DAN Interviews

"We managed to change the historical rankings for 80 years and become No.2" Leaderspeak with Ashish Bhasin Chairman & CEO South Asia, DAN

07 Aug 2017

“We managed to change the historical rankings for 80 years and become No.2” – Leaderspeak with Ashish Bhasin

Once he sets his eyes on something, he just relentlessly goes behind it and he will have the entire team following him on that vision.

In addition to all his abilities such as great money management, deep consumer insights, extremely evolving with the times, one aspect that makes him uniquely outstanding is his way of managing people. He possesses the uncanny ability to diffuse even the greatest of stressful situations and help people move towards a solution.

He plays an active role in the industry bodies and because of the way he deals with people, his views are heard and respected.

When he took over the reins of Aegis Media India, in its first Aegis Media conference in Mud Island, Mumbai with 75 people in total.  He had set a vision of a 1000 people organization in 5 years.  Within 6 years, DAN today has around 1200 people and became the No.2 player in India.

He is none other than Mr Ashish Bhasin, the Chairman and CEO of South Asia Dentsu Aegis Network. In an exclusive and elaborate chat with tvnews4u.com’s Leaderspeak, Mr Bhasin shared his knowledge and plans as follows:

Your journey in DAN..?

So I left Lintas after 21 years, joined as a Management Trainee, moved up to be on the board and Management handling global based out of India, especially APAC & Global roles. When I got this opportunity to get AEGIS Media into India in 2008. They had a small operation here in India with 40 people basically CARAT. It’s fair to say that it wasn’t a very successful operation then with 35 – 40 people, loss making operation, from there we have come to 3400 people, it’s been a spectacular ride and the fastest growing agency in 8 years in a row. The most heartening thing for us that if we look at the Advertising history in India is very different. For the past 80-90 years the 1 & 2 positions have never shifted, WPP was always No. 1 and in the late 30’s Lintas was formed ideally has been the No. 2 for 88 years. 3/4/5 had shifted we had become No 3 by then and we had announced that we want to be No 2 by end of 2017 and we were really pleased that by early this year we managed to change the historical rankings for 80 years and become the No.2 Group.

Been a very interesting journey we concentrated on different things, we looked at more future oriented businesses, for example Digital at that time particularly was a very small business but we went over weight as we anticipated that digital will become much bigger, even today when 12% of the market is digital we get all most 1/3rd of our revenues from digital. That worked very well for us. We are looking at Out-of-home digital business, not an organized market. We have the No 1 & No 2 agencies handle that business now and we have 40% market share. New generations are Digital native, and as digital natives come searching performance will become big and we have become the No 1 customer of Google for searching performance now.

The Strategy behind One P&L?

We had concentrated on specialist areas and the philosophy. we had started with almost like a family which we called as One DAN, which is one P&L.

If you see advertising has evolved in the last 30 years I have been in the business, earlier it was an era of generalism where one person took a brief from the client for all the client’s needs. Today it has changed. That’s the reason Media separated out and became a specialist service, today everything has not only become Specialist but Super Specialist. The client wants to talk to each specialist, for example, Digital/Social Media/ Searching Performance etc. they want the benefit of a specialist.

The way Legacy agency groups were structured was in Silos, they were virtually different companies or agencies under one roof but operating as individual entities. We were starting out a fresh so we didn’t have the baggage of past and learnt from other people’s mistakes we decided to set it up as One P&L and the difference it makes is then you are able to set up a team or make resources available after all this is a people based business according to the need of that brand or that assignment. So, therefore, we have no agenda of pushing a 30 sec TVC or 100 cc Print ad. The TV guy will say put it on TV and so and so forth. We said let’s break all that and the only agenda should be what is good for the brand. The only way you can do that is if you have one P&L. The advantage was we started small, we grew from 40 people to 3500 now we were able to set it up, if I had tried to retro fit it into 3500 strong organization I may not have been able to do it. Sometimes it gets invented out of necessity, Carat had 40 people, and Outdoor had 10 people so instead of going out small individual groups we go as a 100 member agency or one agency. That Philosophy was ingrained in our DNA from day one and I think One P&L has been one of the key success factors for our growth and signs its working is that our competition is trying to do it. Obviously, they are now realizing and our promise to the client is we will give you all the benefits of specialization without the hassles of Silos. It’s as simple as that and one P&L enables me to do. When I report out of India I report as India, DAN India. It’s not only India but globally one country one P&L. Therefore there are no agendas, no internal turfs to be protected. If India doesn’t meet its numbers but our Outdoor Company has done extremely well but others haven’t and total numbers haven’t been met nobody will get a bonus. So it’s to that extent we have linked it, it’s one company so you sink or swim together, it’s one company one P&L.

