Shreyas Kulkarni

We never acquire 100% of a company; our ambition is only 51%: Saurabh Varma, Wondrlab

Inspired by Leo Burnett and fuelled by acquisitions, here is the story of the Wondrlab network.

Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex is home to the biggest Indian and global businesses. The economic activity coming out of this business hub is staggering, and even more dizzying is the number of merger and acquisition deals struck here; keeping pace is incredibly hard.

Three-year-old Wondrlab, a marketing technology startup, however, is keeping pace, and sometimes outpacing its neighbouring giants. 

It has, amid its infancy, acquired What’s Your Problem (WYP), a creative agency; Opportune, an influencer marketing platform; Neon Digital, a performance marketing agency; and Cymetrix, a salesforce and data analytics company.

“We would not necessarily build bottom up, we would acquire, and then we would scale. We have backed ourselves to not only build agencies but products and platforms,” states Saurabh Varma, founder and CEO, Wondrlab.

All these companies come together to achieve Wondrlab’s primary aim – to build a global network from India.

“For us building a network with strategic bases to service global markets from India, Vietnam, the Middle East, and Warsaw will be the key."
Saurabh Varma

As of now, the company has planted its seeds in Bangalore and Delhi, has an employee strength of 450, and counts some of India’s biggest brands such as Spotify, BharatMatrimony, Arrow, Tata AIG, Ajio, Bajaj, HDFC, Patanjali, and The Times of India as its clients. 

An origin story tracing itself to the ’34 depression

Varma spent 17 years at the Publicis Group before building his startup. His time included stints as the chief executive officer and chief strategy officer of Leo Burnett, an agency whose origin he sees reflected in the birth of Wondrlab.

Leo Burnett was founded in 1935 during the Great Depression by the man of the same name. On the day of the launch, a press gathering was held where one of the journalists mocked Burnett saying he was crazy to start an agency in this economic situation, and very soon he would sell apples.

Since that day, apples have become the symbol of hope and optimism at Leo Burnett and every office has an apple.

Wondrlab was born during the Coronavirus years, and founder Varma points to his new shop’s leadership team – nearly everyone is from Burnett and Publicis.

“We were together managing this large group, and we felt whatever happened with Burnett could happen with us. At no point in time did we feel we'd fail,” he remarks.

The art of building a network

Varma feels it is the most opportune time to build a network out of India. In 2020, “there was enough capital available, and every week you would see a new unicorn being born, and yet in our business, there was no disruption, innovation.”

He acknowledges the wave of people leaving agencies, and some of them starting agencies themselves but, in his eyes, they were “very small, boutiquish.”

Most networks, for Varma, are in the services business, and “they define themselves as agencies which live off commission.”

Wondrlab’s network-building strategy doesn’t believe in outright takeovers. “We never acquire 100% of a company; our ambition is only 51%,” he reveals.

Why? “Because we want our entrepreneur to stay, we do not want him to finish three years or five years and run away.”

The company’s acquisition strategy is built on the back of a common currency – Wondrlab. He claims at a typical network, "the cross-sell is typically 1.2 to 1.3 of the various services that exist. Our cross-sell is massive because structurally the way our partners come on board is on the back of the currency."

Organisations do not have a framework, they exist as separate legal entities with a separate P&L, and a separate reporting manager and that manager's KPI is connected with his success. Fundamentally, one has to challenge that and break that if one wants to break the cycle.

“We believe that you have to operationalise greed,” states Varma and that if you can operationalise greed, you can create a structure, an organisation, where there are no silos.

“Our acquisition is designed and structured to make sure such silos don't exist. Which is why we have a greater chance of success than maybe others.”

Global ambitions

To build a network from India is easier said than done. Varma knows this very well because he has made sure Wondrlab will not open offices in 100 countries like the legacy networks.

“For us building a network with strategic bases to service global markets from India, Vietnam, the Middle East, and Warsaw will be the key,” states the CEO.

He says 50% of the technology transformation market is in the United States, and one will have front offices and clients in the US but “a lot of the service, a lot of the value addition, creativity, and tech will be built out of India.”

Varma thinks the future won't be in a service business alone and it is going to be a combination of differentiated products, and service. “Every time we build a practice, we will build a product that will differentiate us from that space, and that creates the value addition for our clients.”

He says he is in the long game when it comes to his new venture, and when asked to shed some insight about what he feels is coming, Varma was clear: “You need to be paranoid to the power of infinity because everything you do today can get disrupted tomorrow by some platform or technology. Start with a premise that everything will change.”

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