Ashwini Gangal

"If you think the space I am in is not sexy, wait and watch": Pratap Bose

An interview with Pratap Bose, founding partner and chairman, The Social Street, a communications agency that's not in the business of creating TV commercials...

Around eight months back, Pratap Bose, 52, former Mudra hand, announced the launch of his advertising conglomerate, The Social Street. Ever since, all our articles around his firm have fared markedly well. Clearly, interest around this agency is high. While there's curiosity around other creative startups as well, it's never as sustained as it has been around Bose's firm, which stands out for two reasons.

One, it started out with over 100 employees scattered across offices in three cities. Two, it's an agency that is not in the business of making television commercials. The firm, ironically enough, is very much in the business of buying TV spots for brands.

"If you think the space I am in is not sexy, wait and watch": Pratap Bose

So you know what the agency doesn't do. To know what it does, read the 'fact file' we've tossed into this story.

Recently, The Social Street forged a strategic alliance with Rediffusion-Y&R. As 'Rediffusion-The Social Street', a newly birthed team will provide marketing services to the clients of Rediffusion-Y&R, Everest Brand Solutions and Rediffusion Wunderman.

We interviewed Pratap Bose, founding partner and chairman, The Social Street. His favourite word - Scale. A word he hates - Startup.

Edited Excerpts.

Let's talk about your recently established strategic alliance with Rediffusion. What prompted it?
"If you think the space I am in is not sexy, wait and watch": Pratap Bose

For us, this deal is the start of many things.

For me, it's about bringing scale. If you want the large clients, you have to have scale. You can't just say, "I want to 'startup', I have three clients, and I am going to handle their advertising." Unless you have the ability to deliver nationally, no large client is going to work with you.

We've gone completely against every rule in the book on how startups should be. Within four months, we opened three offices and hired 130 people... Not like we had the business to support all of that, but that's the point. If you don't have scale, clients won't see you as a serious player and won't entertain you beyond a point.

So, this alliance is a step in that direction. You'll hear many more such. I could align with a Dentsu tomorrow morning, or an IPG...

During our launch phase, we used the word 'conglomerate' and a lot of people 'poo-pooed' me saying, 'What is Pratap Bose doing?' But it is going to be a conglomerate, with many businesses, alliances, JVs and acquisitions.

How exactly did the association come about?
"If you think the space I am in is not sexy, wait and watch": Pratap Bose

Dhunji (Wadia, president, Rediffusion-Y&R Group) and I have a great relationship. We started working on a couple of clients, worked on a few pitches that came to fruition. I thought, 'We've got all of these offerings... it would be great to be attached to another agency and help them out on all their large clients by offering what they don't have.'

Both Dhunji and I take chances. We're both are in similar situations. He's in a situation of turning the agency around. I am in a position where I want to move fast. The alliance fuels and fulfils my ambition of growing, and growing quickly.

Rediff has had a rough time over some periods of time in the past, but now they're making the right moves. This agency will do well.

Some say the alliance makes Rediffusion look bad. A large, networked agency is expected to have the wherewithal to offer 360 solutions to its clients, to begin with...

That's a misconception. To be very honest, there aren't very many full service agencies today. Mudra was at one point; not anymore. There are many agencies that simply claim to be 'full service'.

There are many creative groups today that have no clue about the other side of the business. They don't have specialist skills. They're just seen as creative agencies. It's unfair to single Rediffusion out. And I am not saying this in their defense. This is not a step down for Rediff at all.

If I were Dhunji, I might have done the deal. I commend Dhunji for doing it; it takes a lot of guts. And it works well for the clients; we're not doing it just for the revenue.

I have worked at top agencies all my life. I can tell you that all agencies today say they have the ability to deliver 360, but they don't. When I was with Mudra, in pitches, when clients asked, 'Can you do this' and 'Can you do that', we'd say 'Yes, yes...' but did we really have the ability to do it? No.

Then the worst thing happens - you try to provide a solution though you don't have the expertise to. And because you're a large network, your ego prevents you from working with outside parties. Never has Mudra collaborated with another agency to do something, or Ogilvy or JWT, for that matter.

But being an independent agency, if I have, say, a digital brief that looks too complicated, I'll just send the brief out to four digital agencies and ask them to pitch. It's a large business. I have the relationship. I don't have the expertise. And I know the expertise lies outside. Then if X agency wins that pitch, I'll present that idea to the client. If the client likes it, that agency then runs the business for me, and we have a revenue arrangement.

Because I am an independent agency, I can do this. A large agency wouldn't. It's against their genes. Therefore, I see this alliance as a great, bold move for Dhunji to make.

"If you think the space I am in is not sexy, wait and watch": Pratap Bose
Your agency buys media on TV but doesn't create TV ads. Why so?
When I was on a sabbatical from Mudra, I spent many, many months thinking about this. I spent that time wisely, thinking, 'Is there space for an agency that doesn't exist in the country?'

I didn't want to start a 'digital agency'; there are two digital agencies being born every day in this country.

