Inside India's first (and largest) integrated ad agency

The group CEO and MD of DDB Mudra discusses reinventing his homegrown agency in the face of international competition.

In the glory days of Doordarshan, newly-available colour TVs religiously played a handful of tele-serials and entertainment programs that were intermittently interrupted by advertisements. Not many in India can forget 'I love you Rasna', Dhara, Dhara, Shudh Dhara and Only Vimal. These home-grown brands became household names, thanks to the Mudra Group (which is now DDB Mudra, but maintains a distinctly India identity despite being part of the Omnicom/DDB Worldwide group).

Mudra also brought international brands like McDonalds and Samsung to India. In no time, Mudra rose to join the ranks of the top five companies in the advertising industry. Brand Mudra quickly became a force to reckon with.

But by the late '90s, international ad agencies like O&M and Lowe Lintas began to dominate the Indian market, threatening Mudra's position.

That's when Madhukar Kamath (above), group CEO and MD, Mudra Group, rejoined the company after a four-year stint with its competitor. Kamath knew that if he wanted to bring back lost glory, the company needed to reinvent itself.

SJ: Can you trace Mudra's journey thus far?

MK: "Since its birth as an integrated full-service agency, Mudra has traversed a long, exciting, and sometimes arduous journey. There are essentially three decades in the history of Mudra, the '80s was the decade of birth, the '90s the decade of growth, and the first 10 years of this century witnessed the decade of transformation.

"Mudra began as a homegrown, sons-of-the-soil agency – which didn't conform to the holy commandments of the advertising industry. Mudra was different and preferred to rewrite the rules. It was based in Ahmedabad, unlike most ad agencies that are based out of Mumbai. By the end of the first decade, we had catapulted to the ranks of the top five advertising agencies, a position we continuously occupied."

"The '90s were glorious for Mudra because we successfully built powerhouse brands like Vimal, Rasna and Dhara. We brought McDonalds and Samsung into the country. In this decade, we scripted our growth story and secured significant wins on the creative side of the business.

"As we entered the third decade, other agencies began to dominate the market and the perception of our leadership position weakened. It was time for us to reinforce our leadership image and with this purpose in mind we began the process of transforming into a communications organization.

"We took several steps to metamorphose from a mere advertising agency into a marketing services group. The Mudra Group is now poised for explosive growth."

SJ: How would you evaluate your two decade long stint with Mudra?

MK: "I was fortunate to begin at a time when we were an integrated full-service agency. At that time, Mudra was still a fairly unknown entity nationally. We had built enduring brands like Vimal and Rasna and we were on the verge of launching Dhara.

"So, in my first stint with Mudra, the challenge was to help the organization grow. I was entrusted with the responsibility of helping Mudra grow the Delhi business. For four years, I spearheaded the Delhi operations and my efforts bore fruit. Delhi later went on to become a powerhouse that contributed 60 percent to Mudra's bottom line.

"The second goal was to optimize our Mumbai operations. Although we were number three or four in the country, our Mumbai operations trailed behind Delhi and Ahmedabad. The advertising market here presented many opportunities that could be exploited but somehow Mudra did not have very many accounts and did not attract the best talent.

"So, in 1992-93, I came to Mumbai virtually as a non-entity. I did not know the market well. My job was to assemble a team from all around the country. To kick start our growth plans, we pulled the best performers from within the company. Mumbai is now our largest operation.

"During my second stint, I had to rejuvenate the business. I decided to diversify and transform the organization. So, essentially in the first stint, the challenge was to establish the organization and help it grow. And, in the second the challenge lay in helping it diversify into a communications conglomerate."

SJ: You had joined Mudra's competitor. How did that experience help you?

MK: "I left Mudra briefly for a four-year stint with the Cordiant Group to bring Bates to India, after which I rejoined Mudra in 2003 as its CEO. Personally, I think I'm quite lucky to have seen Mudra as an agency both from the inside as well as outside. In fact, perhaps the greatest learning was achieved when I was working for Mudra's competitor.

