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'Not taking anything for granted is our guiding philosophy': Maxus MD Kartik Sharma

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‘No room for complacency’ is a motto Maxus South Asia managing director Kartik Sharma as well as his team follow strongly when it comes to upholding the philosophy of not taking their position in the market for granted. In a market where traditional media practices are being challenged every now and then by a new start up or biz solutions provider, Maxus isn’t too worked up, says Sharma, but is definitely not taking it easy.

With client retention being top priority, the media agency has heavily invested in new and innovative services in the last few years… while some have worked, others have taught team Maxus what to work on next… the next innovation.

In an interview with Indiantelevision.com’s Papri Das, Sharma speaks on the company’s future initiatives that not only prepares Maxus as an agency of tomorrow but also forms yardsticks for the dynamic current media ecosystem.

Excerpts:

How was 2015 for Maxus in terms of new businesses and mandates?

2015 was a challenging as well as gratifying year. We have been successful in achieving our business goals. We have picked up a fair amount of new businesses as well. But that is part and parcel of our business. We did some landmark work in the area of sports where we helped our client Paytm bag the BCCI home series sponsorship rights of 84 matches. We also set up a new marketing command centre called Mesh that reads signals from social media and other data platforms to help brands to come up with real time interventions and help campaigns.

What were the challenges that you faced in 2015?

The first quarter was a bit slow and I think this was uniform across all agencies last year. Therefore business was slow but it picked up in the latter half of the year. There was also this sentiment about the new government and what it can do, which drove a lot of the business decisions as well. We had mixed feelings through the year regarding how our clients will end up spending and whether they would be making cuts, because that directly impacts our business. Having said that, things were looking better by the end of the year.

How useful has Mesh proved for you and your clients?

We launched Mesh around April - May last year with two centres in Mumbai and Delhi, and very soon we will set up one in Bangalore as well. The idea was to set it up internally and have a culture change within Maxus. Parallelly, we also got multiple projects at the back of Mesh. A lot of clients are already using Mesh in various ways, be it ad-hoc or continual projects.

It actually started much earlier in a different avatar when we deployed a similar service with Nestle as a client. We did some interesting work with L’oreal on the same principles where we continued to monitor all the social media pages and activities on the brand, understand the top influences and the kind of content that was working for the brand. The engagement analysis told us which part of India was giving us response on a particular product. It was immensely helpful in understanding what consumers feel about various brands.

With the technology evolving and the ecosystem becoming more dynamic, do you think advertisers’ dependency on media agencies has increased?

More than dependency, I think we work with clients as partners so it's all about being equal in that. We have been able to demonstrate the real value of what we call the command centre. It's about telling really powerful and relevant stories, which you can actually take back as an impact on your business.

We must also take into consideration the number of new pitches that happened globally. Last year, around 20 million plus pitches took place globally. Fortunately for us, we weren't part of it as you can never really predict how these additions will work out. As an agency, I would rather focus on current clients doing a great job than pitching. I think that having a few new strategic pitches are fine as long as it doesn't effect your loyalty to your current clients.

Don’t you think Maxus as a group has the capability to take on new clients without disappointing the existing ones?

I have mentioned this again and I will repeat it yet again, Maxus as a group never takes its position in the market for granted. We have to earn what we are standing on and demonstrate every single day to all our stakeholders. That is critical to Maxus’ functioning. Not taking anything for granted is our guiding philosophy. It is also about the changing environment and Maxus needs to be forward facing to some extent. Mesh is a project keeping that in mind. If we don't invest in Mesh and prepare ourselves for the future, then we can't make that transition.

Do you sense competition from all the ‘marketing solutions’ providers that have mushroomed in the industry recently? Some of them claim to provide similar services that Maxus has.

Competition is always welcome. It builds a certain degree of positive energy for everyone to do better. Having said this, we have our own vision. It is a very inspiring vision that leans in to change. If you look at how we work, the entrepreneurial streak is very strong within Maxus. The DNA of Maxus is all about innovation, doing new things and evolving. So I am not overtly worried about the competition, yet we will keep a watch. We will not become complacent for sure.

We see several big agencies collaborating with start-up agencies for specific skill sets. Do you think it reflects the lack of certain skills within the big media agencies to take on the changing market dynamics?

Firstly, the skill set factor is not affecting just the agencies, I think it is across the board. As the market landscape changes, there are two ways to deal with it - either incorporate and evolve all the skill sets internally, which requires its own time and effort, or partner with someone who has these skill sets in a focused area still relevant to you. It is always going to be hybrid between building yourself and partnering with others.

Can it be considered a shortcut way out?

I don't think it’s a shortcut. Once a client comes on board an agency, we want to give them the best possible solution. Clients don't really worry too much on where that solution is coming from. There will always be something like a super specialisation, which an agency might not require for all its clients. Therefore it is better to partner, for a particular client or for a brief period of time.

We too work with multiple partners. For example, we introduced a tool called Synapse last year, which marries television ratings with social buzz. We work with our partner Frrole to develop that. Frrole has certain proprietary technology for which it makes immense sense for us to partner with them.

Within the WPP ecosystem we work with the research agency Kantar because it gives us certain specialisations. Rather than replicating the same skills within the agencies, it’s better to work with the experts.

How do you ensure client’s faith in television, especially for advertisers who are heavily dependent on the television medium when there is all this talk about television losing importance in the advertising space?

Firstly, we will continue to use the industry endorsed television rating system, which is currently Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, we have the tool Synapse that helps marry television ratings with the social buzz. For particularly niche brands, which have a well defined target group, sometimes only TV ratings may not work. It may be that a certain type of channel, say a niche channel with a very targeted audience will work for them. We can identify them by listening to the social buzz. So in many ways, we are supporting the need for television through these new initiatives.

Agencies are increasingly facing the ‘4 second challenge’ digital platforms with this current ADHD generation. How can the industry deal with this?

First and foremost, one needs to take a hard look at the communication created for television and have an open conversation with the client and the creative agency on whether the same communication will hold true in a digital environment.

The second thing is about doing a lot of experiment and a bit of trial and error at low cost to see what works and then tweaking it accordingly. Keeping an eye on what's happening globally and learning from best practices or successful examples there and contextualising in the Indian market is also necessary.

Any new services or products that are in the pipeline from Maxus?

There are at least four or five big initiatives that we have in mind but it's a little premature to talk about it now. By end March or early April we will be able to give a proper communication on the same.

We keep innovating on our product front and learn from the previous launches. If certain things haven't worked, we go back to the black board and think on what needs to change. At this point in time, I can say that we will soon be introducing an improved version of our T2D tool that was launched last year targeting the eCommerce community. We have received good feedback on it and will build on it to develop it into a more powerful tool.

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