It’s celebration time at digital and social media WatConsult. The Rajiv Dhingra-promoted agency which is is now part of the Dentsu Aegis Network, completes a decade today, started on a modest note 10 years back. But from a team of four then to over 280 now and a roster of having worked with over 150 brands and over 100 awards, WatConsult has indeed come a long way. Dhingra, Founder and CEO of the agency, took some time off with MxMIndia a fortnight back to reminisce his early days and the journey. Excerpts from an interview…
As you look back would you have taken the same route that you did finally… from the time you have started WatConsult to what it is now?
To be very honest, I didn’t think and that’s probably the best thing I did. I didn’t think about the future at all. I lived moment-to-moment. Let me start by, when I even started WATconsult, it was a client at of PR event happened to tell me that we are looking for some blogger solutions. Can you come and talk us about it? I was a blogger before that. It so happened that I saw an opportunity, a window to make a business and I acted on it. And that’s what set up the first client and an advance payment of four lakh which became the seedfund for WatConsult.
Which at that time was huge.
Yes. For a 21-year-old, yes.
What you would have done if you hadn’t started WATconsult?
Funnily, I was running WATblog and wanted to scale it as a media thing and it was doing well. The blog was doing well, but it was not making any money. If I would have failed at that too, I would have probably would have take a job in digital marketing or advertising or something like that. Knowing myself, I would just keep dabbling, because I have not worked in a job anywhere in my life. Right out of college, I had started something called jobsforfreshers.com. I had a registered private limited which failed miserably after one-and-a-half years. It earned decent popularity, but at that times dotcoms were not… So that was my first startup and WatConsult happens to be my second commercial venture if you don’t consider WatBlog as a commercial venture. You can consider it a hobby because I really didn’t end up monetising it too much.
Except that it helped you ….
Get a lot of respect because I was able to bring together a community of writers. Iin general I think I read a lot and that created a very strong base for my understanding of the digital space. I spoke to so many people, I handled so many events that at 21 you are like a sponge, you just absorb everything and your mind starts making those connections much later. So that foundation kept me in a very good space to actually get into WatConsult and do a decent job at a young age.
What did your parents think about it?
When I started my first company, jobsforfreshers, my father thought I had gone mad. I have done a job. I did a campus placement for exactly 21 days and I quit that and I
They must have been aghast?
My dad who use with the Reserve Bank of India was mortified. But I must tell you one thing, my dad is very liberal. He is someone who doesn’t force himself on anyone. So he kept telling me this is wrong but he eventually did register the company along with me. He was the other director. So I ended up starting jobsforfreshers so for one year he just saw me do this job site and hardly make any money. I made Rs 2 lakh over one year. For a fresher it was not bad…
Yes, in 2005, 2 lakh was not a bad amount
For over a year selling job postings and all of that. So that’s what laid the foundation because I marketed that job site that gave me an insight into digital marketing. Then I read a lot due to WatBlog and met a lot of digital guys. I would go to every event and expose myself and then I got this client…
It was Rediff. Very kind of Mr Ajit Balakrishnan, never forget him. Never forget your first client.
To get business from Ajit Balakrishnan is very good because he is very discerning.
Yeah. My first pitch in my life for WatConsult, I got feedback this is brilliant. So it was not bad for a 21-year-old to stand in front of Ajit Balakrishnan and hear that and then get a fairly large amount as an advance. I insisted on it because I had just Rs 3000 in my account. So I didn’t have any money to do what I was claiming that I could do.
So how many people working with you at that time?
Nothing. I had zero people because WatBlog was all freelancers working for free because they had passion for digital. I was a 21, and working out of home. I just had a laptop and a pitch that I did to Rediff and suddenly I was four lakhs richer and that’s when I started the company.
So from one person to what you are now
280 plus almost touching 300.
It’s a huge journey. As you look back, obviously the first Rediff client was a huge milestone and an entry point. What do you think was your turning point?
I don’t have one, but two to three turning points after the entry point. I think the first turning point after the entry point was the crash of 2008. While I knew digital advertising or I knew I was creative enough, I was enthusiastic enough, I was reading enough to be able to advise others or to work with brands, but I was not a businessman. There is a difference. Business is not about skills. It is about financial discipline as well.
You hit the 2008 crunchjust two years after starting up?
