Ashwini Gangal
Interviews

"In the advertising business if you can't handle pressure, get out or die young": Ashish Bhasin

Last June, Ashish Bhasin, 51, chairman and CEO, Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN), South Asia, ruffled many a feather when he went public with his goal of overtaking Interpublic Group (IPG), the No.2 network in India (that has around a fifth of the market share) after WPP (that has well over a third of the market share). Barring WPP's dominance, global trends are pretty much inverted; Omnicom and Publicis are ahead of DAN and IPG.

Popular agency brands under the DAN umbrella in India include Carat, iProspect, Isobar, Posterscope, Vizeum, Dentsu Marcom, Dentsu Communications, Dentsu Media, Taproot Dentsu and Dentsu Webchutney, among others. IPG's basket contains MullenLowe Group, FCB Ulka, McCann, Lodestar UM and Initiative, among others.

Edited Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

First things first. On DAN's official website, there's a world map that highlights the network's key markets. Why is India not mentioned at all?

I will confess, that's a big failure we've had. I intend to correct it over the next six months. That's one of the areas we haven't done well in. We don't have a good website, or even a cohesive social media presence, for DAN India. We've discussed it to death, internally. We haven't paid enough attention to these finer points.

Our competitors are very good at marketing their stuff. We build brands for our clients but are not that great at building our own brand. It's our weakness and we have to recognise it.

Over the past two years, DAN has acquired WATConsult, Milestone Brandcom and Fountainhead-MKTG. Acquisitions appear to be a big part of your growth plan. It is said you're more focused on acquisitions than on growing your existing assets. Comment.

That's a perception. It exists because we've beaten our competition to acquisitions that they would have loved to - but weren't able to - close. People can see whatever they want to see, they can defend themselves in whatever way they want to. Roughly, 75-80 per cent of our growth has been organic. Over the past 12-18 months we've won around Rs. 2,500 crore worth of new business.

It is true that acquisition is an integral part of our growth strategy, but it has to supplement our organic growth; by itself, it is meaningless. Acquisitions are few and far between. Over the past two to three years we've made around three acquisitions and not all of them are of huge scale. It's often about filling a capability we don't have. It's very 'short term' to do an acquisition to increase revenue or profit. That never works. You'll fall flat on your face in two to three years.

Your goal of making DAN the No.2 network in India by the end of 2017 has grabbed attention, headlines and opinions. What parameters do you have in mind for this? Revenue?

I am happy to be measured on any scale. Revenue, profit, billings, new business, growth... pick any parameter that is fair and uniformly applied. Let's judge and decide on December 31, 2017. In fact, we're going to be No.2 well before that but I will announce it at a time when there can be no controversy around it.

Your peers from rival networks are quite skeptical about it...

Of course they'll be skeptical. Is there any believer? (laughs)

Of course there'll be detractors. Some will laugh at it, some may choose to ignore it, some will find it incredulous... When I first said it, it shook up a lot of people. I am happy it did. Initially, I was the only one who believed in it. Honestly, it looked harder then, than it does today.

Today, there are some believers. Grudgingly, people are accepting that we're well on our way to achieving our goal. We're well ahead of Omnicom and Publicis so we don't need to compare with them. As far as IPG goes - we're well aware of what they comprise. We know their relative rate of growth, size and profitability.

If someone doesn't want to accept reality, there's nothing anybody can do about that. But any rational person will. It's a big, stretched dream, a difficult target, yes, but eminently doable.

...Others say you're too preoccupied with the ranking game...

I am not obsessed with being No.2. I am simply telling you that we are going to be No.2 by the end of 2017. Our competitors are feeling threatened and are now obsessed with it. That's good. It pleases us. We must be doing something right if so many people are obsessed with what we're doing.

My 'target audience' is not my competitors. It's my employees, clients and prospective clients. In the process, if my competitors feel sad or jealous, there's not much I can do about that. I think everyone should just get on with their work and try to make their own businesses better.

You say the number of 'believers' has increased. Why do you think that's the case?

To an extent, Goafest has helped turn things around (DAN, as a group, won the highest number of metals). The one missing point was creative excellence - outside of Taproot, Dentsu was never known for it. Nobody expected three of the top ten agencies to be from our group. One of the criticisms levied on our network was that we, as a group, are more 'numbers focused' than 'creative focused'. This is the first time we actually entered awards in a serious manner.

In three years' time I want DAN India to be playing on the global scale on the awards front. It's an art and we've not been very good at it. But I don't want the agency to become awards obsessed. I've seen agencies get destroyed... I want to win awards for real work for large clients and not play the game other agencies do.

It's one thing to have a goal and another to be markedly vocal about it. Why was it so important to go public with your goal of beating IPG?

The best way to put pressure on ourselves to make it happen is by putting our neck on the block. That's why I went public with it. I want to be held to it. I made the statement; it's my neck on the line. I want to be held accountable. I am that sure of getting there. What people didn't know when I made that statement was that there was a plan of action I already had in place.

