DAN Interviews

A digital warrior

21 Sep 2017

Chairman Ashish Bhasin’s keen online focus has put Dentsu Aegis Network second in India

In a world going digital, Ashish Bhasin, chief of Dentsu Aegis Network, is almost an anomaly when he’s at home. Each morning, he’s up with the lark, pacing about till the newspapers arrive. Then, he ploughs through three or four dailies “from cover to cover”. “I’m one of the few people keeping newspaper readership going,” he laughs.

Move from home to office and it’s a very different scenario. Bhasin has up-ended decades of advertising rankings and turned Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN) into India’s second-largest agency overtaking IPG by building enormous online muscle.

DAN will close 2017 with billings of approximately ₹6,000 crore, he says, and digital will contribute a sizeable chunk.

“Some of our competitors said digital had only four-per-cent-to-five-per-cent market share and I loved it because it was good they kept thinking that way,” he says, adding with a slight note of triumph, “Today that figure’s grown to 15 per cent of the market.”

Bhasin, who’s chairman and chief executive, DAN, South Asia, isn’t one of your flamboyant Mad Men-style admen. He’s consciously low-key and collegiate and chooses his words carefully. But he’s turned out sparkling results. When he joined Aegis Media in 2008 (it was later taken over by Dentsu) almost a decade ago the UK-based agency was a loss-making player in the Indian market with around 50 staffers. Today, as DAN, it’s an advertising powerhouse with 3,500 employees and nine offices. Later this week, Bhasin’s heading to Sri Lanka where DAN has bought Grant Group, a 59-year-old full-service agency.

During his journey, Bhasin and DAN have played “disruptors” in overturning India’s ad industry rankings that once looked written in stone. At the top was global giant WPP which has agencies such as JWT leading the way in India. That was followed by IPG, which includes veterans such as Lintas and powerhouses such as McCann and FCB. Says Bhasin: “For about 80-plus years, the number one and number two in advertising hadn’t changed.”

Bhasin was shooting for the top from the day he signed on at the agency after 21 years at Lintas where he was once envied because he was working on the Liril account. “I said I’ll build a management team for what my vision is and not for what we needed at the time. If I hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have been able to handle such a big business,” he says.

The next step was to start snapping up companies, especially smaller ones that filled digital gaps.

Swift moves

Today, DAN is composed of 25 businesses with their own chiefs but one balance sheet uniting them. In addition to the Sri Lankan purchase, two other recent buys have been CLab, which deals with celebrity endorsements, and Sokrati, a Pune-based digital performance-and-analytics agency that brought with it clients such as Ola and Kotak Life Insurance. Last year, DAN loaded up its shopping basket with leading PR firm Perfect Relations, creative-marketing agency Happy Creative Services and design studio Fractal Ink.

The purchases are carefully strategised to quickly gain strength in fast-emerging areas. So, for example, DAN bought WatConsult, the strongest company in social media. Fractal Ink, combined with DAN’s existing company Isobar, adds to the agency’s digital-marketing prowess. Similarly, DAN started digital-performance marketing agency iProspect eight years ago with two people. Today, the company has 240 people on its rolls. Together iProspect and Sokrati, which operate in the same space, are more than twice the size of the next player.

DAN’s digital focus means Bhasin’s created a very different agency from rivals. He says: “Although digital is 15 per cent of the market, I get nearly 38 per cent to 40 per cent of my revenues from digital. So of my 3,500 people, between 1,400 and 1,500 are in digital.” According to Group M estimates, the total ad pie in 2017 will be ₹,204 crore of which digital will account for ₹9,490 crore. TV will account for ₹27,378 crore and print ₹18,258 crore.

Advertising, though, is a people-centric game. So DAN always looks to keep the top talent of agencies it’s bought and brings them onto its executive committee. “Money’s very important in any acquisition but more important is how you partner with a person you’re getting into business with,’ “ says Bhasin.

Many of DAN’s top team have come in via buyouts including people such as Haresh Nayak of Posterscope and Vivek Bhargava of DAN Performance Group, Kartik Iyer, managing director of Carat Media. Bhasin’s also particularly proud that in an industry where job-hopping’s the order of the day, he’s held on to his entire executive team. “This is a team game, not a solo sport. There’s no space for prima donnas, no matter how good,” he says.

DAN’s explosive growth also has come from a long list of star clients who have signed up in recent years. It now handles 13 of Maruti’s 16 brands and is the company that’s turned out some of Airtel’s catchy ads. Besides that, it’s added huge accounts including Mondelez and Ikea. And, no, the company hasn’t got where it is today by relying on Dentsu’s enormous clout with Japanese companies – they only make up 10-to-12 per cent of DAN India’s clients.

“Ashish is a dynamic young leader who’s very clear about what he wants and is confident enough to announce his goals and then aggressively pursue them,” says ad industry veteran Ramesh Narayan, International Advertising Association global vice president and Goafest organising committee member. Bhasin was on the Goafest organising committee this year with Narayan and has just become chairman of the influential Media Research Users Council.

Unsurprisingly, Bhasin says the constant work whirl leaves him little time for anything else.

His son is following his dad into advertising – “the only thing my wife didn’t want him to do,” he chuckles.

Bullish on India

For all of India’s ups and downs, Bhasin has always been bullish on this country. “I had several opportunities to go abroad but I chose not to because I feel this really is a golden age for India. I think we’re poised for very good growth over the next 10-to-20 years,” he says.

Bhasin’s hoping DAN will ride the crest of the India wave. But he won’t offer a prediction on when DAN will be numero uno. “We gave ourselves till the end-2017 to be Number 2 and got there earlier. This year and a part of next year, we’ll be consolidating.” There’s no doubt, though, what he’s aiming for. He says: “I want to be sure if I do announce it that it’s not pie-in-the-sky because you must get there ahead of your targets. I’ve never missed a target in my life.”

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