Madhuwanti Saha

"As people become more rooted in privacy, how do we use technology to add value?": Sonali Malaviya, GroupM's Essence

A chat with the newly appointed MD over her game plan, present challenges in the marketing landscape and the agency's positioning

When brands put people first and attempt big things, they fuel culture and innovation, help companies grow and create real value; but they need to take risks. That's where Essence, GroupM's global data and measurement-driven agency rooted in data science, comes in to help brands take decisions and risks. And, that's how Sonali Malaviya, the agency's newly appointed managing director (in May) for India plans to spearhead it.

Malaviya replaced Anand Chakravarthy, who has moved on to pursue entrepreneurship. Based in Gurgaon, she reports to Essence APAC CEO T. Gangadhar and GroupM South Asia CEO Prasanth Kumar.

Sonali Malaviya
Sonali Malaviya

Leading Essence across its offices in Bengaluru, Delhi and Mumbai, she drives continued client-centric innovation in data, analytics and technology, and business growth and company culture for the agency in the market.

Malaviya's and Essence's mission is clear: to make brands more valuable to the world. Her game plan has three parts to it. "Firstly, growth will come from new and existing businesses and expanding our suite of services to them. Secondly, our clients need to be able to benefit from what Essence can bring to the table. The third is our product differentiation. We have a lot of products and services, one of them being Essence Media Health Check. It is about bringing these to our clients and prospects within GroupM and outside. The other core objective is investing in the development of our people, helping them do the best work of their lives in Essence," Malaviya chalks out her strategy in her first-ever media interaction as the agency's new MD.

Essence's portfolio in India includes brands like Airtel, Britannia, Flipkart, Games24x7, Google, Honda motorcycles and scooters, Livspace, Melorra, Purplle, Vedantu, Wakefit and Zee5. Malaviya is committed to taking Essence into the next phase of growth and development in India, a priority market for the agency in APAC and globally. The agency entered the country in 2016, offering media services like planning, activation, automation and technology, alongside its specialist capabilities such as consulting, analytics, data strategy, e-commerce, experience (creative), strategy and advertising operations.

Malaviya joined Essence in 2018 as VP, client services to lead the agency's Google business in India. In 2019, she was handed the additional responsibility of the agency's Google business in Southeast Asia and this time as senior VP, client services.

She counts it as one of the most significant achievements as they built a strong, cohesive team, integrating offline and digital teams, for the tech giant from the ground up. For the unversed, the agency handles Google's global digital media duties for over a decade.

"Highlights with Essence's Google team in India include making excellence the hallmark and delivering business results like never before and becoming the agency's global centre of excellence for Google Pay and Ads Data Hub. The team was also the first globally to master app campaigns for acquisition and engagement. Essence in India has a lot of firsts to the team's credit," Malaviya takes pride in her team.

Earlier, she served as COO at Colorbar Cosmetics and country marketing lead at Twitter in India. With over 20 years of experience in management, marketing and media across industries and markets, she has also held senior roles at Mindshare, PHD, Roy Morgan Research and MediaCom in India, the UAE and Australia. But it was her stint at market research firm Roy Morgan Research (Australia) as an account director for beverages and FMCG brands that 'kindled a lifelong interest in people - in this case, people as users and consumers'.

As the new MD of a global data and measurement-driven media agency, the conversation invariably steers towards challenges like ad frauds and viewability which are less threatening, according to Malaviya, as there are multiple tools and market solutions.

The bigger challenge for brands is the users' increasing push for data privacy leading to browsers like Firefox and Safari phasing out third-party cookies – Google delayed it till late 2023. As audience engagement, targeting capabilities and reach, are about to change, marketers have to navigate with clever alternatives to target effectively and scale their business in the new world.

Malaviya agrees, "As people become more rooted in privacy, how do we use technology to add value to them and our businesses, scale valuable audiences and deepen our engagement with them? Those are some of the challenges everybody has started to think harder about."

The solution lies in the first-party data, 'the richest source of insights and understanding about your (marketer's) audience', as she points out. "There is a rush to understand and deploy first-party data by marketers. It's also one of the things we do pretty well. For us, it has trumped over any other source of data as it helps you scale valuable audiences, understand the ones you should be targeting in the future and deepen engagement," Malaviya emphasises, adding that responsibility is the key.

As a starting point, she offers Essence Media Health Check, launched last year. "It helps marketers achieve effective business outcomes from their digital media campaigns by delivering measurable performance improvements over current baselines."

With data privacy, conversations on digital transformation also come into play as we see brands working on it. With data science in Essence's DNA, the agency is in a position to help them out on their journey.

Malaviya concedes, "We are rooted in data science thinking and Bayesian principles of constant evolution from our existing learning and constant experimenting to evolve. It means we pick up everything clients have done in the past, apply our knowledge to it and continue to test, learn and experiment to discover new ways to add value (for our clients, consumers and employees)."

She continues, "With our unified approach to data and analytics, we are in a position to bring creative and media closer together than other agencies. We help marketers achieve data-driven growth. Essence exists to improve the value and relevance of advertising for the benefit of brands and consumers."

The MD applauds FMCG brands for the leaps they have made in transforming themselves. "Everybody has responded amazingly to the challenges. What we are trying to do is demystify it (a little) for them. I love being a part of some of those transformations. It's such a great time and place to be where we are."

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