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Traditional & digital agencies to merge in future: Grapes Digital’s Himanshu Arya

Arya shares his entrepreneurial journey and his thoughts on the future of the digital medium

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MUMBAI: For a first-generation entrepreneur trying to make it big in the digital marketing space with no professional training in the subject, Grapes Digital founder Himanshu Arya is a pleasant anomaly. He knows his business, his team, and on top of everything, he knows the value of enriching and training his staff on a regular basis so that they stay motivated and ahead of the curve.

When he launched Grapes Digital in 2009, after a two-year stint in the banking sector, Arya didn’t have the vision to run a digital or media agency. But as fate would have it, currently, he is leading a team of more than 130 individuals with offices in Mumbai and Delhi. The clientele includes big names like Manforce, Pantaloons, Axis Mutual Fund, etc.

In a recent interaction with Indiantelevision.com, the man shared his journey, his vision for the future of digital, and the efforts he has been putting in to ensure his team is on a similar wavelength of aspirations and hunger to win as he is. Edited excerpts follow:

Brief us on your entrepreneurial journey and the inception of Grapes Digital.

I completed my master’s from IMT Ghaziabad in 2007 and worked with Kotak and Citibank after that. But while I was working in the banking sector and even during my days in the university, there was a lot of unrest in me as I wanted to start something of my own. Entrepreneurship was always on my mind. I hadn’t envisioned leading a digital agency or working in the media industry but as an entrepreneur, it was very clear to me that I have to do anything and everything that is required to sustain.

Finally, in 2009 I said, let’s do it and we started as Grapes Software, a technology firm. We worked primarily in the space of web development. But as the world of digital grew, the clients for whom we had developed websites came back to us with requirements for search engine optimisation (SEO). Then Google AdWords came in late 2010 and clients started asking for such services as well. That’s how the business expanded.

By early 2012, digital had become more prominent in India with social media gaining momentum. That time, we took a very conscious call to expand in the digital space. We started taking up gradual shifts and became Grapes Digital that year.

So, earlier, we were a team of about 40 core technical people and there was no one working in the digital space. Right now, we have reduced that number to less than half and have more than 130 people looking after digital communications for our clients.

How was the experience of leading this shift from technical to digital?

I wasn’t an engineer when I had started this tech company and neither did I have expertise in the digital domain before making the shift. But I have been fortunate to have worked with the best of people in my team. I think that has been my core capability; to work with people who are competent instead of being stuck on me for better performance. You get the best guys who can do the best job while you manage the overall business.

The shift obviously did not happen overnight, it was a gradual process and I have enjoyed it down the road. In fact, I still enjoy the tech part of the business pretty well.

Grapes Digital has been doing a commendable business. You have been expanding your teams, winning big clients. So, what is the further plan of action for the agency?

We are trying to become more organised in what we are doing. We are internally working on improving our efficiencies.

Also, till date, we have been willingly working for clients who do not have adequate budgets for digital. We have been delivering for them even when the margins for us are negligible. But now as a business, we are taking a conscious call that we also need to earn money as we give our blood and sweat. So, we are looking for clients that can pay us well. Because if once the contract has been signed, we can’t go back to a client and say that we can’t afford to do this or that as you have paid only a certain amount of money. That kills creativity in the long run and that is something unacceptable. We are not willing to change our process, so we very well might change clients.

Brands usually spend much lesser on digital than they do on traditional media. Do you think this trend is going to reverse?

Yes. Let’s understand from a client’s perspective. Earlier, there used to be a mainline agency that would make TVCs and print ads for the brands. Media buying was also done through the same agency or same group company. Then came digital, which changed things substantially. So, if there are 1000 clients for TV and print right now, for digital the number will be around 1 lakh. Now, this is a diverse group; some of it might be spending only Rs 25,000 a month while others may have budgets of Rs 10 crore to Rs 100 crore.

Also, bigger clients are shifting their money from offline to digital. A company that had started 5 years back on digital is already spending 20 per cent on the budgets on the platform, while someone who had started 8 years back is giving out 40 per cent to digital. So, it is about client maturity.

From where I am, I sense that in another three years, maybe digital would be the beat-runner and offline agencies will follow what we are doing today.

What will this shift mean for digital agencies?

For digital agencies like us, it will mean that we will be hiring more and more offline planners, teaching them the way online is done. That’s how we will be doing the overall brand planning digital-first, unlike today where offline agencies take the lead.

Right now, we do not have funds to hire media planners on the scale which offline agencies are doing, simply because of the reason that clients are spending lesser on digital. But as I said, three years down the line, the culture will be different. We will be getting a bigger pie of the marketing spends of any brand, our affordability for good media planners will increase and we will be better equipped to hire them.

Another thing that might happen, while I am not sure how it will pan out, is the merging of offline and digital agencies. There will not be two separate entities to look after traditional and digital needs of the clients but one single agency. But offline agencies will have to amp up their work to match pace with digital in that scenario because the speed and hustle for an online agency are much higher than the offline counterparts. They will have to improve their speed and efficiency or they are going to lose out big.

