Go digital, but follow client's needs: Aegis's Ashish Bhasin

When Ashish Bhasin joined the Aegis Group Plc in 2008 ” as chairman India & CEO South East Asia ” industry watchers discerned enormous promise in the move. For, at that time, Bhasin was a Lintas veteran who had served the company for 21 years, and commanded unquestioned respect in the business. Today, Aegis's decision has been unambiguously vindicated. In an exclusive interview with Adgully, Bhasin recounts his landmark professional experiences, from the day his career began.

Adgully: Take us through your early days

Ashish Bhasin: I completed BSc honors, with zoology and biochemistry, from St Xavier's College, Mumbai. Then I earned an MBA in marketing. Immediately thereafter, I joined Lintas, which in those days was ” as it is today ” a leader in the business. This was around 1988. I was with Lintas for a little more than 20 years in various capacities. I joined client servicing, and then headed the Madras office of Lintas. Then I returned and ran Initiative Media, which is a media planning and buying company. We put seven different companies in below-the-line integrated marketing area. And I formed Lintas IMAG (Integrated Market Action Group), which included Linterland, a rural marketing company; dCell, a design company; a direct marketing business; a PR business; events marketing business; entertainment marketing business; and a healthcare business. Then I moved on to the executive committee of Lintas India; that is when I joined the Lowe Worldwide's global board and I was driving the integrated marketing business in the region and globally. About two years ago, I joined Aegis Media. That is the first change I ever made; I joined as chairman of India and CEO South East Asia. I look after 10 or 11 countries.

AG: Tell us about your transition

AB: The experience at Lintas was very interesting, because while it was one job, I ended up doing a bit of client servicing; heading the media business; heading a branch; planning; and then heading an integrated media businesses. Each of these jobs had a different set of challenges. And when you are working in a large company, and when you are engaging in entrepreneurial initiatives, there are always obstacles. But I must say that my then boss, Prem Mehta, was extremely supportive. He was entrepreneurial by nature; therefore, we clicked and I could do a lot. Here setting up Aegis Media presented a different set of challenges. It was more or less like a start-up. While Carat had been in this country for eight or 10 years, it hadn't done well at all. Aegis Media wasn't there so I brought that in. Then we introduced Posterscope, the out of home company; Isobar, the digital company; and Carat Fresh, the rural activation company. Since the business began to grow, we needed another company, so we launched Vizeum. So we continue to meet and resolve challenges here.

AG: Which skill-sets were most useful at Aegis?

AB: Aegis Media is listed in the UK stock exchange and is the world's largest media planning and buying company, with Carat being its biggest brand. In India Aegis is less than two years old. But, of course, Carat has been here for a while. Each of the brands under Aegis Media is one to two years old in India. Our out-of-home company, Posterscope, is the world's largest outdoor media company and it has been quite successful in India. And Isobar is the world's largest digital marketing network. There are two important elements of my functioning. One of them relates to people. I have always been very comfortable in spotting good talent and developing them. I believe in letting them alone and letting them fly. A lot of people who you see working with me here have worked with me for a period ranging from 10 to 20 years. The second thing is that I am seen as a turn-around artist. For example, SSC&B Lintas was not doing very well. We managed to bring it out of huge losses and also make profits. Lintas Madras branch was not doing well either; and the years in which I ran it, has been seen as its best years. All my people and entrepreneurial skills have helped me manage the countries in my remit. Including India, there nine countries that I am directly looking after as of now. You have to juggle a lot of personality issues and spot opportunities. In some cases, there may be acquisition opportunities, and some countries afford tie-up opportunities. For example, in Pakistan, Aegis Media was not known. So we created an affiliation with the largest agency there, which has a 60-year history. So it's all about being entrepreneurial and managing people. I directly look after Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. In Thailand and Malaysia, our presence is very good, we are among the top two-three agencies. In Indonesia and Philippines, there is a little bit of catching up to do. Singapore is not a very a big market in itself, but a very regional centre. Aegis has recently been chosen as the agency of the year. We have posted very good growth even though last year was a recession year. Aegis India had a brilliant yearour revenues more than doubled. And this year continues to be even better for us. We are not as big as Mindshare or Madison. So some catching up is required.

AG: What did you learn from the recession?

AB: I actually moved contrary to the market. While everybody was shedding people, I started hiring. I think we got the best talent at affordable costs. Second, people were cutting down on cost, but we cut down on wastage. We cut down fat wherever we could, because it had to be done and we continue to do that. But we are very careful not to cut the muscle. So wherever investment had to be made ” whether it was training, technology or people ” we actually accelerated the infusion, and now that is paying us dividends. For example, Posterscope started with 10-12 people, we now have around 65. So we continued to invest in people and that helped us grow. And since the market has turned around now, we have the capacity to handle the business. So I would say one of the best things that happened to us was the recession.

AG: In which key areas is Aegis Media strong vis-Ã-vis competition?

AB: One is that Aegis Media is a media-neutral, consumer-led and digitally forward agency. We don't have the burden of any creative agency. If you are a department or a division that has evolved from a creative agency, whether you like it or not, you always have that legacy as baggage. We don't have it and are happy to work with any agency. We are purely media, in that we have the best tools, the best processes, the best system and the best people ” and we invest a lot in people. So when we say we offer world-class services, we genuinely mean it. We don't have the scale yet to do that for 500 people, but the top 20-50 people who are going to work on clients' businesses are best in the world and are trained by the best in the world.

