Shweta Mulki

"Magic sauce stays same; pot to play in just got bigger": Glitch founders on life post GroupM acquisition

Earlier this week, GroupM announced its decision to acquire The Glitch. We interviewed the founders, Rohit Raj and Varun Duggirala, and their CEO Pooja Jauhari.

"Rohit and I started this in our apartment after we quit Channel V. Our first set of employees would come and ring the bell waking us up (we would be working all night) and then start working in the living room", says Varun Duggirala, co-founder and content chief of The Glitch when asked to recount if they had a born-in-the-garage story to how he and Rohit Raj (co-founder and creative chief) started the company.

"Magic sauce stays same; pot to play in just got bigger": Glitch founders on life post GroupM acquisition

It was in 2009, that college batch-mates Raj and Duggirala found themselves quitting Channel V - when it decided to stop the music, literally, and go the GEC way for sustenance. They then decided to invest around 3 lakh rupees and start 'The Glitch' to make 'digital' videos for brands. Today, 9 years down the line, the company has 240 employees with offices in Delhi and Mumbai offering digital, planning and content services to brands like Netflix, Unilever, Tinder, Shutterstock, and Oyo Rooms.

Two days ago there came news of global media group WPP's GroupM acquiring The Glitch. The Glitch's revenues (March 2017) were around Rs 21.4 crore.

While the resources would be a draw and the founders get leadership roles, have they come to terms with the realities of relinquishing some control? In these times of unorthodox processes and Facebook pitches, will they be able to maintain their flexibility? The founders and their CEO, Pooja Jauhari, say that they were 'surprised to learn how forward-thinking GroupM was. Here's more in a chat:

Edited Excerpts

At the start of a marriage, there's always a lot of love. Yours seems to be that buzzy new-age flat-organisation Company... how do you see that merging in, yet not losing identity?
"Magic sauce stays same; pot to play in just got bigger": Glitch founders on life post GroupM acquisition

Varun Duggirala

Varun: They like our way of doing things and even want to imbibe this culture across the board because they see the value in what we do. That's also why we are joining at the group level as that enables us to align with other GroupM agencies when required. Will there be any changes? Yes, but those process-driven changes aren't as rigid as we'd thought them to be. They understand that the market today requires a certain amount of flexibility and adaptability.

Pooja: Our independence was top priority. We've seen agencies and great companies become not so great after a certain period in the marriage. We know what we need to protect. GroupM have been great to us and it is in their interest for us to grow the way we are.

What values did you think GroupM saw and liked in you?

Rohit: To start with, we are digital natives. We've been in this ecosystem right from the start and we've used it to grow. Everybody in this office is probably grown up on two screens. Because we are natives, we are able to come up with concepts around it.

You began by making videos? How did you grow from that; what were the main pivots?
"Magic sauce stays same; pot to play in just got bigger": Glitch founders on life post GroupM acquisition

Rohit Raj

"Magic sauce stays same; pot to play in just got bigger": Glitch founders on life post GroupM acquisition

Pooja Jauhari

Rohit: In 2009, TV was just starting to die and digital was just breaking out. There were lots of production houses which were doing TV-led work, but we started with pure digital videos as nobody was doing that. We made brands understand that taking an ad made for TV and putting it on YouTube does not mean 'digital' - it was about two-way communication and more. Eventually, we pivoted at the right time to become an agency. There were social agencies coming up like call centres, at one point, and we were clear we weren't that; social was just one aspect. That gave us a differentiator then. The next step after that was to look into impact and 'effective advertising'.

Pooja: Whatever we did we were able to measure; be it product sales subscriptions etc. and finally all solutions were based on that. That's when we moved from becoming one of the agencies to becoming an important partner to brands.

Varun: When we started off, it was video for the web, then there were interactive campaigns that brought technology, installations, on-ground etc., then we amplified that with social and digital so that's where the agency bit came in. We then built strategy - digital was considered a short-term burst campaign, but we felt the future lay in creating digital as a long-term value. After that, we were delivering business solutions, building ROI. The future has now moved towards data-built creative - basically, it's more marketing communications than advertising.

Can you recall your earlier work that made you realise your own capabilities?

