Interview: An agency might be small & profitable; but small is risky: Sanjay Mehta, Mirum India

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Sanjay Mehta Mirum

A social media expert and digital marketing guru, Sanjay Mehta, Joint CEO - Mirum India has been at the helm of many thought-provoking campaigns and ideas.

Being on the jury panel for Best Social Media Brands 2018, Mehta shares his journey of from being an independent social media agency to becoming a part of a giant network. Key learnings and takeaways, Mehta also explains the functioning of agencies back home vis-a-vis their western counterparts and much more.

Read the excerpts to hear it all from the horse’s mouth...

Mirum has had a rather vibrant journey; from an independent social media agency to now – how has the experience been? What were the three major learnings?

Being a second major startup for Harish and me, we realised that scale is the key.

You can’t be a boutique and remain in a niche area.

We got managers and senior people in the business earlier than required just so we could remain out of the fundamental operational loop and continue to focus on strategy of growth. In the early days, in 2009 and 2010, atleast three agencies started to get some traction but just didn't take off. If I remember right, the key thing was that the founders were deeply involved in the operation. It didn't allow them to focus on strategic growth.

Other learning is to enhance the offerings at the right time for your existing client. Originally, when we started we were a social media agency. Back then, clients used to have a separate social media agency, digital agency, media agency and mainline. As years went by, the space between social and digital became fuzzy and clients were lost about which goes where. We saw that as a social media agency, inspite of putting all the time and efforts to understand the client's business and the brand, our revenues were saturating at a point. This led us to a conclusion that we need to be more than social and we enhanced our offerings. We got the whole technology piece in place, we were doing websites and mobile apps in-house. We got the media piece so were planning and buying social media. We got full content creation in place including videos. We have added marketing automation and what not so we enhanced the pieces that allowed us to scale relationships. If you put time and effort building a relationship with the client, year after year you see increase in revenues from that relationship.

The third was that we were open to becoming part of a network. We became a part of that network and took effort to integrate ourselves into the network. It's not like you are part of the network and the next day, business will start flowing from the network into your lap. It's something you work on.

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What will be your tips and advice to agencies that are attempting to scale up?

If you are the entrepreneur and the energy behind the growth, you can't let your time get sucked by one platform. This can easily happen because you know that some big brand gives business on your name. Getting too engaged with specific accounts rather than being more focussed on strategy for growth is one.

Second, think scale. Lot of entrepreneurs feel hesitant to add more people on the team or take that extra step to get bigger business.

One tends to be hesitant that maybe we should not get ahead of it and it is small and profitable but small is risky.

You are dependent on a few accounts which support your 5 crore worth agency. There are that three clients who contribute 3 crores of it; now one or two get knocked out and you are like 20% or 40% down. If you are a 50 crore agency and you lose 1 or 2 crore worth accounts, then it doesn't even seem so big and you can always compensate. I am not going to relax until I am this size. We are in a people-oriented business, we don’t use machines or bots to grow our business; scale means to get along with you some good leadership, people who will not just execute but people who will create the next level of leadership within the organization. Everything can't be on your shoulders.

As an individual, you were involved in the dot com wave long before it emerged into a full flow phenomenon. Please take us through your journey. Looking back which was one moment that stands out?

We went through like a lot of ups and downs and the dot com boom. Those were a fully challenging 9 years. We captured all those learnings of ours in a book and it is expected to be out in a month. It's being published by CNBC-TV18 and is called, 'If I had to do it again'.

It is a little tough to pick one moment because there are so many moments. I think as an entrepreneur of a commercial organization, you know you are working for money and profits, besides your passion and interest. I think the day we signed out and got acquired by WPP was one of the big ones because A. It brought some money home and B. It showed that whatever we have put together over these years, somebody is willing to give us a good price for it.

During the various phases, you have mastered the art of change management, ensuring a smooth transition of the business and operations. What have been your key takeaways from the same? Please share a few tips for agencies and other entities that have been or are in the process of getting acquired.

Change Management is a very interesting subject for an entrepreneur. For instance, when something new comes, like right now AI is the next big thing so you drop everything and start experimenting. You are constantly reacting to things which are happening outside and at the same time if you just stay the same and not change, that’s also not right. There is a balance between these two which is what we need to find.

Doing something completely different requires new skills, new people, new infrastructure it's almost like creating a new business. But then if you have certain skills and you seem to add twist to it, you can suddenly be offline or can make a significant change in the way you present yourself and your work. You need to keep some of these key factors in mind when you attempt to make a change.

Let's say 70-80% of what is required is already there maybe 20-30% you need to learn and get new skills, it shouldn't be the other way round like you have 20-30% but you need to recreate almost 70-80%. Here you are not changing; you are winding up something and starting something afresh.

What you need to do is to keep seeing the signs. When you don’t get the desired response, you might first see that you are not executing it correctly; first try to figure out if you have done it right, then you conclude that you have done everything that is needed but what you had presumed and the consequence is different. You need a Plan B.

At Mirum, you play a crucial role in the global operations as well. What are the key differences in the functioning of an agency here as compared to their global counterparts?

Comparing Mirum India with its Western counterparts like the US or Europe, it's like for a certain activity, we have 5 people, they probably would have one. Essentially, they are sharper but smaller organizations with people typically of a higher calibre. Whereas in India, there are more number of people but little bit of an average calibre. An average agency person is able to engage at a detailed level with the client's problems, strategic requirements. That happens because you are choosing the people of that kind. Of course it is far more expensive to get things done because of the cost factor here, but also atleast in the Mirum world, we see to it that not everybody is doing the same kind of work. We have different kinds of digital speciality. We have different flavours of digital, from large enterprise to mobile, and it's incorrect to compare two digital agencies because you might not compare Apple to Apple in that sense.

Do you think the Indian social media marketing industry needs to learn from their global counterparts? If yes, what are the elements that can be emulated?

Yes. There is a lot more focus on strategy globally, whether it is business strategy, UI/UX strategy, there is a lot more time to spend on thinking before execution is initiated. Our country depends on jumping to execution fast and not giving adequate time and expertise to strategising. As a result, the execution is not the best execution that could happen.

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Whether you spend 6 months or 6 weeks doesn't matter because the expert on strategy is what the difference is.

At Mirum you take ownership of the client's business in terms of returns , scale and business growth, strategising and executing to deliver end-business results and not just great creative idea.

From Social Wavelength to Mirum, what are the pros of being a part of a larger network v/s being an individual entity?

As an independent agency you are not answerable to anyone which also means that if you go well, the entire value is yours alone. In terms of advantages of being a part of a network is high access to knowledge, information, and people. You have global connections, you open up to global opportunities, potentially the kind of experience sharing at a larger scale and feeling a sense of a bigger brother who is there to hold your back.

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