Rahat Kapur
Feb 5, 2024

The future truly lies in Asia: Havas' Rana Barua

Campaign speaks to Rana Barua, Havas' group CEO for Southeast and North Asia, on his expanded role beyond India, exploring the potential for strategic alliances in APAC, and why AI is now an inevitable part of life.

Photo: Courtesy of Havas.
Photo: Courtesy of Havas.

They say it takes a village to nurture a child, but what about a client?

Having unveiled their 'Havas Village' model late last year, the global communications powerhouse  network is looking to harness the power of the collective by tapping into their 60 co-located offices around the world and bringing together the Group's various agencies and teams under one roof. These 'villages' aim to foster collaboration and integration between different disciplines, such as creative, media, and digital.

Now helming the Southeast Asian and North Asian initiative is Rana Barua. Previously group CEO for Havas India, Barua's leadership within the agency has been notable. With a career that spans almost three decades, the recent announcement that Barua will extend his leadership to cover Havas' operations in Southeast and North Asia marks a significant shift. The move, which sees Barua now overseeing nine new markets, is also indicative of Havas' strategic adjustments and the challenges of maintaining coherence and synergy across diverse regions. 

As Barua steps into this expanded role, the focus is on fostering collaboration across the Southeast and North Asia markets, aiming to leverage the diverse opportunities these regions present. This approach is in line with Havas' aim to integrate its services more closely, though it also underscores the complexities of navigating the advertising landscape across different cultures and market dynamics.

On a recent trip to Singapore, Barua sat down with Campaign Asia-Pacific to delve into the implications of his leadership change, exploring the strategic thinking behind the move and how it fits into Havas' broader objectives. 

Campaign: How are you feeling about your new role, Rana? And are you excited about your expanded remit ahead?

Rana: It's naturally exciting, indeed. Because with what we've built in Havas, especially in India, and the way things have happened over the last few years, I come naturally with a very positive bent of mind. I'm quite strongly a growth-oriented kind of a person, and [I enjoy] being multi-diverse. I've spent time with the team here, as I came a month back to understand them better. And the more I'm interacting with them, I can see that what we are discussing globally about Asia is true: It is that the future lies in this part of the world.

How does the role expansion to group CEO of Southeast and North Asia impact your responsibilities over India? 

I'll still be looking after India. So for us, what has happened is that for the last five years, India is among the top four or five markets globally. And it's only because of the way we've become a very large player there, that it's only natural to explore an extension here. Also, a lot of common conversations have been going on [between India and Asia] over the last 12 months too, so India stays in my remit and I'll continue to be based out of Mumbai.

You've also mentioned your other hub will be Singapore. Given that it's a smaller market overall in the grand scheme of Asia, what's the reasoning behind that?

I think Singapore will continue to be a very important market because it's the entry into this part of the world, with Southeast Asia and North Asia. So, you're not going to find it easy to manage some of these other markets out of other places. 

In that same vein, of the nine markets you're handling plus India, which ones are a priority? Is there any order in terms of how your time will be distributed based on size, scale, client billings, opportunities etc.?

So with India, you can't take your eyes off it. It's a significant market. But India's got a strong management team at the top, and it's got its 'Village' in order. It's got 18 companies under it, this year it'll add another three or four, so it's going to have 22 odd companies, and close to 2,500 people. So, that's a seperate story. But if you look at the way the region will be built, it's a cluster of different countries and they need to be treated as such. You can never equate one Singapore to one India, as they're two separate conversations entirely. But yes, you're right, we will be priotising our approach and how we manage these countries. We are already present in some form or the other in some places, e.g. some countries have Creative, or some countries have a very strong media reference. My job is to consolidate some of these operations to see where and what is going on. I definitely see some of these markets independently playing a strong role, but for me, the approach is through Singapore. 

Is the focus on organic growth or through acquisitons in Singapore?

So Singapore and the other markets will factor in a number of things. One will be organic growth. In the region we already have Havas Play and Havas Market. We also have something in data called CSA, and in design another agency called Conran Design Agency. For anything to do with talent and internal engagement, we have Havas People, and Havas CX for customer experience. So if you look at all of those, a lot can be brought in and a lot can be started. But it can happen individually in each of these markets, so it's not like everything is in Singapore. It's completely on a client-basis, needs-basis and markets-basis.