It has had some negative impact, yes. Some of our competitors - who're used to the 'old order', who're used to a very relaxed lifestyle, who assumed that certain positions and ranks were there's - got a bit riled by it.

What do you mean by 'old order'?

We're late entrants in this market (2008). Many of our competitors have been here for 80-90 years. The No.1 and No.2 networks in India have been unchanged for over 80 years.

Sure, because they've been around that long, they've got all their systems, infrastructure and departments in place. But these systems were set up decades ago. New-age clients need new media solutions and quick responses. Even clients who have been around for a long time are acting like startups today!

When I did a competitive scan, I saw gaping holes of weakness in some of our competitors. These legacy networks have the history of dinosaur-ish creative agencies with years of sloth built in. It's very hard to turn those ships around. But we're a 'new age' network and are at an advantage.

Why? What makes you 'new age'?

We are over-invested in digital. Of our 2,100 people, more than 800 are in our digital companies. Nearly one-third of our revenue comes from digital; the market average in India is 10-12 per cent. We're also over-invested in out of home. Today we have about 35 per cent of the organised market share in this sector.

We don't have too many 'peers', really. Very few of our competitors have group level leadership. Some of them do, but they're non-executive... they're not the people responsible for the business. Also, our 'one P&L' model has started resonating very well with clients.

How is the client concerned with whether a network has one P&L or separate agency P&Ls?

Clients want the benefits of specialisation but don't want the hassles of silos. When you're old and have been in the country for 80 years, doing the same thing, in a siloised manner, it is hard to be agile. We want to be a startup. In today's world, you're either a startup or a turn-around case.

Because we have one P&L, I can give a client the best talent from any part of the business. I can quickly put together a team of the best media guy, best digital guy, best creative guy and best out of home guy. Our competitors can't, because the media head here reports to somebody in Singapore, Hong Kong, Germany, London... the creative head here reports to some global creative head, separately... Agencies within groups like WPP and IPG can never come together for a client like we can because they're not structured that way.

Legacy creative agencies within other networks have virtually become separate companies. Each agency will only try and sell its own service to the client. I've seen sad scenarios where one arm of a group actually de-sells another simply because that's a separate P&L that reports elsewhere. We report one number as 'India'. All the agencies within DAN have linked their destinies together. I know our competitors would give an arm to get to this position. Many of them are desperately trying to do it.

But isn't the one P&L structure unfair to individual agency brands within your network? If all the numbers get leveled out eventually, what about the outliers - good and bad? Hasn't there been resistance at the agency level?

I can't say there has been no resistance. It took time to sell it to them. The one P&L structure doesn't absolve our agencies from meeting their own objectives and responsibilities. But just meeting them is not enough; 'DAN India' must do well. This way, the agencies help one another.

Have you thought about taking on WPP?

I have not yet said I am taking a stab at WPP, because at this stage that's premature. There is a plan brewing in my mind and I do hope to get there but first I have to achieve the No.2 spot distinctly. Once we get there we'll see what the next steps are.

Your confidence is admirable, but this must put a lot of pressure on you...

There's revenue pressure, there's client pressure, there's the pressure of competitors sniping at us... but that's the job. In the advertising business if you don't know how to handle pressure, get out. Or die young.

A Note From the Editor

There was a power pose I once saw WPP supremo Sir Martin Sorrell strike in a photograph. Standing behind a desk, with both palms on the table top, he was leaning forward and making some serious eye contact with the camera lens.

When I went over to the Mumbai office of Dentsu Aegis Network to interview the group's South Asia chairman and CEO Ashish Bhasin, I was determined to have him replicate that power pose for our camera. After all, the powerful statements he's been making over the past year warrant no less.

In an interview with us, Bhasin declared that he will out-perform Interpublic Group (IPG) and take its place as the No.2 network in this market by December 2017. His amused detractors haven't been particularly shy about making nasty counter comments about his goal, in the press – one of them said buying Madison might help speed things up!

So we decided to run the feedback of his peers by him and ask him a bunch of questions around his now famous goal. He is not only confident he will get there but says he'll cross the finishing line well before December 2017. He's even got a plan brewing in his mind, admittedly a premature one, about how he'll take a stab at reigning leader WPP. But for now, dethroning IPG is his target.

A quick peek into Bhasin's journey: In 2007, IPG acquired Lintas India. In 2008, Bhasin ended his 20-year-long stint at Lintas to join Aegis. In 2012, Dentsu acquired Aegis. Last year, Bhasin took over Dentsu Aegis Network's India assets from Rohit Ohri.

At the time, he was confronted with rumours of a mass exodus. "I heard that Aggie and Paddy, among many others, have decided to leave," he admits, relieved that no one from the group's senior management team actually did leave. "That has been the biggest surprise," he smiles.

ASHWINI GANGAL