Rohit: I remember in 2011, during Quicksilver's (Surfwear brand) launch, we live-streamed (for which we created a website) a person singing in their store, taking requests from walk-ins - all of this streaming live, at a time when it was unheard of; it got them great footfall.

It was ultimately about moving from pure-play video-led properties to more thinking pieces. For instance, we've got 'Shopper Marketing' which we've redefined for the e-commerce generation.

Varun: We came from television, not agency, so our core set of clients were media networks like Disney and MTV for whom we did 'young' stuff and we realised this could work for FMCG and retail brands too. That's been the ethos, till date. For instance, from day one our advice has been 'Don't do one big TVC; you need 300 pieces of content in a year', it's greater ROI. The next step would be to push for sales etc.

Pooja: Every client helped us introduce a new service - when we were younger, we were dealing with clients at maybe not that mature a capacity, but today, we are discussing marketing plans with them.

So coming back to the acquisition, did you approach or did they?

Rohit: We were growing and there were different levels of growth till one day someone came up and proposed to align. That was the first time we sat down to analyse and figure out the right kind of partners.

Pooja: We thought - 'If we had to, who would we do this with', but we didn't go knocking. It all happened organically.

So what was your checklist for the right partner?

Varun: The questions were - Do they have functions that are complementary to what we do; do they have a platform where both, together, can scale; and, more importantly, the culture is not compromised. For this, the conversations needed to be really broken down. We need that balance between retaining culture and growth. We've built a culture that is unique and it's ingrained in our employees (current and ex); we can identify 'Glitchtards' anywhere.

Any story behind the name 'Glitch'?

Rohit: We started in the peak of recession and everyone thought it was a mistake. In the media space, there was a downturn, channels were shutting down etc. We went to Channel V for the cool aspect... but they decided to stop playing music!

Varun: During our notice period there, the name just got stuck in our heads.

What's the roadmap for next couple of years?

Pooja: This helps us go back to clients with larger offerings. Our focus has been creative and strategy, now we can marry that with data, analytics, and media know-how and provide solutions that close the entire loop.

Varun: We don't want to take on 500 more clients. We want a tight set of clients, giving more value to each of them. And no one leaves our door with us saying we can't fulfil a particular requirement.

You have clients like Netflix and Tinder - are digital agencies here, well equipped to deal with global requirements?

Pooja: Digital agencies are far more equipped; it's not about countries - our world is on the phone. Buying behaviours may differ, but in digital know-how, we are all on the same page. So America or Andheri, it does not matter.

Varun: In digital, you can be in one spot and still understand other markets - we've managed to build category experts as well as country experts.

You've been in this space since 2009... how have brand requirements changed?

Varun: We believe everything is digital now. Brands now want customisable solutions and we need to build capabilities across the board.

Pooja: Fluidity is the future. This is not about three-year marketing plans anymore. It's about being to handle rapid change, almost daily and we need to be ready and be able to predict this.

Give me some predictions...

Pooja: Personalisation is going to be key. For instance, how can I get you the lipstick that you want - looking at what you were reading; who you follow etc. such that I'm able to get the client to spend every rupee on the right person and avoid spillage.

How's your production set up scaling up been?

Varun: Our content wing is the most fluid... if the rest of Glitch adapts to change once a year, content adapted every six months because the market changed so quickly. We've moved on from planning an entire team internally (which most agencies do) to having a mix of in-house specialists (we have a team of 20) alongside the immense amount of talent you find externally, across art, direction and even creatives.

We understand the brand lens and the creator lens - that's our strength. Now, most agencies are adding a production wing, while we started out with that and had a strong training ground in television which teaches you that it's not about unnecessary expenses of scale, but about great creative.

Rohit: A good piece of content will be watched; it could be shot on anything, your opening shots don't have to be in Prague, just spend on the right idea.

The acquisition is in line with the now common practice of entrepreneurs selling successful businesses to energise big groups. The 'independent agency' is really a transient entity then?

Varun: Most acquisitions happen at the end of peoples' career cycle - that's the perception. We still have a lot of time ahead of us.

Rohit: I think the magic sauce stays the same; we've just got a bigger pot to play in. We've just started and we have decades of work ahead of us. Ronnie Screwvala said it well - In scale versus control, scale wins.

Pooja: We've just started. Independent or not independent, if you don't show value, it doesn't matter who's protecting you.

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