"From the outside, I saw Mudra as a phenomenal organization which had possibly lost a little bit of its hunger, passion, and faith in itself. The organization had tremendous strengths, in terms of brand equity, domain knowledge, impeccable credentials, and a solid foundation.

"With the rise of Ogilvy & Mather, Lowe Lintas, and the McCanns in the late '90s, Mudra was perceived as second rung and we needed to address how to reclaim our rightful position.

"Here, my role was more of a catalyst than a turnaround expert. I realized that Mudra had been moving around in the same orbit for too long and had lost some of its fire. So, I leveraged our strengths to get us future-ready to move into the next orbit."

A vintage clip of a Rasna commercial created by Mudra Communications

SJ: Are you satisfied with the way Mudra has turned around today?

MK: "I don't believe one can ever feel satisfied with the way one works because there is always a lot more to be done. Advertising is full of opportunities and one is only limited by one's own thinking and capability.

"Had we continued to operate only as a full service advertising agency, we would have missed out on the growth in the media business, the activation business, the brand engagement business, and so on. We identified these areas of opportunity and then in each of these areas, we focused on two key constituents: The consumer and the client.

"From the consumer's point of view we were able to identify the touch points and build businesses at all these touch points. Then we looked at it from the client's point of view, to understand where he is investing to reach the customer, and ensured that we were present at every single customer touch point with our specialist business solutions. This is how we built a true marketing services group.

"But I think I would have still done a few things differently. Perhaps, in hindsight, we could have taken one or two strategic decisions slightly faster. For example, we acquired Kidstuff (a promotional marketing company) but spent four to five years integrating it. Perhaps we could have done that faster and better. Nevertheless, Kidstuff is a very good experiential and engagement agency today."

SJ: And how does technology help you improve customer satisfaction?

MK: "At Mudra, IT exists for business. It helps business in driving business. With this end in view, we have launched several initiatives and niche applications which can help us create competitive differentiators for our clients.

"Take our CRM for example. It helps in understanding the history of the brand and its strategies. The entire guard book of our clients is available online. In the 80s, we had created an ad for Godrej Hair Dye which featured former cricket captain Sunil Gavaskar. About two years back, there was a request from the client to pull it out and send it to them. So we went to the CRM and we pulled the ad out within an hour and gave it to the client. So, IT helps us tremendously in meeting these and many more customer requirements.

"Other than this, we have an application called the Light House which tracks new business developments. It is our internal knowledge management initiative. A dedicated team captures consumer insights, media insights, brand happenings, etcetera and regularly updates the same.

"Also, about a year back we launched SnapIT, a generic framework for integrating with our back-end applications that captures images through mobile phones and makes them available through a dashboard. This helps us go-to-market faster. And also improves customer satisfaction."

SJ: What new technologies are you toying with?

MK: "If you look at our application portfolio, all the applications have been developed in-house using Open Source. But we will be looking at the cloud. Also, social media is being driven from the client perspective. We cater to some clients in the area of direct marketing. We are closely working with a vendor from Norway who has developed a wonderful social networking engine which we would like to provide to our existing clients. The POC will be much better if we consume it before our clients."

SJ: What is your vision for the Mudra Group? And how do you plan to make this happen?

MK: "We want to be the leading marketing communication group in the country by 2020. In terms of solutions we want to be admired for the kind of businesses we are working with and for the processes and talent that we have. We've always had a strong roster of Indian and international brands which we are proud to have grown with. We would constantly want to add to this growing client roster.

"By the end of this decade, we would like to be eight-10 times larger than we were at the end of 2010. Last year, our topline growth was about 25 percent and we registered 30-40 percent bottom line growth. For 2011-12, we have an equally ambitious target.

"Mudra has four businesses: Mudra India (30 percent), Mudra Max (45 percent) DDB Mudra (20 percent) and Ignite Mudra (5 percent). Our strategy is to strengthen all the four pillars of our business and to improve the standards of our creative work. We are currently ranked in the top three, but would like to be right at the top in terms of brand building and providing creative business solutions that build the clients' businesses."


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