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"2020 is when digital will command one third of all media spends & that is a significant market to go after": Rajiv Dingra

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Even before many knew about social media, let alone analyse the medium’s power, Rajiv Dingra at the age of 22 knew he was entering into something which was only going to grow bigger. Dingra, who founded digital and social media agency WATConsult in 2007 with four employees has today built up a team comprising 160 people across four cities: Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata.

Acquired by Dentsu Aegis Network in January 2015, Dingra is looking at not just expanding the business, but also aiming to be one amongst the top tier digital agencies by 2020.

In a span of seven years, the agency has worked with over 100 brands like Warner Bros, PVR, SAP, Nikon, Tata Salt, Godrej, Bajaj Allianz and Mahindra & Mahindra, and others across the world.

In conversation with Indiantelevision.com’s Seema Singh, Dingra talks about the evolution of digital space, life after the Dentsu acquisition, his future plans and more.

Excerpts:

How did you start WATConsult? What gave you the idea to start a digital agency way back in 2007?

I was a blogger first. I used to run a blog called WATBlog. But, I wasn’t making much money through that. Soon after, people started coming to me asking how they could engage with bloggers, so from there, I started the side business of blog consulting. This went on to social media consulting and all of this happened within a couple of months. It wasn’t a revolution of sorts, it is just that one thing led to another.

The initial idea was to create a social media consulting company. WATConsult was formed when I got Rediff onboard, which gave me an advance cheque of  Rs 4 lakh. This was the seed capital for the company.

When I started the company, we were just four people, which included two interns. Today, we are about 160 people, with four offices across country: Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata.

One client led to another client, and it kept growing. It took us a lot of time to take off ground in 2007-08, but by 2009 I was pretty clear that we wanted to make this big. It was in 2009 when we started getting retainer client and building a team.

We started moving office, every six months, because we were growing that fast. In the five years from 2009-2014, we doubled our growth, in terms of people, revenue and profits.

When you started in 2007, except for the interns, did you have any other partner?

For a long time I had no partner. In fact I registered the company in 2008 alone with my father being the dormant director. So it was pretty much a single man company.

How did the acquisition by Dentsu Aegis Network happen? Why did you think of partnering with the agency?

Talks with Dentsu were on for the past two years. What worked for us was that over the past two years, they actually saw us growing. Moreover, we were actually doing whatever we were telling them that we would do. They became more confident in us, as they saw that we had the capability to perform.

We were very confident in them as they have a differentiated model of operating in India with one P&L model, which is unlike any other network.

They wanted to collaborate with us and that is what we liked. You can grow by collaborating, not by competing.

It was very clear for us from the beginning that digital is a platform and not a skill. Eventually everybody will be digital savvy. Over time all advertising will be just advertising and will not be segregated on the basis of print, TV or digital advertising. More and more agencies will be integrated. This could take anywhere between five to 15 years.

We started social media, when people didn’t even know what social media was. We have done the deal with Dentsu when we see the future as integrated. We may be five years early for that, but then that’s fine. The way we look at it is that it will happen eventually and so we wanted to prepare ourselves with the network that works collaboratively to be in the best position to take advantage of that eventuality.

Has it impacted the work culture at WATConsult? Has your role changed?

It hasn’t impacted the work culture but it has definitely increased the amount of work we are expected to deliver. The good news is that the group has a lot of opportunities for WATConsult. We are being invited to pitches. They are business and client focused and so are we.

As for my role, it is still the same. While I was initially talking to external clients, now my role is to also talk to stakeholders within the network.

Are you looking at expanding your office or employees?

We were always looking at expanding our office. That has got nothing to do with the acquisition. We will be moving into a larger office for close to 250 people. Our vision is to have 300 - 350 people in the next two - three years. We plan to expand in Delhi and Bengaluru since we are winning a lot of clients there.

Beyond people, we would want to work with larger clients with larger mandates. We are currently participating with Dentsu Aegis Network on global pitches as well. We are very excited.

What do you look for people when you hire them?

I would hire a humble person anytime. There is a very clear reason for that: if you are not humble, you don’t think you want to learn too much. If you don’t want to learn, you can’t be a part of a growing organisation, which we are. The next quality I see is the person’s passion to learn.