Yes. I hit it hard. Because I realised a lot of my clients were projects, a lot of them like 20% of my business was via other agencies. My cash flows were not in shape. And that’s when I hit it hard. I was 15 people in 2008 October and I had to lay off almost the entire team in three months because I just couldn’t pay them. I had to take a personal loan of Rs 5 lakh, which I did not, but my sister took because I had no credibility at 23. Soon I did six events which was around WatBlog. That’s the only money WatBlog made throughout its journey which were through events. I did WatSummits and I did WatBlog panels. And I did this thing called WAT mix up, WATblog Wednesdays. So, WATblog Wednesdays and WATblog panels, I did six or seven of them and saved about six-seven lakhs in three months. I put together a three member team again in January 2009 and I sort-of rebooted. I never shut the company because I had one client that was paying me a retainer of around 80-90 thousand, which I was servicing personally.
Who was that?
That was TimesofMoney guys at that point in time. They had no clue that there was no company at the backend for three months. Nobody had a clue. You don’t go and announce these things. They were paying me and I was delivering everything that they were asking for.
2008 was one milestone. What else?
I think after that the big milestone was in 2010-11 when we started working with the big brands – P&G, Godrej. That gives us experience. Tillthat time we were not working with that big brands who have global creatives or who bring all the mainline agencies together in a room and discuss. We had decent clients. We had media clients like Warner Brothers and Neo cricket. But these were not clients that had big budgets, big thinking, TV campaigns. They didn’t have that kind of stuff. We had a few others as well along with this.
2011 was the big year
I think post that, the biggest milestone was obviously in January 2015 when we looked to partner with the Dentsu Aegis Network. That really gave us a global exposure. I went abroad quite a bit. I learnt how they function globally. I think most acquisitions tend to take away more than they tend to add. In our case thankfully they have added more than they have taken away. To give you a sense, over the last two years we’ve gone from four global brands for whom we handled the India mandate to 26 global brand for whom we handle the India mandate. These are not coming from the group though but the fact that we are a part of Dentsu Aegis Network we get an entry into clients much easier than an independent group. There is a difference.
As you look back, professionally what has been most satisfying experience?
I can think of a few of them. Let me mention around the 2010-2011 period, when we were working with both Godrej and P&G, I realised that I could take on the big agencies creatively. It dawned on me that we could be here for a really long time, because with all due respect, I didn’t see that I couldn’t either figure or better the work done by the big agencies who worked on that account.
If you ever think of something that you would possible relook, if you had a chance to get back and possibly tweak it a bit, is there something that you would think that you would like to redo? A Ctrl-Z?
Nothing. I think all of it was necessary for my learning. So I can say that I would like to redo this but I don’t regret that because it happened. Everything has a timing and that timing is very important. Only after you fall, do you learn to walk a certain distance.
Was there any fail that taught you a big lesson?
There were several. We did lose P&G. That was due to some errors that the team made. But P&G happened to us at a time when we were growing. It was too large a client for a small agency like 40-50 people for us to leave everything and focus on that client and leave the growth that were getting from the market. So in a way, in hindsight, it is great that we lost P&G and we didn’t have it continuing with us because at that time it was a large part of our business.
You are on a roll, 280-300 staff, a hundred-plus clients. Are there things that would possiblygive you sleepless nights?
Yes. Definitely. I think there are two kinds of worries; one is the worry of future growth as to where do we go from here how do we scale on because we are scaled and we don’t want to stagnate. What keeps my blood flowing is the fact that I see growing numbers and growth in general. How do you scale on a scaled agency? How do you scale qualitatively, how you scale in quantity? That is definitely one aspect that keeps me thinking. Then there’s recognition. We believe that we are doing a lot of good work, but a lot of good work doesn’t get packaged well. When I went to Cannes this year, I saw how they function. I have realised that they do less but do great justice to each piece of work. I think that is something that we want to learn and imbibe to at least 20 to 30% of the work that we do. It is not that all the work need to be packaged that well. Some of it is run-of-the-mill. But then out of that work, there is 10% of our work which if packaged well, will put us on the global map as an agency. That is definitely something that keeps you wake at night as to how do I crack that. I think that the other thing in terms of operations, the sleepless thing would be, is when you become this large, a sort of hierarchy, bureaucracy and a slowness sets in and what has been our most emphatic USP is our agility as an agency both in responding to clients, in acting on trends, in acting on real-time insults because we started out as a social media specialist but over time we now have full-scale services.
How do you ensure that you continue to stay in nimble and agile?