 2018 DAN as No 1 Agency?

 No I don’t think Dentsu Aegis Network will be No 1 in 2018, I haven’t yet announced what is our next plan is, having come to be the No 2 Advertising Agency Group in India, often people misuse or misquote saying No 4 there and No 3 here, I am not saying in any old traditional media area or one particular area here but overall as an Advertising & Media Communications Group we are now No 2 in this market by far. I want to use the next year or so to consolidate that position because you can never under estimate your competition the fact is that the previous incumbent occupied it for 80 years or so obviously they were doing something right and were solid about it. We must make sure that we have it all. When you grow so fast you have to make sure your infrastructure keeps pace, your systems keep pace and at the same time keep forecasting what are the trends, because if you don’t forecast your future growth you will be impacted. So next year or so use it for consolidation, perhaps towards the end of 2018 or early 2019 will announce the next vision we have. At the moment we really want to enjoy the No 2 position and consolidate it.

You had mentioned in a media conclave that DAN doesn’t hire employees but leaders?  What’s the thought behind this?

We don’t build managers we build leaders. There are 2 kinds of people in my belief, there are a lot of people who can manage very well because over the years’ experience pick it up, but the difference between managers in senior level and leaders in senior level is Leaders are inspirational. Now it’s impossible to hire leaders you have to grow leaders. Our effort is that everyone in the company having a Management role must have the potential to be leaders, must be on the track to be leaders and it’s a continuous improvement process. The whole emphasis is how to make our senior management group to inspirational leaders rather than just managers. Therefore we empower them we let them run their businesses independently but with that also comes responsibility. With responsibility comes accountability.

We actually don’t offer jobs but offer careers. The average tenure in advertising is getting shorter by the day, people leaving in 6/10 months because somebody is offering 10,000 more, that’s the way the whole industry is operating. This is a wrong company for people like that to join as neither will be happy nor will they profit neither will the company profit. This is not a job it’s a career, you come in Vertical and go out horizontal. The entire senior management team is the same team, though there are additions they have been here from the day I have joined, many have been associated with me 10 – 15 years before I joined here. So this is a bad company for people who come here to do a job, it’s a great company to build a Career and that’s the orientation we want all our employees to have.

All your acquisitions are very happy with you, have they grown the way as they would have or they have grown phenomenally well?

We have been very very lucky, there are two reasons to it, we have a very strong well-designed set of vision and values, we are ambitious, unashamedly ambitious for our clients, for ourselves and our people, we are agile we move faster than any other agency, we want to be more agile in our decision making, acting on behalf of our clients. We are collaborative, there is no place for Prima Donnas in our company it’s a team sport. We are responsible, responsible to our employees, to our shareholders who have put in money so have to be profitable, to our staff, to our clients who have entrusted us with this and now increasingly so to the environment and the Nation in which you operate so responsible to the next generation so to speak so we are pioneering. We like to do different things, innovative things, when the whole world was concentrating on TV and print and building their businesses on that we started building it on Digital. We get 3 times more revenue share on digital than what the market average is. We are Pioneering in whatever we do. So when we acquire a company we do look at finances etc but that is base level, we first want to make sure is that the business we are acquiring or the people we want to partner with share or believe in the same set of values, because if that value system is not there then it will never work. If the value system is in place and the people you are dealing with are good, I believe when you spend 13-14 hours in the work place more than our home. So you are spending more time at work and if the people around you not happy or not working as a team then there is unhappiness all round which is not worth it, to you, them or the company. We need to have people with the same set of values, I have let go a lot of businesses were on paper doing very well, making huge profits in whatever they were doing but our value systems didn’t match. So because of that our success rate has been high, and we are a company of entrepreneurs and built on entrepreneurs and we are not micro managers so we know how to handle and treat entrepreneurs. It’s not in my place to teach an entrepreneur how to conduct his business, if I had to then he is the wrong guy we are acquiring we leave them alone to conduct their business. We provide a framework, we provide a family, and we provide central resources to tap into and that model has done very well, we have acquired 11 businesses over the years

