“Essence is looking to drive automation of campaigns at scale for our clients in 2019”

It is rare that we take a conversation with an industry leader to a two-part series. However, Anand Chakravarthy, Managing Director - India, Essence, has a whole lot share from the immense experience and insights amassed over a period of more than two decades. 

Part 1 of this exclusive interaction dwelled on the journey of Essence in India, the transition from digital-only to a full-service integrated offering, march of digital and where traditional media stands today. In Part 2, Chakravarthy takes an indepth look at the new age tools such as machine learning, Artificial Intelligence, Programmatic Advertising, Voice and their intersection with brands, the ground realities of their understanding and adoption by brands, data protection as well as his vision for Essence in 2019. 

How is Essence leveraging Artificial Intelligence to benefit its clients?
A lot of the tools used within platforms like Google and Facebook are already AI-enabled. It has also become kind of a buzzword that is cool to talk about. However, machine learning has been a part of doing DBM 360, as we have called it for a long time. What is going to change, however, is the application of how you use machine learning and AI is going to be evolving much faster. At Essence, we have a technical team called ‘2Sixty’. This team is mainly based out of London, who builds our tools. One of our big drivers for 2019 is to drive automation of campaigns at scale for our clients. That’s something we will be rolling out for the next two quarters, that is, tools that will help our clients automate their campaigns, with us helping them manually. Since we have a very digital bent of mind at Essence, we make a lot of right investments at the right time. A lot of investment in terms of technology and people is going in there and a transfer of all of that to India will happen very soon. 

Most agencies have been structured on very old principles. The amount of investment that has been made in hiring technical people, that is, engineers and coders has not been big. They have usually outsourced their tool creation to a third party. That’s where the understanding and the know-how does not exist within the agency today. If you look at agency hierarchies, even at senior leadership levels while you have upgraded your knowledge of machine learning, as a practitioner you have never used it yourself and your team certainly hasn’t. 

A lot of it has to do with building the right structures and bringing in people with the right skill sets in your organisation. One of our big drivers this year is to do that; we want to build our tech team and bring in people from an engineering background so that we are not just able to have a strong offering for our clients, but also build knowledge, expertise and learnings within the industry. That is going to become something that everyone has to do. 

How much do clients understand this technology?
I think the marketers who have been spending significant amount of money on digital and who have seen the advantages of digital, they have recognised the need to continuously evolve their digital ecosystem within their organisation. A lot of those marketers are the ones driving change within the organisation. You see a lot of investment happening in brands where digital is very core to the business. I think these clients have invested ahead of the curve rather than the agencies. The reality of application of digital depends from business to business. 

Has this industry really understood programmatic? What are the grey areas?
People define programmatic very loosely. It is like the new buzzword and it goes back to what digital has to offer, the ability to target the right consumer with the right message and at the right moment and automate that process. This is the purest form of programmatic advertising. But have the brands been able to do this is a question, because they have started doing it a long time ago. Being able to target the right consumer with the right message in the right context and being able to automate it is the real challenge. 

It isn’t necessary that everyone should be doing programmatic advertising. Many brands are successful in India because of the large population. For brands which are building the fundamental base/ foundation or when you are building a new vertical, targeting very narrow can be dangerous. 

If you look at Tier 2 market growth, what we call as 24x7 cities, their contribution to the GDP is growing significantly faster. If I keep focussing on targeting just the 8 metros then I’ll lose the opportunity to talk to them. Digital allows you to talk to them in the metros. But your future opportunity will not be coming from there. So, programmatic isn’t necessary; it depends on the brand and the kind of people you want to talk to and finally, the price point at which you want to sell it. 

Secondly, it depends on the investment appetite, because going completely programmatic comes at a cost. Therefore, you have to weigh the pros and cons while deciding on whether to go for programmatic or fundamental advertising. 

How do you see Voice’s growth?
Google report for 2018-19 clearly states that there will be a growth of the three Vs – Video, Vernacular and Voice. In the case of vernacular, it’s not a surprise that it is growing, English is actually declining because as millions of new audience enter the digital platform, they will prefer vernacular. Even Star India has launched IPL in 4 languages; Tamil, launched last year, was a huge hit. T-Series is the largest channel in the world and it’s all Hindi, Punjabi and other languages. 

