"We challenged the status quo when we hired Saurabh Varma and RajDeepak Das": Jarek Ziebinski, Leo Burnett

By Sohini Sen , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | May 22, 2015
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In a chat with the Asia Pacific CEO of Leo Burnett, we find out about the pain points that still exist in the Indian ad industry and the strategy for growth for the agency in India.

Leo Burnett's APAC CEO, Jarek Ziebinski, seems extremely impressed with his team in India, as we found out over an afternoon discussion.

Jarek Ziebinski

Since Ziebinski took over the role of CEO, APAC, in September last year, India has come under his direct purview. Not one to trust the news received only from calls and emails, he makes sure that he flies down from his Singapore office at least twice a year.

"Not just what is happening in Leo Burnett in Delhi and Bangalore, but I need to understand the dynamics of the market and our industry. This country is one of the most dynamically changing markets on the planet today," says Ziebinski.

He feels that the ideas coming out of Leo Burnett India are fresh. The work done for brands such as Amazon Kindle, HDFC and KBC are helping consumers bond with the brand in a purposeful way. However, what worries him is the paradox that he notices peculiar to India.

"On the one hand, the economy and the country are changing rapidly; on the other hand, our industry, which should be the avant-garde of change, is very conservative in India. If you look back at our industry two years ago, it was very status-quo driven. There was a lot of conservation and protection. The establishment of the advertising industry in India is very change-adverse. But, that is probably cultural," Ziebinski observes.

At the same time, he feels that the agency has "challenged the status-quo by focussing on young talent." When Saurabh (Varma) was made CEO, he was around 40-45 - probably the youngest CEO in any big agency in India. And then, after a few months, he brought in RajDeepak Das as NCD - who was younger still. "People warned me against it. But, 18 months on, I see a changed agency. One of the major challenges in our business is to transform and change the culture. It takes time. It is work in progress. This place has become a happy, creative place, driven by a desire to succeed," he says.

Good leadership is one thing; but, does that translate into good business? He certainly feels so because Leo Burnett hasn't lost a client in the last 18-20 months.

"The news is that we are probably the fastest growing agency in India. This year, we will be growing twice as much as the average growth for the industry in India. India contributes about 20 per cent to the total APAC business. There is also a possibility to re-invest some of this success into the future - to new talent, to new capabilities. Saurabh and Raj are transforming Leo Burnett from an old-school advertising agency to a new, modern, integrated communications company. That is an agency of the future - strong creatively and one that has all specialism that our clients expect from us," he states.

Integration seems to be crucial as well. Varma is trying to integrate all digital services, which includes Indigo Consulting - the digital agency Leo Burnett acquired in 2012. The process has already started in Mumbai, and will be followed in Delhi and Bangalore.

"We don't just want to be the best in the country. What really is our goal is to be one of the five top-most creative agencies in the world three years from now. There is ambition here. Success in business starts with ambition. Our benchmark, that's why, is not Goafest. Our benchmark is Cannes festival - and not about bronze or silver, but about winning Gold or Grand Prix," Ziebinski declares.

He also hints at possible acquisitions in the future. Even though these will not be to increase scale and revenue, 'potential acquisitions' are being looked into.

In an earlier interview with afaqs!, Varma had shared his strategy of approaching clients proactively. Ziebinski stands by that as well. He says that while it is not the smartest way to wait for the next call to make a pitch, it is also important to analyse the market, screen different categories and business, and finally focus on certain categories where Leo Burnett would want to work in. For example, the e-commerce segment has been reviewed by the agency quite intently in the recent past.

Ziebinski is also optimistic as he sees the industry gearing up for more change. "If you look at media spending in India, relatively small percentage of spending comes from digital. If you compare it with China - there it is 30-40 per cent. It is both bad and good news. If we get things right and prepare for the new digital age, we will be ready with all the capabilities that our clients will need, and then we will face acceleration of growth."

Not one to ignore trends, Ziebinski quickly points out the emergence of growing popularity of long-format films, especially in India. According to him, this may also be due to the love for films, Bollywood and storytelling. While it is globally prevalent, in India, it is more pronounced. But, according to him, as long as the longer format is engaging and justifies the format, it works.

When quizzed about building synergies between regional markets, Ziebinski says that he believes "in a much more flexible model of regional management. When people need to work on a particular problem at the regional level, we do that. Sometimes, local agencies are capable enough to take advantage of the opportunity and step into the game. Sometimes these local agencies need help. My job is to allocate resources and match the right resources with the opportunities that come out. That is why we also believe in creativity without borders."

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