In Conversation With | Planners should think 'consumer first': MEC's Varley

Creative and Media festivals usually get us insights on not just the business of creativity but also the working and intricate nuances of the mechanism of the entire A & M industry. Being a founding partner in GroupM, MEC stands tall among its media planning and buying, Digital media, Search, Acquisition Marketing, Social media, Analytics and Insight, Sport, Entertainment and Activation, Content and Integrated planning. Melanie Varley, Global Chief Strategy Officer, MEC one of the speakers at the Indian A&M extravaganza - Goafest 2014 shared her views on how digital is growing by leaps and bounds, her experience of judging entries at Cannes and more.

In conversation with Melanie Varley, Global Chief Strategy Officer, MEC and T. Gangadhar, MD, MEC, India, these MEC top minds spoke about the business at MEC India and globally, challenges the businesses face today, the growing digital world, its peripherals and more.

Edited excerpts below:

Adgully: Firstly tell us about your experience being at Goafest 2014?

Melanie Varley: Well though I believe that it could have been better, but I liked the ‘engagement’ factor at the event. It was encouraging to witness how the audience was engaging with each other, especially in the question and answer round!

Adgully: Share two key highlights from the topic that you presented in Goafest 2014. 

Melanie Varley: I had judged Cannes last year and I would like to stress upon some of the great things I had witnessed that time. Out of that were two things that surprised me the most - one was the increasing participation that the ad-event is witnessing. With more than 12,000 attendees from 94 countries coming to attend Cannes Lions, it is surely the biggest ad festival. The kind of campaigns that were showcased clearly mentioned how agencies are focusing on value for the clients. Today clients are not concerned about being socially responsible but socially accountable and cause related too; for example, the Pepsi-happiness campaign. Secondly, social media usage is quite amazing. Though I believe that Social is somewhat still emerging in countries like India, about 70 – 80% of the campaigns at Cannes used elements of social and a lot of the winning works had big components of social. Though one needs to understand that globally, digital holds 20-21% of ad-spends, which is not the leading mediums; thus it was pleasing to see that level of faith and commitment to the medium and work. For example, the Oreo campaign, which was re-launched with different everyday ideas and that was what made them stand out in the clutter, which goes on to say that it is the medium which, if used well can create wonders for a brand!

Adgully: What edge does MEC have viz-a-viz other siblings from WPP universe?

Melanie Varley: MEC has been one of a challenger brand. It is innovation and creativity that run in our DNA and in the way we work and have always helped us add more and more clients. We believe in giving and thinking out-of-the-box for all our clients. Also interestingly we are strong in digital and data and that has always made us stand ahead of our siblings. We also believe in making our clients understand this space better, along with MEC’s strong focus on attracting local accounts as much as international clients.

Adgully: You mentioned about usage of Data and Digital, so do you think India as a market is using data appropriately?

Melanie Varley: No not really! Digital and data usage are one of big opportunities in India. The measurement of money that is spent on advertising may it be any medium is comparatively low in India.

T. Gangadhar: I don’t think the usage of data in India is the way it should be; but I also think we are doing a much decent job in terms of using digital data (as far as Search and Social media is concerned) but are we really able collect all the data and then using it effectively - I would say not yet but we are slowly and surely we are shifting towards that direction.

Adgully: Also, are we using the Social metrix in a right manner or is it too early for India to think on that? Also, do you see any specific sector that has been using digital effectively and getting effective value out of it?

T. Gangadhar: Answering your first question, actually in the beginning it was all about likes and building traction and interaction. But these metrixes are evolving every year and now clients are really looking upon the value that they are getting from social engagement. Coming to your second question, I would say categories like financial services and brands in the FMCG are making the maximum use of digital medium, both in terms of building reach and value of their product and services.

Melanie Varley: Well, I believe categories like telecom, technology, consumer electronics, and confectionaries and so on; basically any category that has young audience to cater too can make the best use of digital. 

Adgully: Another on-going trend that has been internationally popular is the use Video as an extension of engagement programs and brand promotion. How far is it successful internationally and can India also follow the same route?

