India is important growth market for SMG: Laura Desmond, CEO,Starcom MediaVest

For Laura Desmond , her first ever visit to India coincides with a high level exit in the organisation. And as CEO, Starcom MediaVest Group , Desmond knows that her trip is also to steady the ship that may witness some turbulence with the departure of its long standing India CEO, Ravi Kiran. In a freewheeling chat with BE , Desmond delves on succession planning, the India story for Starcom MediaVest and also speaks her mind on the creativity versus RoI debate that occurs in every award function.

Ravi Kiran has chosen to move out of Starcom after 12 years with the agency. Your evaluation in terms of the positives and negatives during his tenure at Starcom India?

Ravi has built a formidable business for SMG in India. He’s created two brands in terms of diversified services spanning everything from out of home to sports marketing and street marketing. We respect his decision to write a new chapter in a whole new book. We think his leaving us would be as sad for him as it is for us. But at the same time, succession planning and orderly life is as much a part of business as it is a part of life.

We’ll have a very orderly transition as it is important for us to show our clients stability and a focus on their business above anything else. We’re looking at a diverse group of candidates and I’m sure we’ll find very strong leaders in the times ahead and someone who’ll grow upon what Ravi has created. There are no negatives I can think of really. As a hallmark, he created a diversified service offering that is the envy of the industry. I think what we do from Delhi is the technology business, which is very notable, from Samsung to Blackberry to Oracle , etc.

So who takes over after Ravi Kiran leaves? Market buzz indicates someone from Starcom’s global network might take over as an overarching regional head for South Asia. How likely is that?

First and foremost, we’re looking to find candidates with strong leadership skills for the Indian market. We’re looking at a global set of potential leaders and no decisions have been made yet. Eighteen months ago, we changed our structure where we eliminated our regional division. So we’re not going backward into that. We’re still looking for a strong leader for Indian operations.

How large are your Indian operations and what role does India play in overall Starcom MediaVest pie?

India is a very important growth market for SMG. Our major clients are in India and we’ll grow with them as well as service local accounts. We’ve got bigger over the last three years with diversified offerings and it’s like a gold standard for us. So what more do we want to do in India? We want to build scale using two strong brands, Starcom and MediaVest under the SMG umbrella. But both will go to market in their own special way. Starcom is more about multinational brands whereas MediaVest has a lot of local clients. We are acquiring a lot of learning from local level activation that’s taking place deeper into the Indian market.

There’s a sense that Starcom India has been losing steam over the last three years or so. Even in the BE’s Agency Reckoner that’s a perceptual study on marketing communications companies in India, it has been slipping down the ranks and was at its lowest last year at 7. Also, it is yet to record a significant win on the new business front for quite a while. Are these areas of concern? What are you doing to address them?

If we’d taken this interview in 2007-08, we’d have had a completely different conversation. At times, you have to understand and accept cycles in the business. Our product over the last year has improved, our go to market position has improved. So I like the direction that we’re headed. I don’t like dropping down in the rankings. (We have the ability to improve the rankings) not by being a copy in the market but by being a leader there.

Over the last few years, we’ve been analysing the human spirit. This entails understanding human beings, documenting the media they watch and creating plans that focus on not only efficient placement but also development of experiences that everyone can interact with. Simultaneously, we’ve been upgrading our digital capabilities so that now the fastest growing aspect of our company is actually digital. SMG is actually the fastest growing digital unit inside Publicis Groupe.

I think we’ve got the fundamentals right and the vision right in India. I think we’ve got to deploy it well. For me, the issue in India is really putting it all together with a new leader to sharpen our commercial lens. Having said that, I think there are different ways to measure winning. We’ve been a little unlucky in some of the rankings but our products are generally going in a very different direction. Over time, product is what drives wins, not just lowest fees and lowest commercial offers.

Are there any large global clients who you are not working with in India? What’s your gameplan for bringing them in?

A lot of our global clients are selecting their agency partners on a market-by-market basis. Coca-Cola and Proctor & Gamble are great examples of global clients we have. But we don’t have them in every market. I think it’s an opportunity for us to leverage our multinational businesses. We have six out of our top ten multinational clients being serviced from India. In every market in the world, you need a mix of local and multinational clients.

Changing tracks a bit, let’s talk about your tenure as head of the Media Lions jury at the Cannes Lions this year, Typically, at creative award functions, the entries that win have very little to do with more workaday and regular output from agencies. While we do understand that the entries sent to Cannes Lions represent the best work, how representative is it of larger trends in the media business? In other words, have media agencies too started tailoring entries and making them more ‘awards-friendly’?

I got a chance to see the best of the work. Over 2,000 entries over the course of five days, whittled down to 199 that was further whittled down to 45 and then one winner. I think that in an award show, you see different work emerge because there’s a different definition of creativity and innovation. Each jury in an award show creates an ecosystem. So you cannot compare one jury to the next.

Having said that, award shows consistently tend to not factor in business growth and results as much as agencies have to when they’re developing a campaign or a programme for clients. They tend to focus too much on creativity and on the one-off innovation, not on the longevity or effectiveness of a campaign. But that is fine because at the end of the day, the award shows serve a purpose and create aspirational goals around creativity. But then, most agencies are focused on growing their clients’ business. That to me is the ultimate award.

I know that Terry Savage (Chairman, Cannes Lions) and Philip Thomas (CEO, Cannes Lions) worked very hard to get the media-jury criteria right at Cannes and they’ll continue to innovate and adapt as they see fit. This is an aspirational business and I want our award shows to celebrate creativity and innovation in business. And that’s good. At least from the media standpoint, we should make sure we don’t lose sight of the good work. And there’s a link between creativity and business effectiveness. Great creative effective work builds business. It’s about finding the right creative platforms and catching the magic.

Were there any entries that really stood out for you this year apart from, of course, the ones that won
big? Any personal favourite/s you’d like to discuss?

The big trends I saw at Cannes was the real emergence of digital and social media. The ‘Canon EOS photochain’ that won the Grand Prix was a digitally centralised campaign. An idea that turned the user of the camera and the content they created into the actual product and the actual social media vehicle. That was a huge trend. Other things that really stood out for me were a lot of work in the creative space for television, for integrated marketing, for print.

Source: Starcom MediaVest Group

Tags: Laura Desmond , Starcom MediaVest Group

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