Isobar @10 - Part 1: The making of a full service global digital marketing agency

Established in 2008, Isobar today has morphed into a full service global digital marketing agency, driven by the purpose to deliver borderless ideas enabled by technology, to transform businesses and brands. By conceiving, designing and building innovative experiences for the world’s largest organisations, Isobar enables brand commerce by connecting powerful brand narratives with commercial interactions. Isobar has been relentlessly focussing on delivering ‘Ideas without limits’, and takes pride in helping clients transform business processes, disrupt industries and find new ways to connect with customers.

Part of the Dentsu Aegis Network, a wholly owned subsidiary of Dentsu Inc., Isobar has over 6,000 digital pioneers in more than 85 locations, across 45+ markets worldwide.

Over the years, Isobar has secured an impressive array of industry awards. The agency won over 250 awards in 2016, including 19 Agency of the Year titles, besides winning the Asia-Pacific Digital Network of the Year for the fifth time in the past six years. In 2017 and 2018 so far, Isobar has added to its awards tally with wins at Clio, Goafest Abbys and more.

Isobar is crossing another milestone as it completes 10 years in the industry on August 26, 2018. According to Shamsuddin Jasani, Group MD - South Asia, Isobar, the two pillars that would fuel Isobar’s growth in the coming years are – e-commerce and strategic consulting.

In this exclusive two-part interaction with Adgully, Shamsuddin Jasani shares the story of Isobar – how it came into being in India, expansion, business goals, what keeps the agency competitive, winning clients and much more. 

How it all began 

(L to R): Chandrashekar Mhaskar, Shamsuddin Jasani, Suraj Nagappa, Gopa Kumar,
Anish Varghese.
(L to R): Chandrashekar Mhaskar, Shamsuddin Jasani, Suraj Nagappa, Gopa Kumar, Anish Varghese.

Back in 2008, I met Ashish Bhasin and I decided to join him. That time Aegis did not exist, it was just Carat. Ashish told me about all the big things that they have planned ahead. When we started, there were 65 people in Carat; today, we are 3,000 to 3,500 people strong.

August 26, 2008 was when we commenced our operations. A year later, Gopa Kumar (Executive Vice President, Isobar India) joined us. With Gopa on board, our Delhi operations were strengthened. We kicked off our Bangalore operations in 2011.

From Day 1 our ethos has been that we are a full service digital agency. I had worked as a media buyer in my first job in a media agency, while my second job was at a digital creative agency and I clearly saw that there was a gap. In digital you cannot really distinguish between a creative and a media agency, unlike in mainline advertising, where there is a clear distinction between the two. Thus, a brand manager or digital marketing manager ends up having to deal with 6 to 7 agencies, which include digital agency, creative agency, social media agency, programmatic agency, media agency, and search agency for a campaign.

With the advantages that we offer as a full service digital agency, we have clients like Reebok who have been around since Day 1 and are still with us after 10 years .There are a lot of clients who have been with us for the last 6 to 7 years.

When we started out in 2008, the digital landscape was not so evolved. There was hardly any social media, there was not much of Facebook at that time, no Amazon and no e-commerce, there were just the horizontals. Our focus was to go to the clients with creative-led media solutions, which gained traction with a lot of our clients. We were working with Ashish Bhasin and within the first year we were profitable and that has helped us get to where we are today.

A year after we started, the global financial crisis happened in 2009, when everyone started to cut their budgets. While most thought it was a bad time to start a business, for me it was an advantage because we got really great people on board who were not very happy in their organisations and more importantly, clients started experimenting with digital more and more, as advertising on television and print was becoming more expensive. Clients were happy experimenting with digital as it was less expensive. We started consolidating Isobar as a full service digital agency and saw a big jump both in terms of revenue and people – we went from a staff strength of 42 to 120 in a year and a half. We scaled up on the media as well as the creative part. We grew our team by getting Anish Varghese on board as National Creative Director and Shekar Mhaskar, who now heads creative services and technology verticals. Because of being a full service agency, we also have vertical strength like social, creative and media.

Given our expertise in digital, we are now going to take digital to a next level of evolution with our clients and working with them on digital transformation projects. The future really lies in how we can partner with brands and businesses to use digital beyond just marketing, to use digital intrinsic to their businesses and their products and take that forward or to build a new way for them to reach out to their consumers and make a new way of doing business with them. That is how we want to evolve in the next 10 years of Isobar in India. 

Key milestones 

Reebok has been one of the very important clients for us and, as I said earlier, has been with us since the day of our inception. 70 per cent of the awards that we have won are for Reebok, including the recent Clio Award. The most number of innovations we have done is with Reebok. That is one really important partnership for us.

The second milestone has been the concept of a full service agency, which did not exist at that point of time. We were the ones who spoke about both media and creative. There were always agencies that did both but scaled up only in one of them, and so that was something which was a first time for something like this.

Another important milestone was getting Gopa Kumar on board, who helped us in setting up the Delhi team.

Launching in Bangalore has also been an important development in Isobar’s journey. It was the third office after Mumbai and Delhi. When we launched in Bangalore, there were no full service digital agencies there, so we clearly saw an opportunity. We started with one person in 2011 and by 2017, the team had grown to 75 people, making it the largest agency in Bangalore.

The fifth milestone in our evolution was getting Maruti, which is the largest full service account at the moment in digital. This was a Rs 150-crore media account with 12 brands, which involved entire creative, social, large scale technology development. There was a 60-people team dedicated for this account. 

