Leo Burnett's Arvind Sharma grills Group M south Asia CEO CVL Srinivas

It was in early 2012 that CVL Srinivas (fondly called Srini) succeeded Vikram Sakhuja as GroupM South Asia CEO. At the time, GroupM AP CEO Mark Patterson and Srini’s boss had said that he was their first choice for the role, and that he had the skills, personality, relationships and attitude to build the business on strategy, and with his own style and ideas as well.

For Srini, it was an opportunity to go back to an organization where he had learnt the ropes and mastered the rules of the game. Since Srinivas took charge, a lot of changes were made in the agency to up the ante in the competitive market scenario.’s Guest Editor of the day, outgoing chairman of Leo Burnett, Arvind Sharma spoke to his old friend, Srini, to see how the agency has done so far…

Srini, it has been just over a year since you took over as CEO of Group M in the country. What was the strategy and what were the priorities you set as the new CEO?

Clearly, our agency brands are the real heroes in the market. GroupM is only the support structure that leverages the overall scale of the business. The first priority was to help our agency brands to leverage the knowledge and expertise of GroupM, support them with best practices, and help push their business further.

The next priority was and still continues to be our focus on the New Core, that is,  Digital, Content, Trading, Analytics and Experiential Marketing, with a greater focus on Digital. Digital is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but is an integral part of a brand’s communication strategy, content and plans. We started our digital practice 12 years ago, and have the early mover advantage. However, in 2013, we really scaled it up to a much higher level with the ‘New Me’ initiative, beginning with a change in mindsets. We laid out a three-year plan, and we have made incredible progress in year one.  It is a continuous effort that integrates traditional core media practices with the new core like digital and social media, content, search, analytics, etc.

Our third focus area has been our younger employees, who really are the future of the industry.  We introduced the YCO (Youth Committee) last year that works very closely with the EXCO (senior leadership) at GroupM. This project was in fact piloted in India. The YCO has made a significant contribution in the very first year. These bright young minds from our agencies and specialist practices are now part of the decision-making process. They are really our feet on the street, bringing in a slew of fresh ideas and insights.

Did execution of this strategy involve structural changes at the agency? What were they?

Keeping in mind our ‘New Me’ vision in 2013, there was greater organizational focus on the New Core- Digital, Content, Trading, Analytics and Experiential Marketing. We began embedding New Core talent within our agency brands and will continue the effort in 2014 as well.

We also looked at a more simplified structure to ensure focus on new core areas. For example, as our business evolved, we realized that certain units need to be restructured to create a lean and agile team. We merged two of our units, Dialogue Factory and Dialect, to build a single activations powerhouse - Dialogue Factory. Today, Dialogue Factory has the expertise to plan and execute any and every aspect of experiential marketing, ranging from high-end luxury events to focussed rural outreach programs.

Would you share the progress Group M has made in terms of the strategic priorities set by you?

Our agencies and specialist units have had a significant year. We won over 80 new businesses in 2013 and managed to retain some key clients. We dominated the domestic and international industry awards last year, with our agencies and specialist units winning an award every other day.  All our agencies rank high as per the recent 2013 RECMA ratings. To cap this performance, last year, we were awarded the Porter Prize, making us the ‘only’ media and advertising agency to win the Award.

Keeping in mind our focus on digital and the new core via ‘New Me’, our digital contribution grew by 50 per cent last year.

We have rolled out several unique initiatives in the talent space. Over the years, GroupM Aspire has established itself as a best-in-class training and development programme. We have introduced several interesting programmes in Aspire and have linked it to our new vision.  Basis the inputs we got from our Y-Co, we brought in several new welfare measures. We were recently crowned the “Dream Company to Work for” in the Media & Entertainment sector at the World HRD Congress.

One and a half years later, do you see the need for any tweaks in your strategy?

In today’s market, GroupM’s agility, coupled with our deep understanding of the market is what is keeping us ahead. Having said that, evolution is the only constant, and as the media landscape changes, bringing us new opportunities and challenges, we will need to evolve ourselves and some of our practices.

2013 was generally a tough year for the industry. How do you see 2014 panning out?

While 2013 was a challenging year, it did bring in a lot of opportunities. The slowdown of the economy and uncertainties  surrounding policy put a lot of pressure on our clients and their media budgets, and we did take a lot of course corrective action in the middle of 2013. The year also gave us the opportunity to see some great innovation across planning and buying, developing new proprietary tools, diversifying our talent and building some interesting partnerships.

We are cautiously optimistic about the media industry in 2014. The GroupM TYNY 2014 forecasts the AdEx to grow at 11.6 per cent with the highest growth percentage for Digital at 35 per cent followed by Television at 12 per cent. Sectors like FMCG, Auto and Retail will continue to be stable. We will see an increase in rural spending by several sectors like FMCG and Telecom, and with that, we also plan to expand GroupM’s offerings geographically. The first half of the year will continue to be uncertain, given the general economic and political environment, however, we foresee a stronger second half with an upsurge in ad spends across categories.

We will continue to focus on our New Core offerings including Digital, Content, Trading, Analytics and Experiential Marketing. Our agencies have already done some ground-breaking work in the first quarter with branded content and digital media.

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