Shamni Pande

Many companies still think rural communication is all about wall paintings and vans,

Known as 'Grant-Rajan' - because he turned around an ailing Grant Kenyon & Eckhardt (which was merged with Contract later) in Chennai - RV Rajan, chairman & managing director, Anugrah Madison, can truly qualify as a trailblazer in rural communication. Ploughing the field at a time when others were only paying lip service to the concept, Rajan today presides over a company that has emerged as the frontrunner in the business having served a wide range of companies including FMCGs, consumer durables, industrial products, agri-inputs and services, aimed both at the semi-urban and the rural markets. As the company website puts it, Anugrah Madison aims to be "a one-stop consultant for providing a comprehensive strategy to reach out to the consumer, not just in the rural market, but also with a rural mindset". In this interview, Rajan tells Shamni Pande of agencyfaqs!, "I have a missionary's zeal to develop rural communication and spread awareness among companies." While huge billing is certainly not the hallmark of his agency, Anugrah Madison is looking to qualify as an agency that "breaks new ground in rural communication".

Edited Excerpts

What inspired you to take up the cause of rural communication?

It was not sudden at all! For the 12 years that I was with Grant (Grant Kenyon & Eckhardt) in Chennai, I ended up working for companies with a rural interest. Though my background was in FMCGs, all the business that came my way at the agency had to do with semi-urban markets.

My first introduction to rural communication work happened way back in 1972 while at ACIL (Advertising Consultants India Ltd), Delhi, and we got the Madras Fertilizer account. Later, in 1975, I handled Shaw Wallace's fertiliser and agro-chemicals business at Grant. One thing led to another and I found myself increasingly handling agri-input clients. I worked with EID Parry, BAS Agro-Chemicals, Coromandel AgroChemicals and of course MRF's farm tyre division, which approached me and was instrumental in the launch of Anugrah.

Certain things have remained constant in my approach since the beginning. For instance, I never believed in speculative pitches and have always stuck to a value-based approach. I want to be the best among equals and produce advertising that sells in the market, not one that creates waves without making any real difference to the client's business. Since I tasted success early, I did not really hanker after huge billings. Anugrah has a reputation for being steady and an agency that delivers what it promises… though we have also had our share of ups and downs.

Anugrah was set up a decade and a half ago. What was the turning point for the agency?

The turning point came in the year 1997. I started feeling my outfit was getting stuck at a regional level, while we had the capability and the experience to handle national business. The other two directors in Anugrah - Nandakumar and R Seshadri - also had national experience. So while all our experience and background related to big brands and national presence, here we were, stuck with small regional accounts.

I also sensed that times were getting tough and many medium-sized agencies were beginning to pack-up. I realized it would make sense for us to have a tie-up or some affiliations. This is when I read an article about Madison, which then had a tie up with Madhyam in Delhi. I wrote to Sam Balsara about getting into a joint venture. He responded immediately! I give him full credit for being a transparent individual who has actually shaped our path. Within two weeks he was in Madras!

He saw our work here. What further helped us was that even before I wrote to Sam, we had bagged the Philips account for some work in the rural and semi-urban areas in Tamil Nadu. So it was Sam who suggested a joint venture instead of a loose association, and said that we should actually brand ourselves as a rural specialist, since we have such a huge experience in the area, which would work to the unique advantage of the agency.

But Anugrah actually ended up with huge losses after the tie up...

When we tied up with Madison in 1998 our billing stood at Rs 5 crore and our confidence soared as we found many doors open to us because of our association with Madison. Suddenly we could approach a P&G, a Coca-Cola and a Godrej. They were all open to our presentation, thanks to Sam.

However, that was our big mistake. When you do speculative pitches, you do get big business. But such pitches can only be supported by big agencies that can afford to pitch and lose. We couldn't. Within two years our billing was reduced by 50 per cent, instead of trebling as we had imagined.

We presented ideas to almost all big clients, who nodded their heads and went back only to change their minds. We lost heavily in the process. So the problem was not the tie up, but because we lost focus. And instead of growing slowly we ended in a speculative pitching spiral, which we could not sustain. Also, around that time, some of our regular clients left us. After we positioned ourselves as rural specialists they felt we would not have time for them, given our new focus.

It was Sam's faith in us, which helped us tide over our losses. He said that the pioneer in any field has to go through this. He felt we had the ability to turn around and helped us with funds and gave us all the time and encouragement we needed to find our feet again.

So the joint venture with Madison has been successful after all?

Certainly! In fact, in the agreement that I had with Sam, the 74 per cent equity that I own will, in eight years, be slowly transferred in his favour and eventually I will have only 26 per cent stake and he will have the majority. However, now, after five years, Sam has told us that he is not in a hurry to turn the situation and that he is happy with his 26 per cent and that we could take our time to transfer the equity holding. That is what I mean when I say that he is a very honest and transparent person. Today, we are a Rs 7-crore agency, and we are profitable. I do not go by billing anymore. We have stopped our speculative pitches as well. We find that people walk away with ideas and get small-time outfits to do the job for them.

Apart from repositioning Anugrah, what else have you done to make the venture profitable?

We restructured the agency, we trimmed the flab and completely withdrew from speculative pitches. We now operate in three stages. In the first stage, when the client approaches us, we get into an agreement (that is, if the client is willing to have faith in us) and do qualitative research pertaining to their market. We do not do huge quantitative research as that cannot provide us answers on what people want. We do qualitative research, which helps us to know what exists, and what is it that people need. Based on this we give a strategy presentation outline. If the client finds our input useful, we move to the second stage, where we present the complete plan including the creative and media strategy.

We give the client an option - if the client wants they can organise the vans or do the print jobs themselves. Usually, we find that clients are so happy with our work that they choose to give us the complete task. In some cases, they go on their own for specific function like events or vans where they get their own people to work out deals. At the third stage, if the client wishes, we handle the complete sphere of activities.

