Devina Joshi

The rebirth of Rediffusion

After two tumultuous years, Rediffusion - Y&R seems to be coming into its own. Its new businesses and a talent pool that's impressive, signal a turnaround of sorts. Excerpts from an in-depth with D Rajappa, president; N Padmakumar a.k.a Paddy, national creative director and Gautam Talwar, chief strategy officer.

The year 2010 could have easily been the beginning of the end for Rediffusion after it lost two of its biggest businesses, Airtel and Colgate, and its major top level management, all at one go. In the eye of the storm, and amidst reports writing the agency off, came a leadership structure and a vision that not only seems to have brought the agency back from the brink, but also looks to take it back to its former glory.

In 2011, Rediffusion managed to pick up a decent set of businesses, hired an interesting mix of people and also rebuilt its reputation painstakingly, but with dignity. The agency witnessed an unprecedented 50 per cent increase in topline revenue last year, fuelled by both organic and inorganic growth.

Here's the Rediffusion-Y&R turnaround tale - straight from the horses' mouths.

afaqs!: Rediffusion faced some uncertain times with big-ticket losses such as Airtel (a Rs 400-crore account) and Colgate in 2010 - brands that were housed there for so long. What was your impression after walking into the office on your first day, Rajappa?

The rebirth of Rediffusion
The rebirth of Rediffusion
The rebirth of Rediffusion
Looking back, I wouldn't say everything was amiss. It was a running agency, a huge entity with over 500 people. Losing a couple of clients or people didn't put the entire agency in a state of disarray. And, it was not that I was walking into completely unfamiliar territory, having worked with the group earlier. Most of what you defined was really overblown by the media, but it didn't bother me too much.

Look at the lineage of this organisation. Since 1973, Rediffusion has been a consistent entity that has built enduring brands. We have been adding value to client partnerships, and have been a talent powerhouse. The independents who have set up their own entities have, at some point, been through Rediffusion. The organisation has been strong in terms of meritocracy as well as fostering an entrepreneurial bent of mind.

The challenge was more about going back to the basics, and setting things right.

afaqs!:But Airtel was synonymous with Rediffusion, and people had written the agency off after that loss...

Talwar: Yes, but as Rajappa says, the 'bad times' were more talk than reality. There's no question that Airtel was important. But we won MTS right after that.

Padmakumar: If a violent incident happens in a country far away, people living outside think that the entire nation is shrouded in turmoil and chaos. The truth may simply be that certain pockets suffered. The same was true for Rediff after losing Airtel and Colgate.

Rajappa: I'd disagree that Rediff relied solely on Airtel. In fact, Rediffusion spawned many Airtels. We have a base of 100-odd clients and each one is valuable for us. Yes, Airtel would have been the most visible brand at that point in time and, therefore, could well have become the face of the agency. But, some of the most iconic brands and lines that are fresh in people's memories come from this agency.

Talwar: Yes, people still remember 'The Zing thing', 'When you think of colour, think of us' or 'Give me Red'. Rediffusion has enjoyed very long term relationships. Let's not discount that, be it the UB Group or Tata (over three decades).

Rajappa: The fact that Tata has assigned its entire brand health and PR mandate to us shows the level of trust the agency has earned.

afaqs!: People had started judging Rediffusion on the basis of the last couple of campaigns - which weren't really going anywhere - for Airtel. Many claimed that Rediff was losing direction. Was it?

Padmakumar: I joined Rediffusion in December, 2010. It isn't really different for the creative department, from what it was for the entire agency. There was a lot of work to be done. It was a perception issue, yes.

Rajappa: There was a bit of a churn around that time on the creative front. People were moving. That had to be addressed and, with Paddy at the helm, we did address it. A few people may have left in a 500+ organisation. That isn't too much of a hit, but it may have looked that way because it happened at one go.

Talwar: Yes, and it doesn't take time for people to call it an exodus.

afaqs!: Considering that the agency hadn't been doing well on the awards front, how difficult was it to convince people to join the agency in the creative department, Paddy?

The rebirth of Rediffusion
In boxing, the first step is to assess your opponent. You need to know how fast he can evade and how hard he can hit. It's pretty much the same for me. One comes in, assesses the situation and understands what one is taking on. One has to understand the team. There was a reservoir of talent, some unsung.

I also had to assess the kind of awards we were entering, taking calls on whether to enter or bring the awards scenario back in focus for Rediffusion. It's not about grabbing attention, but grabbing affection. The bottom line was to take care of the real work, and the awards would flow in.

afaqs!: Ramanuj Shastry, Mahesh Chauhan, Meenakshi Achan, Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar, Nisha Singhania, Anisha Sarin, Arvind Mohan - the last few years saw many key exits from Rediffusion. What were the first steps you took to stem the flow?

