Venkata Susmita Biswas

Havas Group India aiming at aggressive growth through acquisitions

Rana Barua, CEO, Havas Group India, on the state of the advertising industry, his vision for the network in India, and how to stem talent drain.

Under the stewardship of Rana Barua, Havas Group India is forging a new image for itself. The advertising agency network that is headquartered in Paris, had three agency verticals and a team of 200 in India when Barua took on the role of the group’s chief executive officer in 2018. Since then, the network grown to include 11 agencies and employs 1,200 people.

Recently, Havas Group India added capabilities in e-commerce, content, and reinstituted its sports and entertainment vertical. Barua spoke to afaqs! on the sidelines of the recently concluded Goafest 2022.

Edited excerpts:

Havas Group India has been on an expansion journey. How hard was it to sail through the last two years, while adding new verticals and expanding the team?

These were the toughest two-and-a-half years for any leader. We were completely thrown off gear. It was either swim or sink. First and foremost, I changed as a leader and a person. Compassion and transparency in communication became important. Yet another area of focus is - diversity, equity and inclusion. We have introduced several industry-first initiatives such as the Women Who Inspire committee with12 members which is aimed at fostering gender diversity and women leadership across our group of companies, ‘Bounce Back’ programme for women returning after maternity leave and a blind hiring technique that involves reviewing resumes without mentioning gender.

As a group, we worked harder on building our agencies. Many agencies were new in 2020 and there was no integration. Figuring out the best integration model, is one of the biggest challenges that most groups face, when there are a variety of companies that do different work and have different senior leadership. Bringing teams together virtually, aided in integrating agencies better. This led to winning more businesses and greater collaboration between teams.

What are some new businesses you won recently? Have these been clients who are seeking integrated solutions?

The 3 verticals of Havas Group India – Creative, Media and Havas Life Sorento have been growing at a high double digit rate. On the creative front, apart from some of the legacy brands that we have in our portfolio like Reckitt, Dabur, P&G, Suzuki, we have been winning several international and new-age clients like Citroen, Tata Cliq, Tata Cliq Luxury, Vivo and Amazon. We just did the entire brand reimagining of Zydus. This is huge and extremely prestigious for us and we are collaborating with them in this new phase of transition and transformation. Havas Media Group India has become a hub for unicorns and we handle clients like Swiggy, Ola, Quikr, Just Dial, Coinswitch Kuber, HealthifyMe, MyGate, Gamezy and Scaler. However, our biggest growth story is happening on the back of integration and some of our biggest integrated clients are UTI, Micromax, Zydus, Emeritus and Eruditus, Lionsgate, Aegon Mutual, Tata Cliq Luxury, Stashfin, Renewbuy and many others.

You acquired some agencies, like Langoor and Conran, and added a few services too. What is your vision for the group that you are executing now?

Havas did not exist in India until a few years ago. What we have done is build an ecosystem. So, Havas is not going to be known for just media or creative. Our business model has never been to build one vertical.

What I mean by ecosystem is that under Havas, we will have CX, content, design, health, commerce, sports, entertainment, and a few other new verticals. So, each vertical has to add to the sum of all parts. The philosophy is that one may be best alone, but it also has to be better together.

The collaboration philosophy works well for an agency our size, in comparison to many established networks that are well known for individual agency brands. We want each of our agency brands to be strongly associated with the Havas brand. If, in a year from now, someone does not know that Conran is a design agency from the Havas stable, then my job has not been done.

Is adding these verticals and services one way to secure the agency business from forces like consultancies?

What we have done during the COVID pandemic is build expertise to match the requirements of our clients. These are the gaps that we identified and filled to create long-term value for our clients.

Our business is about creativity and ideas; as long as that remains the core essence, we will survive. And no, consultancies are not going to take over our business. The point is that fundamentally, for every category or profession, you will always have parallel professions to build their own business model. Consultants came, tried, and have gone back to doing what they do.

What are other gaps you have identified that remain to be filled? And, do you plan to acquire more agencies?

We know there is a lot we can do in the area of sports, culture and entertainment. PR is a big gap for us and we are looking at PR agencies. We are also looking at strong social media and digital agencies. We are in conversation with agencies. India is among the highest priorities for the global team and our chairman Yannick Bolloré.

The ad world has been losing talent to OTT platforms, new-age tech firms and other creative shops. How can the industry and individual networks address this challenge?

I don’t call it talent drain. There was terrible job satisfaction and people left because they were disillusioned. And, job satisfaction does not come merely from money. Talent wants fame, recognition, appreciation and fulfillment. That’s where the collaboration between the Abby’s and The One Show plays a role. In a couple of year’s time, we want people from around the world to take part in the Abby’s, just like they do in the Dubai Lynx, Spikes Asia or D&AD Awards.

That’s at an industry level. On a network level, we, at Havas, have launched a training programme (Spark) to mentor young professionals for a period of six months. Almost all the candidates we train, are hired. At the end of six months, they undergo a test and if they qualify, we hire them at high starting salaries.

In the first batch of Spark last year, we trained 16 professionals, of whom 13 were hired. The three that did not join, went abroad to pursue higher education. This year, 26 have joined us from the programme. This is how we are bringing talent into the industry and making them understand that advertising and media is a very exciting industry, and that they can make careers and professions out of it.

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