Melanie Varley: Yes and yes, it is quite successful! YouTube is one of the biggest opportunities on online video consumption. It is a fact that for affluent adults and young adult audience it is as powerful as television; they perceive it as another form of television. In India too, I believe if the medium be given much more importance than now, it could be a great step. Hence, I believe that Indian marketers should spend a bit more on this medium.

T. Gangadhar: Clients like Airtel and Coke are the best examples to fit in terms of using online video space!

Adgully: Do you think media planners across the world are thinking digital first and then the television and print media part?

Melanie Varley: I think planners should think about the customers first and the relevant opportunities for brands and then take across the channels consumer use and match it to their wavelength. Yes, I think they are planning to take digital as its growing and we have potential young audience today to cater to. In some countries though, digital is bigger than the television; but I believe it's not about tapping or being part of the popular culture but understanding the audience and getting much more of it. However, I surely think there are more ideas which can be done around digital platforms.

Adgully: Are there best practices internationally that you want to share with your Indian counterparts?

Melanie Varley: We talk about two major initiatives; Digital and Data shift and to add one more to it is Strategic leadership. For digital and data shift we are working on a global blue print which has moved faster in last three years we rolled out and working on Indian version as well. It's not something we are presenting for us but moving faster in several spaces be it social, mobile, technology and others. We have our own different strategies for countries we work in as every country works differently and same goes with the blueprint as well. The second one is, we launched something known as Momentum, which is about understanding customer journey, how to be successful strategically and we have access to loads of information and research. Momentum is a piece of work which we developed as a part of research to understand brands, perceptions, behaviours, categories, what a consumer does in purchase journey, his psychology and how the planners make decisions about certain channels post understanding the consumers. Momentum is a fundamental piece which allows us to provide better understanding of the customers. We've done 50 studies around the world and looking out to do couple of fully fledged studies is Asia, which we'll start in the second half of the year. 

Adgully: What according to you are the challenges that the players in the industry are facing?

Melanie Varley: Online is still in the setting up stage in India which means there is a demand in upper market so we have to up our games in that market and to up-scale as per the need and demand is one of the biggest challenges that the players are facing.

T. Gangadhar: Well, there is nothing that cannot work in India. Digital penetration is what could be a challenge but we need to work around it and I am sure that can also be got in control.

Adgully: How was 2013 for MEC and what are your expectations from 2014?

Melanie Varley: Our business has grown double in last four years and we are looking to grow again if not faster but probably one step ahead at least. Secondly we want to expand both our initiatives: Digital data and Strategic leadership globally and make them part of business platform and also want to develop the product.

Adgully: Tell us about some of the international developments that have happened at MEC lately.

Melanie Varley: Though you must have heard about a few of them, but just to name a few, I would say we have acquired some really good projects in different countries which we are rolling out very soon. 

Adgully: Any specific mandate that had been given to MEC India?

Melanie Varley: We would want to focus and be up-to-the-mark as far as the digital shift is concerned and we would want to let our product grow.

Adgully: What changes you think will happen in industry in the next two years?

Melanie Varley: I think digital spends will overtake TV within two years in top 10-15 markets; Social and E-commerce will become a bigger part in consumer’s life in terms of time spend than TV; media time is growing a lot more time will be spent on social and digital. Taking cue from US where there is 15% of digital display in programmatic buying; I believe there will be other countries too in the world where there'll be a shift towards programmatic buying.

Melanie Varley, who started her career as a Marketing Executive at Sainsbury, in her role as Chief Strategy officer, takes responsibility for designing their future business model and for the global development and integration of their product and services.

T Gangadhar who has spent over 17 years in the field of marketing and advertising, joined MEC as Managing Director India in 2008.

Melanie was previously CEO, Europe, Middle East and Africa. Her work focused on building our network capabilities and managing staff and offices in over 50 countries. She also rolled out MEC Interaction and MEC Access across the region.

T Gangadhar started his advertising career in 1994 as Management Trainee in Mudra Communications.

MEC has been quite assertive in terms of adding clients to its kitty. Globally, they have GE, nationally, Butterfly Gandhimathi Appliances, Reliance Group - Reliance Capital and the Financial Services Businesses, Manorama Group and GoDaddy.


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