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Turn away from digital & you'll go nowhere: Mindshare's Gowthaman

R Gowthaman, the Leader, South Asia of Mindshare, is a colossus of the media and ad industry. In an exclusive interview to Adgully, he talks about his experiences and elucidates the trends shaping the industry.

Adgully: Tell us a little about your journey in the media so far

R Gowthaman: The journey began in 1990, in Chennai. I had graduated from BITS Pilani that year ” I am a management graduate. At that point, it was fashionable to work for a creative agency. We had Lintas from day one, and I was eager to attend the campus interview of the company. From my early college days, I wanted to be in an ad agency. However, in BITS we did not have ad agencies coming in for campus interviews. So I had to say no to university placements and do a Yellow Page kind of search and call ad agencies. I wanted to be in client servicing. I was in Chennai those days and I used to walk into various ad agencies looking for work. Then I eventually joined RK Swamy, when it was just RK Swamy Advertising Associates. There I met Mr Swamy himself, and he said, "you should be in the media and not in client servicing". When I joined the agency, "media' meant Doordarshan and four or five newspapers.

AG: How has the media evolved since the time your career began?

RG: I think the First Gulf War marked the advent of cable and satellite TV, in 1993. The next leap came somewhere around 1998-99, when the first dotcom boom happened. Of course, it went bust in 2000, but in 1998, it was the single largest development in the industry and talent began to churn out. You had sites like india.com being launched and people were suddenly curious to know what that site could change in terms of consumer behavior and marketing opportunities. The bust led people to do some soul-searching about what went wrong. The third milestone was crossed two-three years back ” the rampant fragmentation of television ratings. Today, more than 95% of programmes have rating below 1. Only a few programmes have a 4+ rating, and a rating of 3+ spurs celebrations today. But there used to be a time when we had ratings of around 13 or 14 and we used to feel very good about it. So over the past three or four years, clients have begun to look at non-TV options since the efficiency of TV is declining. Second, people are asking themselves "should I do something beyond just television commercial'? In fact, today, the fundamental questions are: am I trying to create awareness, or trying to create interest, or creating the desire to buy, or trying to create action? Therefore, we are back to basics; hence, the role each channel plays ” TV, print, cinema, out of home, digital and so forth ” in a campaign initiative is at the centre of discussion. As for TV, it must be acknowledged that you still have 40 million homes in the country without TV sets, and you can't find any other country like this in the world. So the growth in TV is still a feature of the lower strata, and brands that are relevant to that strata are different from those that are relevant to the top segment. We have multiple Indias within the country. So each India will require a different kinds of channel mixes, marketing plans and marketing programmes. To create all that is the single largest challenge today. So you can't write off TV, but TV is meant for certain categories and certain sectors; print addresses many more sectors; online is becoming important for certain sectors, just like social media. So one broad-brush media plan will no longer work.

AG: What have been your focus areas as the head of Mindshare?

RG: Our first major step was towards activation, around 2003-2004, when we recognised that the Indian market did not constitute 22 states but 55 socio-cultural regions, and that each SCR behaves differently from the other, Vidarbha behaves differently from Marathwada, Konkan behaves differently from the eastern regionsand so on and so forth. So we thought it was important to reach out to consumers at a local level and start activating TV commercials and communication with some kind of consumer engagement. We set up a separate unit called Dialect only for local activity, and after we set it up everybody followed suit. So much so, even publications have their local activation units. Predominantly, they are serving us, it's a business we created. We are proud and happy that we spoke for activation. Our second significant decision was to go beyond TV commercials, to bring in brand values in programming itself instead of just making a TV commercial. The best example is Wheel Smart Shrimati in DD, which is a show where a homemaker saves her husband in the game of life, which is the reverse of Mahabharat. The programme is developed and conceived by us; we brought the slot and put the programme on air as well. It subliminally celebrates the woman for she is, and a housewife who values money, and therefore Wheel. We have taken many such initiatives in the area of content, through advertiser-funded programmes. The third area of focus is to put the client at the centre, from an organisational perspective. We have dismantled this office-head concept, there is no Chennai head, a Mangalore head or a Mumbai head ” we have client leaders for various units. Today we have team Pepsi, team Kellogs, team Unilever, team GSK, team Ford etc. They decide clients' marketing plans; they sit with clients and understand them. A team is built depending on requirements. Traditional media agencies will have a planner, a buyer, executives and group heads; but we have dismantled it. A team Pepsi will look uniquely different from a team GSK, for example. We have evolved a customised, client-based structure and a client is assured that this agency is doing something for him or her to meet requirements. This I think is the future and I believe everybody will adopt such a model. It's no longer just about TV, it is a mix of channels ranging from print and TV to and internet. Different categories will require different mixes, and for a client like Pepsico, I might require more of the digital channel. That means I will invest more in studying youth's concerns.

AG: Now, 2008 was a tough year. What did you gather from the experience?

RG: From an internal management perspective, it did put pressure on our overheads and increase clients' demands. Normally, you have an end-of-the-month activity report in which you say, done or not done; delivered or not; and met or not. Last year, we made this a weekly exercise because the clients have begun to expect more frequent feedback. This also affords us flexibility. So we invested a lot of money and time on automation, and in a couple of months, a client can log in to a site and check what's happening: the previous week's GRPs, spots situations, print ads etc will be shown. Basically, we are trying to move towards real-time campaign management. I think that was the acutest need when the business was tough for our clients. Unlike the West, the Indian market did not get hurt very badly because some of the sectors were growing; the FMCG and even automobile sectors had invested a lot of time and money. So, yes, we did have a pressure in terms of revenue as an agency, but as custodians of our clients' business, we learnt a lot more than in any other year. Return on Investment was tested to its limit. Today, we have a 30-member analytics team which works on market mix modeling and sales response modeling, so that we can go back to clients and give them a composite sales response picture of a media activity.

AG: Have the team clusters increased business?

RG: For Mindshare, every category is blocked for growth. If I have an automobile client, I can't handle another, for instance. For the 14 client leaders/14 clusters, growth can come only if clients grow. Instead of being transactional, we learn more about clients so that we can give solutions through value-added services, accountability, content, and integration. We have 35-40 large-sized clients and another 35-40 long-tail clients. We have some 135 clients.

AG: Any new initiatives you would like to talk about?

RG: We believe offline social media is as important as the online ones. The market has 100 million non-digital consumers ” you can call them rural, but there are urban non-digital consumers as well and they are engaging with people and talking to each other. When we are doing a social media kind of activation for our clients in the offline medium ” we call it the Dialogue Factory. The setup has a separate unit through which we will make one consumer talk about a brand to another consumer. It could be the influencing-an-influencer kind of approach: it could be a schoolteacher, an entrepreneur, or a young mother talking. It can be generic for a category, or specific to a brand. This will be decided according to what the client needs are. We have set up a five-member team to do this and we also have a creative director joining us in this space. We have an activation person, a digital person, and a communication person in the team.

AG: Any message you might want to share with peers?

RG: I think if ” as media agencies ” we do not invest in the digital space, we will go nowhere. My personal view is that if planners can choose between a Star and a Zee, between a The Hindu and The Hindustan Times, they should be able to choose between a Google and a Yahoo as well. And they should be able to give an integrated media plan and become a full-fledged channel planners, able to differentiate between various channels and give clients the best marketing mix. That is the only way our business can escape from being over-commodified.

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