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Monday, March 19, 2007

Good marketers recognise and pay for great work’

It is not easy to throw him off balance. Madhukar Kamath, who has spent more than two decades in advertising, has the right combination of cool and aggression to fend off both difficult questions from journalists as well as challenges that his profession has hurled at him. And the challenges have been many for Kamath, managing director and chief executive officer, Mudra Communications. A management degree holder from XLRI, he proved his mettle early on when he was hired by Mudra to be part of an aggressive growth plan. He quit the agency in 1999, when he was called upon to set up Bates’ India operations. That was when Bates Worldwide was reconfiguring its India operations and Bates Clarion was being merged with its parent. Back in 2003, he had to live up to the legacy of founder AG Krishnamurthy, while struggling to retain some key clients and people. In this interview to Alokananda Chakraborty of The Financial Express, Kamath talks about the way ahead for Mudra.

Mudra Marketing Services (MMS) claims to have recorded a 100% billings growth in the last two years. Do you see non-advertising services contributing a larger share to Mudra’s billings in the medium term?

Our intent has always been to create a distinctive marketing services offering. And we are committed to growing each of our competencies in line with our objective of offering what we call ‘total branding solutions’. All our investments over the last three years have been in line with this. I am happy that the marketing services businesses have shown outstanding growth. While Brand Therapist will soon be christened Mudra Health & Lifestyle, you will see a couple more lines of businesses or as I would call it, growth engines added on under MMS.

These are not mere add-ons to the advertising business. Each one of them conforms to two basic criteria, namely, ‘best in class skill sets’ and ‘scalability’. Yes, we have recorded 100% billings growth and yes, we will have a situation where 50% of the Mudra Group’s top line will come from what you refer to as mainstream advertising with the balance coming from Mudra Marketing Services. Incidentally, the journey to this milestone has been achieved in just three years.

OMD is ready to enter India with Jasmin Sohrabji at the helm. But if industry speculation is anything to go by, all of Omnicom’s earlier attempts to have a consolidated media outfit in India fell through due to lack of understanding among the participating agencies, especially Mudra.

For all practical purposes, OMD is already in India. Jasmin Sohrabji is a good hire and I wish her all the best. I cannot speak much about OMD’s plans in India, except that the current arrangement is definitely different from how it works in all other parts of the world. Fundamentally, they have come in as a standalone agency. My own view is that they will, like all other brands coming into the industry, help grow it. Rather than dwelling on what could have been the discussions in the past, I would be keen on understanding what the OMD gameplan for the future will be. I am yet to meet Jasmin in her new avatar and I look forward to it.

Mudra’s association with DDB dates back to 1989. Yet, Mudra has underplayed the DDB connection. Why?

We believe in all forms of growth, collaborative, competitive and acquisitive. It would be incorrect to say that we have ‘underplayed’ the DDB connection. If anything, we are incredibly proud of our relationship with DDB. They are a marvellous agency with an admirable culture and approach to communication and business. We have networked very closely with DDB Worldwide. Incidentally, the involvement of DDB has only been increasing in the last few years. Today we have three DDB brands in the Mudra Group—RappCollins India, TribalDDB India and DDB Mudra, the dedicated unit for handling the J&J skin care businesses.

In line with the growing importance to India, not just for DDB, but also for their clients, the pace of interaction, exchange of personnel, training and development agendas etc, have all been stepped up. I am a part of their recently constituted Asia Operating Committee. It’s also co-incidental that several DDB clients are now poised to enter India. You will see increasing DDB visibility in the next few years.

Mudra is known for associating with ‘Indian’ brands. Is this to cushion the agency from the aftershocks of global realignments? Or is it way to ensure you are not too dependent on DDB?

Good question. It’s a fact that Mudra has been associated with Indian brands; in fact 80% of our business today comes from Indian clients. However, we are equally proud of our past associations with Nestle, Samsung, McDonald’s, Electrolux, HSBC, IBM, Compaq, HP etc. We have had excellent growth stories with each one of them. Today, the Mudra Group works with Philips, J&J, Pepsi (Kidstuff), Unilever and Intel (also Kidstuff) and a host of other multinational brands with equal ease. Along the way, we have also had our own share of successes and disappointments as far as global alignments and realignments are concerned.

What is more important is that virtually all DDB businesses that are present in India, work with Mudra. We are also actively working with two extremely large global clients in formulating their India strategy. I am hopeful of announcing three significant additions to the Mudra roster in the next three to six months.

The Mudra growth story has been based on truly excellent Indian brands like Godrej, TTK, LIC, Big Bazaar, Dabur, Paras, Madura Garments, RMKV, McDowell’s, Reliance, and in the past, Vimal and Rasna. However, we are equally at ease handling both Indian and multinational businesses. But yes, as far as the agency health is concerned, it is obviously good to have businesses that are immune to global alignments.

Mudra has been a springboard for some of the better known advertising professionals we have today. What is it about the agency that has helped produce so many talented individuals?

It’s true some of the most spanking talent in the industry has schooled at Mudra. It has to do with the culture of the agency. We have been entrepreneurial—no unnecessary hierarchy, no politics. That’s a good environment for young talent to bloom—to try things and take on more responsibility early in their career. Also, we didn’t have the benefit of large global alignments and businesses falling into our laps. We had to slog for every piece of business, and our salaries depended on our clients’ merchandise moving off the shelf. These are all conditions in which good people thrive; marry that with the culture of the agency and I think you’ll have your explanation.

Talking about talent, does advertising still draw top talent or do youngsters prefer more glamorous sectors like IT and finance?

No, I don’t think we draw the best. But I also think we tend to exaggerate the extent of the problem and are rather harsh on ourselves. The fault is as much with marketers as it is with agencies. Good marketers inspire bright people to do great work; they also recognise the value of it and will pay for it. I don’t know how many clients can put their hands up and say they do. So we lose people to what you’re calling the more ‘glamorous’ sectors. I’m not too sure about the ‘glamour’ argument, if anything advertising has a bigger reputation for glamour than many other careers. The problems have to do with the demands we make of our people and how we value them. Having said that, I still meet some incredibly bright people in the business, and I don’t think there is anything fundamentally wrong with our business that we can’t attract good talent.

Indian advertising has as many awards as perhaps the number of industry associations. Would you say Indian advertising is self-obsessed?

No, not self-obsessed. A little vain may be, but so what! Life would be so boring without it. Having said that let me add that it would help, if the awards sought to develop distinct identities and niches for themselves. On the other hand, I would say Indian advertising is perhaps under-rated and under-valued. The industry is replete with success stories where the advertising agency has been a valuable partner—in building both brands and corporate identities. Brands today feature in the balance sheets as valuable assets. A fact that all of us can be proud of.

I would like the advertising industry to celebrate business solutions or as my new friend Bobby Pawar calls it creative business solutions rather than mere ads and commercials. To this end, my respect for the Effies and Emvies is immense.

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