As you said that you do not have professional degrees either in engineering or digital marketing. So, while you hire people for your company, do you look out for degrees or the talent a candidate possesses?

Initially, I thought degrees were the better option. I am a first-generation entrepreneur and whatever I learnt was by the books. So, at that time, degrees looked like a safer option. But then I practically realised that these degrees are not adding any value to any person. I have worked with people who were fresh out of school and had done just a short-term course from a small institute but turned out to be better developers than someone with degrees from fancy big universities. And they were equally blank as trained professionals, at times.

So, yes, degrees don’t matter, it is the skill-set that matters. And coming to the digital space, I think experience is the only thing that really matters. There are not many professional courses training in digital media or advertising. There are some big institutes but people from there are generally coming in at a cost that they are unaffordable as freshers.

You are saying that experience matters the most to you while you hire people. Doesn’t young energy attract you?

To be very honest, I am not very confident of them [fresh college graduates] because I feel that their mindsets are still not clear about where they want to go. Most of them might be working just for the sake of it. I don’t think they are taking their careers as seriously as we used to take when we were 22.

Saying that, this year we have decided to experiment a little. We have hired 12 young graduates as management trainees. I had never tried that in the past decade but I am willing to give it a conscious chance. Maybe the breed that we have hired is from the best graduation colleges. We get to try that and then be more confident next year and hopefully hire a greater number.

And how are you planning to retain this talent?

Grapes as a culture is very progressive. If you look at our retention, the people that we have hired stay with us for at least three years. We give a lot of cross-exposure across departments. I will never tell someone that if you are from social, you can’t look at the media aspects for a client. I do a weekly review meeting with my teams and ask them what new they have learned and what improvements they are planning to introduce to the clients. That’s the push that keeps people at Grapes engaged. I think the culture of doing something more than what a regular job offers is our retention game for the employees. Also, we do a number of training sessions, provide them with a healthy work environment where they have ample opportunity to perform as well as relax.

Tell us more about the sort of training sessions you have been hosting at Grapes.

We have recently started with a series of workshops and training at Grapes Digital. For example, we did one very interesting training earlier this year called the ‘interviewing skills programme’. We called trainers from Mumbai to our Delhi office to train senior management in taking good interviews. The key takeaway of the session was that we have started taking panel interviews now and have made an overall methodology across levels to grill the candidates. That is helping us a lot, as the candidate, from the time of the interview, starts feeling that he/she is at the right place and they might never have been exposed to this sort of process.

Another example is the ‘crucial conversation skills’ training that taught our employees at the mid-senior level to interact effectively with their subordinates and team members whether it is breaking difficult news when the employee is not working well or setting them up for difficult tasks, that sometimes come with unrealistic demands and deadlines. Our management now knows how to communicate it to the team without putting much pressure on them.

We are also planning to a ‘presentation skill training’ in the coming month.

And how do you give them a healthy work environment, as you mentioned?

Internally, maybe every two or three weeks, we keep on doing some activities in order to keep the employees engaged. We do regular parties, for instance. There are recreational zones within our offices where people can unwind during their free time and rejuvenate. They can play the guitar, indulge in games, smoke or drink. We do not restrict them in any way. 

Also, for us what matters is not the amount of time or the hours an employee spends at the office but the deliverables. So, we have people who work from 8 to 5 as they like to be at home early in the evening, and then there are some who punch in at 12 noon and then work through the night. Though we tell the people to be in office for at least 9 hours, at the end of it, if the person has delivered, it really doesn’t matter.

I think, there are different sets of people. Some of them like to perform under pressure while some don’t. We understand the personality of each individual and give them freedom accordingly. All other policies and frameworks are to support the employees and not to demotivate them.

Also, digital is a very dynamic space. Something new comes up almost every day. How do you encourage your team to keep pace with that?

Every Monday, we do a weekly meeting wherein 20 people from copy, creative, and middle management sit together to discuss what all is happening in the world. We note down the key events, for instance, elections, the airing of finale season of Game of Thrones, etc. Then we work our strategies around them; see which client would react to which event. Sometimes, the approvals come within a few hours of such discussions over WhatsApp. And if we talk of technology, one has to understand the medium well, in terms of its content and the target group it can help us reach.

These things come only when you engage with people. You have to constantly communicate and brainstorm together. There is no shortcut to that. The power comes when the whole team of 130 people come together, share ideas, collaborate, and promote all the dimensions of any medium or content.

The topical content that we do happens because we have been sharing good relationships with our clients and understand their needs. It is not difficult for us to turn around a moment into a campaign within hours and get it approved as well.

But aren’t there possibilities of creative or ideological differences with clients?

Creative differences happen when you work as a client and an agency. When the objective at heart becomes the same, I don’t think there remains a scope of difference after that. If you have worked with the client for two months, you need to get it right. You need to know the tonality of the brand or the way it wants itself to be perceived by the consumer. Then everything is sorted.

Apart from that, a problem might arise when people are not aligned well. If my brand manager and the client servicing manager have differences, that will reflect on how we work as well. But if they are good friends, both will be willing to travel the extra mile to meet the needs of the others.

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