The closest anyone comes to offering what we do today is GroupM. But the problem with GroupM is that it is not integrated. It is a mammoth organisation with so many things across cities. When they work on one brief, it's unlikely that everyone in the country will come together for it.

I will get into areas like stocking, distribution and packaging. I will ask questions like, 'Is Snapchat in your media mix?', 'Is Tinder in your media plan?'... We hedged our bets. It's like a Chinese fishing line. When I meet brands, I rarely go back empty handed.

Are there digital agencies better than us? Or media agencies? Or retail agencies? Of course there are! I don't make any tall claims that I am better than them.

My idea is not to compete with a Madison in the media business space.

But I am integrated and understand all of the businesses I am in.

If the client is not increasing his sales and market share, I have failed. No agency that will tell a client, 'I will take your market share from 10 to 15 per cent.' Nobody speaks the sales language. We do.

I don't care what the client's creative and media agencies are. They could work with Ogilvy, Lowe, JWT... None of them has the speciality functions that I offer.

"If you think the space I am in is not sexy, wait and watch": Pratap Bose
Okay, but what's the harm in starting a 'mainline division' within The Social Street?

I don't have the time. I am a man in a hurry. I can't wait three years to start and build an agency. I'd rather just buy one. When I buy, I gain three to five years.

I have stayed away from the advertising business. I consult with the CEO/owner of the business. And we don't talk about 'the next TVC'. That's No. 50 on their priority list, anyway!

Do I love advertising? Yes. Will I get into it? The inner soul says, 'Yes'. But I don't know when. Therefore, it is much easier to collaborate with, buy or acquire somebody who is in the space.

Right now, advertising is not part of my offering. I think advertising is dead, anyway. It is not a profitable business. Except for of course, the big, top agencies like Ogilvy, McCann, Lowe, etc.... they've hit a point where they are profitable. Even if they lose some, it doesn't matter. They'll stay profitable. They've hit that scalable point. The rest are struggling.

What then of all the creative shops that are coming up?
Which surprises me. It really surprises me. I wish them all well. But I do believe a lot of them don't understand finance.

My view is eight out of ten startups don't succeed. And I don't know what the differentiator is. Take 20 mainline agencies - what's the differentiator for each? That worries me. I am worried for them.

A lot of them need a lot of advice.

There's no denying that the mediums you are present in are perceived as the 'non-sexy' ones...
"If you think the space I am in is not sexy, wait and watch": Pratap Bose

...but it's the most profitable side of the business, with margins of up to 30 per cent! I find it extremely sexy. The media doesn't. The media is only interested in TV spots and creative people.

And who says I can't do sexy work? Promo and activation is more sexy than any TV commercial.

I am an awards guy, clearly. I will hit it big at the awards. If you're saying the space I am in is not sexy, wait and watch.

For a retail client, I am working on all the stores in India. It includes customer profiling, managing the stores, lighting-display, building apps for them and end-to-end retail solutions that are critical for their business. It'll move into data, analytics... You may not find that sexy. I find this very sexy. Agencies just don't understand this.

The future is not advertising. The future is communication.

In fact, a lot of creative people are now sick and tired of doing TV commercials. They want to do more meaningful work.

I work with a lot of top NCDs today.

So they're cheating on their agencies?
No. I come to them with a 'cause', not a 'client'. I ask them to think with me on a specific brief.
So, you pay them for their thoughts?
In most cases, no.That's the advantage and power of being an independent agency.

A Note From the Editor

The last time I was in Pratap Bose’s cabin for an in-depth interview, it was after the top job at DDB Mudra evaded him, disappointingly so. “I’m leaving with a sense of accomplishment. There’s no bad blood. I am looking forward to my third innings,” he said to me at the time, referencing his long stints at Mudra and before that, Ogilvy. This was in April 2014.

Few days back, as I sat in Pratap’s cabin a second time – this time, in his own agency, The Social Street – waiting to begin this interview, I kept thinking back to something else he categorically mentioned during the previous one: “I am not a ‘BTL guy’.”

Which is ironic, because he spent the better part of the hour telling me why he’s not interested in the ‘mainline advertising’ business – which includes ATL or TV ads – and why the so-called peripheral channels of communication like promo, activation, in-store marketing and retail, are the mainstay of his 130-member-strong ship, one he’s still struggling to find a descriptor for.

His partner Mandeep Malhotra, former head of DDB Mudra Max, articulates it rather well. “We’ve put in all our investments upfront. Therefore, we’re trying to get to the lower hanging fruit first,” he says. After all, the part of the business they’re in has profit margins of up to 30 per cent, Bose tells us. And it’s the part that clients care about most, they insist.

While the agency may get into the business of making TV commercials in the future, it may not necessarily build all the capabilities required for the job, in-house. Instead, The Social Street is busy looking at potential partner alliances for such things.

Speaking of which, the team recently entered into a strategic alliance with Rediffusion-Y&R, an advertising agency led by Dhunji Wadia. The peers of Pratap and Dhunji call this move shrewd on the part of the former and gutsy on the part of the latter.

Is it?


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