Stronger Than Ever Before: Wunderman Thompson South Asia

Wunderman Thompson South Asia is in a unique position. The agency is both India’s youngest – celebrating its first birthday this month as Wunderman Thompson – and at the same time, the oldest - with a 90-year history in India as JWT.

The agency has received a series of accolades and awards recently. Heading up the list is multiple metals at the Effies India and Epica Sri Lanka; No1 ranking by Campaign India in ‘most-viewed ads’ for its work on PepsiCo India; CCO Senthil Kumar recognized as a top 20 game changer in advertising and media; The creation of globally-relevant and awarded campaigns such as its work for the Jimmy Nelson Foundation (the film titled ‘Blink. And they’re gone’) and last but definitely not least, over 100 new business wins in 2019, including Air Asia India and Panasonic air conditioners. 

Wunderman Thompson South Asia
Mumbai, 印度
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The marriage of a fresh approach and a respected history seems to be paying off. What can we learn from Wunderman Thompson’s successful integration of new with old?

I believe the most important aspect is that we took cognizance of how the environment was changing around us. And it starts with what clients across the world were asking for. After a long spell with working with domain ‘specialists’, clients, increasingly, were looking for an integrated approach. They were realizing the sub-optimal nature of having to deal with multiple partners to reach that one consumer with the one brand message. It was sub-optimal because the message was getting diluted in so many hands and the economics was just inefficient. However, their option, so far, was a ‘generalist’ single agency vs a large number of ‘specialists’. By bringing together JWT and Wunderman we, genuinely, have the multiple ‘specialist’ capabilities in one organization. And at scale. With 20,000 people across 200 markets we can truly deliver ‘integration’ seamlessly to our clients at a global scale. Our motto of being a ‘creative led, data and technology agency’ is no idle claim.


AdForum: Tarun, in an interview last year with CNBC, you said that ‘India is the place to be’. What is dynamic in the country right now? What are the opportunities and how can you capitalize on them?

Everything has changed with the current Covid-19 crisis. And in a few months, post the defeat of the virus, we will have a very different world from what it was just a couple of months ago. However, in the long run, economies like India, are the ones where there will be immense opportunity. We have a young, aspirational population. While our economy has stuttered a bit over the last year, we can get back to double digit growth. There is immense business talent and acumen in our country as can be seen by the number of Indian CEOs heading global companies. We, thus, have a lot going for us as a country. India is ambitious and it is a consumption economy. India is also adopting technology at a very fast pace. For brands, companies and talent India offers innumerable opportunities. There is so much head room to grow.

AdForum: In the same interview, we discovered that WT in India was the first agency in the network to adopt the new WT branding, after the global HQ in NYC. Why was South Asia in particular so quick to embrace the merger?  

In South Asia, the merger has been very smooth and seamless. JWT was very strong – more than a 1000 people and a heritage of over 90 years. (JWT opened its first office in Mumbai, in a room at the Taj Mahal hotel, in 1929!!) Wunderman in India had a presence only in New Delhi and Mumbai and between both offices had a team strength of around 50 people. Luckily, due to real estate reasons, they were already collocated with JWT in both these cities. That’s one of the reasons SA was the second market after the US that the Wunderman Thompson’s new identity was launched – only days after the launch in New York. As a result, we had ten months to build a new culture and also use the combined capabilities of the merged entity to get new business, both from existing clients and also from new clients.


AdForum: Please describe the agency’s identity. How do you stay true to your local culture while at the same time, fit into and collaborate with the other WT network agencies? Are you seen as an Indian agency, a global network or a skillful combination of the two?

Creativity is at the heart of our business. But we are a bunch of specialists – from brand strategists and creative professionals to data analysts and technologists – all under one roof, working seamlessly to provide the integrated, end-to-end business solutions to our clients. We have always been part of a global network while being a strong Indian agency. There was a period of a couple of decades when JWT decided to leave India in the safe hands of its local employees but even then, we had a working relationship with global JWT for training, tools and processes. That’s the reason, that even during that period, we retained the Thompson name and called ourselves Hindustan Thompson Associates. We continue to be a strong Indian company, rooted in its culture, with immense and deep knowledge of the Indian consumer, while staying connected very intimately with the global network.


