Making the buck work harder in terms of consumer targeting will help during inflation: Ajay Gupte

Saloni Surti
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Ajay Gupte

Ajay Gupte of Wavemaker talks about the changing role of media spends in the face of mounting inflation, dealing with the industry-wide talent crunch, and more in this brief conversation with Social Samosa.

Formed post the consolidation of MEC and Maxus globally, Wavemaker was launched in 2017. In India, Ajay Gupte, CEO - South Asia, Wavemaker took over the reins of the media agency in 2020. Prior to that, he was heading MEC Indonesia in Jakarta and had joined the agency in a time of turmoil. 

Before he exited Jakarta to move on to India, MEC Indonesia’s position took a 360-degree turn, becoming the 4th Most Wanted Agency in APAC and second within Indonesia. 

Now, nearly 3 years into his stint in India, Gupte talks about the Wavemaker India’s climb, dealing with media spends in the face of mounting inflation, and the seemingly increasing industry-wide talent crunch.

In a candid virtual conversation, we spoke to Gupte about the Wavemaker business, their relatively new South establishment under the leadership of Anil Sathiraju and Karthik Nagarajan, and of course, moonlighting. 

Edited Excerpts:

Wavemaker India saw a total billing of INR 1500 Cr in the last two years. Compared to this, how would you say was 2022? 

Very similar, actually. We have managed to add, about the same at the same land rate approximately, which is about 10% of our business. What I'm very happy about, is that we have actually been able to add in a lot of business in new areas that we've invested in. For example, e-commerce performance businesses, social advocacy, businesses, content creation - the entire FPD journey for our clients, so their entire DSP is what we are working on. 

We're growing at about 20%, overall, which is which is a great situation to be in. Part of it is organic and a part of your family business. 

What will be Wavemaker's core business strategy in 2023 & what kind of growth are you anticipating? 

2023 is a little bit of a mixed bag right now. From an Outlook perspective, there is a lot of pessimism, so to speak at one end because there is a little bit of tightening of the purse strings at the clients' end. This is mainly driven by margin pressures for some clients, for some other clients, it is investors who have been a little bit more conscious of spending and for some clients, it is about global pessimism, which is affecting us. 

However, I am seeing that the consumer, so to speak, is a lot more optimistic and there is a lot of demand in the industry. Our e-commerce, finance, and many other clients have been talking about offtake happening at the consumer level. I'm hopeful that the consumers’ optimism will rub off and that the fact that actual sales are doing really well is good. It's the margins that have been affected.

I'm hoping by the end of the first quarter we should have provided nothing catastrophic happens, and we should have a better situation

For WaveMaker as a business, we are on a much stronger footing. When things get tough and money becomes extremely important and consumers are looking for a particular kind of return. This is when, performance media like e-commerce or content, which engage with the consumer a lot better, and, therefore, create a lot more coal for the brand, work better. These are all areas that we've invested in, and I dare say, perfect in the last three years of COVID-19.

We manage social analytics for about 12 clients, social business and social content business for 25 Odd clients. These are capabilities that we have built and these are areas where clients would naturally lean on because of the pressures that they face. 

How is the mounting inflation & mounting fear of inflation impacting AdSpends in the Indian market? 

India is one of the cheapest media markets in the world, from cost per acquisition and cost per each perspective. So, inflation, irrespective of where the world is going is bound to happen.

The challenge really for us is to be able to deliver value and to ensure that we are able to generate value, from media for our clients. 

Pricing is not the only way. But is there any other added value that you can do? Are there any partnerships that you can do to read data are also extremely important because it helps a client target better. The second part of it is what I spoke about earlier - you want to make your client’s money work that much harder. If you have a better understanding of the client's consumers, you're able to target them better. Analytics becomes extremely crucial. If you're able to have all of this in place, you're able to get your attribution, right? When I say attribution, I mean the ability to identify what part of my money is actually working better.

One of the spaces that I spoke about earlier is the SPD journey - to collect client, consumer equity first-party data, how do you go about collecting it? Which partner do you work with to store the data? How do you, access the data? How do you enhance the data using partnerships? And how do you activate the data?

What I'm trying to say is that basically create capabilities that will help our clients maximize returns on investment, in these times.

Being able to create better value from media and finding ways to make the rupee work harder in terms of better targeting, better consumer acquisition, and better conversion, will help our clients and I think that's the area that we're investing in.

Also Read: Opinion: The non-negotiable value of first party data in a post-cookie world

Towards the end of 2021, Wavemaker announced a new unit in the South. How has the unit performed & any takeaways around the market in the last year? 

