dentsu India Team

This interview was originally published at Storyboard18.

In a first and an exclusive conversation with Storyboard18, Narayan Devanathan, Chief Client Officer, Dentsu India, talks about the impact of the Japanese ad giant's restructuring exercise on clients, talent and acquired agencies in India.

The Indian unit of Dentsu was hit by a wave of high-profile exits in the past year amid attempts to transform into an integrated business. From the exodus of Dentsu’s agencies’ bigwigs to restructuring to alleged internal audits, the company has been grappling with a lot of change and disruption.

As a key part of the Dentsu India 2.0 transformation agenda, Dentsu international announced the creation of a new market leadership role of Chief Client Officer (CCO) and elevated Narayan Devanathan to this position for India, last year.

In an exclusive conversation with Storyboard18, Devanathan tells us for the first time what the new Dentsu looks like after the sweeping changes in the company and leadership across its network of media and creative agencies.

Edited excerpts:

Straight off the bat, a new role of Chief Client Officer was created in the midst of restructuring. What did this role entail back then versus now?

You know in strategy when people ask you what you do, you say ‘you are the voice of the consumer’ within the agency. I like to say that ‘ I am the voice of the client’ in the agency. To bring that client centricity back, front and center, is what we do. So, we are not just busy selling our services and our capabilities to our clients regardless of whether they need them or not, but to be in the shoes of our clients and say what they need. And how we then structure ourselves to deliver that.

How did your clients look at this entire restructuring? Have you lost a few clients?

I’d be lying if I say there has been no effect at all. Because there has been. We engage in something called TRR, it is like an NPS score for client satisfaction that we carry out with our clients and we carry it out for our multiple markets across the globe.

Surprisingly, India was the one in 2021 where they said your relationship has strengthened. Clearly, we are doing something right. Maybe overcompensating for all of the changes. But, I like to use a cricket analogy. Everybody thought that the Indian cricket team would just wither away and die when Dravid, Ganguly and Tendulkar went. Then, Dhoni came on the scene and said nothing like that is going to happen. And then when Dhoni went and they said ‘Ab toh Doobega India’. Then Kohli came. So, change of guard is a natural evolution.

So, are you Dhoni?

(Laughs) I think I prefer to be Dravid.

What does Dentsu 2.0 or the new Dentsu look like?

So we simplified everything to six global brands. In India, we have an additional brand in Posterscope. So 6+1, 7 over here. But even easier is to look at it as three service lines of media, creative and CXM. And again I want to see how we can eliminate conversation around using the word ‘service’ because it precludes us from talking about solutions. And clients are seeking solutions, not just services.

Can you elaborate on that and explain what the current structure of media, creative and CXM is?

There are seven brands. In creative, there are two brands: Dentsumcgarrybowen (dentsuMB) and there is Isobar. In media, we have 3 + 1 brands. We have DentsuX, Carat, and there is iProspect, which is the new age performance plus media agency and then there is Posterscope, which is our out of home performance specialist. With CXM we have Merkle.

What was it like to do this in the thick of the pandemic?

We went from 23 to 7, so not a humongous scale of simplification as globally. But it was complex. To begin with, in India, we are more comfortable with chaos. We didn’t mind that we were so many. But more than that the market demanded that kind of diversity. If you don’t have this specialist skill then do you have this specialist skill?

But, I think now clients are asking for simplified structures to provide the solutions that there are. Was it complex? It already was a transformation journey. Did the pandemic affect us? Absolutely. Added to the flux of the transformation journey itself was the effect of the pandemic and then on top of it the client pressures.

We had markets cutting back across the board and we had to factor in all of that as well. But it didn’t help that VCs during this time were pumping in millions of dollars into startups. Which also meant that there was a talent crunch. There was money to be hired but agencies were facing a shortage of talent.

What was the impact on acquisitions? Some of them are awarded agencies such as Taproot.

It had been on a journey. Even if you go back, it has been 10 years since we acquired Taproot. The whole point was to bring the might of the Dentsu Global Network to bear for a boutique agency like Taproot. It could open up a bouquet of clients for them. Or Webchutney or Watconsult. I think we managed to move from a cultural point of view to an organization point of view quite a distance before we got to this point in the transformation journey. Has there been some effect? Yes.

We are trying to mix cultures to begin with. But, now I think we are in the process of getting everybody to ride this bus called Dentsu with its specific culture.

What was the kind of impact on talent and are you feeling the ripples?

Yes, there has been attrition but mostly under normal levels that we have seen. Plus the effect of the pandemic, of course. What we have is the advantage of building the next levels of leadership. And they have been able to step up seamlessly. At this industry forum someone asked me, ‘You seem to have really young leaders across the board’. They seem young but they have at least 10-15 years of experience. Plus clients trust them. That’s the most important thing.

Dentsu India is looking to hire a new CEO. Is your search still on?

The search is still on.

Going forward, what is going to be the acquisition strategy for Dentsu India?

It will be a little bit more measured. It is premature to talk about it now because the transformation journey is not fully complete. We filled a lot of gaps around the acquisitions that we did. Especially, bolstered our portfolio in CXM.

Going forward, we want to make sure we rationalise our investments progressively investing for the future. And not just fill gaps in our portfolio but also fill gaps in the market. For instance, we are not looking at acquiring another creative agency. But in terms of where the industry is going next, gaming for example, we are investing in how the interception of crypto blockchain technologies merge into commerce.

You mentioned the transformation journey is not yet complete. What can we expect from this transformation in the coming days?

We will own next practice solutions, we will own outcome drive focus and we will own relentless customer centricity and we will deliver it in ways that really make a difference to clients. Talk to me a year from now and you will see the results.