Media Direction - repackaging itself

When advertising and marketing professionals and trade publications talk about media independents in India, Media Direction is not a name that pops up first. It's the shining stars - the Group Ms, Madisons, Starcoms, Lintas', Media Edges, Carats - which take up a lot of the newsprint and conversation time. Media Direction has been seen as just a media arm of RK Swamy/BBDO, a not-so-serious player in the huge media sweepstakes.

No more. The RK Swamy/BBDO management has over the past year or so been shaping to shake off the lurking-in-the-shadows image. It hired a new CEO, luring away senior media professional Sandeep Tarkas from MPG. It, however, retained media veteran PRP Nair who had been managing Media Direction, giving him a senior advisor's post.

Tarkas, an engineer by qualification with experience in advertising (MPG, Mindshare) and in marketing (with luggage major Blowplast), has been working on changing the pace and bringing in a different mindset within the agency which has six offices across the country, and a total of 48 media specialists.

"We need to change to the dynamic environment and in the last one year, people are responding very well to the changes we have been instituting," says the soft spoken but extremely sharp-brained Tarkas. Among the changes he has instituted figure a new logo with Media Direction becoming more prominent, and hiving off its profit and loss account from the mother agency's financials.

But the crucial challenge he says was to design processes to become an independent media entity. "It's all in place now. Because of these processes, we are now a full fledged media agency. The last one year has seen an enhanced focus," states Tarkas.

This included putting in place standardised systems and tools which enable market prioritisation, targeting, category evaluation, competitive evaluation, among other things. "We had all these in place earlier, but we revisited them to offer our clients more cutting edge service," says Tarkas.

Work is on at the moment to develop several tools which will make that service even more razor sharp. "I don't want to talk about it," says Tarkas. "I want to keep that competitive edge, but we will shortly announce a suite of tools which will help our clients evenmore and shake up the media business."

His entry has also brought about a change in attitude towards new business acquisition. In the past 12 months, Tarkas has been boxing with the Top 5 of the media business at about seven new business pitches as compared to earlier when Media Direction was not even in the consideration list. And he has notched up success in four - actually three as it had to turn down one because of conflict of interest - of these.

Media Direction's Key Clients
Sara LEE ( Media only)
Mercedes Benz
SBI MF (Media Only)
O General
Birla Sunlife Insurance (Media Only)

"There's another account win we will announce shortly," says Tarkas. The good hit rate has seen the number of non-RK Swamy/BBDO clients rising from two to six. Amongst these: SBI Mutual Fund, Sara Lee, Vitco, and Birla Sunlife Insurance. What's more is that these six non-creative clients today account for 25 per cent of the agency's billings of Rs 2.5 billion. The remaining 38 creative-also clients account for the remainder 75 per cent.

Tarkas believes that the agency is geared up now to make a dash for even more business now that systems are falling in place. "You will see us at a lot more pitches," he says.

He is looking to hire more professionals at the senior level though he believes that the agency has a top notch senior team. The Southern office is led by 'Satya' Satyanarayana who oversees three regions Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad with M Gopal and Anuradha Kishore heading the Bangalore and Hyderabad head operations respectively. Mumbai is headed by K Ramesh while Shams Kabir is in charge of Delhi. And of course he has the old warhorse PRP Nair's years of networking and media knowledge at his disposal. Navin Kathuria is the Group Head and D Raghunathan - TV buying head.

Tarkas believes that the agency enjoys several core strengths. Among these:

"We are a thinking agency and we bring a different kind of value to the whole media process. From the group's perspective for instance, we launched the 'RK Swamy's guide to open markets' . We as a media agency have used that guide to our advantage by utlising it as a resource for consulting assignments that we have done (multinational automobile giant).

"We are very outstanding buyers. We have been against the best, and our rates have been most competitive. Apart from that we have a set of experienced people and enjoy very good client relations."