The Creative agencies you have acquired say we are very happy working with DAN. Is It because of the creative freedom they have got?

The old world offline or non-digital creative agencies so as to say but they all do digital as well now. We have 5, 3 are home grown and 2 we have acquired. Happy Creative solutions and Taproot Dentsu. Fractal Studio Ink, Isobar and Dentsu Web Chutney are our Creative Digital agencies. Dentsu Web Chutney, Taproot Dentsu are acquisitions and Isobar is home-grown.

All in all we have 8 Digital Agencies a mix of acquisition and home grown, whether it is home grown or acquired it doesn’t matter if it is a creative agency it must have a character of its own, it must have creative leadership of its own and it must have a planning orientation and each will be different. It’s not for us to mandate or teach how to do your creative then they shouldn’t be there in the group. We leave them alone and encourage them to experiment and encourage them to make mistakes but hold them accountable for delivery and results. So they must have happy clients, they must be profitable, they must be doing good work and I would say it’s true for any acquisition we do whether its  Creative or digital or Event agency or PR agency. We let them do their business  as they want to 

You won 83 metals in Goa Fest this year, how does it feel?

Typically we have been winning, our one agency which was very good in winning awards was Taproot Dentsu but many of our creative agencies were not focused on it. 2 years ago we took a

decision that each of our agency, of course, Taproot was to continue with the good work they were doing, each of the other agencies, let’s experiment and making sure that we are  recording our creative cases and presented out and see why others can’t win it. The first time we did it was last year and we were so enthused by the results not only the Creatives but even the Client servicing who were on the accounts and brands.

This year for Goa fest we said let’s enter all our good work and match it with the others and see where we stand. That has brought us brilliant rewards and by far we are the No 1 agency. I think that was a good experience and now we need to continue and up our ante, learn this game a little more and start looking at regional level and global level awards.

I do believe and I think the advertising talent in India is actually world class, when I was running the region South Asia and Asia my problem as an Indian would be that I shouldn’t look biased by hiring only Indians but the best Management talent is Indian by far way ahead. Advertising and media talent in India is world class but unfortunately, we don’t know how to present themselves and their work.

The packaging needs to be polished a little more, some Indians travel the world as global citizens and many of us need a little more polish when we work with the multinational and multi-cultural environment.

One of the reasons we are really good is in India we are working against constraints and when you go out it’s not only in advertising but take top CEO’s because here all the time you are fighting the system and doing work and when you go to a place like Singapore/ London / New York there is no artificial constraints so you blossom. The energy you were using to fight the system and in spite of this you did good work and managed to do good work so when there are no constraints you tend to blossom.

On Media front..?

On the Media front we have 3 Media agencies, we have other agencies which buy digital media Isobar has some media buying experience, the 2 large Outdoor agency also has media buying experience, but it doesn’t matter which part of the business you are what part of business you are each medium has its own idiom so to speak the one thing that has to be there is if we are spending 1 rupee of the clients’ money we have to think that as if it is our money but every penny of it has not only  be  accountable but also get the maximum juice for it. So if there is some way that we can get a bigger band for our clients’ money is always our first focus or save some of it so it can be redeployed. Our whole orientation and focus are that we don’t believe it’s the clients brand we believe it’s our brand and I don’t want there to be a difference between my teams and client teams. It has to be one team working for the same brand. Some clients are more open and contusive to this kind of relationship and some are less we are more successful with clients who share more with us because at times I wonder if so and so is working for the client or the agency and this is the best situation to be in.