The difference is that we now charge clients at all three stages. We take it in stages so that they know what we are doing and are involved and we charge them a fee for whatever activity we do at every stage.

You must have had a set back when Philips decided not to go with you despite you doing some good work for them?

Philips came to us, thanks to a lecture I gave on rural marketing for Deccan Herald's annual function in Bangalore. Ravi Pisharody (ex-Philips hand who is now in Castrol) was there as a speaker and was impressed with what I had to say. He called me to make a presentation when he had come down with his team here (in Chennai). Our work was launched in 1996 in Tamil Nadu. It was exciting for us because we got the opportunity to work on a consumer durable client and, for a change, we got to look at the rural market as a whole and not just as farmers. Suddenly everyone was our target audience.

However, after some time the management changed at Philips and you know how it works … every new person at the helm thinks that things have to be handled differently and like to chart a new route. Besides, the company itself went through a rough phase where it had to get quick results. Rural marketing is for those with long-term vision and not for those who want quick results, which is why we never got Philips back.

You seem to have a very loyal set of clients, who have stayed with you for many years...

I definitely have a committed set of clients. ACC, for instance, started work with us three years ago to promote their Suraksha brand of cement in the semi-urban and rural markets of Karnataka. They also told us that their Vadi plant would be ready in a year's time when their capacity would double and they wanted the market to be aware and ready for their brand when that happened. For the first year (the year 2000) we did many consumer meets, below-the-line activities. However, in our interaction we found that people did not understand the tagline, "ACC Suraksha - double action cement." Hence, we explained to masons that this was a blended cement with fly ash and reactive silica. Therefore it provided "double strength, double protection and double durability" compared with the normal 'graded' cement.

Our campaign stressing on double benefits worked wonders. Within a year, the company's capacity doubled and they wanted to go urban as well. We then worked on a mass television campaign that proved effective in all markets. The company was so happy with us that they gave us the work for Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. We are slowly helping them create a national platform and develop a uniform branding strategy across markets, keeping the local needs in mind.

Similar is the success story with the Rs 5,000-crore Shriram Group, for whom we handle the truck finance business. When the entire trucking business was in shambles two years ago, they were the first to actually pioneer the concept of finance for second-hand trucks. With our help the company developed two different communication approaches - one, for the truck drivers and the other for truck owners. The company exhorted the former to become owners and for the latter, it organised exchange melas.

The agency helped it forge a better bond with the customers by pitching itself as a friend they could reach out to in times of need. This success has been rewarded by additional accounts for Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and now for the entire western region.

Do you see more and more clients taking rural markets more seriously?

In our early days very few companies are really interested in rural marketing. It was perhaps because this thing works differently. One has to understand the regional social context for any campaign to work, besides the many implementation avenues. Today anyone can organise a van-operation, put up a stage and a performance. But that is not what rural communication is all about.

Rural communication requires time, money and a consistent long-term vision. This happens only when the top management of an organisation is clear about the goal and is willing to stick to it. Case in point Hindustan Lever. No marketing manager with targets to pursue will go rural unless the top management backs him up.

Besides, most companies are into promotional exercises, for which they rely on wall paintings and vans. But this can never help them build their brand. We have realised this and that is why we have split our functioning in three levels to save ourselves the costs of empty talk and presentations. Those who believe in us and are committed to the concept will be willing to try us.

What was the idea behind The Network? How has the alliance benefited your agency?

The Network materialised from our alignment with like-minded groups. It is a loose association of four lead players - Delhi-based MART, Mumbai-based Sampark and Pune-based Rural Relations, besides Anugrah Madison. Clients of any of these outfits, if they so choose, can take advantage of the extended reach and application of rural programmes offered by the other members.

Along with the other 'Network' partners we hope to be a catalyst in creating a 'rural awakening' among the marketing fraternity in the country. The seminar organised by FICCI with our help this year was a huge success. I am working on creating a four-month course on rural communication. LIBA (Loyola Institute of Business Administration, Chennai) has asked me to present a course module and they will take it up. I have a missionary's zeal to develop rural communication and spread awareness among companies. I am working at several projects to realise my dream.

Have you made any effort yet to cross over? Or are you looking to focus on the south only?

We have a creative team that can think in all four south Indian languages, in Hindi and, of course, in English. We, the directors of the company, know about seven Indian languages. We can sit, think, and converse with our target audience in their language. MRF's tractor tyres are more popular in the north than in the south. So this perception - that we are south centric - is simply not true. We are doing a lot of work in the north and the west for many of our clients.

Don't you feel threatened by the fact that most big agencies are thinking rural now, and are setting up specialised divisions to handle rural work for clients?

Not at all! We are an agency that has all the capabilities to do this work, unlike other "divisions" who still have to depend on the agency to provide creative inputs. Besides, there is room for growth for everyone. If I handle ACC, what about the other cement companies wanting to go rural? They have to go to other agencies...

To what extent has the advertising slowdown affected your agency and what are the targets before of you?

Thanks to our positioning, we have been insulated from the bad times everyone else seems to be facing. When the going was good for others, we had a tough time, now we are facing a good time. In fact 2002-03 has been the best year for us. From a revenue of Rs 7 crore, we are looking to double it in the next two years.

While strengthening our existing base in the south, we will also establish a presence in the most happening market in the country, that is, Mumbai, and in the north within the next three years.

We are also looking at broadbasing the services offered to clients in 'rural' to include other areas like specialist rural research, rural events, rural distribution either directly or through formal arrangements with other associates.

Eventually, Anugrah Madison should become a major contributor to the Madison Group's revenues by being a rural communication powerhouse in the country.

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