How have you seen the digital space change and grow since 2007?

I remember in 2007, we had to think before putting a budget in lakhs in our presentations. Today, client comes and says that they want a plan in one week for Rs 1.5 crore. So, number wise it’s mind boggling.

I have to, at times, unlearn what I had learnt when I started my career. Beyond the numbers, it is just the breadth of the space. Today, we are doing digital video commercials, shoots, websites and social media, all for the same client. What I am seeing is that clients are embracing digital and once you start embracing the medium you start spending as well.

Digital is starting to get a lot of respect and attention even at the CMO level, which is a big difference from 2007-2011. Today, I have not seen a pitch where the CMO is not present for signing on the digital agency.

The future is coming from digital. According to reports, digital advertising currently is at Rs 3500 crore. In another five years, another Rs 6000 crore will be added, thus making it a Rs 9500-10000 crore market. It is a 150 per cent growth in next five years.

What is the ROI on digital?

People have been advertising on TV, even without knowing the exact return on investment. Just because you can calculate numbers in digital doesn’t make that a scapegoat, which it has been for very long. I think a lot of marketing is gut and feel. Yes, there are surveys, analysis, TRPs and numbers to back the feel, but I have known marketers who know this as an art.

Digital is going to grow. So either you do more of it and figure out the ROI mechanism or you sit at the fence and wait for the ROI. And maybe when the ROIs come, you will be too late in the learning curve. The earlier you start, the better asset you can create for your product.

GroupM estimates digital growth at 37 per cent. Do you agree with it?

I think every year it is between 30-40 per cent, but agencies like ours, which is focused on social, mobile and video, will be growing at at least 80-100 per cent. In fact what is pulling down this growth is search and display.  

Is there a set format for digital advertising? What works on digital?

There is no format. Even advertising, which is a 100 year old profession, has no format of making a creative or TVC. As a brand you want to elicit a certain response from the audience so you create content, videos, infographics etc.

Format doesn’t matter. What we know is video, social or mobile is going to through the roof. So what we are trying to find is how we, as an agency, can integrate all this in our campaigns while keeping true to the brand requirement and brief and the creativity on that.

As for what works on digital, it is storytelling and novelty. If you haven’t seen or heard something before, it works on digital. Getting good storytellers is a struggle, but then as the space evolves gems come up.

Is there a research, which is done to find what clicks with the TG? What is the duration?

We do closed group research, online team monitoring and also create our own dashboards to understand the working for the brand, comparing against other competitors.

Quantitative research, which is driven by digital happens within a week. But qualitative could take 10-15 days.

What do you feel about the ‘Digital India’ campaign launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

Growth of internet is going to help our business tremendously. With internet connectivity, several clients’ rural budget will go up. The reason for collaborating with Dentsu is that they have a rural agency and they have a huge footprint in rural India. We, over the five years, are making the bet that the change will happen sooner rather than later.

I want to take WATConsult to top tier of digital agency in the next five years. I see 2020 as a big year where digital will be closer to one third of all media spends and that is a significant market to go after.

How has pitching to a client changed over the years?

Clients do not look at us as just an execution agency anymore. Earlier, the brand would only think of the campaign and digital leg had to be set up just a day or so before the launch of the campaign. This has changed now. We are now being called when the idea brainstorming is happening collaboratively with mainline agencies. We are planning on the digital campaign two months prior to the launch of the campaign.

Money wise also there is a lot of change, but for me this is a significant change.

The year started on a good note for the agency. How do you see the year panning out for you?

2015 is a key year for us as we are looking at a bigger office, investing in talent, setting into gear our achievement of vision 2020, which we have internally set. It is also a year where we look to more closely collaborate with Dentsu and become a part of the family and leverage that to grow WATConsult.

I genuinely feel that the vision that we had independently, both in terms of achievement of numbers and clients, we have surpassed that this financial year. We are seeing some great positive response from our clients for our work. I am extremely bullish and for me the GroupM’s 37 per cent digital growth prediction looks a little small. We would like to look at 50 per cent or more growth this year.

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