We have a very strong operation in the South, with offices in Bangalore, Chennai, and Kochi. Last year, we made an investment in one of our client leads, our business leads and this is something that we've been doing consistently. The South cinema is a massive business, actually much bigger than Bollywood and it is really untapped in many ways. One of our client leaders wanted to try and explore that market and create opportunities for our clients in South India.

So, if there's a movie coming out with Rajinikanth how do we find value for brands in it. How do you go about it? We've done some tie-ups with Ilayaraja for some of our brands. We've got some of our brands into a movie. For clients, it's a window to get into areas that they are not really aware of and uncertain of, and because they work with us, there is that element of trust. The first is the fact that we managed to give one of our people (Anil Sathiraju) the opportunity to do something different. Second is in the ability for us to actually get our clients to maximize that effort in the South.

As the industry stands divided into topics such as hybrid working, moonlighting, quiet quitting & everything in between - agencies face a huge talent crisis. What is your opinion on the same & how do you think larger agencies should proceed going forward? 

I always say that our industry is people-oriented - the product is people, the factory is people, everything is people and therefore people are the single most important asset that we have. 

Firstly, creating a culture and making sure people live that culture becomes very difficult. Especially in times when it was purely working from home. We've now moved into hybrid, where it's two days a week. During the lockdown, however, people who joined didn’t really have a chance to meet anyone and quit in a matter of months. This bothered me a lot. Secondly, getting people enthused and understanding the culture has been difficult. 

People want to be part of a place where there is action and good work happening. It's important that employees or potential employees hear good stories about the organization they want to join. If they get an opportunity to do differentiated work and shine, I think they will stick on.

Because of the kinds of things that we've been doing in diversifying and giving opportunities to people, I think we've been very successful in having the lowest attrition rates in the group and outside.

With the desire to give people a slightly better welcome into the organization, I started something called ‘meet the CEO’. With everyone who joined the organization, I would set up a call for about half an hour in groups of say five or six. Initially, people would be reluctant or not switch on the camera. Then with those learnings, we started saying that it is important that you will switch on your camera. Effectively, what happened was that anyone joining the organization was engaging with me one on one - I was able to tell them the vision of this organization and welcome them which I think was very important. I continue to do this even to date. We've now enhanced it, where once a month, everyone who joins the organization goes for lunch with the Office head and anyone else from a leadership team who is in that particular market. 

You have experience of turning around agencies during times of turmoil - any learnings from this phase that you would like to apply to the current situation?  

I've had that history and it has worked really well. I remember I joined Indonesia when we were ranked 17 and I think there were 18 agencies in the country.

It was a painful position to be in, I remember going to one of the Asia Pacific conferences and sitting in the room and seeing myself as number nine on the table for MEC in APAC.

I remember telling one of my colleagues who were with me that I want to be number four on that list because I knew I couldn't beat India, China, and Australia.

When I left Indonesia, we were number four on that list and we were number two in Indonesia, second to Mindshare. What has really worked is that I've been able to put together a fantastic team and create an environment of trust.

Our combined goal actually stems from our global CEO’s goal of being the most wanted agency in the world. Having a combined goal, giving freedom, and celebrating success together, I think that has been one key thing in being able to create a culture of trust and camaraderie. I will also add value to our clients that we were able to deliver consistently helped a lot.

That's the same thing that I'm doing right now and that we are doing together as a team.

Top media trends you foresee of 2023 

Data is going to be very important. It is the most important thing that is going to play around across levels. More accountable data, more real-time data, more actionable data.

Omni channel commerce - when I say that, I mean that everything leads to commerce or to sales in some fashion because austerity measures and budgets being tight, everything that we need to do should finally lead to a sale. Make sure that every piece of every rupee invested is leading to an outcome or sale. 

Able to engage with the consumers because the consumer has so much in front of them, so many options available that their attention span is low and you need to find innovative ways to engage with them to be able to create better bonds with the consumer. 

As a Jury for SAMMIE Best Social Media Brands, what are your expectations from the entries? Any message that you would like to share with the participants? 

Thanks for having me on the Jury Panel. It's going to be enriching to see the kind of work that is happening. A few things that I look forward to seeing are how is data being used really and whether is it delivering the maximum impact. There is a massive opportunity to combine the left brain and right brain and bring it to deliver greater returns for our clients and I want to see a lot of that. I also want to see how in new tech avenues have been used to execute simple ideas. 

It's very easy to do a lot of complex stuff which doesn't reach out to consumers. I want to see new tech, new ideas being delivered in forms that are simple and, and easy to relate to

To the participants - well done for being able to put together work that you feel proud of. You are already a winner because you've been able to create great work that can be showcased. All the best and I do hope you win. 

Interview Wavemaker Business Strategy Ajay Gupte AdSpends inflation