AG: What has been the most gratifying moment for Aegis?

AB: As a very young account executive, I had the onerous task of finding the Liril girl. That was the first brand I worked for. So as a young man out of college, I had to go around with some people to choose a young woman who would look good under a waterfall. This became a big joke in Lintas, but I think the time when we handled it were the best days of Liril. The campaign was a huge success. Many agencies are able to offer different sets of services to clients. But in the end, if I am looking after direct marketing I will only try to push direct marketing. And clients today are getting pretty disgusted with having to deal with 10 people for a brand. They want somebody who will take it off them and give them a final solution. So most of our clients have been grateful to us that we have been able to provide everything under one roof. Everything that stands for Aegis Media in India is headed by me. Therefore, a client can come from any door to Aegis Media, it is just one person who is responsible at the core. And this has made a lot of difference to our clients. The other thing which our clients have been grateful to us for is our-out-of home media, where there was no researchnor was it handled very professionally. And clients were basically taken for a ride. So Posterscope has been able to change a few things and brands like Nestle have appointed us for OOH needs. We have done OOH campaigns for Colgate, and maybe 150 others.

AG: Where do you see the group going from here?

AB: Looking at the brands we have, we are more or less complete. I would like to launch one more company which we will probably do by the end of this year. I think a very big part of our business is going to be search marketing. We are currently doing that as one of the services of Isobar. iProspect is the world's largest search company. So we are training our people and have started hiring. So at some point, when we are completely ready, we would like to launch iProspect because there are many clients who are approaching us to take care of their search business. It's doing quite well under Isobar, but I guess there is enough indication to now spin it out and launch it as a different company. After that, our complement of brands will be complete. Besides I don't want 100 clients, I want 15-20 good, large, happy and satisfied clients. We will not say no to a clients but we want to be an agency with a difference.

AG: What about new initiatives?

AB: iProspect is one. In terms of expansion, we did a substantial exercise with Posterscope because it's doing so well. In the retail area, we will have 32 offices by March next year. Currently, Posterscope has 11 offices; and offices in smaller towns mean two or three people. By March next year, we will have about 100 people ” we currently have 65. In the 2011-2012 period, we will have 200 people and 50 offices. On the digital front, we are also going to expand the creative part of our business.

AG: What accounts for Vizeum's success?

AB: A large part of the credit goes to Yesu because he is a very entrepreneurial person. He is a very passionate person, and he also needs an environment that gives him the freedom but at the same time gives him a format or a system to work. And I think Vizeum is the ideal fit for that. Secondly, the brand and the positioning, because Vizeum is not just another media agency, Vizeum is about being almost the consultant to the client. And I would say in years to come Vizeum will be an intellectual media agency and not just another media agency. It will be a true client partner.

AG: What is the intellectual core of your company?

AB: One thought that runs across Aegis Media is that each of its agencies will reflect the thought and persona of its MD. But our common DNA impels us to be consumer led and digitally ahead. Even if we are in the OOH space, we must be consumer led and be digitally forward. And digital outdoor will be a big thing in future. You cannot escape digitalization, but more important than that, you have to be consumer led.

AG: Outdoor media is very disorganized, so how do you see Posterscope moving ahead?

AB: Posterscope had a big advantage precisely because the outdoor industry is totally disorganised. To be honest, there is no real outdoor player in the market in India. Posterscope is UK's largest OOH company. They have the best outdoor tools in the world. When I went to Posterscope, I saw 13 tools, and I brought six of them to India, because not all of them were applicable here since data was unavailable. We then customised each of those six tools for India with Indian data ” for example, the tool called Prism Map, which is similar to Google Maps, works for eight cities. With that tool, a client sitting here can tell you what is at display at a particular location in a town, not just a hoarding but also a bus shelter etc. Then we have something called the Prism Monitor, which is a monitoring system. With that tool, among other things, we can take and upload digital photos periodically. And this gave us run-away success because the market was so disorganised. It is a lead we have and I am aware that we cannot permanently have this because others will also catch up. It is a comparative advantage and we will try to make the most of it. Also, at the industry level, I am the chairman of IOS (Indian Outdoor Survey). We are trying to determine if we can get some of that going ahead. I am trying to get AAAI and outdoor media owners' association to talk to each other in some way.

AG: What are Isobar's prospects?

AB: Isobar, along with the outdoor business, is going to be our biggest strength. With Isobar, we have been able to cover every aspect of the digital space. Earlier, we were not concentrating on creative, so now we have got a full-fledged division looking at website hosting etc. Then we have an element of media planning and buying. What is truly good about Isobar is that besides its growth, it has built itself as a one-stop digital shop. The other part of it is social media.

AG: But is digital media catching on?

AB: I think there are quite a few clients going digital in the right manner. Of course, quite a few are just paying lip-service and not fully getting into it. But I see a trend which suggests that clients are engaging more deeply with digital. It's not about making a website or buying a few banners, it's about how you engage with you consumers. Some clients are under-spending and I think they will suffer for it in the long run.

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