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One should buy the plan, not plan the buy: Mallikarjun Das, Group CEO, Starcom India

Mallikarjun Das, known as Malli, spoke to Best Media Info on a wide range of subjects including the journey of the company, digital and its challenges ahead and demonetisation

Raushni Bhagia |Mumbai | January 16, 2017

[caption id="attachment_80412" align="alignnone" width="480"]Mallikarjun Das Mallikarjun Das[/caption]

 Looking at the kind of growth Starcom India has seen under his leadership, it is hard to believe Mallikarjun Das CR (known as Malli) headed to the advertising industry to become a copywriter.

Despite having specialised in Statistics in his MBA, he was attracted towards the creative side. In his own words, “Pravin Tripathi, who was heading CLB Media (a part of Leo Burnett then), hired me. He said ‘You do media for one year and then I will move you to copy’.” Thankfully so, it never happened.

After arming the agency with quite a few clients in 2015, Malli shared with us how the agency settled itself with them in 2016 apart from adding new businesses. Best Media Info spoke to Malli about his views on various issues of the industry as well as the digital agency, Convonix.

Excerpts:

How has the year been for Starcom India?

We had some great challenges and questions to answer on our current clients. Quite a stimulating year for us because of the TV currency transition. As an agency, we are very well placed to manage this transition and we did it pretty well for our clients. Second, it has been an interesting year for digital. There were tougher questions coming in from clients as to how does digital really build brands. The tag of that shining new thing (digital) was over in 2016. Working on our clients on the right way of digital transition and managing the chaos for the last two months was exciting.

What are your views on ‘demonetisation’?

It was an adventurous ride. As a media person, you are used to chaos and almost living with it on a day-to-day basis. We are pretty well adapted to chaos and change as a community. Small though we may be, we have that level of resilience and adaptability.

I feel the effects are fading away and things are recovering, though November and most of December have been tough. A lot of clients have a January to December year and the money lost is lost, it won’t return. Still, we will have to see how things pan out in the next six months.

How have the new businesses faired for the agency?

As for the new businesses, it was a very good year for us. We got Dabur in 2015 and it was an important win for us. It was a great client, one of the most challenging, complicated and stimulating businesses I have worked on as a professional. We won Oppo, Citibank, Visa, Jet-Etihad in 2015. So the first thing in 2016 was settling in the wins of 2015 and delivering on our commitments, stabilising teams and getting things lying on a smooth run. Yes, that was the first and most important priority. After that, the run on new business was good; we had Mars and Fiat towards the latter half of the year.

We had a very good year for Convonix. So, Convonix for us is probably one of the best performance agencies, both organic and paid. We have a very strong competence, we have SEO (search engine optimisation) for 13-14 years, with a team of 130 people dedicated to SEO, 70-80 people for paid search and others. Analytics for Starcom Global is based in India, which has been very successful and helpful. It has been successful from a revenue margin building perspective but also it is important for us as it helps in moving knowledge faster, which can benefit our clients here.

You have been a strong supporter of mobile and digital? What are the challenges?

I don’t want to differentiate between mobile and digital, because 70-80 per cent of internet is consumed on mobile. We have moved from the desktop to mobile. An important thing for us is that increasingly in last one year there is a need for a currency, independent third party unbiased measurement. These voices are being heard globally. If you look at TV or print for instance, there is strong third party measurement. That is one of the things that are inhibiting growth in digital and mobile. The big growth will start happening once you have FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) putting substantial money on digital, which is not yet happening. Without proper measurement, marketers and media planners don’t have a working model in their heads as to what it does to their brands. I think that is possibly one thing that is holding the industry back.

What, according to you, plays a more important role in decision making – perception or data-based performance?

There is no one way how advertising works. It’s both. There are long range effects of advertising and the short range ones. All the theories of advertising say there are two parts of the iceberg – the one that’s visible to us and another below. Advertising works on both levels, the point is some media will be stronger in driving some outcomes and weaker in others.

Human Beings are wired like that; we are neither completely rational nor irrational. I might not be arriving at a decision strictly based on analytics nor can I take calls based on a gut feeling. It has to be a mix of both. The way I look at it is that decision making in our day-to-day consumption or in our lives of consumption is a mix of both mathematical model (precise with valuated pros and cons) and mental model.

I don’t believe in the concept of digital marketing – just as there’s nothing called, television marketing, OOH marketing, radio marketing -- since we make media-neutral solutions for clients. The client comes with a marketing problem and we make solutions and each media has a role to play in this. It is all equal to me.

When you have so much focus on digital/ mobile, what are the efforts taken by digital media agency Convonix for its growth?