You empower. The problem with the lack of nimbleness is, in larger organisations is as you get large, in fear of mistakes you tend to create layers and layers of approvals. I think the only layer of approval that is needed is on the commercial side in our business. On the creative side, on the visual side, on the work side you need to empower people to believe in themselves and to take decisions.
Commercial approval… trait of a first generation entrepreneur
I have never been someone who likes to keep all things to myself. If that was the case I would have started something called Rajiv Dhingra and Consultants. I have started WatConsult. It stands for Web Advertising Technology. Yes, initially a lot of the company was known by my name. Today nobody knows me. If you get called for pitches not because somebody has heard me at a conference, you get called for pictures because of the work that people have seen of WatConsult. The brand WatConsult has by far overtaken Brand Rajiv Dhingra. That was always my
But the reason that you got acquired the reason that you got known was because of the enthusiasm and the dexterity that you brought to the table. Is there a fear that you might possibly lose that?
Not at all. That is why we invest in young talent. Young talent by de facto comes with enthusiasm.
But they also make errors?
That’s alright. Errors are good errors to learn from. For them to learn and for us to learn as well. There are two parts to it. They can’t make errors that can easily be avoided given our pool of internal knowledge. They’ll make new errors which is good.
Looking forward, what do you think is the road ahead? Does it worry you that there are various mini WatConsults coming up?
Not at all.
Some of the large players are also getting into the same thing.
It doesn’t worry me at all. In fact, when our team get poached into younger companies or smaller companies or larger companies, in either case, that tells me two things. One, we are still ahead of the game because younger companies want our people. They are not trying to hire from somewhere else. They are trying to hire us. It means our people are good enough to work in agile startup companies and when larger companies hire our people, I look at it from the standpoint that they must have that kind of quality and maturity that a larger agency wants to hire them.
That’s good to say but the reality is that the larger agencies, larger creative agencies, larger media agencies are now getting into digital and social media. Does that worry you? Is there a fear that it can take away potential business?
No. Our job is to be ahead of the learning curve. That’s what we have tried to do over time. We started with social media in 2007, we started video production in two years. Video now is very big. It took us time to grow in each one of these things. We have done well with that. In fact, if we do lose some clients, it’s great to have that because at this point, I am at a position where I can command a change within my agency instantly if I see an opportunity to do that.
But since you are a part of a network, can you do that?
Yes, because Dentsu Aegis is the most liberal network out there. There are no operational guidelines… from the standpoint of nobody interferes into how I run the agency. There is financial reporting and there is IT compliance. What laptop you use and what software runs on it has nothing to do with how you run the business.
Any goals for 2017? It is crazy to even ask you for the next 10 years. So any goals for the next 18 months?
Definitely. I think from a growth standpoint view compared to last year, we will be doing almost a 100% growth in net revenue this financial year. We would at least want it to be in the higher double digits next year which is 60 to 70% growth next year. That is financially. Talking about brands, I can’t tell you the brand name, but we just won the Asia Pacific mandate for a global brand. So that is great validation of the kind of value that we are bringing to the table. The third thing would be definitely global recognition through awards. We are making a conscious effort. We have a creative training workshop with a global trainer who has trained global agencies, who is coming and training us, who is coming to India for the first time actually. No other Indian agency has gone through that creative training. There have been agencies in Eastern Europe, Western Europe that have gone through that training, in US and South East Asia. So that the first time we are investing and that’s a sizeable investment as you would appreciate to have that kind of creative training happening so that people can think in a global fashion. There may be applications with Indian clients they may not be applications with Indian clients. The exposure is important. I think the only way I have learnt is through exposing myself to the industry in a big way and to very opportunity given. So, I went to Cannes this year, the Consumer Electronics Show… so that all the technology, best of technology is there. In the same way, I would want my team to have all the opportunity to expose themselves both to creative and technology and other things so that they can grow and come up with bigger ideas, which is why we invested in virtual reality. We have an HTC Vive device and an Oculus device inhouse. It’s not that clients are dying to use them. But VR is very interesting. It is an interesting growth story that is happening globally. Apple is surely going to get into VR. I want to make sure that my team at least has all the exposure that somebody sitting on a London, New York, Sydney may have and maybe even more than that and certainly cutting edge exposure as far as digital is concerned.
So 70% growth in the next year?
Yes. Would love to do that.
And in terms of team size?
I think we will definitely be close to 400 people.