Ashwini Gangal
Interviews

"There is a challenge when it comes to TV spends, but it is not drastic": Prasanth Kumar, Mindshare

Mindshare, media agency from the house of WPP's GroupM, has had a good run at the awards this year, local and international. Before the applause for the agency's Glass Grand Prix - for its 6-Pack Band campaign for HUL's Brooke Bond Red Label - could die down, the Advertising Club's much sought after 'Media Agency of the Year' title - one the agency is all too familiar with - came waltzing in at the recently concluded Emvies.

At the helm of affairs is the affable Prasanth Kumar, CEO, Mindshare, South Asia, who was elevated to this position last March, before which he led GroupM's Central Trading Group.

'PK', as he is fondly known in the industry, spoke to afaqs! over a cup of Earl Grey at his office in suburban Mumbai. Turns out he has been able to evade the pressure that comes with having to defend flattering titles and annual accolades. PK insists that awards only motivate his teams to "get it right" over and over again.

He also commented on the importance of adopting technology and data-led media planning, the unexpected dip in TV ad spends and the overall mood of the festival-sensitive Indian advertiser.

Edited Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

Awards are tricky, aren't they? You don't really aim to win, till you win. How has winning changed your approach to trophies and titles? From an accidental byproduct of good work to something you actively need to defend year on year, perhaps? Is there pressure to keep winning?

Getting medals is delightful. The route to it is great performance. It is still true that awards are not the end goal. Winning awards gives us motivation, it assures us that the work we're doing for our clients is working.

We have to understand that all these awards have a very powerful jury. These are people who're part of the industry, in the marketing, creativity and content space. They are assessing us. Our work gets evaluated against a lot of other work, and when ours is found to be better, it's very motivating. Being able to do this continuously, gives us a feeling of pride, not pressure.

The objective is clear: Do great, provocative work that drives growth for brands. If we do that with an edge, awards will follow. Being a leader is not about pressure; it is a responsibility. We don't want to take rest. We want to do more and more. Nothing is going to be easy. There will be many challenges while trying to get it right again and again, but that's the fun part.

Around award season, what's the mood among your teams like?

There's a lot of exchange of great thoughts and ideas that happens. That creates some healthy competitiveness within teams. Again, there's no pressure on the teams; it's a job. We want to walk tall.

Do awards impact business or give you an edge at the pitch level? Does anything really change in a noticeable way?

It does.

While I wouldn't say getting recognition does not impact business, it's not the awards but the motivation that awards bring that helps more. That leads to more innovative, bolder marketing moves, which help attract more clients. It's one comprehensive package.

Speaking of clients, let's talk about Unilever. They seem to have loosened up a lot on the communication and media front of late. Tell us about how this change looks from your vantage point.

Unilever has evolved. Mindshare Fulcrum has evolved. What they used to do five years back is very different from what they do now. When we see the ecosystem evolve, being the lead team in the country, we have a sense of shaping the market, shaping practices. Our clients push us to do our best. We have healthy debates with them, today.

We notice how firms within our industry constantly allude to taking on roles beyond their core offering. For instance, ad agencies want to plan media, production houses want to do copywriting. For you, what does 'going beyond' mean? How has the role of a media buying agency changed over the past 12-24 months?

We don't believe we are only a media buyer. Not a single client tells us to do just media buying. If you don't evolve, you're extinct. The need of the hour is customising one's inputs while working on brand solutions. Over the last couple of years we've noticed a growing focus on deep consumer understanding and intense consumer-centricity. Even data is focused on consumer insights. If you get into a data room without a clear objective, you can just get lost in there. And all insights may not necessarily lead to media buying. The biggest change in the last two years is the convergence of data, technology and creativity. Insights are the engine; the deployment part is done through ideas and content.

Have marketers begun actively demanding data-led insights or is it still more of a supply phenomenon?

Clients are getting interested. There's curiosity. From our end, we want to get in deeper. For that, we have assets and tools. It is essential for us to craft our solutions using these data points. There are healthy conversations that happen around this, with marketers and clients. I'd say it's a good exchange. Demand and supply applies to inventory. Since this is not a packaged product being sold in a shop, I'd say these are ideas that are there at both ends.

