Devina Joshi
Interviews

MediaCom has the cutting edge when it comes to planning and research,

She knows the media industry in and out. Fifteen years is a long time, and Jasmin Sohrabji, president, MediaCom, South Asia, has nurtured the agency almost as if it were her own baby.

Sohrabji joined Grey in 1990, after a brief association with Contract. In early 1997, she was seconded to head the MediaCom Indonesia operation; from there, she went to MediaCom New York, where she was part of the team that developed MediaCom’s proprietary media optimisation system.

In 1999, she returned to MediaCom India to handle the South Asia region. Her mandate was to build the fledgling agency into one of South Asia’s top-ranked media agencies.

Devina Joshi of agencyfaqs! caught the charismatic lady in a candid, tell-all mood. In the interview that followed, Sohrabji threw light on pressing issues that are worrying the media industry today, and offered an interesting viewpoint on what she believes is the way ahead. Read on to know more...

Edited Excerpts

At a time when media and advertising professionals flit from one job to another rather frequently, you have been with Grey and MediaCom for almost 15 years. In a way, you have grown with MediaCom. How has the journey been?

When I joined advertising, media was just a department of any ‘X’, ‘Y’ or ‘Z’ agency.

In fact, in the earlier days, there was no such thing as media buying, as there were hardly any negotiations, and opportunities were limited. Above all, media professionals seldom got the opportunity to interact with the client. They were invited for a presentation only if there was something complicated to explain in the media plan.

It took around 10 years for media to evolve from a back-end, small-time operation to an independent and profitable business entity. I have been a witness to this entire transformation.

There was also no such thing as media buying, since everyone bought very similarly. In fact, there was hardly any negotiation and opportunities were limited.

Back then, the only requirement to be a media person was basic media planning skills. The difference is that today, the requirements also include a business skill and a client-servicing orientation.

If one compares media planning and media buying, the planner is often the more popular guy. Do you agree that media buying is underrated as a profession?

If you see it from a research agency or a journalist’s point of view, media planners are certainly the main guys. The reason for this is that media planners were there even before media agencies evolved from a department to a business. In fact, prior to the transition, there were no real buyers on the scene. It was the operations people who had to be groomed and taught to negotiate, and who, in turn, became media buyers.

However, today, this perception varies from agency to agency and client to client. For instance, there are many clients for whom the planner is the hero of the day, and there are others for whom the buyer is the main guy. An agency may, however, decide which one is its core strength, and pitch on the basis of that strength.

Personally, I think equal weightage should be given to both planners and buyers. One can’t function without the other. But to say one is more relevant than the other is sad, really.

Nowadays, clients try to negotiate till the last penny spend. In such a situation, what plays a more important role while pitching for new business – planning or buying?

See, we at MediaCom always do our homework on the client before going for a pitch. Mostly, when we look at the brief itself, we try to find out what the client is looking for. Is it strategic thinking, or is it just the rates?

However, at times, we do venture in the dark, but then we rely on our strength, which is research.

For instance, in the last six months, we have won some business because of our buying skills, and some for our strength in research. The last business that we won was of Foster’s. We got it on the basis of innovative thinking.

The brief was very interesting and clear, and the presentation that we made, comprising 50 slides, didn’t have a single word of media jargon in it. It was one of the most unique MediaCom presentations. In fact, it was more of a creative pitch, rather than a media pitch.

The account was project based: We worked on the whole association of Foster’s with Formula 1. Our biggest challenge was that Formula 1 isn’t a very popular sport in India. We also had to highlight the whole association of a liquor brand with the sport. It’s mainly our innovative strategies of using non-traditional media that won us the account.

Previously, there was television, outdoor, radio, press and, more recently, Internet and SMS marketing. What next? Where do you think is the scope for the next innovation in media?

Let me answer it with an example: We got shortlisted at Cannes this year for ‘media innovation’, for the yellow cab promotion we did for Emirates Airlines.

We were working on the promotion for the Emirates’ flight from Mumbai to New York via Dubai. We needed something that was associated with New York culture. We got these six ‘Opels’ painted like the yellow New York cabs, and these were driven around the city in bunches of three.

So when you ask me, ‘What next?’, this is it: Innovation will happen in non-traditional media. It’s still hugely untapped and, I think, in the future, media guys will find different ways to make some kind of connect with the consumer through non-traditional media.

If one judges by the awards, one can see an increasing number of winners from non-traditional media at the Emvies.

Unlike conventional media such as television and print, the reach of non-traditional media is still not measurable. Therefore, the challenge is to make it more memorable and innovative. At the end of the day, it’s the recall of the brand that is more important than the reach of the commercial.

What do you personally think is MediaCom’s biggest strength and, alternatively, the biggest challenge it faces today?

We believe that MediaCom has the cutting edge when it comes to planning and research. We are one of the few agencies that is co-headed: We have a separate planning head, and a separate buying head. We believe this structure has worked in our favour. I’d say our main focus is on research – specifically, television research is one of our biggest strengths. But we also want to move beyond television research, and extend ourselves to other media as well. There’s always more to be done.

As far as the challenges are concerned, let me begin this way: The top five-six media agencies of the country are at par, so, in a way, it becomes more competitive while pitching for new businesses. If today, some agencies are better at negotiating rates, or some deliver better capabilities in terms of research, the time has come when all these agencies achieve parity.

