Shreyas Kulkarni

The one-year review of Amit Wadhwa’s stint as dentsu Creative India’s CEO

He took over in the middle of a raging pandemic and soon faced a flurry of senior leadership exits.

It is rare for a leader to take on a new role amid blue skies. Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009 when the effects of the 2008 recession still raged. Justin Langer became the Australian men’s cricket team coach right after a cheating scandal.

And, Amit Wadhwa became dentsu Creative India’s CEO in June 2021, in the middle of the COVID pandemic, and little did he realise he would soon see several senior leaders leave the agency holding network quicker than a Formula One car’s lap across a circuit.

Wadhwa, however, found himself in familiar conditions. He had gone through a similar journey, albeit on a smaller scale, when he first joined dentsu India in 2011 and inherited the leadership of dentsu Creative Impact (now Dentsu Impact) as SVP.

"55-60% of our workforce in dentsu Creative India are digital-first natives"
Amit Wadhwa

“We used to handle two Japanese brands. It was completely haphazard and my first question to myself was, did I make the right decision?"

“We restructured the agency, figured out the right people and how to go about work. We started getting business... Maruti Suzuki, Carlsberg, Subway, Netflix… We got brands people wanted, and built the agency.”

Wadhwa, one can say, is a career dentsu India guy. From Dentsu Creative Impact, he, in a decade, went on to become CEO of dentsu Creative India which is divided into two parts:

dentsuMB Group

• Taproot Dentsu

• Dentsu Webchutney

• dentsuMB

• Dentsu Impact

Isobar India group

• WATConsult

• Isobar India

• Perfect Relations

Some creative accounts the group recently won include KFC Media, Adidas India, Licious, CarDekho, TVS Scooters, and BIBA, among others. In the first four months of 2021’s second half, the group “won 40 new businesses,” reveals Wadhwa.

People make the brand

Most media headlines surrounding dentsu India, since the second half of last year and even today, include the wave of senior leadership exits. A bunch of mid and senior-level leaders quit too. People come together, as a team, to build an agency brand, but some people go on to define it.

Also Read: Off with their filters; Vice World News and Dentsu Webchutney take on the British Museum’s tour with 'The Unfiltered History Tour’

The name of PG Aditya, former CCO at Dentsu Webchutney, was thrown around as the face of the award-winning The Unfiltered History Tour (an Innovation Lions shortlist at Cannes at the time of writing this piece). He is no longer with the agency. Perception matters, clients must be thinking the same.

Wadhwa isn’t worried. “The truth is people move in and out, across agencies and organisations. It has happened in dentsu… What people don't see are the brilliant folks within the agency. One needs to identify them.”

His first important objective, as CEO, was to make sure dentsu India identifies the right people and gives them the right opportunity.

Also Read: What exactly is happening at dentsu in India?

Speaking about the senior leadership exits, Wadhwa says, “The restructuring was done with a purpose - so that we can deliver it right, for not just the clients, but also our people.”

New people, new age, new hiring asks

Digital changed the advertising and marketing world, pre-pandemic. The last two years have only accelerated the change. Upskilling became the rage and hiring challenges grew because the skills needed to flourish in a post-pandemic world, were starkly different from the ones in 2020. Creative people define the future, but how do you pick one?

Wadhwa first decides to delve into the fluctuating definition of a creative agency. It “is still about building brands, but technology has made it possible to bring creatives to life through experiences, and not through a solitary TVC or print ad… what has changed is the medium (digital) in which we can communicate the idea.”

Getting people who understand various domains and upskilling the existing workforce, are the main priorities for Wadhwa.

Coming to people, the CEO first muses whether art and copy have lost relevance? “No” he booms. “It is still there and along with it are digital content writers, video editors, people with social media skills, the ask has broadened.”

He feels clients will look at such skills and say “these people will help give direction to my brand. Getting people who understand these domains and upskilling the existing workforce are priorities for Wadhwa.

Creativity’s new rival or ally?

If creativity is the base of any work, does technology act as the cement that holds it or is it the new base? A slew of ads, be it Pepsi using deepfake, Cadbury using AI and ML, or Dentsu Webchutney using immersive tech, have illustrated the power of technology in advertising.

Brands must have noticed it and would want to do something similar. The demand for technology-first solutions must have risen. Turns out clients are coming in with demands of “doing something new” and not necessarily related to technology.

The cloud of reduced spends and the incoming digital monsoon

A couple of weeks ago, Unacademy CEO Gaurav Munjal told his employees that the edutech startup’s focus will be on savings, and marketing spends will reduce. This is a worrisome thought for any agency owner because startups like Unacademy have been the biggest advertisers over the past few years.

Wadhwa, however, says, “so far, there have been no talks of cutting down spends” from his clients.

However, what the group has been doing is investing in digital. “We have invested in anything and everything digital, right from e-commerce, ORM, UI, UX, you name it. 55-60% of our workforce in Dentsu Creative India are digital-first natives… Our mainline agencies were doing social media campaigns on the run, anyway, for the longest time.”

On dentsu Creative India's clients, Wadhwa says it is a healthy mix of established brands and young startups. “The hunger to do something new is tremendous in conventional brands. Now, they are lapping up digital and technology more strongly. Also, there is a hunger to experiment among new-age startups.”

Do they approach dentsu with project work or retainer models? He says some are coming with project work and many are regular relationships.

What kind of project work do they come with? “Startups realise the importance of having a brand language and identity so many of them come and say help define us”. The CEO reveals project work has increased over the last year but the majority are regular relationships.

The art of picking awards and opponents

dentsu India was visibly missing from this year’s One Show Abby’s. It was, however, spotted at Kyoorius and now Cannes Lions 2022. Explaining this, Wadhwa says the group felt competing in international awards meant competing against international agencies. When you win there, you come across as a global creative power.

"We decided to go with Kyroorius because bigger agencies were participating in it and because of realistic reasons we could not participate anywhere else.”

At many awards, dentsu India competes with not only rival agencies and their holding networks, but also consultancies and the new-age creative ilk, like the former AIB folks now known for their work for CRED and Disney+ Hotstar.

Have the latter two started to raise eyebrows? Not so much. “We are different from pure-play consultancies because one, we will make things happen for you. We are a partner where execution is equally important than just giving suggestions,” remarks Wadhwa.

When it comes to the AIBs of the world, he feels they are out there mostly for creative entertainment. “We don't create for entertainment. We are here to build brands,” he states.

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