You think are you in an advantageous position because you are complete agency..?

It’s not only creative and media but it’s we have all the other functions also and we don’t operate as Silos. But if you look at holding companies where each vertical is reporting to different heads. The Creative will report to somebody in Hong Kong, Media reporting to London and they are not able to function as one

My thinking is this, we are very ambitious people if my client is spending 100 rupees on Marketing & Communication I want to get the maximum share of it. A lot of our clients were spending a lot of money on PR so we went out and acquired Perfect Relations, the clients’ money comes into the group. We follow what our client’s needs are, so it’s a huge advantage because if you are working on a project or a pitch you able to pool all the talent together because we have the capabilities, and one thing we made sure was that each of the specialists business we have acquired or set up, no client should have to work with any of our agencies because it’s a DAN Agency but work with them because they are the best in what it does. We have only acquired the best and we have only grown our agency to be the best. All the agencies are doing their best only then I can confidently tell my client that I can give you the best talent in every function and because I don’t have silos I can custom make a team as per the client’s needs. Many times you don’t need Digital or TV and end of the day it is one P&L. It’s not only an advantage but it gives us a huge edge and one of the reasons we have grown from 40 people to 3400 people in such a short time is because of this.

We started when Goldman Sachs happened in 2008 we had no international clients falling into our lap, we had no business, no talent we had nothing. In that period to have built this, we must have done something right. The 2 things I did was one P&L and we invested in talent in a big way. I hired a management team not for what the company was then but for what my vision was for the company to be. I felt let the company grow into the management team rather than hire a management team for it. In hindsight, it was a brilliant decision because we grew leaders who had a vision of their own and take their businesses to a higher level.

 You mentioned that on the Digital front there is a lack of talent..?

I think for the advertising industry as a whole and particularly digital the single biggest constraint to growth is actually people and talent is lacking and the quality is getting poorer of the people coming in and the fact is how many are competitively employable. They all are working in a highly competitive industry. I am a little disappointed at the quality of talent going out and the talent coming into our industry. The problem is we all have been very narrow-minded and short term focused and poaching talent from each other that has inflated peoples self-perception more than what it should be. None of us have focused enough on growing the talent pool, having said that one has to make a start somewhere and in our own small way we started to partner with educational institutions to create programs where we recruit, train and hire students with a sort of thinking we want them to have. For example, we partnered with the Times Pro Group to set up a Digital Course, where we helped them devise the curriculum, and we helped them devise the lectures, with help from external faculty, we provided our faculty. We also helped the children in Immersive programs which are on the job training which part of their course. When they come out of their course they are ready to be employed than just do a theoretical course. The first batch is ready to graduate and we will try to employ as many of the good students as we can. It’s a win-win situation, there is new talent, you are creating curriculum and talent which is industry relevant, and it’s devised by industry managers and leaders and lectured by industry relevant people. The running of the course is left to the management. I am hopeful this experiment will be successful and we will continue to run it. Out of our 3400 people at least 1300-1400 managers are digital managers so about 1/3rd of our business and 1/3rd of our work force is Digital.

When you have such large workforce, and growing business and attrition the requirement is large so it makes sense to grow talent in this area. This is our first step likewise we are making a foray into outdoor media which is a very disorganized industry or sector where there is no course to teach so we are trying to partner with North Point Learning Institute Khandala, where we are trying to devise a similar course. Our focus has to be as to how we grow this talent pool relevant to the industry.

 Digitization of Cable..?

I will by and by all will go digital even the ones opposing now will have to fall in line and go digital.

The electrification in India has been a boon to TV manufacturers, more rural households are buying TV sets. Will BARC increase its base in rural..? 

Next 5-10 years were globally people saying television is dying, the print is dying, in India, everything is growing whether Television, Print, Digital, Some will grow faster than the other. First of all we should recognise  we are in a happy state lot of people are coming out of poverty, more purchasing power and hopefully if the monsoons are good, electrification is helping and penetration of TV is going deeper and deeper and aspirations of the youngster in rural India is similar to a youngster in urban areas.

