Come January, Rohit Ohri will hit the road, sharing with clients the insights he gathers from Mama Labs - Dentsu India's latest project to become a thought leader on the mother as a consumer. The idea is simple: in most campaigns, mothers are either put on a pedestal or are the silent, sacrificing types. "What we forget is that the word mummy also has a 'me' in it. Brands need to connect with that 'me'," Ohri says, as we settle down at "Point of View", the business lounge at ITC Grand Central, and order green tea.
Projects such as Mama Lab are Ohri's way of making the ad agency (he prefers calling it an 'integrated communications solutions company') battle-ready for the new consumer - whether she is in her teens or has become parent of adults. Ohri, who joined Dentsu India as chairman in 2011 after a 21-year stint at JWT, says these new consumers are the ones that are on his radar.
But isn't everybody chasing the so-called new consumer? Ohri agrees but says Dentsu has an inherent "last-mover advantage" in that it is the first agency network to have been created in the post-digital era and, therefore, had less of a legacy burden, both in terms of mindsets and organisational structure.
For example, he says, Dentsu has many brands with specific skill and capabilities in its fold but each operates independently through collaboration with others in the network through an integrated model. "Today everybody talks about integration. Many years ago, Martin Sorrel [CEO of the WPP Group] started the whole thing of unbundling, creating fragmentation between advertising and marketing. It created individual interest versus brand interest dominations," Ohri says, justifying why Dentsu never unbundled itself and has always stayed as an integrated agency.
Taproot, Ohri's prized acquisition a few months after he took charge, is classic evidence of the integrated model of which Ohri is talking. Some clients may want Taproot, but they also want an integrated communication agency. While Taproot does the core idea, Dentsu takes it across every single communication touchpoint. "In the media-fragmented consumer economy, that's the best model to follow. You nurture individual core skill sets while retaining a collaborative model to serve client needs," he says.
More significantly, he has been able to make Dentsu believe in itself. While he admits the acquisition of Taproot was the biggest game-changer in terms of the reputation of the agency and morale of employees, the buy-out of Webchutney has taken Dentsu's work in experiential digital advertising to a different level. Together, they brought in a huge base of almost 100 non-Japanese clients. And Ohri is clearly hungry for more.
That's a long distance from the self-doubt that Ohri often faced in the first couple of months of joining Dentsu. The entire top team had left after Sandeep Goyal exited the agency; employee morale was in the pits because of the uncertainty and intense politicking; clients were having second thoughts about continuing their association; Dentsu was not being called to make a pitch for big campaigns and some people whom he wanted said they weren't sure if they could say yes.
A part of that self-doubt was also a rub-off effect of working in JWT for 21 years - first in Kolkata and then in Delhi. "When you are in a large agency for such a long time, you take a lot of things for granted. My secretary didn't forward calls to me if the client's budget was less than a threshold amount. At Dentsu, it was exactly the opposite. I was the one who was fighting hard to draw clients' attention," he says, waving frantically at the steward who is apparently super-busy even though the tables are empty on a late weekday afternoon.
We order cappuccino and Ohri takes a trip down memory lane. He and his siblings were born and brought up in Kolkata and were often treated as outsiders by their relatives in Delhi because they spoke Bengali and didn't know a word of Punjabi. Though a qualified cost accountant, he was drawn into advertising as a profession after a chance meeting with his mentor Ram Ray, chairman of the Kolkata-based ad agency, Response.
He also talks fondly about how he managed to convince Taproot's Agnello Dias (Aggi) and Santosh Padhi (Paddy) with whom he shared quite a relationship - first as colleagues in JWT who made pitches before clients together; then as competitors when the duo set up Taproot and now as partners playing a complementary role to each other. "I approached them on my second day at Dentsu. While the trust factor between us helped, what finally clinched the deal was my argument that while other big agencies would treat them as another jewel in their crown, Dentsu would consider them as the Kohinoor," Ohri says laughing.
I ask whether he sometimes feels like an outsider given that his counterparts in at least two top agencies in India are headed by people from the creative part of the business. Ohri says although he is not a "creative" person in that sense, he has a nose for creativity - meaning he knows what will click in a borderless engagement with the consumer.
He attributes that skill to his training as a theatre artist - a passion he shares with his wife Venessa. Fools was the first play in which the couple played lead roles together. Ohri played the lead role in many plays by thespian Shyamanand Jalan's theatre group - Padatik - and also acted in the main role in a serial Ganadevta that ran for a year and a half on Doordarshan's primetime slot in the eighties.
Though he had to give up dramatics because of his demanding career in advertising that soon followed, Ohri hasn't forgotten his first love. In recent times, he has directed a play based on Ayn Rand's Night of January The 16th, a courtroom drama in which the audience is part of the cast and plays the role of the jury. "As a theatre artist, you have to communicate something that the audience can understand. You have to continuously watch audience response and adjust your acting or direction. An advertisement professional's job is no different," he points out.
He gives two examples of the borderless engagement that Dentsu has initiated with customers, as mobile phones have ensured that jargon such as below the line, above the line and so on have no meaning. The new idiom is: mixing creativity with technology.
One such example is the iButterfly, a mobile platform that engages consumers by making coupons a game. Smartphone users can use their devices to catch the butterflies - which is actually a coupon - and can redeem or trade it. iButterfly can also help consumers keep track of new offers and information on various brands. The other examples he gives are that of Canon's "What makes us click" and Honda's "Power of dreams".
As we walk to the elevator, Ohri says he often tells his people that 360-degree communication is passe and it's time for "365-degree communication". It's very important for brands to connect in a way no one has done before, 365 days a year without any break, he adds.
However, no communication technique - 365 degree or otherwise - worked for Dentsu, the Congress party's ad agency, during the Lok Sabha elections six months ago. For a change, the extraordinarily articulate CEO is guarded in his response: His agency did receive full co-operation from the party brass but perhaps what worked for the Bharatiya Janata Party was a "strong central idea".