Devina Joshi

It's 'damage control' time for Bates

Tim Isaac, chairman, Bates Asia, was in Mumbai recently. He speaks to afaqs! about how the recent top-level exits at Bates India is actually 'a good thing' and dispels rumours of any supposed Bates-Ogilvy merger.

When you meet Tim Isaac, he hands out two visiting cards to you: one for his role as chairman, Bates Asia, while the other reads 'chairman, Ogilvy Asia Pacific'. However, come May 2012, and Isaac won't be handing out the Ogilvy card. He is all set to phase himself out of that role to concentrate wholly on Bates Asia, and presently on his radar is Bates India.

It's 'damage control' time for Bates
With the recent high profile exits, in quick succession, of two of Bates India's top executives - regional executive creative director and chairperson, Sonal Dabral and Sandeep Pathak, the agency's group CEO - one would expect an undercurrent of tension at the agency. But Isaac, in an interview with afaqs!, seems to heave a sigh of relief that the agency will finally get the direction it deserves, after a dismal performance in 2011. Excerpts:

afaqs!: What brings you to India, in addition to the obvious reason - taking stock post the loss of two important managers at Bates India?

Isaac: I do visit India fairly frequently. Last year, we worked upon creating a new positioning for Bates, that of being the 'changengage' agency. The world around us is constantly changing, and this is our way of stating that we interpret and understand that change, and embrace it. 'Engage' is about interactively engaging with people, to generate and manage conversations. Just like Greater China, India is our geographic focus right now - it's where the growth is likely to be.

afaqs!: Did you anticipate Sonal Dabral and Sandeep Pathak's exits?

Isaac: In Sandeep's (Pathak) case, his exit didn't come across as a surprise. For the last few years, I had left the India office on its own because the momentum was good. I was hoping that Sandeep, in his then relatively new position as CEO, would rise to the occasion of running a group of offices in India. For the last many months, he was questioning himself about whether he really wanted to lead the Bates group here and if it was the right thing for him to do. So, when he did finally take the call, it was alright; I wanted him to take that decision. It is good for him, and the agency. It's actually a bit of a shame that it took so long.

I wanted Sandeep to succeed, and that is the only disappointment I really have.

In my mind, 2011 was a wasted year for Bates in India. We grew at 8 per cent here, which is reasonable, but less than half of what we were expecting to grow at. And, most of the growth didn't come from Mumbai or Delhi advertising; I must say, Praveen Vadhera's OOH unit led to the growth that we did have.

afaqs!: What about Sonal Dabral's decision to leave?

Isaac: That's a little different from Sandeep's exit. Sonal was brought in here so that he could focus on the regional role. He is a lovely and brilliant man, quite a delightful character. I have worked with him closely at Ogilvy Singapore earlier as well. But, I think he had gone quite off the board and I was hoping he would get some focus back out here. At times there was ambiguity - is he running the agency as chairman or is Sandeep in charge? It is best to have one clear leader at Bates.

Also, there was a little more confusion; there is a national creative director here (Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar). Was he to do the job, or would Sonal do it? These confusions are at least resolved now. I think that somewhere, Sonal lost his sense of application and urgency. Sagar is a focussed person, who is very clear about his own ability to deliver. So the creative mandate for Bates India now totally rests with him.

afaqs!: How do you plan to cope with these losses? You seem to see these as an opportunity in disguise...

Isaac: You see, the lack of direct, clear, energetic leadership obviously affects people in the agency. I am glad we have the chance to find that kind of a leader now. In fact, it came from the horse's mouth - in the words of WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell, who wrote an e-mail to me: "This is an opportunity for us to find good people".

I am absolutely committed to bring aboard a charismatic, entrepreneurial, single leader at Bates India. Sonal's position regionally shall be filled soon, whereas Sagar takes over from him in India.

The rest of our team here, including our planning head Dheeraj Sinha, is young, dynamic and raring to go. I'll be in India again around February 20. I hope to zero in on a leader at Bates India by then; talks are on with a few national agency leaders here.

afaqs!: Is there any truth to the speculation that has been floating around for a year or two now - that of Bates' dissolution and subsequent merger into the Ogilvy system?

Isaac: I'd like to put that to rest once and for all - no, there are no plans to merge Bates with Ogilvy. Bates and Ogilvy are two very different brands in terms of scale and positioning. Ogilvy is a big, beautiful machine, while Bates is a single cell organisation. Let's put it this way: Bates is definitely not a mini-Ogilvy. It is culturally very different.

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