Benita Chacko
Profile

From family’s sitar business to a SaaS startup, Dentsu’s Vivek Bhargava’s learning outlook keeps him going

After quitting as the CEO of DAN Performance Group, Bhargava is now focusing on creating a customer data-led marketing intelligence platform, ProfitWheel. In a chat with afaqs!, he speaks on his journey so far and his vision for his new venture.

After working in the area of digital marketing for over two decades, Vivek Bhargava, head, Dentsu Performance Group, has moved into the software space with his new venture ProfitWheel. A SaaS startup, it will focus on creating a customer data-led marketing intelligence platform for the new direct-to-consumer world.

“After spending 20 years in the services space, I found that you can't build a truly scaled global company providing services. So, I was clear that if I take up the mantle of entrepreneurship again, I'm going to focus on product companies.”

For Bhargava, making such switches is nothing new. Coming from a family that is in the business of selling musical instruments, at 24, he decided he doesn’t want to be a part of it. Instead, he chose to launch a digital marketing firm. In 1997, this was quite revolutionary as people didn’t even have Internet connections, leave alone understanding digital marketing.

“I wanted to help companies in India use technology to make marketing more effective. With zero capital and co-founders, and by just focusing on India, I plunged from the family business and started a company. I was way ahead of my time. When I started the company last time around, people didn't have Internet access and I had this naive idea that I will do digital marketing. Today, when I start a company, we have a plan and it is much better thought of.”

When I started the company last time around, people didn't have Internet access and I had this naive idea that I will do digital marketing. Today, when I start a company, we have a plan and it is much better thought of.

When he decided to leave the family business, his father had made it clear to him that he won’t be able to come back. These words kept Bhargava going.

“When I started the company, my father said that I shouldn’t leave the family business and, once I leave it, I’ll not be able to join back. But I told everybody that whatever happens, I will not sell sitars. At Communicate 2, we went through really tough times. We almost went bankrupt and were on the verge of closing down the company. I would have gone back to the family business. But because I was so vocal about it, I persisted and survived, going on to sell it to Dentsu and building a successful agency.”

After all these years, as he launches a business again, Bhargava feels that he’s a more mature entrepreneur now. “The way I look at entrepreneurship is if you've been a successful entrepreneur once, then you have the permission to fail at everything you do for the rest of your life. And you must try to fail as many times as you can, because you only fail if you try something new, different and bigger. And that's what I'm attempting with ProfitWheel.”

From the time he launched Communicate 2 till ProfitWheel, Bhargava has witnessed phenomenal growth in his career. In 2012, it was acquired by iProspect, making it a part of Dentsu International. In 2015, the company was rebranded as iProspect India, with him as the CEO. The following year, he became the CEO of DAN Performance Group. In this role, he looked after all of Dentsu’s digital performance agencies.

During this time he also witnessed the growth of digital marketing in India. He says that in the coming days it will no longer be called ‘digital marketing’ as that will be the only form of marketing.

“The last 10 years was about digital marketing. But the next 10 years is about living in the digital age. So every single aspect of an organisation- customer acquisition, brand building, training talent, to know customer trends- will be driven by digital. Just like how nobody calls it a digital camera anymore, the same way we won’t be calling it ‘digital marketing’ anymore. Unfortunately, digital marketing was named 20 years ago by the traditional marketing people. Today, we are a dominant player where 70 per cent is done with digital. So now we will call it traditional marketing, because everything else is marketing,” he said.

Just like how nobody calls it a digital camera anymore, the same way we won’t be calling it ‘digital marketing’ anymore.

Bhargava says that if he ever ends up building a successful multi-billion dollar company, he would attribute a lot of the credit to his experience at Dentsu.

“When I joined iProspect, I was exposed to only India and was hardly managing 200 people. With DAN, it must be about 1,500-2,000 people. The sheer scale, managing culture, even replacing myself and hiring someone to replace me, was a very different sort of learning. I've handled multiple acquisitions at Dentsu and been part of global committees.”

“As entrepreneurs we think of the next quarter, but Dentsu prepares itself for the next 10 years. So, I learned from it the ability to think long-term. I've also learned a lot from Japanese culture. Being a part of this large $60 billion multinational has made me a more mature entrepreneur. I'm ready to now create a significantly large company, courtesy of all the things that Dentsu has taught me over the last eight years.”

As part of his family business, he got a chance to travel to many places abroad. These trips have also been a learning experience. Bhargava says he got along well with everyone in Dentsu, because he was able to understand, to a certain extent, the Japanese culture.

Bharagava narrates a story of how a musician, who was their customer, wanted his dead body to be taken to their shop, Bhargava’s Musik, to be blessed by his uncle before the cremation.

“So, when I was building Communicate 2, and now, when I'm building ProfitWheel, that's the aspiration. This is the association I should have with brands. I should be able to deliver so much value in their life that they think about me even on their deathbed.”

Learning keeps Bhargava happy. “Growth gives you happiness. And if you don't take a risk and do only things that you're comfortable with, then you are not going to grow or be happy.”

And if you don't take a risk and do only things that you're comfortable with, then you are not going to grow or be happy.

He takes this philosophy beyond his work to his personal life as well, and is constantly looking to learn new skills. He has been learning Urdu for the last six months. He used to be the college captain for chess and has taken it up again. He has learned mentalism and has also done a course on stand-up comedy. He is also a parasailing pilot, a Marshall Goldsmith coach, a speed reader and has learned news anchoring. He’s also a national-level tennis player and won two silver medals in the 39-plus category two years back.

His outlook towards learning can be well understood through this incident in Cancun in Mexico. When his flight was delayed, he looked to learn something new there and decided to take up kitesurfing. Though the trainer initially told him that it would take him at least seven classes to enter the water, he was ready to go into the water in 45 minutes. He attributes this to his experience as a paragliding pilot.

“I learn random things without any outcome in mind. Over the next 30-40 years, I'm going to learn hundreds of skill sets. At some level, I believe, they will connect to each other and make me a better entrepreneur.”

Bhargava used his lockdown time to write a book, ‘Happiness is a Muscle’, which will be published by the end of next month, and will also be available on ProfitWheel.

“The lockdown allowed me to do a lot of introspection and I thought I have one more entrepreneurship attempt left in me. In my 20 years in this space, I've realised a lot of gaps in the advertising and marketing industry. The adtech world does not talk to the martech world. I thought of connecting them and increasing the efficiency of both.”

ProfitWheel’s mission is to provide ‘Profit as a service’. It believes that, for most brands, 20 per cent of an organisation’s customers deliver 200 per cent of the profits. The company’s marketing intelligence platform can help brands identify and acquire more of these highly profitable customers.

“None of the people in the advertising ecosystem are incentivised to target 20 per cent of the people. Rather, they are incentivised to increase spends. Can we come up with ideas to target 20 per cent of the most profitable consumers so that it reduces the cost of advertising, but also increases the profits? If you can shift the advertising costs from the profit and loss account into the balance sheet, then it becomes the cost of sale. So then, there is no budget per se - you want to spend a billion dollars a month for a client, as long as you can give him $10 billion worth of revenues in return.”

Bhargava envisions it to be a large multinational from day one. They are hoping to operate out of 100 countries. “I can build a very large global product company sitting out of India, which was not possible in a services company,” he signs off.