Raahil Chopra
Sep 13, 2023

We are not competing with creative agencies: Ajay Gupte, Wavemaker

The South Asia chief executive officer of Wavemaker has a freewheeling chat with Campaign India about the operations in India, the role of AI, doubts about it being a media specialist agency and more...

We are not competing with creative agencies: Ajay Gupte, Wavemaker

Ajay Gupte has spent 15 of his last 16 years at GroupM and states that 'he's passionately in love with this place' during a conversation with Campaign India.  

He started his career at WPP by heading Maxus' Delhi office. Since then, he’s also worked with MEC (across markets) and now leads a team of 785 people in India.   

A month ago, he won the ‘IAA Media Agency Leader of the Year’ on the back of Wavemaker having its ‘three best years from 2020’ according to him.  

We caught up with him to learn about his time at WPP, the role of Wavemaker within the stable, and more…

Edited excerpts:  

You've essentially been with WPP for the last 15 years, having been with Maxus and MEC prior. How has the group evolved over this period?  

I joined Maxus in 2005. It was a three-year-old agency and was operating against the likes of Mindshare, Madison and Mudra, who were the big boys those days. We had to stand out and the only way to do so was by innovating. In a very short span, we were number two and a lot of credit goes to what Srini (CVL Srinivas) set up.   

Winning awards was a very high priority. We had a digital and content team in place back then. Not many media agencies had these teams in place. We were already creating a differentiated product at that kind of time.  

We differentiated ourselves and stood for an evolved, differentiated product at Maxus. Maxus was very strong in Asia, but not very strong globally.   

At the same time, we had MEC which was a powerhouse. It was very left-brained and strong on data. I joined MEC in Indonesia. At that time, MEC was very tiny there and was number 15 in the country. I had 18 people in the agency. Between my stints with Maxus India and MEC Indonesia, I’d been to OMD in Africa.   

I’d joined MEC Indonesia, a few days after it had lost its biggest account, which contributed 60% to its billings. So the 30-member team was down to 18.   

We applied the same Maxus rules with the MEC culture and grew. The good story there is that when we merged MEC into Maxus in 2017, we were number two in the market.   

Now, we had MEC which was data, process and tools-oriented, while Maxus which was about creativity, hunger, and entrepreneurial growth.   

This coupled with a changing media environment, in which digital was becoming more evolved and important meant we needed to break the monotony. Innovation was needed and content became important. In the normal scheme of things, you cannot build this capability because you don’t make so much money in this business. So we had to bring MEC and Maxus together. The savings we had with this were immense! (laughs)  

We did this across 100 countries together. It was called Newco initially. We wanted to transform and create capabilities to make the change. Wavemaker came from MEC’s content team which was called Wavemaker.   

What were the insecurities like? Were the Maxus staffers worried that a MEC name was selected as the name of the agency?  

No, it was beautifully done across the world. I remember sitting and defining roles and responsibilities. We knew we were investing in certain areas and had to re-profile and create new roles and areas of growth. We were managing within what we had and creating the ability to build a little bit more and so some people had to be repurposed into other businesses.  

There was a lot of tension, but there was a lot of excitement among whoever was there as part of the team because we knew we were onto something big. The name Wavemaker was a lucky shot because it means something. When I tell someone, you’re a Wavemaker, I don’t need to explain what he needs to do.   

What Toby (Jenner, global CEO) has done by saying ‘we want to be the most wanted media agency in the world’, has made it clear to everyone. We’ve kept it simple and that’s been the driving force.   

Of the 785 people employed in India, what would be the split between traditional media and the other non-core areas?  

Around 60% would be core. Content, e-commerce, and data tech combined have around 280 people and make up the rest of the staff.   

Without sounding pompous, 280-300 people would be the size of many media agencies by themselves.  

I understand the benefit of scale because I come from a small market like Indonesia. When I had a team of 18 people, I had no capability of investing and didn’t have a digital head or a strategy head. I had to build that in Indonesia. Now, with close to 800 people I have a lot of opportunities to flex.  

For example, last year when the Metaverse was becoming important, we had a senior young leader who expressed a desire to do something new. We created a Metaverse wing and asked him to run this. He studied this market and the opportunity and built a capability on the Metaverse. This helped two of our brands be part of the ‘first wedding to take place on the Metaverse’.  

A combination of size which allows us to invest and the width of clients allows us to incubate, create and perfect our services.  

It’s not easy to set up something without business support. We set up an e-commerce unit without having clients onboard.   

We’ve been lucky in a way that we have 100 plus clients. Anything we create will have takers from our existing client base. We know that these are important areas and we’re creating them.   

Now, we’ve got a massive e-commerce team and a massive data tech team, which manages clients’ first-party data and how it’s collected and distributed.    

Since you’ve touched upon the Metaverse, we wanted to know your view about the same. Do you think that craze has died down?  

We are seeing it being used in an evolved and differentiated way.   One learns with time and gets applied in different forms. We saw the ‘Raksha Bandhan’ campaign featuring Hrithik Roshan for Cadbury Celebrations which is a result of a lot of learnings from tech being merged into it.   