The Delhi vision 

I live by the ethos of making yourself redundant in the system; I need to grow by getting in people who are the best that are there. Since media was the biggest trend, I asked who is the best person when it comes to media? The answer was Gopa Kumar.

Our focus was thus to get the best media person on board, the best creative person on board (which is Anish) and the best business and creative technology person on board (which is Chandrashekar). The single-minded focus in all the 10 years of Isobar and the secret sauce to our or anyone’s success in the industry, are the people. Without these people, I wouldn’t be in front of you talking about Isobar. 

Tryst with start-up culture 

I was personally contemplating something of my own in 2008 and that is when Ashish Bhasin came in. It was about something that we wanted to create which was big enough, but we never thought it would become this big even though we knew that digital was going to be a big part of that. I had the opportunity to create something along with someone who has a lot of standing in the industry and more experience and can give me direction and offer help whenever and wherever I needed it.

We always shared the passion and the commitment to create something big. All of us gained out of it, be it Isobar or Carat or Vizeum, because we worked collectively from the start. Instead of one person in Isobar, I would say I got 45 people and now each of us can go individually. Back then, even Carat wasn’t how it is now, and so we had to sell a much bigger story than what we were. In the first four months since its inception, Isobar won 6 clients like Tourism Australia, Symantec, and UTI Mutual Fund with only two people on board.

Entrusted with setting up Isobar’s Delhi operations, Gopa Kumar, Executive Vice President, Isobar India, had a tough ask. Here, he recalls how he met Shamsuddin Jasani and how he was roped into Isobar.

I never met Shams for an interview, we just had a chat and he asked me if I was looking for a change. At that point of time I felt saturated at what I was doing. It took me all of two minutes to accept the Isobar offer. Since it was a start-up, it was an open canvas and it was up to me to build it the way I wanted to, which gave me full confidence. The thought of getting that independence to do things the way I wanted to, which at that point of time I was not getting where I was working, was really exciting. That was one key point for me to make the move. While I was moving, everyone at GroupM warned me that it was not a great move and that it would be career suicide. True, it was a challenge to build up an agency from scratch, but I wanted prove everyone wrong. The biggest ingredient in the agency’s success have been its people. 

The road to build the agency ground up 

Gopa Kumar continues: Initially nobody knew about Isobar. We needed people who would understand our style of work. The people who came in were likeminded and shared our vision. The first task was to get the core team in place and then reach out to clients as a full service digital agency.

There was clearly a need gap for such an agency in the market. Digital was still coming to the forefront, even as social media was evolving and people were figuring out what to do with digital. At the same time marketing budgets were squeezed due to the global meltdown. Our service offering was clearly a distinguishing factor and when we started off with the pitching, it worked to our advantage. Reebok was our first big win.

Shamsuddin Jasani: If you attract the right talent, the outcome is always amazing. The same thing happened in Bangalore, we had an amazing leader who set up our office there. The result is there for all to see as year after year we have been winning some amazing awards. The culture is about getting the best even if there are some people who are better than you at what they do. That’s the whole idea and that is what the entire team is all about and hence, empowering them even though we are a part of a large network. We have always worked in a very entrepreneurial set-up, which is a distinguishing factor from most of the companies that are there – we allow our teams to have a look in and make some mistakes as well. 

Building up the Delhi operations 

Gopa Kumar: Delhi is one of our largest operations. Initially, relationship building and getting clients was tough, but I guess our work speaks out clearly and we are now one of the largest agencies operating out of Delhi – both in terms of size and scale. Two years after we commenced our Delhi operations, everything started to fall in place and we moved from strength to strength with regards to the kind of work that we are doing and the kind of people that we are able to attract. People and clients are the two things that are very important for us.

I was the first person to join the Delhi office in August 2009, the next person joined in December. It took us 6 to 7 months to build up the team and by April 2010, we had a decent team in place.

As far as account wins are concerned, Reebok was our first client and then we won Philips, Mother Dairy, Tetra Pak and so on. We worked for Nokia later in 2010. These were some key marquee clients. Our proposition was of full service offering, where we were able to give the client everything that is digital under one roof, and also most of the work was in-sourced; whereas most of the other agencies were working with one or the other party, which was again an issue with clients.

Shamsuddin Jasani: By 2010 we had the best rates. In the initial couple of years the rates were driven by relationships, which will be very difficult for a new agency to achieve today, and I am very thankful that we launched at a good time. By 2010, we had also won some of the best media pitches.

I had thought that when we become Agency of the Year, I would quit. In 2011, we won a Silver, but we wanted a Gold. For me that was one aim that we wanted to achieve. Year after year we have been winning all the major awards, and I am still here!

Moving forward the goal post 

Shamsuddin Jasani: At that point of time we didn’t have that much scale in digital to scare anyone; I came from companies which already had decently large set-ups. But in the last 10 years we have never been scared of going up against anyone. We went up against all of them in the very first year itself and we won. I think that gave us the confidence that we could do it in the very first year, which was amazing, and now we regularly compete. We always had a very strong proposition and believed in what the offering was; the clients believed in us and we delivered it. We never ever gave it a second thought that we might falter.

I would say I am very happy, but not satisfied and so we keep on moving forward the goal post and in the last nine years that we have worked together, we never ever talked about taking a step back.

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