The Communications Business Has Been Guilty Of Generalising Ideas Basis Mediums – Sudhir Nair, 21N78E

Your journey started with Grey, which took its route to 21N78E after 15 years of your experience followed by OMG. And yet again, you are back with 21N78E. How was the experience throughout these years and what made you switch back to where you started?

I started my career in 1995. However, my journey in advertising started in 2001. I was fresh out of a dotcom stint, which didn’t last too long. But it was a great learning experience. I have always said this whenever asked, that the first dotcom boom had some fantastic ideas, which were way ahead of their time. The lack of internet penetration in the country then and the premium attached to connectivity buried those ideas. Some of those ideas resurfaced later and succeeded.

Post the dotcom burst, I was one amongst many looking for a job and the interesting ones were difficult to come by. And then Grey happened to me. I still rate my interviews with Subhash Kamat and Late Vinod Prabhakar as the most engaging ones I have ever had. I joined as the Head of IT, with a hope that I will eventually be able to get back to a business role via the Interactive(Yes! Digital was called Interactive then) division. Come August 2001, Nirvik gave me a call while I was in Bangalore and asked(ordered) me to revive the Interactive Division. And that’s how my Digital journey began. We tasted some early successes and grew from strength to strength. We changed our business model in 2007. We reduced our dependency on media commission and focussed more on digital consulting; something that was ahead of its time. On the back of big blue-chip client wins and cutting edge work we were declared the Digital Agency of the Year twice between 2010 & 2014..

It was also a period when the dynamics of advertising were changing. New media was gaining momentum and the traditional ways of integrated campaigns were becoming redundant. At a personal level, I was wondering what next?

I contemplated shifting organisations, but eventually decided to take the plunge as an entrepreneur by launching 21N78E Creative Labs. Few months into it, I realised the standard organic way of adding services is a dead model. We needed to add width of services and gain scale quickly. With a lot of senior advertising professionals becoming entrepreneurs, competition was only going to get tougher. However, 21N78E was never conceived as a pure advertising agency. Our business model, we believe is very unique, so was our approach to scaling up. My getting onboard with Omnicom Media Group too was towards that end. It made leveraging best-in-class media capabilities seamless for our clients, while we were able to extend creative services wherever synergies existed. I had a good two year run at Omnicom, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I would want to believe that I did my bit and focussed my energies on capabilities which is the future of any media in a brand journey. The new business wins were particularly satisfying, given the stature and scale of those brands.

Meanwhile, 21N78E too was getting on a growth path. The advertising arm started gaining traction. Quite a few marquee clients signed us up. We opened offices in Bengaluru and Gurugram. The key leadership was in place. Some of the key people who helped me create magic at Grey Digital were back with me. It was important to be back full-time and focus my energies to take the Vision forward. I am not alien to start-ups and do think that I know what it takes to shift gears and recalibrate expectations.

Digital ad spending is stated to surpass TV ad spending in the coming years. Do you think it as an opportunity for the agencies or a mighty challenge?

I think we are missing a point or two when we say that. Everything will eventually be digital. That’s how technology is evolving and so are the consumers. TVs are getting smarter, Displays are getting bigger. Data is replacing the last mile. Content is becoming omnipresent. Passive is finding ways to become interactive. News has become real-time. Most importantly the world is becoming addressable. It’s a matter of time before extrapolation-based metrics also become redundant.

The dynamics are evolving quickly and the lines are getting blurred. The challenge for everyone is to accept this ever-changing reality and the opportunity is in making sure one is geared to continue delivering in this changed environment. The challenge will also be to unify multiple sources of data, platforms and build messaging with a single view of the consumer in mind.

Being in the industry for more than 20 years, what’s the biggest change in the agency business discerned by you in the two decades?

When I look at how the business of communications has changed, I consider myself fortunate to have been a ‘digital first professional’ throughout my career. When I took to digital we were a country of less than a billion and an internet penetration of about 0.4%!.

The communications business has been guilty of generalising ideas basis mediums. While more significant touch-points got added, the business continued with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Two decades ago digital was equal to blinking banners and budgets were miniscule. Digital suffered from unreal expectations with minimum investments. Now with measurable impacts being showcased in digital, coupled by the resurgence of the digital economy, efficacy of other mediums are being questioned. The biggest shift I have seen is the way consumers have democratized the mediums of their choice and brands are playing catch-up. Now brands are listening and responding to consumers which wasn’t the case earlier.

At 21N78E we believe in the power of an idea. We believe there is enough and more data available to validate everything; including your gut feel. The current reality demands integration of technology at every level. With the bulk of the population below the age of 35, the medium of choice is quite obvious.

Mediums are many but a consumer is one; and so should be the narrative. A narrative that can leverage the power of the mediums, leverage intelligence available, converse across multiple touch-point and create a unified experience.

Content has become the crucial part in advertising to connect to its audience and say out louder what it wants to say. According to you, is content marketing an evolution or a revolution?

Advertising was always about content. It is the formats that have changed and so has the last mile. What we are witnessing today is content being created basis insights and with a clear focus on not just engagement but also moving business metrics. Different formats are being explored and innovations in terms of parallel story telling are being added to the content experience. With multiple brands vying for the same consumers wallet and its share; content and quality of conversations are becoming key differentiators in decision making.

With brands listening to conversations, algorithms predicting trends, AI being used to engage, analytics being leveraged, post click scenarios being redrawn real-time, content marketing is becoming a science in itself. That to my mind is a function of evolution.

The revolution is in terms of the number of clients adopting content marketing as a key marketing tool and creating content that leverages the strengths of each touch-point without losing the essence of the messaging.

21N78E offers services like Strategic Consulting, Digital Solutions, Analytics and an Incubation Lab for developing digital products. Which one is your favourite and why?

21N78E was set up to deliver solutions that can work across multiple ecosystems and multiple touchpoints. These ecosystems vary from category to category, brand to brand and consumer to consumer. Sometimes you need to deconstruct them to come up with solutions that will get desired results. If numbers are any indicators, then most consumers are becoming digital first and there are no mediums untouched by technology anymore; thereby our solutions and recommendations to clients. As mentioned earlier, with so much data at our disposal, communication is becoming very data led. Our Analytics Solutions are being built to deliver value in an addressable world.

Sometimes, lack of clarity and investments become a hurdle while chasing dreams. The Incubation Lab exists to make sure that no idea dies a silent death. It is a place where any 21ner can bring his/her idea and explore it to its full potential.

Our products are a result of gaps we identified as opportunities. They range from solutions for the heartland to a market place for evolving businesses. We are also building solutions that will help our business optimise resources and give us an edge in such a competitive landscape.

As a founder, its difficult to pick favourites. But the Incubation Lab is where I think some amazing Products are going be launched. And I am personally extremely bullish about this vertical!