Ashwini Gangal

"We've always referred to ourselves as 'Thompsonites'": Tarun Rai

An interview with Tarun Rai, chairman and group CEO, South Asia, Wunderman Thompson.

Waiting in the reception area of the Mumbai office of JWT - now Wunderman Thompson - is an odd experience; in one's field of vision are two starkly contrasting visuals: a dusty, vintage Horlicks calendar hanging in a corner, and, not far from it, a sleek screen with futuristic Gestalt-esque images about how the newly formed Wunderman Thompson is more than the sum of the words that define it - a creative, data and technology company. I was there recently to chat with Tarun Rai, chairman and group CEO, South Asia, Wunderman Thompson.

"We've always referred to ourselves as 'Thompsonites'": Tarun Rai

Old Horlicks Calendar
Click on the image to enlarge

This strange juxtaposition of old and new captures WPP's recent decision to merge its classic advertising agency brand J. Walter Thompson with direct-and-digital shop Wunderman.

"We've always referred to ourselves as 'Thompsonites'": Tarun Rai

Wunderman Thompson Logo

Wunderman Thompson is present across 90 markets and employs over 20,000 people. At the helm are global chief executive officer Mel Edwards and chairperson Tamara Ingram.

"We've always referred to ourselves as 'Thompsonites'": Tarun Rai

Twist symbol

In India, compared to JWT, Wunderman is very small and not well known. Our market has had a close relationship with JWT that dates back to the 1920s, but we know little about Wunderman. For instance, that it was founded in 1958 by the late Lester Wunderman, known as the father of direct marketing. Or that Manoj Mansukhani is the agency's chief transformation officer, South Asia.

Understandably, one of the tasks on Tarun Rai's to-do list is ensuring potential clients know what the merged entity stands for. "I am not offering Wunderman's India capabilities. I am giving you Wunderman's global capabilities," is Tarun's urgent message to the market.

The clientele of Wunderman Thompson includes names like Airtel, Britannia, Colgate, Facebook, Flipkart, Godrej, GSK, Hindustan Unilever, Hero Moto Corp, Microsoft, Tinder, ITC, Nestlé and PepsiCo, among several others.

Edited Excerpts

In our recent Agency Special issue (afaqs! Reporter magazine), you said you're interested in creating original content and IPs - that you want to own what you create. What does the head of an agency mean by that?

One of the biggest differences between advertising and media (otherwise a JWT 'lifer', Tarun was CEO, Worldwide Media between 2008 and 2015) is ownership. In media, you own what you produce. And that changes everything - your relationships with clients, the industry... everything. We're in the creative services business, we produce fantastic content, we have so many fabulous creative people, but we're always doing it for our clients. We don't own anything, the clients own everything. Yet, many of our people leave advertising to go join Bollywood, OTT or TV channels, where they produce great stuff which they own. Then everything changes.

So while we love to work for our clients and make sure their business targets are met and their brands are doing well, I really wish we also had our own IPs, online or on-ground. It's an opportunity we haven't exploited yet.

You also said acquiring and retaining talent is the hardest part of running an agency - Why? Do agencies not pay enough?

We need to pay better. Currently, our remuneration model is sub-optimal. Compared to other agencies, we're fine. But today our competition is not other agencies; it's the entire space - FMCG, content, digital, OTT... and there, frankly, we're way off. It's shocking how much we have to catch up.

Another reason is... younger people are persuaded by the flash of young, digital agencies.

The merger (Wunderman Thompson) will make it easier for us to acquire talent. We're now a new breed of agency that can attract the so called new-age, non-traditional talent, which earlier, because we had the traditional agency tag, would go elsewhere.

Let's talk about the nomenclature - some of your peers feel putting 'Wunderman' before 'Thompson' is a strategic error, others say it's a clever show of intent. Besides, I just have to ask - in what universe is it okay to do away with a vintage advertising agency brand like 'JWT'?

I was amused (by the reactions). I think too much is being made of this.

Yes, it's a legitimate question, but when I joined in 1989, it was Hindustan Thompson, then we became J. Walter Thompson - that was supposed to be very unnerving - and now we're Wunderman Thompson. We've always referred to ourselves as 'Thompsonites'.

Today, we get called to just about every pitch because we're JWT and everyone knows us; as long as we communicate that JWT is now Wunderman Thompson, that we've got new capabilities, and don't miss out on any opportunity, it's fine. We're in the business of communication... we'll make sure people know.

Right, but there's a theory that ad agencies have slipped down the value chain and don't command the kind of equity they used to...

All these comments are fair when made by people who're looking at it superficially - how else can they look at it?

As an industry, have we slipped down the value chain, globally? Yes, we have. Previously, agencies were the single point of contact for all the communication needs of the client. But now it's fragmented; agencies are one of the ten partners clients are working with.

But now, clients want integration. It won't go back to the good old days when agencies would do everything, but it will come back in a different form. The opportunity now is to offer end-to-end solutions and explore different communication models.

Such as?

I can be more responsible for the business result that the client is looking for through communication... I can say, 'Link me to your sales', potentially. If we're more accountable, we can start climbing back up the value chain.

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