Aishwarya Ramesh

"Creative agencies need to work closely with publishers to stay relevant": Abhik Santara, ^Atom network

It may seem counterintuitive to launch a new agency in the midst of a global pandemic, but ^Atom network’s CEO believes they can make a difference.

Thanks to the current global scenario, most companies have had to take a step back and slow their pace. So, no new brand launches, or hiring of new resources, and all communication is on hold. At a time like this, Abhik Santara, former president, Ogilvy Mumbai and Kolkata, decided to launch ^Atom network - a digital-first agency. Backed by QED Communications, the agency will specialise in brand strategy and communication, in addition to providing data, experiential and creative services.

"The proposition is right, the people are right and we couldn't help the timing! But we didn't let it hold us back because this is the litmus test of our enterprise. Being digital first should enable us to get through these times easier than others, and help us stay ahead," says Chanchal Sanyal (Author and Chairman of QED Communications.)

Chanchal Sanyal
Chanchal Sanyal

Santara agrees that this may not be the best time to launch an agency. But considering their proposition to offer digital-first solutions, the founding team decided to go ahead with the launch, anyway. Here are some edited excerpts from a conversation:

What are some of the challenges that you’ve been facing, when it comes to starting an agency at this time?

The challenges that mainline agencies face – we face those, too. But our focus is on looking at modern day solutions in a more pragmatic way. Even before the (Coronavirus) pandemic hit, this was the model that our agency was based on. It meant that the focus was not only on short-term business performance, but also on how to create and build long-term brand equity. Our intention was to devise effective solutions that are ROI-driven and also cost effective.

Now that the pandemic is upon us, I think the marketers will shift their focus to find more of these smart solutions. While the timing of our launch may not make a lot of sense from a business point of view, I am hopeful that the market will reshape itself after the pandemic is over to be more open to these solutions. The relevance that we intended to bring to the market will now be stronger than ever.

Can you tell us a little bit about the thought process that went into selecting the agency’s core team?

We are an agency sitting on the cusp of doing digital-first work that has long-term brand equity. This means I have to find people who have a hybrid experience. They know about traditional ways of brand building, and have also worked with the new-age consumer’s journey. There are not many people who have this kind of experience. Either they’re from traditional advertising and intend to do more digital work, or they’ve worked with the digital medium and want to get experience doing mainline work. Getting the combination of the two was a challenge for me. I have spent months finding the right people, and I’m glad that it finally paid off. It was also very natural for me to work with people that I’ve worked with in the past. I think for the proposition to come alive, we need someone who can perform equally well, working for both mediums. Our diversity is our biggest asset.

Some digital agencies only think in terms of performance and metrics. They don’t understand that even creating a meme counts as moment marketing, and needs to be in alignment with the brand’s messaging. This is what marketers and CMOs are struggling with - getting the two in the same place! It becomes the job of a marketer to align the communication, rather than the job of the agency to view the brand from a long-term bird’s-eye perspective.

(L-R). Ananda Sen, Abhik Santara, Yash Kulshresht
(L-R). Ananda Sen, Abhik Santara, Yash Kulshresht

Given these unprecedented circumstances, would you say that digital advertising and marketing are having their ‘day in the sun’? Should traditional agencies be looking at realigning their priorities?

I would say that the priorities should have been relooked, even before the crisis hit us. The crisis is just a final nail in the coffin. The fact that the world has really transformed, and you can’t really see consumers as segments, or clusters - you have to view them as individual consumers. That realisation has happened, but I don’t think enough action has been taken to tap into that restructuring that consumer marketing has gone through. I don’t think we have an option right now.

I’m telling you from experience - when you’re in a large agency, 80 per cent of business dependency is on doing brand building and work in the traditional way. Not everyone is necessarily motivated to see the other side of it. You tend to get comfortable. Now, you can’t afford to be comfortable anymore. The shift is now forced upon you, even if you’re not voluntarily trying to stay ahead of the curve and try new things. There will be no options left, but to evolve. The larger the size of the agency, the more agile they will have to be.

The FMCG sector is undergoing massive changes - both in terms of (consuming) products and advertising. You have a lot of experience working with the sector in the past. How will the sector’s marketing efforts change, once the lockdown is over?

I’ve worked with Unilever over the last 7-8 months, helping it set up its data marketing arm in Southeast Asia. Globally, Unilever has shifted its focus, from concentrating on saliency building - top of the funnel stuff - to going deep into concentrating on data marketing. Most media agencies are driving this agenda, rather than the advertising agencies themselves. It’s now a compulsory mandate that all marketing and advertising initiatives should lead to gathering of first-party and third-party data to publishers. The richer the first-party database a company has, the richer will be its personal experience in communication. That change has already started happening - and media agencies are driving this change, as opposed to digital agencies (doing that).

Abhik Santara
Abhik Santara

Are there any other international trends that Indian advertising agencies would do well to catch up with?

I think that data-driven marketing is going to be crucial in the future. Creative agencies need to figure out how to work with publishers, such as Facebook, Google and TikTok, more closely. If you look at what’s happening internationally, a lot of creative work is being churned out by the publishers themselves. Facebook even has an AI platform that churns out creatives based on the audience segments they’re targeting. Platforms are pushing for AI to take over creative development. For creative agencies to stay relevant, they have to work really closely with publishers, rather than treat them as enemies.

This is not new, though, the trend has been around for a while internationally...

What’s going to be your plan of action in case the lockdown gets extended?

Brands will need to survive and work, irrespective of the lockdown. For brands that are here for the long haul, they will focus on aspects, like how they can clear up their stock, how they can clear up the inventory they’ve built, and how communication can be a part of engagement, not just a part of selling. The focus on those kinds of outputs is going to be immense.

After April 14, the market’s direction will become clear. Right now, we need to wait and watch. Brands will take necessary steps if the lockdown does get extended. Realistically, there’s no way the economy is going to come back on track, to even 40 per cent of its previous levels, in the next six months, even if the lockdown ends today.