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We Invest In Creating Capabilities Even Before Clients Demand Us To As Our Ambition Is To Be & Stay Ahead Of The World: Ajay Gupte

After making waves at India’s Oscars for Advertising- The ABBY Awards 2024 Powered By One Show, the EMVIES and even topping the Comvergence charts for the past five years, Ajay Gupte, Chief Executive Officer- South Asia, Wavemaker, in a candid interview with Marketing Mind opened up on what makes Wavemaker the ‘Wave Maker’ that it is today, how the media agency identifies which capabilities to build upon for clients and how to get them onboard, the behind the scenes of navigating the current global economic turbulences and much more.

| Published on June 13, 2024

We Invest In Creating Capabilities Even Before Clients Demand Us To As Our Ambition Is To Be & Stay Ahead Of The World: Ajay Gupte

In the times when the world wasn’t as aware of AI as it is today and deepfake still seemed to be a jargon, it was Wavemaker’s stellar use of technology for SRK My Ad campaign which put India on the top spot internationally for it was truly one-of-a-kind work that was pulled off in close collaboration with Ogilvy and Rephrase.AI.

In fact, the campaign which was launched as part of Cadbury Celebrations’ Diwali 2021 campaign titled- ‘Not Just A Cadbury Ad’ not just made India win its first Titanium Lion in Cannes Lions 2022, but also went on to be titled as ‘Most Effective Campaign of 2023’ in WARC Effective 100 Rankings in 2024.

That being said, most recently, the media agency also went on to be termed as ‘Media Specialist Agency Of The Year 2024’ at The Abby Awards 2024 powered by One Show.

Speaking to Marketing Mind on how the continued success of the agency feels year after year, Ajay Gupte, Chief Executive Officer- South Asia, Wavemaker, stated that while he feels ecstatic about winning, he is more grateful for the fact that it is the team’s work which is getting recognized consistently over time.

“In the last four years, we have been consistently winning everything that we are touching and the lead is getting only better. In fact, I am absolutely delighted about these winnings because just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was Wavemaker built as a differentiated agency that won at every awards it entered, all of a sudden,” he shared.

Furthermore, he also mentioned that the goal for Wavemaker since the beginning of time has been to make the right investments and create the capability to do something before anybody even realizes that the demand for such capabilities would one day be a reality.

To explain the rationale behind the same, he underscored that even Steve Jobs believes in the fact that the consumer doesn’t know what he or she wants, hence the onus is on the company (Apple) to build it for them.

“It’s similar for clients as well because being their agency, the onus to identify what is going to be important, making required investments and creating the capability even before the demand for the capability is created, lies on us and that’s precisely what we have been doing for years. Wavemaker wasn’t built in a day and today what we see is a result of the efforts that have been put up by CVL Srinivas since 2003 and everyone else who came on board and followed,” he highlighted.

Going down the memory lane, he also recalled that since he was a part of the journey since the beginning, he himself has been a witness to the media agency investing in digital at the times when clients were advised not to spend even 1% of their budgets on the mediums, when investments were made in content at a time when marketers didn’t understand what content was and later the same story followed for e-commerce, data and customer acquisition capabilities.

“These are things that clients never asked us for. We at Wavemaker identified the future need of these capabilities and built on them, first, and then went to the client with solutions and once they saw the merit in these solutions, we delivered them a great product,” he emphasised.

Furthermore, Gupte also pointed out that while there are hundreds of textbooks on the 4 Ps of marketing and the 5 Cs of communication, there are no textbooks on what media agencies like Wavemaker do today and hence the learning, successes and accolade winning work is nothing but a result of sheer hard work, experience and making investments upfront.

And because the agency made the kind of investments that it did and showed value to clients, with time more and more clients came on board and the experiences widened and Wavemaker learnt from its mistakes together with the client and perfected itself before taking that piece to a thousand other clients and that is precisely how Wavemaker created a successful business in the last five years, Gupte explained.

“Today, we are fortunate to have pretty large businesses in our entire set of clients and the only ways in which we see the space growing at Wavemaker is- one looking at our clients and sitting and saying that the client only wants this and I will keep building what the client wants and the other is that I have so many clients so finding out what is it that the client may need going forward and understanding if we can make that investment today and deliver it to the client even before they feel the need for it. We choose the second option today and will continue to always do so,” he stated.

Upon being questioned as to how the agency identifies what capabilities to build on for its clients ahead of time, Gupte responded that it is owing to the fact that the media agency today has a very strong and future focused team which led by Vishal Jacob, Chief Transformation Officer, Wavemaker, the man who Gupte looks up to for showing the future and therefore the entire leadership team together continues to be one step ahead all the time.

“The reason why we are sweeping metals in every awards show that we enter, be it EMVIES which was 50% Wavemaker and the remaining 50 for the rest of India or even the ABBYs where a similar trend continued, stems from one goal- we always want to be one step ahead of the client and of everybody else. The reason is that we have written the textbooks of what is unknown today unlike the yesteryears when people had textbooks to read and learn from. Today we are writing the textbooks which we are then taking to our clients and that coupled with our entire client base has only resulted in things which are innovative, technology, AI and e-commerce amongst other new areas,” Gupte added.

Having said that, he also dropped hints over the course of the interaction that while India is a big priority, Wavemaker has plans to be the “World’s first” in many more places for this is all but a part of the media agency’s long term plan which is only coming to its full fruition in the last few years.

