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How iProspect's Vivek Bhargava foresaw a digital future two decades ago

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One trip to the US in 1997 was all it took for a young man’s entrepreneurial journey to begin. When this man, who was taking global trips on behalf of his family business to sell tablas and sitars, decided to sing a different tune, he was told by his father to pack his bags and get going without turning back.

Fast forward 20 years ahead to today – 2017. This Bollywood-sounding real scene is the story of Vivek Bhargava and his successful digital agency iProspect. He actualised his idea back in 1997 when he founded Communicate 2. The company joined hands with iProspect from the Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN) in 2012 where he led iProspect Communicate 2 as the founder and managing director. The company was rebranded to iProspect India at the end of 2015 and Bhargava was made CEO. In December 2016, Rubeena Singh was made CEO and he was promoted to a larger role as CEO of DAN Performance Group.

Indiantelevision.com spoke to the man who took a leap of faith in 1997 and the newly appointed CEO, Rubeena Singh where Bhargava speaks at length about his journey, challenges in the digital environment, talent retention and much more. Excerpts:

How did the iProspect journey begin for you? And how did you pick digital as the medium?

Bhargava: When one speaks of 20 years, it makes me feel really old but it has been a great journey. I come from a conventional family that sells tablas and sitars. It is called Bhargava’s Musik that was started in the year 1944. As kids, we used to go abroad for trade fairs once in every two to three months and that is where the seed of communication was sowed into our minds. What we noticed was that western countries were using technologies for marketing communication and advertising, which we didn’t see here in India. By the time I was an adult, I decided to quit my family business and start my own venture as I wanted India to make a mark in digital communication. When I gathered courage to tell my father about my decision, in an ominous tone he told me that if I quit the family business, I can never join that again. Today when I look back, I am glad I took that decision because when I went through tough times during these last 20 years, what kept me going were my father’s words.

You decided to sell off Communicate 2 to Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN). Why did you take that route? 

Bhargava: As an independent agency, you’re restricted in doing things. When you want to grow to a certain size to work with bigger clients and you want access to bigger technologies, you have to take the plunge and look for a bigger agency to partner with. The biggest challenge I faced in my career before joining DAN was talent attraction and that problem was solved to a great extent.

What are the perks of working with a full service agency? 

Bhargava: The most amazing thing about DAN is that it retains 70 per cent of entrepreneurs after the earn process (acquisition) is over, whereas that ratio is only 20 to 30 per cent in other networks. DAN gives you complete freedom, they let you have your individuality and let you run the company. They also give you the ability to approach anybody in the network to help out and we have one P&L (statement) per country and that truly creates the feeling of ‘One DAN’.

We haven’t seen any major structural changes in your organisation which is a common practice in almost all networks and agencies today. Why is that?

Singh: iProspect has a high-performing team and so we don’t believe in making major structural changes. We’ve just built on what we already have. We’ve launched new products and carved out new roles for people, but, on a larger level, we are trying to automate a lot of repetitive work. We are upscaling our people to spend more time thinking and looking at data in order to help clients out with their problems and offer solutions rather than doing mundane desk labour.

How challenging is it for agencies to retain clients in today’s time? What do agencies need to do to ensure client retention?

Bhargava: If agencies continue to deliver value and you are authentic about your capabilities, you can retain clients for a longer period. Usually, clients tend to move on because agencies are not solving the real problem, and it’s always about achieving a price or delivering a service. As my father would say to me, “Taking interest in client’s brand and taking interest in team members is the only way an agency will grow.”

Singh: It is really important to look at both sides of the spectrum. We have been fortunate enough to work with clients that have been with us for over 10 years and we have been able to grow them and that comes from the mindset of ‘client first’. We believe in evolving our products and services in line with clients’ needs.

Clients usually have high expectations from an agency but they keep their pockets zipped. How challenging does it become to deliver the product?

Bhargava: We have always charged premium amount in the market. A client once refused to do business with us because he said that they couldn’t afford us. To that my reply was, ‘The problem is not that we are expensive, but that we are proud of it.’ We believe that since we charge more, we are able to deliver more value to their brand. I’ve seen a lot of agencies that started up around the same time as I did and had to wind up because they reducing rates which led to inferior talent coming on board leading to inferior output. Of course, clients left. For an agency to deliver the best output, it is very important that it prices right and does not succumb to client-satiating tactics.

How do you ensure you meet your yearly targets? 

Bhargava: We have always been very honest with our clients and given them honest reviews because we believe in setting realistic expectations and being on their side of the table. A lot of times agencies tend to take care of their self-interest and give different advice to clients and when numbers aren’t as promised, clients will move away.

How different is the Indian media industry as compared to the West?

Bhargava: Western agencies charge for every single planner. For instance, if a client is meeting an agency where six prominent people from the agencies are present in the meeting, they charge $6000 for that meeting as they believe every minute of a media planner is worth that kind of money. That is not the case in India, as here we believe in spending hours trying to solve the client’s problem and ensuring that they leave happy after the meeting. Here, it is about understanding and building a rapport with them. In India, things are less technology led but solution led. Most of the clients in the west are very precise about what they want but here it is more about solving the client’s problem where we may end up working twice as hard than what we expected but you hope that the client will take care of you.

You’ve seen India transition and adopt technology along with digital in these 20 years. How would you say has digital evolved over the years in the Indian context? 

Bhargava: It took 14 years for digital to come in India and as a digital agency, we have been a witness to that evolution. Earlier, no brand wanted to include digital in their marketing budget and advertising. Today, almost every brand spends around 15-20 per cent of the advertising budget on digital. Today, it is playing the role of a catalyst and it’s not limited to advertising. We are living in a digital age today as compared to doing just digital advertising. In future, people are going to stop seeing digital as digital but it will only be known as advertising just as today we don’t say, ‘cellular phone’ but we just say phone. In future, the word digital will be dropped out.

What does the industry need to do to attract more talent and to ensure talent retention?

Bhargava: Truth be told, the salary of a person working for a digital agency as opposed to someone working in a conventional media agency will be twice as high. Hopefully, some would be motivated by money, so if they want to earn more money, digital is the best option. It will be one of the highest paid jobs in just a few years from now.

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