So, according to me, the challenge is not only for MediaCom, but for the industry as a whole and that too in the consolidation of non-traditional media.

Does MediaCom offer specialised research services to its clients?

Till date, we don’t have a separate division for research, but we are planning to have a separate team providing a whole range of research services to all our clients.

The way it currently works is that we encourage all our planners to study all the research being undertaken by the agency and also study various research findings. They are trained to forward these research findings to clients.

Research requires more than just a planning skill set, so we need to treat it separately. Therefore, we will have a team for research. In fact, we also won the ‘Grand Emvies’ award for our research on second television sets in homes. I personally worked on it with my planners.

Awards are certainly important for a creative agency. But do they also mean a lot for a media agency? Do they enhance the image of a media agency?

Awards are certainly necessary for building a good public image because we all need a story to talk about. The award, mind you, is not the story; it is a summation of the story. The work for which you win the award is the main story. The fact that we were a Cannes finalist wasn’t the story; the innovation with the yellow cabs was the story.

Awards are also important for us internally. They are a motivation to produce good work. And it’s not just winning the trophy. It’s the good work that gets the award. It boosts team spirit and creates a nice feeling inside of belonging to the culture of the agency. It is the common thread that binds the people in the agency together and gives everyone a common identity.

How does it help to be a part of a larger creative agency? Are there more challenges for a single media agency?

It makes a huge difference when an agency is just starting out, unless one is loaded with huge funds. The challenges are much more as a single agency when you have to start with limited monies for research, resources and also investing in the right kind of people.

If we had had to start MediaCom without Grey, I really don’t know how we would have gone about it. But the fact that we grew as a successful, independent agency in very competitive market conditions has been largely due to Grey’s support. MediaCom would have had to struggle a lot more – which we did not – if Grey hadn’t taken the initiative and helped to fund our need for research.

Today, we can go alone and also afford to fund our own activities. I do know of certain smaller start-up media agencies that are unable to buy even basic research data such as TAM for monitoring purposes.

In fact, smaller agencies buy only that portion of the research that is required for their client’s product. This affects them when they pitch for new businesses. They miss the bus as they don’t have the required data.

In a market which is so competitive, infrastructure and a database are very necessary. And the cost of these can kill you if you’re short of funds.

Do big media agencies really face a threat from small ones? In your knowledge, has it ever happened that a large agency has lost its business to a small agency?

We’ve done that five years ago! (Laughs) We still are smaller than a few, and bigger than many. So, the agency has to decide before pitching for new business. If one is small and already aware of the fact that the client is looking for services from a large agency, there is no need to waste time.

I remember this incident that happened less than two years ago. At a pitch, a small agency tried to pull us down deliberately by using underhand means. I don’t want to delve into the details, neither do I want to name such an insignificant agency. But yes, unfortunately, these things do happen.

But such things don’t happen with the top agencies. We often meet such people socially, and we have probably worked with each other at some point of time. So there’s a lot of healthy competition, but nothing underhanded!

What about clients who are price sensitive? Wouldn’t they prefer a small agency?

Not really. I mean, if you’re talking about fees, bigger agencies are in a position to give better discounts. They can do it easily – they have enough other businesses to fall back on. So, on the contrary, it hurts the smaller agencies. When we were a smaller agency, we used to indulge in discounts also. But over the years, we changed our tack. The industry has learned its lesson: Simply offering discounts is not the way to go.

What do you think about the developments in the print media, with so many newspapers on the scene? Is the present boom a result of the unbundling of media spends by the marketer?

I think this boom that you are talking about has happened only in Mumbai. Elsewhere in the country, people are used to having at least two dailies. The reason it is happening in Mumbai has nothing to do with unbundling. It’s just that Mumbai has witnessed a monopoly for far too long, and it was a market waiting to be tapped. No one likes monopoly; everyone wants healthy competition, even the advertisers. The way it’s there in television. Otherwise, it becomes a seller’s market.

Television, newspapers, even radio are all happening in a big way. On one hand, there are more opportunities to advertise, on the other, more pressure on media consumption time. While all this has led to fragmentation, how do you decide on which media to use?

Deciding on the medium is not at all difficult. But deciding within the medium is certainly challenging. For instance, it’s easier to decide whether I want to use television for a product, but deciding on which channels to take is far more difficult.

We conduct our own television research. Every year, we find something new, which makes us look at the media with a different perspective. It is getting tougher, but it’s also fun. It was quite boring around 10 years ago, when there were only a few channels to choose from.

It keeps the planners on their toes, and motivated on the job. I view it as a positive thing. There’s constantly a new channel or a new medium to think about. Because of fragmentation, the quality of research has scaled up in the country. The kind of research that we had when I joined is very different from what we have today.

Even research in print and radio is evolving and trying to go beyond just numbers.

Do you think the jargon, ‘TG’ and ‘SEC’, are becoming redundant today?

If they are not, they will. ‘SEC’ is already facing a huge problem. It is a huge constraint for media planners. It’s not the dynamic definition it was meant to be many years ago. Times have changed, and I think the industry is already working on an alternative. Hopefully, there will be a solution soon.