Additionally, Media Direction does not believe in cleaving the buying function the planning. Media professionals who hop on board double up for both. Explains Tarkas: "I guess it's to do with the kind of profiles of clients we have. If you have one large client then maybe a division of a planner -buyer would make sense. But we do have a buying structure; so planners seek aid from that, but at the same time planners also have some direct buying responsibilities."

The other structural advantage that the agency leverages upon is its group research company, where in it has access to group employees in 17 other cities. These are field offices and the employees are used by the agency for doing ground activation. "Ground implementation is a big positive strength we get out of this arrangement. This is an exclusive tie-up," says Tarkas.

He points out that the dictum within Media Direction is to go the extra mile for clients. For instance, he points out that the agency worked out a market plan for one of them when it needed it.

The service orientation has got Media Direction fans. Gushes Sara Lee (Household and Body care) V-P marketing Shiv Sahgal, "We have worked with them for close to a year. This year they have done a good job; their involvement and understanding of the brand is the core strength of the team. While they are media specialists, they don't work in isolation; they get into the business and brand objectives, and don't restrict themselves as a media vehicle."

On the media front, he points out that Media Direction managed a 15-20 per cent improvement on CPRPs in 2004-2005 compared to 2003-2004. And the icing on the cake is the fact that the agency is "very competitively priced and we have a very good deal. They put their money where their mouth is as they assured us a 10 per cent saving when we took them on. They have exceeded their commitment."

Visa director marketing & business development South Asia Gagan Maini echoes that sentiment, though in a muted manner. "We have been using them for some time now and are satisfied clients. Since it is not a huge media organisation, we have managed to get good service levels."

Says Raymond V-P media & corporate communication Paulomi Dhawan: "Planning and strategisation is very strong.They are a bunch of dedicated professionals - a no nonsense team. I would think their core strength would be implementation."

Tarkas is not letting the praise go to his head. He admits that the agency has to rev up on several fronts. "On a scale of 1-10, I would rate us at seven. Media is all about scale and size," he says.

"We have a lot of expertise in handling different kinds of audiences, but primarily we handle a lot of male audiences. This is due to the client profile of the agency which handles a lot of new age products like financial services, textiles and some technology clients which are traditionally male targeted categories. We have a couple of clients who give us the opportunity to work on female audiences. Another area that we need to get into is the kids segment."

Maini points out that Media Direction needs to diversify its skill sets into radio and Internet as well. "We have been increasing our marketing investments over the years, and are now in the process of considering new areas of communication investments," he says.

Tarkas highlights that Media Direction is responsive to market demands. He is keen to set up a specialist unit for in-film placement which currently is done through associates. A strong area of growth which will also open other revenue streams for the agency, he believes.

The ambitions and expectations are running high within the agency. Says RK Swamy BBDO CEO Srinivasan Swamy: "We will touch (Rs) four billion in the next 18 months."

Tarkas expects growth to leapfrog at around 30 per cent this year as against the media industry average of about 7-9 per cent. "Talk to me in 2007. The big change will be where we stand in the market. We will be among the top 5," avers Tarkas confidently.

The head of a rival agency believes it could well get there. That's if it manages to sort out its issues with other Omnicom agencies - Mudra DDB Needham and TBWA - in India and pool all their resources under the Optimum Media Direction (as has happened in other regions) umbrella. To know more about Optimum Media Direction Click Here

Says he: "In the Asian region as well as Australia OMD is second biggest player after Mindshare. OMD has a strong hold in the network. Although it is a bit surprising that they have still not set up shop here as India is the weak link. Sooner or later, however, they will beat the process. When Media Direction becomes a part of OMD, is when the agency will really kickstart."

Tarkas is non-committal on this front. He, however, adds that it is not necessary that the model that has worked on the OMD front elsewhere be replicated here. "We are facing the same issues Group M and Mindshare had faced. Don't forget it took Mindshare five years to come into existence."

Clearly, this is a player who is headed in the right direction.

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