Abid Hussain Barlaskar
Points of View

Can parking agency talent at client offices work in India?

A host of brands crafting and executing ad campaigns sans the involvement of advertising 'agencies' triggered one of our stories in November last year. When we asked marketers why they were opting or would like to opt for 'in-house' advertising teams, most of them said they were open to the model. One among them, ixigo, already had a dedicated team in place that was steadily churning ad content for the brand.

The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in the United States, in a 2018 report, reveals that 78 per cent of companies have an in-house agency and 8 per cent of the 22 per cent who did not, were planning to get into it.

The reasons listed by ANA's respondents matched the ones mentioned by the marketers we had spoken to here in India. Namely, speed, cost efficiency, better knowledge of the brand and dedicated staff. 90 per cent of respondents also worked with external agency partners. The report lists examples of brands including Philips, GlaxoSmithKline, JPMorgan Chase and Revlon.

Today, many brands, namely, Zomato (yes, the witty copywriting one sees on social media is done internally), ixigo, OYO, Uber, Swiggy and Liberty are crafting campaigns in-house, which means, they are hiring talent — some, rightly poached from the agency universe — that can create the kind of work an agency team might have created. OYO recently appointed former Havas hand Mayur Hola, as head of creative, India and SE Asia.

There are cons to not having an external partner too. Agencies offer talent with varied experience, in-housing could lead to too much internal influence, agencies have exposure to global and industry trends, a better rapport with production teams, etc. On the digital marketing and programmatic side, a senior global executive from Essence Oscar Garza told afaqs! that a brand, before in-housing, has to be ready with a full range of services that it has to provide for itself.

We understand that trends at home are different and are influenced by different factors, and a recent article in the media made us ponder the subject through an Indian lens, because the parent network in question has a heavy presence in our market.

Isobar logo
Isobar logo

Said article reported, Accelerate, a service from Isobar, DAN's digital agency, is 'an in-housing solution to help businesses remodel their marketing approach'. Global media reports suggest Accelerate is offering clients four key services to speed up the transformation and their in-house capabilities — turnkey solutions, talent, consulting, Isobar’s accelerators and products. What makes this set-up different is the fact that employees of Accelerate will sit at and work out of the offices of their clients. This is something we're yet to see happen locally. Barring one example that comes to mind is Nestle's Digital Acceleration Team (DAT) which comprises of GroupM employees who sit in the Nestle office. Chandrasekar Radhakrishnan, head of communications and e-commerce, Nestlé India defines it as an 'outsourced-insourced' team. 'Outsourced' since it's is run by Group M, and 'insourced' because they sit in the Nestlé office.

Back in 2012, we set out exploring the trend of the 'dedicated agency’ — a tailored agency team put together to service a single big client. Ford has had GTB (Global Team Blue), the Ford-only agency from WPP, for decades. The brand recently split the creative duties and appointed BBDO as the creative agency of record. GTB continues to handle activation including media planning, media buying, shopper and performance marketing among various other roles.

Mindshare Fulcrum, a unit of Mindshare India, spent over two decades with Hindustan Unilever (HUL) as its sole media planning and buying agency in India.

Late Ranjan Kapur, then chairman, Bates India and country head, WPP India had told us that, it’s "more of a horses-for-courses policy” meaning specialised roles for specialised services. Of course, these dedicated employees worked out of their respective agency offices.

The Accelerate example opens a can of theories.

“There are lot of clients seeking help to create teams within their structures. We either take the BOT (build-operate-transfer) route or we in-house our teams at the client's. The idea is to transform the business quickly using digital,” says Shamsuddin Jasani, group managing director, Isobar South Asia.

Shamsuddin Jasani, group managing director, Isobar South Asia
Shamsuddin Jasani, group managing director, Isobar South Asia

He mentions that marketing and business are becoming more agile and real-time. “When clients and agencies are based in separate locations, the reaction is not as fast. There are consultancies, which draw a roadmap for the client to execute it. But, our team is in-house, sits with the client and helps them with the transformation process,” he adds.

The duration of the process depends on the project and could stretch from six months to a few years.

