dentsu India Team

This interview was originally published at IMPACT.

An Agency Is Bigger Than The Faces Representing It

Amit Wadhwa, CEO and Ajay Gahlaut, CCO of Dentsu Creative India, get candid with team IMPACT and open up about the hardships of 2021, and what's in store for the company in the year ahead

Q] You had a tumultuous 2021; have things settled now?

Amit Wadhwa: I have to accept that 2021 was a tumultuous year and there were a lot of challenges. Some people moved out, but some of the most talented people also stayed back. And then we had Ajay and Arjuna joining us. A restructuring was happening in the organization and that brought in the additional challenges. But there were fantastic people internally who shared our vision. Recently, we had a leadership catch-up in Goa and we observed the energy and the sense of togetherness there. We’ve left 2021 behind us. We are on to something interesting and positive.

Q] An agency is about the leaders. After faces of the agency like Agnello Dias, Santosh Padhi, Soumitra Karnik etc left, how did you convince the clients that things are okay?

Amit Wadhwa: I believe, faces represent a brand, but a brand is bigger than the faces. Many people leave big organisations, but do those organisations vanish? They don’t, because they are strong. In our case also, people moved on and we have respect for them. But we should not disrespect the people who are still here, for example, Aalap is fantastic. It is all about the joy of building the brand for the future. People move on, but organizations are built on ethos beyond individuals. That’s what we’re doing and proving slowly and steadily.

Q] Ajay, you joined at a time when the agency was already in news for exits, was there a lot of pressure on you to succeed?

Ajay Gahlaut: No, it never felt like that. I was comfortable and felt a positive energy from day one. Yes, there were a lot of discussions in media and outside. Actually, there are various reasons behind the changes that a company goes through. People will come and go. However, I find Dentsu to be a very stable place comprising very high-quality people. The culture is larger than individuals. If a really strong professional leaves, a lacuna is felt for a while, but then it is covered. The founders of so many big agencies are dead and gone. But those agencies are now going from strength to strength. In those cases, the founder beautifully created a culture and that’s the greatness of leadership.

Amit Wadhwa: No matter what you say, project or portray, finally it’s the work that will talk. Everyone was trying to put a lot of pressure on us. But Ajay never does, in fact he takes the pressure off you.

Q] Ajay, when you joined you were already very well known for your storytelling skills, especially in the traditional sphere while Dentsu is known more for its cutting edge tech work, many in the industry were not sure how the marriage will work, were you ever apprehensive?

Ajay Gahlaut: I think, it’s a disservice to both to assume that. Of course, that’s the public persona because I like to tell stories and thus people slot me. But I enjoy doing tech work too. We didn’t have the wherewithal to execute a lot of the ideas in my earlier agencies. Maybe the time wasn’t right, and the environment wasn’t evolved enough. But now Dentsu is providing me with the atmosphere and the skillsets to do more new age, cutting edge work. At the end of the day, it’s creativity and ideas. So, it really doesn’t matter. I can also do the old stuff better than these youngsters. Some of the older skills are slowly dying down, because of the changes in the market. Now there is no need for long copy ads, the demand for kick-ass outdoor is decreasing. People are now more interested in doing a new-age stuff. But this is a cusp in time where we can come together and feed off each other’s strengths and build something which might be unique in the industry.

Amit Wadhwa: I think it’s a misnomer that Dentsu is only about technology and digital. The core of our agency is still creative and it will always be. But I don’t think that creative is just about art and copy anymore, it is about technology, video editors, content creators, and every one of them is creative.

Q] Six months ago you consolidated 7-8 brands under two verticals, McGarryBowen and Isobar. How did that help brand Dentsu get more revenues and clients?

Amit Wadhwa: If you look at integration as a word, it’s the most abused word in this industry. Everyone says it, but very few are delivering because they are not structured to do that. It’s like you’re sitting in silos and creating your work and assuming or praying that somewhere it comes together. We brought in 7-8 agencies together under two groups. But we’re actually operating as one single group, which is Dentsu Creative Group which delivers whatever the client needs. We had these agencies in the past also, but the structure was never about coming together. That’s the truth with most agencies. Everyone has their own P&L, is in silos and working.

Ajay Gahlaut: Our job is to take sledgehammers and break down all the walls. That’s all we’re doing. And I’ve been in other places, but have not seen that happening there. Here the integration is quicker. For instance, Aalap Desai (who’s one of our CCOs) looks after Isobar and Taproot, an offline and online kind of entity. So he has an overview of these two and he is senior enough to know how to integrate those offerings.

Q] But was putting well-known brands like Taproot under Mcgarrybowen necessary, could it have been the other way around?

Amit Wadhwa: I don’t think that we’re doing away with Webchutney or Taproot. The objective is to create a strong Dentsu brand, but not to do away with Webchutney or Taproot as there is a lot of respect for what they do. We are picking the best of all agencies and creating brand Dentsu in India. When people see the work outside and experience the culture inside, the respect for the brand will come automatically. Right now, we are crediting the individual agencies for the work, and also the group. As we move along, we will move more into the group way of working. That’s an evolution.

Ajay Gahlaut: Where a brand stands today is decided by what it has done in the past. But you have to continuously build upon that. When the output improves, the brand improves. People come only for the work and our focus as a team is to improve the work. Rest is just perception management. Taproot was acquired because of its value and what it brought to the table. And nobody would be foolish enough to try and erode that value. It is just part of the entire package now.

Q] Dentsu Creative won 40 accounts in 2022, what kind of increase in revenue are you looking at over 2021?

Amit Wadhwa: 2021 was a decent year. Last year, we surpassed our expectations, because everyone expected a huge amount of trouble. But it didn’t reflect in the numbers. Of course, we went through changes. In 2022, we’re looking at a double-digit growth for ourselves. 40 new businesses and that from existing clients as well like Maruti Suzuki, Flipkart. IKEA, Airtel, Honda etc. And if the first quarter is anything to go by, we will be there for sure.

Q] What is the breakup today of the work that is done for traditional mediums versus the digital mediums?

Amit Wadhwa: It will be around 50-50. Possibly, it could also be 55-45. That’s our strength. We have been far stronger compared to the market on the digital side. We had the traditional and mainline agencies, but in the previous years also, we started amalgamating digital and mainline together. When we go for pitches, we don’t just bring a TVC. We also bring a digital innovation or a tech innovation, which is like a fantastic icing on the cake.

Q] Dentsu was known as the agency of acquisitions and now you are big on consolidation. Are you building strength from within in AI & Metaverse etc or acquiring an agency which excels in it?

Amit Wadhwa: I can’t talk about acquisition right now, but I think we’re building on our strengths completely. We already have teams that are doing that.

Ajay Gahlaut: Abroad, you do have a lot of so-called creative technologists, people who are experts in technology, material science, AI and have a creative sense. In India it is a new skill, but it already exists in Dentsu, which is the exciting part.