Voice is very interesting because it does two things, it removes the barrier to the next 2-3 million consumers and let’s people search in spite of their inability or unwillingness to type. Indians adapt to changes much faster, so talking to your phone isn’t really a silly thing, contradictory to what would happen in the West. 

At the Vibrant Gujarat Summit earlier this year, Mukesh Ambani called data the ‘new oil’. Your comments.
Data is not something that you can choose to use or not use and I do believe that data is the new oil. The form of data has changed because it has become digital in most of the smart markets and is being used for research, sales and gauging consumer behaviour. The usage of data has always been there. What has changed is the scale of data that you are handling today as well as the granularity of insights that you can get. 

We use a lot of the Google platforms for campaigns, and clients obviously have a lot of data store from each of the campaigns, what it takes for us is a very fundamental tactic. Thus, you are constantly looking at campaign as well as non-campaign data to help optimise our campaigns or segment and target audiences better. In my mind, there is no choice for any agency today. Data is a fundamental driver of our business. Yes, the evolution of how you use data continuously will change in terms of data that we have access to, and for that we have also started a practice called data strategy. 

Data strategy is one of the verticals that allows us to help clients who are sitting on large volumes of data to actually design their platform on which their data rests, what are the kind of things they should have to store their data, how will their data get stored and how they can pull it out, and the touch points that go with it – that is a practice that we are building with data strategy. This will fundamentally allow us to partner with clients and maximise the value coming out of the data that we have. 

Mukesh Ambani has called for a movement against data colonisation. What will it take to migrate the control and ownership of Indian data back to India? What are the challenges involved?
Looking at the facts, today the top 3 or 4 mobile handsets in this country are Chinese and we are all buying them. Chinese platforms and apps are the fastest growing in this country. The truth is that whether we like it or not, the potential of our data going out is already is there. Now, one can sit and argue about the fact that it is not right and that it doesn’t protect the democracy, but the fundamental truth is that we can’t do without data. 

While some in the industry have alleged that the plan to bring Indian data back to India is set to benefit only certain brands, protecting consumer privacy is the most important thing. I think the SriKrishna Committee is a great step as it is really pretty stringent data protection law. 

I firmly believe that data protection is extremely critical and as individuals we will hate to think that our data is freely available out there. We cringe every time we get a call from a telemarketer and that’s when you realise that your data has gone to someone else, which is not restricted to just your phone. However, we shouldn’t make this about Indian versus foreign, we don’t want consumers to stop to buy products from global brands. 

Democracy gives consumers the freedom to choose the products they want to use, but you have to ensure that the legislation protects their rights as citizens of a Republic and their privacy is protected with the best quality laws, offerings and are implementable. It’s a good thing to have one full document prepared well. It’s not easy for a country like us to create something so huge overnight. We need to take the right steps to get there, otherwise there will be the danger of exploitation in multiple ways. 

What is your vision of Essence in 2019 and the road ahead?
We are a new kid on the block, we are small and we have a long way to go. The first year has really been about consolidating the new clients who came on board and ensuring that they saw the value of becoming a part of Essence. 

Year 2 will be a lot about maintaining the relationships and bringing more value to the products and the value to the business. At the same time, it will also be a year of expansion for us, where we will start focusing on simple businesses and start looking to work with clients where we think the Essence product has built synergy with provision of that content. Essence is a young organization with a very strong base in India. We are like an 'accelerated startup' in a way, and are building our presence through a growth plan that ensures we can leverage our strengths for the right kind of clients One of the things that we do want to add to this market is bringing in some of the global Essence edge in terms of tools, technology and philosophy of thinking. So, we are launching a global framework as to how we will look at India and how the flagship programme would be rolled out, which will add a lot of sheen and depth to our products. 

I don’t have any inhibitions about who we are, we just have to strengthen our foundation and now, we are building the first floor and we will get there.


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