Television measurement is a very important we started with Diary then moved on to TAM then INTAM, there were huge issues and off late there was unhappiness over TAM so the industry body came together and formed and we finally have a state of the art measurement system. But for a country like India which is vast and diversified whether you have 30,000 meters or 50,000 or 5 lac, it’s still a sample size. I think for the first time we are getting rural information and BARC is increasing its base in rural pockets. First time we are able to see what the whole of India is watching as earlier it was just cable households and SEC A+/A/B & C.

It’s an ongoing process and it will improve as its no one’s personal venture it’s an Industry body owned by the IBF which is the broadcast body, Advertising Agencies and Clients body, all the stake holders own it so there is no agenda and there will be a continuous improvement in that. I am hopeful that we will get more and more accurate data. Any such big changes you make take time to stabilize and getting used to and there will be some bugs which need to be ironed out. I feel it’s heading in the right direction and we will get deeper and deeper into the nation sooner or later

Hoping the Digital measurement comes soon BARC is considering to set up measurement as there is still an ambiguity on the currency. Each individual Digital organization is doing its own measurement, the need of the hour is one Universal body, one single agreed metric, you can’t be trading in the market place where each is selling in their own currency and is creating chaos. Time has come that we in the Industry come together and invest in that because the consumer is moving there, so we need to settle this soon. 

Will BARC take a stand on it..?

The expectation from BARC for the past few months is becoming very different from what it is supposed to do. BARC is supposed to measure BARC is not a regulatory body, it is supposed to tell us the numbers/ what India is watching and where should we put the money. How much anybody has paid an MSO to make people watch a particular channel is not BARC’s issue. I think CEO of BARC should keep reminding people on what BARC actually does or meant to do.

Second thing is that people are assuming that computers are taking decisions because a.01 % shift in viewership will make a planner shift monies to another channel. A Media Planner looks into various issues one of which is viewership, but it’s the human brain which will look into 20 factors before deciding. People who think by taking shortcuts and fooling the system will not last long. On the other hand, you are paying to get a landing page and it’s getting huge viewership good for them.

My only say is who will take a call or is a call to be taken I don’t know but BARC cannot play a regulatory role and don’t expect it to.

Clients put money where there are eyeballs, advertising follows eyeballs and if it is giving effective reach and editorial content. No client or Agency is wedded to Channel A/B or any genre. Media agency job is to see how to reach the client’s message to the maximum number of their target audience in the most cost effective way. There is no place for children in this business. all are mature organizations they all know what they have to do so nobody can comment on each other. One thing good about business whether its channel business or agency business water finds its own level. As for Broadcast business is concerned if you have the sustainability to put good content the viewer is least bothered about which channel he or she is watching. If somebody is going to consistently give you good content your viewership increases but if it’s bad content whatever you do the viewer will move on.

After the dust settles which it always does sooner than later the winners and losers in all parts become very clear and in the television business content is what wins 

What does Ashish Bhasin do to de-stress?

I don’t take stress I love my job. I work because I love my job. I am a very boring person, I go home and spend time with family, watch television especially News. I don’t take life more seriously than I should, I am very committed and passionate about my job. I enjoy the process, I have a weekend home at Lonavala so whenever possible try to take a day off and go there. Stress is part of modern day life one can’t avoid it but stops taking life so seriously because we are not in a lifesaving business, we are not neuro scientists or neuro surgeons we are advertising guys. But as an industry we take ourselves more seriously than we should, the share of voice as an industry we have in the Media is disproportionate to the contribution we make to the global economy.

So stop stressing and have fun, this was always meant to be a fun business, this is a very very serious business there is a big business angle to Advertising and Communication very few people realize that but in the process of doing that business you must also have fun otherwise you will die. There are various success factors in every profession someplace skill in advertising people think your success factor is you have to be a creative person better than the other in my view, yes all of that but the single most success factor is the ability to withstand stress. In this business, if you cannot manage and handle the stress you will die. There is continuous stress 365 days of the year and 24 hours of the day so you have to learn to not take the stress so there is no question of Distress.