Shreyas Kulkarni

We have big plans to grow in the non-Samsung area: Neeraj Bassi, Cheil India

The agency’s new chief growth officer lets us pick his brain on his appointment, his push for integrated marketing, and what clients are asking these days.

Cheil is popular for its work on Samsung. It was after all built to service the Samsung account.  What many fail to realise is there is another face to this agency – Cheil 2 which does work with clients such as MG Motors, UNICEF, Asics, and JK Tyres.

Propelling this aspect of the agency is its new chief growth officer Neeraj Bassi. What is noteworthy about his appointment is not the fact that it is his second stint at the South Korean agency but that he comes back helming a business role unlike the chief strategy officer he was back in 2016.

Bassi explains how this came to be, his passion for integrated marketing, and what the clients want to do as he looks to make the agency grow in the non-Samsung space.

Edited Excerpts

How did you come to join Cheil India as a chief business officer?

How does a strategy guy take up a business role? It all goes back to my previous stint at Cheil (2016-2017). I had joined the agency from Ogilvy and the key reason to come to Cheil was its integrated proposition.

When Cheil interviewed me at the time, the trend was to watch a mobile phone ad but we knew everything about it beforehand. Everybody knew the specs of a phone before it launched and Cheil was doing interesting integrated work to influence that part of the journey.

Digital, at that time, was established but it was not as prominent as it is today. I found Cheil’s integrated work fascinating and thanks to the agency, I made my shift from being a mainline planner to integrated.

I then joined Cheil as a chief strategy officer. I went on to play the same role at Havas and Publicis. Integrated became part of my career journey.

This time, Cheil said you did so much on the Samsung account, you understood what it does, and you learnt integrated there. How about taking the learnings to other clients and building a base there but not as a strategy person but as a business person?

It took a bit of a discussion because it has been an age since I have taken up a business role. Both Carlos Limseob Chung (MD, India) and Sanjeev Jasani (COO, India and South West Asia) assured me of their help with my transition into the business role. A lot of the systems were already in place, and so was the team; I do not have to start from scratch.

Also Read: The Anglophilia of MG Motor India explained

Getting new business is the major responsibility of your role. With start-ups freezing spending, retainers not changing hands regularly, and a possible dip in project work, who’s filling the space?

We have retainers too. We have MG Motors and JK Tyres on board in the automotive space; it is our speciality.

We have businesses which are set and going, but where to search for new business is very important and it is something I am in the process of cracking and I am sure I will crack it.

I am looking at allied spaces. Our expertise is in the auto space, if I can approach more auto guys… that is the kind of expansion I am looking at.

I have the advantage of offering the full bouquet of Cheil India’s services. I am not just a creative person or representing the creative side of the business. I can go ahead and have discussions on digital, retail, and brand experience, that whole gamut is open to me.

Retainer clients are reducing and startups have dried up a bit. So, it’s not going to be easy but I do have a starting point basis the clients I have and the services I can offer.

With integrated offerings on top of your mind, what are the skills you are looking for in new hires?

I am in conversation with the HR team which plays a strong role at Cheil India. Thanks to them, we get to know about the movement in the market.

We have big plans to grow in the non-Samsung area. I looking for people who are interested in that part of the journey.

The division between mainline and digital no longer exists. Everybody needs to understand both mediums. My first requirement is someone who thinks omnichannel or channel neutral.

Also, someone who is excited about digital because the spending is going in that direction and the amplification will happen more and more over there.

I want people who want to work at Cheil, to look at it as a preference. You should not look at it like it is another job

I once told an interviewee that she is not looking to work at Cheil but just looking for another job. She went back and read up on Cheil, and looked up all the work the agency has done for Samsung and non-Samsung work. She returned convinced that she wanted to work at this agency.

I told her now we can have a conversation.

Only those clients convert where there is a new proposition and new relationships are to be formed.
Neeraj Bassi

The integrated movement has not been as successful in advertising as many would have wanted it. How do clients respond when you offer them integrated services?

The biggest problem one faces when offering integrated services is that clients already have relationships here and there. If the pitch is for creative services, the client already has a media agency on board or a digital agency on board.

It is difficult to get an integrated proposition on board and so what we rely on is the solution. My experience in the two months that I have been here being that when we take the entire integrated effort with all the divisions coming in, it makes a much better impact than when you take only one.

My team sits with me. My creative guys who are doing mainline thought are interacting with retail guys who are interacting with the brand experience guys so the idea gets built in an integrated way.

When I bring that to the client, they see the value. But there is a path which lies between seeing the value and giving the business because a client suddenly won’t let go of a relationship, they have with somebody else.

We have to then say we will do this on a project basis and this bit on a retainer basis.

Projects or retainers, what has your focus?

Right now, the clients are in the driver’s seat and because the money has not only dried up for advertising agencies, overall marketing kitty has reduced.

The clients also need to optimise how to use the agency better. I am open to both a retainer and a project. 

A retainer always gives you stability. I can build my team basis that and there will continuity of business for that team. For instance, as I mentioned about allied, we have a four-wheeler account, we can go for two-wheelers. We have picked up a good understanding of auto thanks to working closely with both our clients. For certain clients, it may not work out.

What are clients asking for these days?

These days clients are looking for the best efficiency in their spending. They are not clear on what will give them the answer to their problem. Clients, earlier, knew if they up this lever, this will happen in the market.

With the diversity of media available, options increasing day by day, and the ability to measure the impact of some of these options, and the inability as well, they are thinking about the right optimum solution.

Because media is part of the Cheil proposition, we talk to the team as to what will be the optimum mix for the client and the basis that we recommend.

Money is limited and how to deploy it is the problem.

Which category do you think has the money to spend?

I am telling clients I will help them optimise their spending because I am thinking integrated. That way I am not limited only by categories which are spending more.

My DNA is I work in an integrated way so you get good returns on your investment. For me, clients don’t need to increase their spending. For me, they should want to spend judiciously in an integrated manner.

How many clients convert?

Only those clients convert where there is a new proposition and new relationships are to be formed. A new launch would not have the hangup and that is where we get better results be it a project or getting all the services in the mix.

What is your opinion on influencer marketing? Do you think it is still on the sideline or a serious marketing offering? 

Influencer marketing is a good trend but it has to be genuine. If someone is genuinely putting across a proposition for their followers, it is a good place to be. Those are the kind of connections we try to do.

Word of mouth used to be a big thing in the past. With influencer marketing today, what you have done is convinced a person and that person is speaking to their audience on your behalf.

As long as the connection is genuine and you have convinced the person than buying them out, it helps a lot. It is the same with branded content, if the tie-up has the right context, it will stay there. But, if you force-fit your brand regardless of connection, then branded content will fail.

Clients are open to influencer marketing but they are scrutinising it a lot. They are asking who is your selection of influencer, what are your criteria for selection, and the how is it the right tie-up for me. A lot of rigour goes into it than just the follower base.

The IPL is approaching but is it still affordable to brands looking to advertise?

The kind of affordability advertising on IPL requires is quite something. And then on top of that, brands go ahead and do tie-up with teams. The budget goes huge and to an extent of unaffordability.

Clients still want to look at it because there are only a small number of events with such a viewership level. There is no other option where one can get so many viewers. And a brand gets a positioning on the IPL; people understand IPL is unaffordable and so being on it, and advertising on it can be a statement.

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