We are seeing clients doing sales conferences on the Metaverse too.

So we are moving from being gimmicky into an evolved form which is being applied to broader campaigns.   

AI - how is it aiding the agency and the employees?   

We have invested massively in data. We have AI-powered tools like Architect which help clients choose investments by medium, market, consumer group, objective and product. It’s amazing. It comes out like a river and its tributaries and looks at stuff like base budgets, markets, and media. This is a tool based on real-time data created for Wavemaker across the world.   

We have other AI-based tools like Choreograph Create, which helps us deploy different creatives to different people. This could be based on a person liking a different colour, or looking to pick one offer over the other.   

What we have been able to create today is an agency which can solve a lot more client challenges. Client challenges are evolving and dramatically changing. The delivery of the product or the sale of the product is across way more touchpoints now. We have a product called MESH which actively tracks consumer sentiments about a brand and looks for market trends.   

We have a team of 18 servicing 12 clients in this space which has helped us add value from just being a media agency.  

So what’s the future of a media agency professional? Would any traditional media buying roles be made redundant because of AI?  

Media professionals have to upskill.  

Having said that, I wouldn’t think people in the industry would be redundant. People will be given different roles. We are moving away from doing the grunt work to being able to strategise and give better solutions.   

A basic example of the same is that when I joined the industry, we had Doordarshan and we used to have CNS (Cable and Satellite) homes and non-CNS homes. I used to have a book which would come every week and we would have to find details of TRPs. There was no software. My computer HDD was 200 MB.  

So the truth is some of them evolved from those times, while some of them fell off. This is life. But those who can evolve can have an enriched experience.  

Are all the new clients coming from the usual media buying mandate or are some of the content offerings Wavemaker offers also helping win accounts?  

While I’m a very reticent person about awards, they have helped us a lot. We have seen clients who have called us for pitches and straight away say how they know what we have been doing and want us to the great work for them too. It’s a lovely thing to hear and is music for my years.   

I met a client last week, which has translated to a new business win for us. I walked into the room for the first meeting and the client said ‘we need you to do your magic for our brands’. That is the best testimonial of the work.  

We are winning a lot of clients on the back of being ‘plus plus media’ rather than ‘media plus plus’. We have clients who want us to do content and e-commerce. There are some cases where we’re only handling content and e-commerce while other media agencies are handling media.   

There have been murmurs from inside WPP that Wavemaker is competing with other creative units for content. What’s your take on this?  

We are not competing with creative agencies.   

They are great in what they are doing and we cannot create things like ‘brand strategies’. A creative agency should be looking at a particular product, how it should manifest as a brand and what should be the platform. We’re not into that game at all. We are media-first and if it requires us to create an ad, we will use that brand strategy and make it happen.   

We have hired a chief creative officer, George (Kovoor) who has come from Ogilvy, and is heading our content division, but he is not doing Ogilvy’s job.  

Given the shorter agency-client relationships, are clients looking at agencies for ‘brand building’ now?  

That has a place of its own and that’s a different challenge. What we are doing is if our audience uses media in a particular way, and we can innovate to make it more effective, we will do it and make the brand succeed. We will use whatever brand positioning or statement that the creative agency has worked on and implement or land it.   

In terms of new business wins, R3 has Wavemaker ranked fourth in India (till July 2023) with 15 new clients. Where do you see this go by the end of the year?   

We won Reckitt which is a big business. We retained Pernod Ricard and Mondelez which are massive businesses. We have won loads of other businesses like India Gate Basmati Rice and Pokerbaazi. This is our best-ever year in the last four years and this is coming on the back of us being number one since 2020 in terms of new business wins.   

There are a few more businesses in the pipeline which we have won which we can’t talk about right now.   

It’s also about time to bed them in and consolidate these businesses which we’ve won this year. While what is there on the plate will continue, our focus is also on the existing businesses and looking after them.   

What we are chasing is to be able to do differentiated stuff. We are creating a brand.   

The challenge that we face is that all agencies are like potatoes, and I want to be a super potato. This is something I presented while I was with MEC in 2012, but still follow it. I want to be differentiated and distinct from the rest and we are on that journey.   

We want to move away from clients just picking us based on rates or commission. We want clients to say that they want to work with us because we create better-rounded solutions to solve the business challenges of today.   

In terms of other targets, we have Campaign’s ‘Agency of the Year’ coming up and we want to wipe it off! It’s a good way to end the year!  

You spoke about being ‘plus plus media’ rather than ‘media plus plus’. Does this sometimes make clients believe you’re not a specialist media agency and look for someone else for pure media buying and planning?  

It’s a challenge for sure.  

There are cases when clients believe that they need to work with specialists. The advantage we have is our scale and our portfolio of clients. My ability to create a product and take it to 100 clients is far superior to anyone else. That’s our strength, but some clients see specialist agencies as the first port of call, our effort is to tell them about us and our scale.

Campaign India

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