In our new structure, we have digital fully integrated with Starcom. Performics.Convonix is part of Starcom. We have been indexing much higher than the industry growth rate. Our digital business has grown in excess of 40 per cent in the last one year.

SMG has been focussing more on data for their strategies and plans than anything else. This has also been giving a reputation of being ‘esoteric’. Do you think you will continue with that?

It’s not that. Starcom is a planning-forward strategy-driven data digital analytics optimisation driven agency. That’s our philosophy. Tenets of the businesses like trading are equally important for us. We are the No. 3 in the market.

Increasingly, the world is moving towards data, strategy and what is important for the brand is becoming even more important. Market has fragmented within media and across media. Time spent across the media platforms by consumers has fragmented manifold. The complexity of media is so much that you need to sit down with data, it’s not about being esoteric. We do look at data as the strong foundation, and then supplement it with experience and judgement.

Data is not only about digital -- it starts with TV, print and others. Our approach on TV is strongly predicated on optimisation. We have one of the most powerful optimisation tools in the market today. In 1998, Starcom was one of the first ones to have multi-market reach optimisers, developed in partnership with Oracle.

We have a mobile pace panel, which is a consumer mobile panel wherein we can track consumers’ life, media choices and consumption 24x7. It is a live behavioural research on the NCCS A consumers. We have a Publicis Media Operating System, which is been implemented for Visa, one of our clients. The PMOS (Publicis media operating system) gives a real-time system with all the data about sales, plans, spends and everything else to the planners and the clients simultaneously.

We do things in data and technology is to simplify our lives. Today these things are very important, because you must ‘buy the plan’ and not ‘plan the buy’.

Around 2013, it was rumoured that you might part ways with Starcom (then SMG). The agency had lost quite a few big clients like Samsung and Heinz then. What is the situation right now?

Our list of wins explains our strength. These are all hard fought wins for us based on our product, on what we have on the table. We have shown that we have been able to come back from 2013; our business is in a strong shape. These are all results of the product. What we have done in the last three-and-a-half years is we have looked into our structure and analysed what we needed to do. We evaluated that our product needed improvement and worked on making these changes.

How many clients did you win in 2016, and how many did you lose? What was the strike rate?

The accounts that we won since 2015 include Dabur, Oppo Mobile, Mars, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Citibank, Visa, Etihad-Jet, Air Asia (Digital Performance for APAC managed by India), Duracell, Airbnb and One Plus. We lost one client since 2015, which was General Mills (Global Alignment). The strike rate in pitches in 2016 was 80 per cent.

If Dabur is the biggest business with the agency, where will you place Fiat and Mars?

Other than Dabur, we have Oppo, Sun Pharma, Fiat and Mars, Citi, Jet-Etihad, Axis Bank are our key clients.

Fiat and Mars are quite a few big wins, perception wise. How much do you think will there be a business benefit, on an India level?

They are going to be fairly big for us. The growth dimensions for both the brands are massive for the Indian market. India is very important for both the brands, their ambition is huge. It is an honour for us to be partnering with them in this growth, and helping them surmount the challenges in this market.

Having hard core research expertise in Madison Research Centre and even academically, you have been a statistics person by training. Do you think the current responsibilities are satisfying your love for data enough?

Starcom satisfies more than all of that. I come from a media background and data is a part of media yes. It has been a deeply satisfying journey, both personally and professionally. The last six years that I have been here have presented many challenges. Wisdom of hindsight is something I got to be guarded against, but yes, sometime we think opportunities are more important. But Starcom has given me both opportunities and challenges, and challenges teach you the most. The support that I have got from the Global Network has been fantastic. It’s been a very good experience.

I don’t believe in the work-life balance stuff, any job need to help us grow both professionally and personally. We spend so much of our life in our jobs.

The last RECMA report suggests a 49 per cent increase in the agency's billings. What is the expectation from the coming RECMA 2016 results?

2016 should be good for us because of these wins. I don’t have the numbers just now. But I think it should be close to 2015 yes. I don’t know the exact math, but it’s been a good year. It’s been a year of consolidation first and then growth, while 2015 was first for growth and then consolidation.

Name one client you have enjoyed working for.

One likes to deal with complexities, disentangle the knots and have a challenge that you would work on. When I started off, Proctor was a deeply satisfying experience. It is a good client. A recent client I have enjoyed working with is Dabur. It is something I really value. It is a mix of big thinking, street smartness, everything – it is a complexity comprising of everything. Not just about big thinking, but also about tomorrow. Great questions and challenges.

How do you spend your time after work hours?

I don’t separate work and life but generally, I love reading. I like physics a lot. I am an amateur astronomer. I ride my bicycle over a small hill near my home and I play tennis as much as I can.

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