How do I really utilise my CRM database?” 

GroupM consolidation: Client impact

This need to help clients manage, simplify and execute in complex web of consumer communication is ostensibly one reason GroupM, including Wavemaker, are consolidating their agency operations and product offerings. 

GroupM CEO Christian Juhl has made no secret of his desire to be ‘simpler to market’ for clients, moving all of GroupM’s media activation processes, tools and delivery teams under one shared organisation (Nexus) with addressable media bought through a common GroupM playbook. Data consultancy, product and engineering teams have been brought into Choreograph, another GroupM centralised entity.   

In APAC, Rai points out that a lot of the consolidation work has already been done over the past few years with agencies working in collaboration with centralised practices.  

“We can see it working quite effectively because it frees agency leaders to be primarily focused on creating value for clients, [and] not worry about things driven by specialists inside their verticals,” she says. 

But whilst clients are likely to appreciate the simplification and efficiencies at the WPP and GroupM levels, one wonders if such consolidation also erodes distinct agency cultures and limits options for brands.  

Not so, says Jenner, who argues Wavemaker still has its distinct go-to-market strategy around ‘positively provoking’ growth that sits “harmoniously” with delivery through centralised tools. “I think the two work well,” Jenner shares. “But we’re focused much more from a product perspective versus a cultural perspective as one team at WPP.”  

Rai says there’s a nuanced distinction around skills standardisation that some observers miss. “Sometimes people think: ‘Oh, they’re standardising everything and it will be the same across clients.’ No. In reality, service will vary client-by-client in the way their brand wants to show up in media. But from an execution point of view you do it at a higher level of excellence because you have a very good grasp of that particular platform.”  

The challenges: Economic headwinds and China

Although downplayed by leaders, cost savings and efficiencies such as shared IT, HR and finance services between agencies are obvious motivators for the aforementioned changes at GroupM. Whilst WPP’s media business has been faring much better than its creative agencies, the holding group’s overall earnings growth trajectory has been trailing rivals like Publicis and Omnicom, leading CEO Mark Read to pledge more than 150 million in cost savings to investors earlier this year, of which the GroupM consolidation features prominently.  

Financial pressures have come in part from the slowdown in tech spending last year that is unlikely to rebound in full anytime soon. Not only was APAC’s economy not immune to the tech wreck, but it was compounded by China’s growth slowdown. With Huawei, Wavemaker’s top client three years ago, the agency has had to weather further geopolitical and pandemic-induced slowdowns. 

Meanwhile, the agency is also dealing with the fallout from the arrests of senior GroupM executives on bribery charges in China. Since that announcement, several important brand clients in China, including Swatch which works with Wavemaker, have put their media buying with GroupM under review.  

While Jenner doesn’t wish to comment on an ongoing investigation he did note that GroupM suspended trade with implicated vendors, terminated the employment of traders involved and “a lot of work is going on” to look at how buys are carried out through brokers.  

While the challenges appear daunting, it must be pointed out that Wavemaker has weathered the past year in APAC extremely well, even without a chief executive in place for much of it.  

The agency has won more new business in 2023 than any other media agency globally, or regionally in APAC, according to COMvergence’s global new business barometer, vastly outpacing all other rivals in the Campaign Ad Intelligence APAC 2023 final rankings.   

Great AI expectations

If Wavemaker is currently well-positioned, the big question is whether it can continue to do so in an AI age, where some observers expect media and planning and buying teams to be reduced to algorithms

But Jenner says he’s “super excited” about AI’s potential around production and addressable content “because we can really start to tailor that content through AI to make it pertinent for every individual audience that we’re trying to unlock." 

With Rai from Mondelez as Wavemaker’s APAC chief, this is the client-agency partnership (along with Ogilvy) that won a gazillion awards by using AI to enable Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan to personalise ads for thousands of mom-and-pop stores across India, including topping the WARC Effectiveness 100, released earlier today.  The partners also just stole the Emvies in India this past weekend with Mondelez as top client and Wavemaker as top media agency. 

Wavemaker has built centers of excellence in India and Thailand to innovate through personalisation and generative AI. Specialising in conversational AI, it worked with L’Oreal to create the first Thai synthetic voice with a specialised partner and Google to deliver personalised ads, as with this Garnier work below, which Jenner considers industry leading.  

Other AI applications already in practice include creative production (via Hogarth) as well as GroupM’s central suite of tools and technologies to help clients know where to invest media as discussed early.  

“This really comes back to that conversation,” Jenner says. “You need to go with one approach, one platform that is AI-based for the Group across all agencies so we can deliver those needs based on reach or performance. 

“It's those kind of investment levels that we are now codifying so everyone has access to them, but everything is tailored to individual clients. That's where the true centricity that we've been referring comes to the fore.”  

Campaign Asia

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