With everything put into context, it is evident that Wavemaker was definitely not built in a day just as Rome wasn’t, and hence, the secret sauce behind Wavemaker’s massive success today, as per Gupte is not having big or like-minded clients but the right tech platforms and partners.

“I don’t mean to be harsh but I think that blaming it on like-minded clients is an easy escape route for those who are not doing it. I believe that if you are concerned about your clients’ success, you already have like-minded clients because there’s no second thought on why a client will not want to be successful,” he suggested.

But as the industry belief goes- there’s a need for making even like-minded clients realize what they need and should be doing, Gupte echoed that whether it is he himself or his team who is able to take something to a client and show them a vision, the chances are that there will be some who will buy it, and there would be some who’ll bite a kiss as every client is different.

And hence it is essential to remember that all clients, be it like-minded or not, want to succeed and if their agency partner is really interested in helping them succeed, it, in his views, will find the right trigger or stimulus to make the client bite the solution and that could be the sellability of a vision, a success story or something else. At the end of the day, if the end result is success, clients will want to have it.

Explaining the same with the help of an example, he mentioned that today’s reality is that the consumer gives out a lot of information and the client sometimes knowingly and sometimes unknowingly ends up collecting that particular information without knowing how to go about making the most out of it.

“When a consumer promotion happened in the olden days, the information came through the postcards which were sent and it got stored in some gunny bag which was thrown away after a while. And now that information is coming through SMS, WhatsApp, emails, etc. which is why it is a fact that information is available and if we are still not not thinking about how we can acquire this data in a way that is sensible and meaningful, how will we even enhance this data. Consider you have one side of the consumer, and suppose that I am a cosmetic brand, I have only one facet for myself which is what cosmetics does the customer want to buy, however, there are other facets of the consumer as well- Where does he/she work? How does he/she work? Where does he/she live? How much does he/she spend in a month? What are the things that they buy? Do they party? Do they like to travel? and so on and so forth. Hence, if I can partner with right partners to get their data, I can make my information of that particular consumer that much more meaningful and therefore be able to reach out to that consumer that much better. And this is an understanding that we have. But all of this cannot be done without tech, so I need to have the right tech platforms,” he said.

Backtracking a bit, he also mentioned that when Wavemaker was formed in 2017 across the world, the reason behind the move was to create the ability and to massively invest in data, technology and people globally and those millions of dollars worth investments have only helped Wavemaker in marching ahead of everyone else with all the unities.

“Some things in our industry, like the impact of sports properties like IPL, Asian Games, T20 and more, are very basic and the basics never change. But, there are some consumer magnets which will remain there and our point always has been to figure out how we can bring various things together to help land it and make it more meaningful instead of just putting one spot in IPL or take a small team and putting a branding on their helmet and then taking five of their players to make a piece of communication. For us, what is utmost important is to make such a piece of communication that can engage with the consumer and in turn create opportunities to collect data and use the same to reach out to the consumer to make a sale,” he said.

And in doing this all, he mentioned that the balance required per spot to make it all happen is just 10% of the cost of the spot which leaves the agency with two options- “I could either stop here and say fabulous I have done my job or I could take it to the end end and that end is actually just 10% more cost and the ability to do that is what differentiates Wavemaker.”

The basics and consumer magnets will always remain, but what’ll make a work Wavemaker’s is if one adds layers around it and wrap it up to make it something meaningful such as Cadbury Celebrations’ SRK My Ad, Matrimony.com’s first wedding in the Metaverse and the e-commerce sales of ITC’s Fabel Chocolate therein.

“For any media agency, the base for revenue generation is normal media and that is always going to be challenged because everyone does base including us and hence our ability to charge a premium there is limited. However, because of all the other areas and capabilities that we have built as a team at Wavemaker today which no one else can actually come in and deliver, that I think is what differentiates us and enables us to charge a premium for our services. In fact, in the past five years, while we have hardly lost any of our business, the amount of business we have won is significant and we’ve been the top media agency as per Comvergence as well for the past five years,” he said.

Reflecting on what these winnings have translated to in terms of attracting talent and clients, Gupte pointed out that with each ‘Agency of the year’ title win, Wavemaker’s ability to hire good talent has increased manifold as the best people want to work with us not just as talent but also as clients and in the process, there’s a certain recognition as well which helps him be at least 10 steps ahead of the next guy who didn’t get the agency of his dreams.

“The way we are managing the external cost pressures is with great people delivering great work backed by technology, data and all the investments we have made in the past. They have truly allowed us to create products which give us the revenue required to make this a profitable business,” he said.

Concludingly, he also mentioned that after the winning spree that Wavemaker has been on, the biggest challenge for the media agency today is to stay where it is and to maintain consistency because it has taken Wavemaker forever to reach here and therefore it is extremely crucial to maintain its stature and stay ahead of the game because for every bus you miss to take to the next station, which essentially means that if one has waited for client to ask then he/she is already too late for someone has already asked the client.

“To me, the biggest challenge today is to make sure that we as a team are ahead and not following anyone when it comes to doing the right things and ensuring that in the process of helping others’ brands grow, our brand Wavemaker is protected because as obsessed as we are about our clients, we are for our brand’s growth as well. But since we definitely don’t want a dot on it, we protect it fiercely and want to stand for something for the ones who make others brands cannot ignore or give less importance to our own,” he said.

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