What are your top three growth goals for the region?

The first goal is that we're going back to defining is our product in a sharper way. Truth be told, we know Havas has been around for a bit, but there are stronger and more aggressive networks that have outshouted us or probably won more clients. So, we're working on sharpening our product from the tools we have to our thought leadership to meaningful brand studies. There's going to be a lot of work-focused conversations also on what we do for our clients, to ensure we are being spoken about and seen as a very strong [communication] agency for choice.

The second focus will be on driving the 'Village' integration and driving client collaboration in a much stronger way. I've been challenged on this by a lot of journalists who say to me, well everyone says the same thing: Integration and collaboration. And it's fair. But for me, from my learnings in India and working with smaller networks there, we enjoy the size that we have and it makes it a lot easier for many of us to integrate. For me, if you've got your product right, your positoning right and your perception right (which is my number one strongest pillar for growth), then you can start the collaboration right away.

Finally, my third goal is strategic alliances. Getting expertise, even if it may lie in other markets, be it through a joint venture if need be. Or to look for those acquisitons which are absolutely needed and if that market is particularly important, then how can we support the market with these alliances.

Speaking of clients, Havas has recently faced scrutiny around its work for fossil fuel clients including Shell, and its responsibilities when it comes to ESG. What's your perspective on this, given sustainability imperatives are not always top of mind for companies in Asia, especially as the focus remains on growth?

We have a clear mission to make a meaningful difference to brands, businesses, and people. We believe in effecting change from within and are committed to supporting companies in their communications endeavours, provided they are actively engaged in a transformation journey. The primary goal is to engage clients, talents, and suppliers in a responsible communications approach, thereby contributing to the elevation of professional standards.

You spoke about Havas Play, and in Singapore, Havas recently acquired Klareco Communications. Given that consumers are starting to have a very discerning attitude towards advertising, is opting for the communications route now more of the strategy for Havas?

It's not a communications or a PR focus. Let's just rewind it a bit. It's more about how markets have evolved and how Asia is particularly involved. I can give you a live example of India. When we started the journey in India, we had a creative agency, a media agency and a health agency, which was the norm exactly five years back. Today it has around 18 such agencies under the three, but it's about the market, and what kind of businesses that lie in the market, and what clients are asking for. Region to region, it's very different. Globally, if you look at Havas and I can't actually naturally on the other networks, Havas is very clear about the kind of places that we are focusing on. The media network is very clear that the core, which is media and something, is what we call 'Diversified Services' and that's what we are building. What is Diversified Services? It's the whole thing on what you're looking at Play, anything that we are building around the whole model of data (ESA), and subsequently anything that we are building around market which is the Havas E-commerce.

Most agencies today will tell us that client centricity is the largest focus for them and placing their needs at the centre is key. But if everyone is doing the same thing, who wins and why?

It's a fair question and it's going to be about survival of the fittest, let's be very clear about that. My belief and it's a belief that's advocated strongly by the Group, is that the one who will win, is the one who is playing it together, which is collaborating. Who is working within the group. It's not just about collaborating with the client, you know what I mean? If I stand out finally, it's because of the excellent idea or solution you're giving the client and how you're delivering it. It will get caught out, and it's slowly getting caught out. I'm not saying it wasn't happening ten years back, it was happening. Was it happening twenty years back? 100%. Because clients are always measuring. But now because ROIs can be measured within a flicker of a second, you can figure out captive audiences, and you can figure out whether your thing even moved a muscle or not; your numbers are getting tracked on a day-by-day basis. Earlier, it was on a month-by-month basis. Now, you know for a fact that if a launch happens, in one week you see results. So, I think what is happening is very clear, and the reason why I keep saying client-centric focus and I keep talking of integration and collaboration, is not because that's what my business is. But when I run businesses, I'm looking at every single solution and this centricity is exactly what clients are asking for.

Finally, let's talk AI. Is it one of your focus areas for the region moving forward? And if so, why?

So, globally we've begun exploring this area with our recent tie-up with the likes of Adobe, so we're already involved in it. And for me, it's just going to became part of everyday. I think the thing to watch out for and keep in mind is that AI is going to become part of your life. We can't run away from it and we should embrace it. It will become a strong enabler for us, particularly those of us in the communications industry. And the faster we adopt it, it's better for everyone.


Campaign Asia

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