Rajappa: There is enough talent within the agency. Amitava Sinha, who was heading the East, also took on the South as COO. He has been with the agency for seven to eight years. Neville Medhora, who has been in the system for four years or so, took over from Nisha Singhania.

Today, the environment is really different, and that's where I become the conscience keeper. We believe in having an organisation without silos, practising collaboration internally and with client partners. The implementation of that vision is what I focussed on after taking over.

afaqs!: Are Mohan's shoes easy ones to fill for you, Gautam? How has it been, shaping the planning product of Rediffusion?

Talwar: His are certainly not easy shoes to fill. But the fact is that there was a lot to be done. Now, we have a full-fledged planning team of 19 people, and we're still hiring. It's about getting it going once again. Rigour, direction, eye to detail, implementation and a lot of real work is what we're looking at.

Rajappa: Planning is a key area of investment and focus for us. If we are to build enduring brands, we have to ensure they are rooted in sound planning and strategy.

afaqs!: How well has the 'slow and steady' strategy worked for Rediff in 2011? What has been the business model that you based 2011 on?

Rajappa: I will say that we were very aggressive in the marketplace, not slow and steady.

Talwar: Clients are dispassionate and very clear on what they want. What is paramount to them is the kind of understanding and work we bring to the table. They need to feel that they are in safe hands.

Rajappa: We have gone about building a strong team in every office of ours, with strong planning, servicing and creative departments. All of them come together like a fist. I would say we are an antithesis to the way the industry works. Unlike other agencies, we are not led by a particular individual.

When I came in, our first commitment was to cater to the clients we were working with and to let them know that they were our first priority. We saw a lot of organic growth coming from our existing clientele. The Arrow campaign, for instance, did well for the client and we were rewarded with two new brands, Izod and Gant, from the same stable. After we picked up MTS' mainline business, it also awarded us the digital mandate.

Last year, we picked up 15-20 businesses across different offices. There was Emami out of Kolkata (Boroplus and Zandu). Down South, we got TVS Srichakra and Reliance Jewels. We retained ITC, and won biggies like SBI Mutual Funds and Lafarge in the beginning of 2012 - all despite stiff competition. And, then there is Tata's PR mandate. The losses that you mentioned in 2010 get dwarfed by the achievements in the last year. We have almost doubled our base since then.

afaqs!: Apart from the two recent alliances (TME-MPG and Rediffusion-Edelman for PR), are there any M&As on the cards for the agency?

Rajappa: It would be premature of me to talk of any other alliances at this point, but it should suffice to say that we believe in the Rediff philosophy of 'Best alone, and better together'. We're open to the idea when there is an opportunity to add value to our clients' businesses through such collaborative alliances.

afaqs!: It would be lovely if the three of you could individually share your agenda for 2012, concerning Rediffusion-Y&R.

Rajappa: Let Gautam start on this one, he has a lot to say! (Laughs)

Talwar: (chuckling) Ah, yes. The only true capital that agencies have is people, so that's the first bit I am addressing. We have spent the last year getting a robust strategy team in place and hope to hire several more. This time, it will be from institutes such as MICA and the B-schools. We're going back to the basics. We're ensuring that anyone who walks out of Rediffusion is a full-rounded professional in advertising.

Secondly, there is a knowledge management activity that we are creating with the help of a beautiful global Y&R technique called 'Exploring', which goes beyond focus groups and gets real insights from real interaction with real people. It's based on the fundamental theory that if you want to know how the lion hunts, don't go to the zoo, go to the jungle. I drove the Tata Nano for a long distance to get a feel, a gut instinct about it. That's an example.

Another area of focus is the Brand Asset Valuator tool, which will help us anticipate problem areas for our clients and minimise risks for them. Teams, processes and tools - those that need to be imported from the global pool - are areas I'm looking at.

Rajappa: Strategy cannot be an armchair management exercise for us, like Gautam said.

Padmakumar: The first eight months of my time here were spent understanding the people, the atmosphere and the processes. With the kind of ideas generated in client presentations, there was an increasing sense of a vibrant atmosphere here. Genuine intention is palpable, and transcends right across the agency.

Now, the affirmation has come in. The best of the vendors, the best of filmmakers and the best of the talent in this industry are treating us as a destination of choice now. "Hey, can we meet up?" is what we're hearing from industry folk, who were not saying so earlier. Right now, we have around 100 people in creative. It was a little more when I had joined, but we're pretty much well manned.

Rajappa: Our focus area will continue to provide the best environment to young blood for ideas to flourish and produce the best work for our clients. We're not so worried about the outcome.

Padmakumar: The three of us know each other rather well and the tuning is absolutely fantastic. We will not second-guess what the world thinks of us. We will just do our best.

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