Ashwini Gangal

"Rather than building my 'profile' talking to the press, I'm out there talking to clients; I'm in pitches": Tarun Rai, South Asia CEO, J. Walter Thompson

When Tarun Rai, 51, took charge as CEO, J. Walter Thompson, South Asia, around March this year, the first thing he did was, "removed the frosting from my door... it's a small thing, but, hey, we've got nothing to hide..."

Rai, an avid squash player and weekend golfer, is keen on reviving J. Walter Thompson's corporate football tournaments, something he fondly recalls from his previous 20-year-long stint at the agency, seven years back.

He spoke to us about his goals, and about his recently elevated chief creative officer Senthil Kumar.

Kumar, 42, who's currently stealing time to pen a book about hiking trails in the Nilgiris, fielded a couple of questions too.

Edited Excerpts

Let's talk about Senthil's promotion...

Tarun: The CCO's position at JWT has been in the news for all kinds for reasons for the past seven years.

I took a little bit of time - around six months - to decide that Senthil is the person for the job. People say about his appointment, 'Why wasn't this done earlier?'. Well, I can't speak for my predecessor but I took six months... and here he is.

Speaking of your predecessor, you seem to be a lot more 'low profile' than Colvyn Harris. It took you months to start giving media interviews...

Rather than building my 'profile' talking to the press, I'm out there talking to clients. I'm in pitches. I haven't even had time to go down to the third floor to play a round of pool... I must correct that... (smiles).

JWT then, J. Walter Thompson now. What glaring differences hit you upon your return?

Tarun: This is not the organisation I left. We are now genuinely a communications group. When I left, it was predominantly 'an agency'. Even though we said, 'Oh, you know, we want to be digital,' we didn't have any specialised capabilities. Seven years later, we do. Today, 40 per cent of our revenues come from non-traditional... this makes my life infinitely more interesting than it would have been if we were still just 'J. Walter Thompson, the agency'.

When you came on board, many people called you 'the turn-around guy for JWT'...

Tarun: In the life of a company, especially one that has been in India for over 85 years, there will be ups and downs. In 2008 when everyone was hit by the global recession, some companies took long to recover, some recovered faster. J. Walter Thompson had a few slightly challenging years... So, I don't see it as a turn-around, but I want to focus on the right things.

Such as?

Tarun: Growth. Within the next five years we're going to double the revenues of J. Walter Thompson South Asia.

There are people who don't believe advertising has a great future. Well, traditional agencies don't, but if you operate in the communications space, you do.

"Rather than building my 'profile' talking to the press, I'm out there talking to clients; I'm in pitches": Tarun Rai, South Asia CEO, J. Walter Thompson

Clients are spending. They're not necessarily spending all their money with traditional agencies, but they are spending. Growth is stupendous in other areas of communication.

I am not just looking for more market share from the traditional agency; I want more market share from more markets. I want more market share from experiential, digital, design, technology...

So it's not about turning it around; it's about pushing for strong double digit growth.

How do you plan to get this growth?

Tarun: There are three ways.

First, new business from existing clients, but from new streams. They're spending money on various things through other digital/specialised agencies, but they're not necessarily spending money through us.

Second, new clients. There our issue is - managing conflict. One of the issues with being so big is - you're in every category. Our strategy is to get business in categories that we're not present in.

Third, acquisitions.

Senthil, you are unabashedly vocal about your laser focus on international awards. Aren't you worried the S-word will catch on?

Senthil: The S-word does not exist in my dictionary. I haven't won a single award on a public service brand.... (smiles)

"Rather than building my 'profile' talking to the press, I'm out there talking to clients; I'm in pitches": Tarun Rai, South Asia CEO, J. Walter Thompson

It's about solving business problems with great, platform-specific - as opposed to media agnostic or language-specific - work. You don't start with, 'On this brief I'm going to win a Cannes Lion...'

For a creative person, 10 per cent of the job is coming up with an idea, 80 per cent is bringing it to life, and the last 10 per cent, is saying, 'Wow, this is good, it has solved the client's marketing problem, now what can it do for me? Can it make me famous?'

It's great for creative people to want to be famous. That's what motivates them.

The burgeoning start-up culture in India has given agencies a rich pool of potential clients. But are large, networked agencies fated to work with large MNC clients while smaller, newer hotshops, - like AIB's Vigyapanti, for instance - happily position themselves as start-up experts?

Senthil: We've been talking about it. We've been looking at who our competition is.

Bangalore is a hotbed of start-ups. Start-ups have the idea and the investment, but they don't know how to go about the communication and brand design bit.

We are working on an experiment. We'll create a 'session' where we'll invite a lot of start-ups, see what happens, see what ideas we can contribute...

A good example is the kind of work R/GA (New York-headquartered global ad agency) is doing. They are creating a platform for start-ups to come into the agency and work with the creative team on brand building.

We're not going to copy that model, but it pays to look at it positively and see if we can do something better in India. Hopefully we'll set up this operation in Bangalore soon.

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