Shreyas Kulkarni

When a consultant took over the job of rebuilding Dentsu India; the Harsha Razdan story

Marketing led by tech takes centre stage, and India's top 75 clients are in focus.

In the mid-'00s, MTV ran a show called Pimp My Ride in which a rapper would take a once-excellent-but-now-in-a-despicable-condition car to a crew of auto mechanics. They, through an episode, go on to transform the downtrodden vehicle into an uber-cool four-wheeler with all the fancy gizmos and bling.

It is an apt analogy to the last three to four years of Dentsu India during which the Japanese agency holding network absorbed 23 of its agency brands, triggered the exodus of its entire senior leadership, and ultimately drove away key clients including giants such as Maruti Suzuki and Reckitt from its media business.

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

The dentsunami remains one of the most storied periods of adland India in recent memory.

For nearly two years, the India business of Dentsu did not have a chief executive officer after Anand Bhadkamkar quit in August 2021 barring a brief stint from Peter Huijboom.

“We are a client-obsessed marketing tech consultancy.”
Harsha Razdan

That was until the network appointed Harsha Razdan as CEO, South Asia in May 2023. He is to Dentsu India what the crew of mechanics were to the poor cars, but there is a catch. Razdan is no mechanic because he does not come from the world of advertising.

He is the proverbial suit having cut his teeth in consulting with KPMG, technology with Accenture, and FMCG with Hindustan Unilever (HUL) and PepsiCo India.

His appointment almost felt like a rebellion against the incestuous nature of advertising in India where the same folks jump from one agency or network to another.

Razdan, however, is no stranger to Dentsu. He was a brand manager at PepsiCo when the network first drove to India. “A lot of people from JWT had started to jump to Dentsu saying ‘a new exciting company is coming into the country,’” he reminisces.

It was more than a year ago when Razdan received the call about this opportunity. He had heard about what Dentsu was doing, even the misses, but what made him go from consideration to saying yes was One Dentsu where different parts of the company are coming together to become one well-oiled engine.

And, that he could lead the transformation of the company and pivot it to a place where everything goes back to the country P&L than individual brands competing against each other.

He has spent most of the past five months meeting 70 to 80 CEOs – existing and potential clients and realised something was amiss.

The company, he felt, was offering clients a creative solution, a media solution, and an out-of-home solution when it was not needed in the first place. “Solution selling does not help, it is listening to the client and about what they want,” he exclaims.

He visited all these senior leaders alone. Why? Because he wanted their honest feedback on what is working and what is not. “Having other people from my team with me would have turned it into an appraisal meeting.”

Ever the consultant, he is placing the clients at the front and centre of Dentsu India’s new era under him. 

Also Read: Dentsu Creative now perfecting integration among agency brands

His appointment comes at a time when Dentsu Global’s decision to consolidate its agency brands into three verticals - Dentsu Creative, Dentsu Media, and Dentsu CX – and a semblance of the intended consolidation has begun to appear.

Clients, he says, used to wonder who would come to meet them each time there was a meeting; a nod to how the high number of agency brands in India had created confusion among clients.

Razdan wants to position Dentsu India as a consultancy in the space of marketing and technology because technology is as infused into marketing as anything else.

Unlike a few years ago when advertising agencies and their networks looked at consultancies as rivals, the Dentsu India CEO believes all agencies are consultancies.

“We are a client-obsessed marketing tech consultancy.”

His primary aim, he remarks, “Give your clients one face of Dentsu rather than the 15-20 as we had in the past.”

The company is aiming at India’s top 75 clients i.e. the likes of Tatas and the Birlas, and the big listed companies.

Dentsu India HQ
Dentsu India HQ

Despite losing clients, Dentsu India has won some new clients too such as Berger Paints, Carlsberg, Aditya Birla Capital, and Xpresso by Dailyhunt.

“Our domain has to be marketing, technology, and consultancy. If we can move in that direction rather than saying we are a creative company or a media company replying to Requests for Proposals (RFPs) then we have a better future for ourselves, better for our people,” he states.

Also, the company, unlike its last iteration, will not acquire companies at a quick pace. “We are on the hunt for acquisition, but calculated acquisitions again in the marketing tech domain.”

The people

Clients are just one side of the coin that Razdan eyes every day. Dentsu India’s employees are on the other side. When he took charge, his primary aim was to allay any fears and win their confidence.

Then there is the newly initiated Net Promoter Score (NPS) in which a team is rated by Dentsu folks on a scale of one to 10. So, if you are in finance, everyone outside the finance function rates the team.

“If you think you are efficient, all your colleagues should give you a thumbs up and say genuinely, 'I think you're doing a good job', except your team,” says explains Razdan. Dentsu India also has the next generation council that sets a path for 35 future leaders. 

The CEO wants people to be able to shift roles easily across the company, unlike advertising where the career progression is only in a vertical direction. A start for it is the internal job posting website. “People may not be raising hands because their bosses may be saying that the moment someone raises the hand, I'm short one person. I am telling them to raise their hands.”

Former Dentsu chairman Ashish Bhasin famously said it was the second biggest network in India. When asked about his future goals, Razdan was clear: “Being in the top three, if possible, top two across all the five or six domains that we are in three years. Then I think we've done a fair deal.”

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