To you, does data play a larger in role in media planning (pre campaign) or in gauging the efficiency of a media plan (post campaign)?

I'll try to simplify it: Better understanding helps reduce wastage. That is a powerful way of improving efficiency. If you're able to get both together, you'll get more returns. That's a model we want to work with and that's the conversation we're having with our clients.

When it comes to the adoption of data/technology and a creative approach to media buying, where does India stand as compared to other South Asian markets?

Each market has its own challenges and opportunities. Globally, for any industry, India is a very critical market. That puts us in a good position to come up with great solutions for our brands. The relevance of data is a journey; it is shaping up. From a digital standpoint, there's a lot more India can do. But we're on the right track and the momentum is good.

A lot depends on the infrastructure of the market as well. There's a lot to learn from China, the US, Australia, Indonesia... similarly, some of our work inspires them.

We're on the right track, but brand innovation on mobile continues to be a pain point in our market...

Can we do more on mobile? Of course we can. In our country, everything is on mobile. From a consumer standpoint, usage on mobile is far, far higher here. Brands have also realised that. Consumption of the web is happening on mobile. Online video consumption is happening on mobile. This consumer behaviour itself is the solution. If we take note of this, the issue pain will not arise.

The momentum is there. From last year to this year, there's been huge growth. For example, look at some of the trends today - like vertical ads. They're more convenient for the mobile platform.

Let's talk about the counter-intuitive dip in TV ad spends, led by the e-commerce category and to a lesser extent, FMCG. To what would you attribute this? And what's the arc looking like?

One of the largest categories that we estimated to have some great spends is e-commerce. And that has actually gone down. So the largest stress point has been in the e-commerce segment. That's probably due to some business pressures of the category that are reflected in the TV ad spends of the segment. However, festive times are coming up. We're sure the spends, especially in FMCG, will go up again. These things should be looked at in the context of the entire year.

Yes, there is a challenge when it comes to TV spends, but it is not drastic. What is more interesting to notice is - there is a large play on part of all product categories to look at integrated solutions. But I wouldn't say the money is coming out of TV completely.

There's an ongoing debate around whether the compensation model for media buying agencies ought to be based on the outcome of media spends. Where do you stand on this?

We consistently say we are outcome focused. But for us, outcome is not only about media plan efficiency. Outcome is about brand performance. There are different matrices for that. We understand that advertising is not 100 per cent of it but it is an important element.

As for compensation, there are different hybrid models - when the outcome is good, clients do talk to us about share of success. Yes, it will be myopic of brands to say otherwise, but I am sensing that clients are genuinely able to understand this.

(This interview was first published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on September 15, 2016)

A Note From the Editor

Typically, at the Emvies, an Ad Club-organised annual awards show for media planning and buying agencies, most of the photographers and photojournalists start identifying groups of people wearing purple, and related hues, before it gets dark. Why? Because it's easier to get those candid, celebration-themed pictures if one knows which section of the room the winning team is huddled around. Oh, did I mention? Team Mindshare wears purple to award shows. Such is the anticipation of the agency’s victory, among members of the press, thanks to a barely blemished track record.

Less than a fortnight ago, Mindshare won the 'Media Agency of the Year' title at the Emvies, yet again. The anticipation runs thick even within the agency's corridors and cabins of the upper echelons. Sample this: In June this year, I went over to the Mindshare office to interview Prasanth Kumar, the agency's South Asia CEO, after his team's edgy 6-Pack Band campaign for HUL won big at Cannes.

After the meeting, while saying our formal goodbyes, PK, as he is fondly known, and I, were wondering, aloud, when this publication will interview him next. "See you later this year...when we win the Emvies..." are some of the words I remember. I had the absence of mind to jump in and say, "You mean, 'If you win'..." To that, he just smiled. That's confidence.

PK is very cognizant of his power to influence. These titles, he tells us, during the course of this interview, bring with them pride, motivation and most importantly, responsibility. So seriously does PK take his role of market leader and victorious influencer that he approached each question of ours with a broad, general, the-industry-is-reading-this kind of view and categorically refrained from giving us any strong - how should I put it? - PK-flavoured opinions.

But so be it. We are grateful he took the time to meet us and pose for our camera on a Sunday morning.

ASHWINI GANGAL