‘Individual agency brands will stay strong. We love them dearly’

Aditya Kanthy recently took charge as CEO of the newly formed Omnicom Advertising Services group in India. With this appointment, the leadership of the three creative agencies within the group — DDB, BBDO and TBWA — has been centralised. The idea being to deliver a wider breadth of capability and scale to clients.

Kanthy, who hails from Kerala but has grown up all over India being a fauji kid, is a Mudra veteran. A gold medallist (in economics) from St Stephens, Kanthy says he stumbled into advertising through MICA (Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad) which he joined post graduation because “it looked like an interesting school”. He has been with Mudra since 2003. He joined the agency as a strategic planner.

You have been with the group for over two decades? Can you trace its evolution through your own journey?

The journey with Mudra has seen lots of different chapters. When I joined , DDB was a minority partner in Mudra. But I was in many ways in the home of account planning as DDB, in its avatar in London as BMP (Boase Massimi Pollitt) had invented the discipline of account planning (Stanley Pollit introduced account planners). Besides working for a great local Indian independent agency — Mudra, I was also working for an incredible global agency in the form of DDB, both as a planner but also as a creative force with all of Bernbach’s incredible legacy.

And then as we started to grow out from a creative services business to a marketing services group, there was an interesting chapter that saw the opening of new media channels, new specialisations and capabilities. I worked very closely with Madhukar Kamath, who was running the agency to help shape the types of capabilities that we were able to give our clients within the Mudra group. And then of course, Omnicom acquired Mudra, a little over 10 years ago. Then came a host of interesting developments that mirrored and sometimes led the changes sweeping the overall industry.

The formation of Omnicom advertising services is another chapter and very much in line with the kind of growth orientation and future facing thinking we have had. It’s important to be very clear that our strategy is built around the independent identities and cultures of the agencies that Omnicom represents. We’ve always believed that Omnicom is as good as its component parts.

We recently saw the death of the Thompson brand when WPP merged Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R to create VML. Hope the individual agencies in your network are keeping their identities.

Our approach is built around the strength of the individual creative networks. So the individual brands will stay strong. We love them dearly. We believe in them. We think they’re incredibly strong and you can see that if you look at the quality of work that has been produced out of these agency brands, both globally as well as in India — they’re absolutely top class. The agencies are in rude health. Our approach is to make them even stronger; to bring the best of Omnicom both globally and in India to these agencies and through them to the people, the talent that works there, and to our clients.

But aren’t all the agencies chasing the same business?

Holding groups having individual agency brands is a tried and tested model now for three decades or more. Our belief is that in markets that are growing, as ours is, there is more than enough business going for strong creative agency networks.

How much is digital contributing to your businesses, and how are you expanding your digital capability?

There’s no question that there is a huge transformation in the expectations of consumers and the businesses that serve them. We will win the present and the future by being in line with that. But at the same time we have to strike the right balance between the well established principles of how brands and creativity drive growth.

At Omnicom, we are well represented in terms of digital capability. Our business, in fact, is perhaps a little bit over-indexed towards digital than the category overall.

I think around 55-60 per cent of what we do as Omnicom would be digital in some form, including our staff strength and our capability. I mean this in the widest possible sense because every part of our business has been transformed by digital technology. Whether it’s the kind of brands that are coming into the agency — many of which have been built for the digital world (and operate and market almost entirely in the digital world), or the need for strategy and thinking for those brands on the creative side, the media buying, planning, strategising and implementation, or the experience piece — we are designing digital experiences in all of this.

But I think it’s really important that we balance it with the skill set of strong creative thinking, powerful brand building and consistency.

How is the agency looking at generative AI?

History suggests, and our understanding of how humans interact with each other and technology points to, an explosion in creativity rather than its demise. We must recognise this as an opportunity. It will be a new and exciting way to apply our talents to a brand’s business, society and culture. And as long as we stay committed to that principle and we work our socks off, I don’t see any reason why this will not be good for our business.

Can you share an example of something you have done with AI?

For MTV, we worked on an idea called ‘BotHard’ to take hip hop to the masses. This was actually before ChatGPT became as fashionable as it is now. BotHard was built on the GPT3 platform and could imitate the rhyme schemes and patterns used by rappers. It got great traction for MTV India.

Given the challenging times we are in, is there more friction in the relationship between clients and agencies? In the old days we heard about long-standing client agency relationships, but today in the era of startups, are there still those relationships?

Well, first I will say that we have at this very moment in this company more than a few clients who have worked with us for 10-15 and even 30 years. We have worked with Dhara now for well over 30 years. You must remember the iconic ‘My Daddy Strongest’ work for Dhara that Mudra did. We’ve worked with TTK Prestige for over two decades, with LIC for close to three decades. Our relationship with Royal Enfield spans over a decade. There are still lots of very good, healthy long standing agency client relationships and this is true for us and for other agencies in our market as well.

But every new chapter in the business environment, in the technological environment poses new problems and new challenges and new opportunities for clients and agencies alike. And it is no different now. It is quite logical that, as businesses become more competitive, as economies grow and as the demands on marketing become stiffer, we become partners to clients in more ways. We are up for that fight. There is more value rather than less in what we do today.

Published on October 29, 2023

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