afaqs! news bureau
The Planner’s Special

"Unlike the old linear world, the digital world is flat"

An interview with Vaishali Verma, CEO, Initiative India. This is part of a special series of conversations with media agency heads - interview 28 of 31.

What, in your view, was your agency's best campaign of 2019? What about it impressed you?

It’s difficult to choose one; we had stellar work across offices, clients and categories. If you take awards/external recognition as a barometer, we clocked the second highest number of Golds and were ranked third at the Media Abby Awards as well as the Emvies; our work on Amazon, Reckitt Benckiser, and Guilt Free Industries was awarded by juries of both. One of the biggest content launches last year was Mirzapur on Amazon Prime Video and we are proud of the work we created for that. Also satisfying was the work we did on Mission Pani for Harpic.

In 2020, what is that big trend that ought to concern or excite media agencies?

The two big pillars that any media agency needs to focus on: First, consumer journeys, across the vast spectrum of social, programmatic, personalised messaging and content marketing. Second, deeper integration with the client’s business. With technology, big data and the blurring of lines between creative and media, especially in content, there is a big opportunity to integrate deeply with the client’s business.

In the context of media planning/buying, what's the one global practice/trend India will do well to catch up with fast?

Why play catch up when one can define the rules? Unlike the old linear world, the digital world is flat. Today, India is not playing catch up, but is defining the rules of engagement in areas like community marketing, mass personalisation at scale, sports marketing and content marketing. This is the first market where many clients, social media apps and e-commerce giants test new ideas.

From a media spend perspective, which product groups do you suppose will be most affected by the economic slowdown that has crept up on us - and least?

Many categories are already affected - telecom, automotive, banking. However, there is enough marketing research done over many recessions in the past to show us that the marketers who stay engaged with their customers, and do not drastically cut down on their spends, usually emerge stronger after the recession. Any challenging period separates the wheat from the chaff. Sectors like education are recession-proof in a country like India.

And within that, what consumption trends are you seeing in rural versus urban markets?

Given the large size of India's rural population, the value of goods and services consumed has always been greater in rural India. But urban India had narrowed the differential during most of the last decade by growing at a faster pace. Internet usage in the country has exceeded half a billion people for the first time, pegged at 566 million, driven by rural internet growth and usage. Categories like used cars and pre-owned durables, including mobile phones, will see much more traction. But, the most difficult thing about the future is to predict it.

In the next 12 months, the solution to the digital ad fraud menace will come from...

…regulation, brand safety measures, consumer education, working with industry approved partners, and asking a lot of tough questions to tech providers. Why can’t all the players come together and set aside a budget for consumer education? Why should it just be the government’s responsibility?

What kind of specialisation/talent is missing in media agencies today?

Good agencies will always hire diversified talent, of which there is no dearth in India. We are hiring specialists from varied backgrounds like behavioural economics, data science, as well as consumer behaviour experts and storytellers.

I wish clients would...

…not award business basis pricing claims only, and not push agencies to drop commission. Agencies are investing in up-scaling talent and clients should acknowledge this, as it’s going to fuel their business.

Note: This interview was conducted for the mid-March edition of our magazine afaqs!Reporter. It is a special issue dedicated to the top media planning and buying executives, who service some of India's largest advertisers. Market conditions have changed dramatically since this interview was first written and any apparent obsoletion therein must be seen in that context. To read/download all 31 interviews, please click here.