Asked about the kind of talent Isobar would provide for the in-housing service, Jasani says that Accelerate would involve the kind of talent nurtured at Isobar, like digital agency capabilities, consultancy capabilities and martech capabilities among others. “We are not stepping into domains that we don't excel in,” he says.

However, industry folks we spoke to opine that parking agency talent especially creative resource at client offices can make it taxing and monotonous for the talent.

There are other capabilities beyond creative where we excel.

Jasani says, “We work with the client to be able to replenish the teams. It involves taking care of the team as well as the client. If the requirement of the team is to be able to work on new brands they can be reassigned. But there already are brand specific teams within agencies who have been working on a brand for years. That is only from the creative perspective. There are other capabilities beyond creative where we excel.”

He stresses that for the transformation and to make change, it is important to be in the client's office. “At times we are unable to add that much value sitting away from the client,” he points out. Jasani explains with an example of social media and digital marketing teams that need to sit in client offices. “For a larger transformation project, we not only speak to the marketing team but also involve other stakeholders such as HR, tech and even the MD. The team needs to be embedded within the client’s,” he says.

Is this Isobar's way around client's in-housing?

Jasani explains that it’s more like “adapting" to the changes that are taking place in the industry. “We as partners should be able to match the client's requirements. We are looking at it as a new opportunity and a new line of business,” he divulges.

But is it safe to park key agency talent at client offices given the case of clients poaching talent? Jasani responds, “In the BOT format, we build the teams and on the project's completion it can be taken over by the client. It also safeguards against wrongdoings. However, if an agency is adding significant value and making a difference, the client won't do that. This could happen in a client-vendor relationship and ours is more of a partnership.”

From the Indian perspective, Jasani reveals that Isobar is already involved with clients and there are other clients who are ready to try it.

Rohit Ohri, group chairman and chief executive officer, FCB India
Rohit Ohri, group chairman and chief executive officer, FCB India

Rohit Ohri, group chairman and chief executive officer, FCB India mentions that the in-housing in this case is different from in-housing creative and design talent. We asked him if he would be okay with deputing a team at the client's office.

“From a digital transformation perspective and to accelerate the client's transformation the period from six months to a year should be viable proposition. The digital transformation, that’s not necessarily creative but more about getting clients to be more digitally savvy or digitising processes is definitely possible,” he says.

However, Ohri warns that providing in-house creative resources to clients could be a “fundamental disaster.” “It has been tried in the past and in-housing of creative has been an issue for reasons such as creativity and culture of an organisation gets compromised and there is limited amount of work. The talent could feel that while the rest of the agency has a wider spectrum, they only have limited access. The solution to this is rotating resources, but that doesn't really work as they also need some time to assimilate into the brand and culture. It's a bad idea in the creative business but when it comes to digital transformation for a short to medium engagement, it is something that could work,” Ohri explains.

Subhash Kamath, chief executive officer and managing partner, BBH India
Subhash Kamath, chief executive officer and managing partner, BBH India

Subhash Kamath, chief executive officer and managing partner, BBH India splits the in-housing business into two different types — one, the client creating more in-house capabilities (in the area of digital transformation, data analytics, social media monitoring, etc.) for faster and more responsive solutions, as an extension of their marketing teams. The second is an external agency (digital, creative, or media) housing a team at the client's office to partner with them more closely. While in both, the goal is a tighter, more integrated collaboration on the brand's activities, and at much faster speeds, Kamath opines that there are more cons than pros in the latter.

“While your team situated in the client's office may work more closely with the marketing teams, it can also become very stifling, especially for creative people. You can't have a client breathing down your neck and following up every hour, which can tend to happen,” says Kamath, making a point similar to Ohri. “Creative thinking needs some peace and quiet, however, short the deadline. Secondly, the team that sits in the client's office badly misses the more informal work environment of the agency that they've actually joined for. Slowly but surely, they start to miss the agency's culture and start to feel like outsiders. Belonging to a particular work culture and environment is very, very important to the creative industry and that doesn't happen easily if you're sitting in the client's office,” he explains.

“Lastly, the agency that you've joined is responsible for your growth, reward and motivation, not the client. Yet, day in day out, if you're sitting in the client's office like an extension of the client's team. That can be conflicting at times. I'm not saying it can't be worked upon or that processes can't be put in, but it's tough on people,” Kamath concludes.

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