Tarun Rai tells Alokananda Chakraborty how being away from the advertising industry has given him a unique insight into the world of communication and what are the three things he plans to work on to steer JWT in the midst of turbulent change
Not many were impressed when J Walter Thompson announced earlier this year that Tarun Rai would return to the agency as chief executive officer. After all, he had been out of advertising for about seven years and, as industry folks keep saying, more changes have happened in the world of communication in the last five years than the previous 50.
Well, 51-year-old Rai is not the type to get hassled easily. "If anything, being away for these seven years has given me an invaluable outside-in perspective of the advertising business," he tells me as we settle down at Spectra, a restaurant in The Leela, Gurgaon. We had initially agreed to meet at the Zanotta, the Italian restaurant at the hotel on the outskirts of Delhi, but then we realised it is open only for dinner. Spectra has an awesome buffet, so it is okay.
Rai says the 'changes' the advertising industry has been harping on are 'familiar waters' for him. "While I was in media I was part of this whole change thing. Change is not the exclusive preserve of advertising - it has affected every industry, the way we communicate, conduct our businesses. If you ask me, I would say it presents us with a great opportunity," he says with characteristic insouciance, and adds he can't be considered an outsider by any stretch of imagination. Of course: In an earlier stint, Rai had spent over 19 years in JWT, India's largest advertising agency, and when he left in 2008 he was managing partner and head of the agency's Mumbai operations.
In the interim, Rai was with Worldwide Media, where he held the position of chief executive since 2008. Under his leadership, Worldwide Media (then a joint venture of The Times of India Group and BBC Worldwide) grew exponentially. In his new role, Rai will lead JWT South Asia, which includes India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, as well as some group companies, including Contract Advertising, Hungama Digital Services, J Walter Thompson Mindset, Encompass and Social Wavelength. Rai says the big task before him is to create multiple revenue streams.
"I am trying to get JWT into the path of aggressive, profitable growth. I believe we are in a sweet spot and I don't think it will be difficult to double revenue in the next five years or so," says Rai.
But what might prove difficult is carrying on this conversation as we go up and down, get to the buffet and return to our table. As we try to figure that one out, Abhishek Gupta, senior sous chef at The Leela, almost springs from the woodwork and offers to help. Rai gives him a broad outline of what we would like to have - some starters, probably a sushi platter, a Thai main course and of course, a big helping of dessert - and Gupta takes over.
Rai tells me about the two lesser known agencies in the group - JWT Mindset in Hyderabad and ADK Fortune in Delhi, which is an equally owned joint venture with ADK, one of the largest advertising agencies in Japan - and his plans to expand these two agencies nationally.
All that is good, I say, but one view that is fast gaining ground is that the traditional advertising agency structure may not be good enough for the fast-paced changes that we are seeing now. "Are you relevant? Is the traditional advertising agency up for the task," I ask.
Rai agrees that for an outsider, the whole marketing landscape looks totally confusing. The traditional model of a brand looking for the creative service of an agency, waiting for the production process to complete and then distributing its advertisements through a series of publishing platforms has been twisted. Brands have their own publications, publishers are setting up in-house agencies, which in turn, serve many other advertisers. "So the great question in the advertising industry is: how do we keep the business sustainable, and how do we keep offering the best solutions to our clients," says Rai.
A huge platter of kebabs and sushi arrives before the air becomes too heavy with existential dilemmas. We dig in. Rai continues, "It is difficult to take down legacy structures; I am not even trying to do that at the moment." What he is trying to do instead is forge teams around client problems/expectations. "There is always great resistance to change… any change… but over a period people generally come around. But that's the easy part. What is more difficult is pulling down existing structures. But once people get used to a new way of operating, see merit in it, then you can institutionlise these processes and build the relevant structures. That's much better than foisting 'change' on people one fine morning."
Does the agency business model require a tweak? There are specialist agencies, consultancies, publishing platforms that have now begun to whisk away traditional agency business, I remind him. "It is not as if brands are not spending on marketing - they are in fact spending more, but on many different platforms of communication. If you think of it that way, there is no real 'threat' to advertising."
Our chef places a huge helping of Thai green curry, noodles and rice before us with his unobtrusive efficiency. "I really like the whole idea of food," Rai takes off in another direction. When I was working from JWT's Kolkata office we used to have this barra khana, an annual ritual and I always thought that it brought out the best in people, the bonding improved. But when I went back after rejoining, I was told that it was stopped for some reason. I was like 'how can you stop tradition?' I forced them to start it all over again. Some years will be bad for business, some clients will always move on, but you must not lose sight of what makes you… you …. and happy…"
Rai does seem to have some fond memories from that city. "I was in Kolkata for two years but that was the first office I handled. So my relationship with that office is more emotional… it almost feels I spent 20 not two years in that city," he hurtles back as I try to bring him back to the present. What about growth? "I have got three ways of getting the kind of growth we are targeting," Rai says. "One is new business from new clients; two, new or more businesses from existing clients by offering specialised services, and the other is acquisitions."
Looking ahead, growth will also come from entering new domains. JWT and Hill & Knowlton's Group SJR joined hands in June to launch Colloquial, a globe-spanning content marketing unit that will produce videos, articles for other media for clients. Group SJR is one of the more high-profile producers of branded content and has been described as "the biggest publishing company you've never heard of" by Fast Company in 2014. The New York company currently produces branded news sites for GE, Xerox and the MPAA. Colloquial is expected to be launched in India to produce quick-turnaround content for JWT clients. That apart, Rai plans to take specialist units, such as Thompson Social, health care, design and shopper marketing national in the next one year or so.
Our lunch had started a little past noon, and it is well after 2.30 when we decide to gather ourselves up and leave. At this point our gracious host places the dessert before us - I am bowled over by the sight of eight varieties of artistically put-together pastries, ice-creams and eclairs.
I take a deep breath and give in.