AdForum: How do you position Wunderman Thompson to a brand? We’d like to understand a little more about the blend of creativity, data and technology. How do they work in tandem to deliver an integrated solution, given that they are totally different people, personalities and work?

I think a very important aspect is that we are now one organization. It is one P&L. The agenda is common to everyone and, unlike in a ‘group’ company structure, there are no pulls and pressures of various companies in the group to compete for revenue. However, that’s not enough. What’s important is to get the right balance of capability and talent into the company. This diversity of talent is different in different WT markets around the world. In India, for example, with a 1000 people of JWT and much fewer of Wunderman we needed to address the capability skew immediately. We have aggressively tried to hire people from non-agency backgrounds to address this. And finally, to have teams working seamlessly together, there is a need to build a strong culture. We are focused on that and, while it is still WIP, we seem to be on the right track. We have the capability to deliver appropriate interventions at every stage of the Consumer Experience through the entire Consumer Journey.


AdForum: Moving to agency culture, recent commentary shows that Wunderman Thompson South Asia is leading the way with diversity and inclusion, not just locally but also globally. 45% of the leadership are women and 47% of new hires in 2019 were women. Congratulations – this is very impressive. How challenging has it been to achieve this and to what do you attribute this achievement?

Surprisingly, it has not been very challenging. Historically, JWT in India always had very strong women as leaders. Even when I joined the company some three decades ago, I used to look up to so many women in leadership positions. When I returned as a CEO, I decided to make it part of a conscious agenda. What I am really proud of is that, unlike in most companies, the proportion of women in senior positions in our organization is higher than at junior levels. At the very top, in my Leadership Team, the gender ratio is 50-50!


AdForum: You have spoken in the past about the importance of talent, specifically that agency people and creatives are in high demand, and not just from within the marketing industry. What is Wunderman Thompson doing to hire and retain talent?

One very important aspect of the merger is that we are a much stronger ‘talent magnet’ than before. We can now attract talent from not just other agencies but also from digital and tech companies. We can now fish in many more talent pools than just the advertising agency one. For freshers looking to start their careers, we are also more attractive since we offer strong ‘traditional’ strategic brand building along with the latest digital and tech opportunities. It is also a much more attractive place to build a long-term career. Retention is also easier since we are investing so much in training and development. People notice that the company is investing in them and want to stay and learn. By the same token competition for talent is certainly an issue. Our people also have many more opportunities. Therefore, training, empowerment and career growth become important retention tools. Besides, of course, compensation.


AdForum: In terms of growth, what is your blueprint and where do you see the agency going in the medium term?

I have maintained for long that the we need to have multiple revenue streams to grow. That our clients advertising budgets are shrinking but their marketing spends are not. We need, therefore, to get a larger share of their marketing budgets rather than just their advertising one. The new capabilities that Wunderman has brought into the company allows us to build these new revenue streams faster. We can now try and get some share of even our clients’ MarTech spends. Getting more revenue from our existing clients by offering our new capabilities to them is the low hanging fruit. However, our new capabilities have also enabled us to go after new business not just through ‘advertising’ RFPs but also digital and technology RFPs, including e-commerce. And since, we are positioned uniquely, as a truly integrated end-to-end solutions provider, it has given us a competitive edge over our industry competitors. Our non-traditional revenue share is currently at 35% and I see it growing to 50% by next year.



And finally, a question I always ask to bring it back to the work. Do you have a favorite campaign or one that made an impression on you (from any country)? Which brands do you see as the most receptive to bravery and creativity in the region?

It is very difficult to answer this question as we strive to do our best for all our clients.


Blink. And they're gone - Jimmy Nelson Foundation 


LUX - Soap with a Lump


Facebook - Thumbstoppers 


We very much look forward to seeing more of Wunderman Thompson South Asia’s output. AdForum would like to thank Tarun Rai for the illuminating and engaging conversation, we are honored. Also, many thanks to Rohini Saldanha for organizing this interview, we are appreciative.