Ranga Somanathan on why the talent crunch is not an issue, ‘quick buck’ publishers and the need to ‘hustle’

RangaStarcom MediaVest Southeast Asia COO Ranga Somanathan has been in the role for the last 18 months, running Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines for the media agency.

In this Q&A, he talks about some of the big challenges facing the media industry, from finding talent to dealing with publishers, and explains why marketers are trailing agencies in keeping up with the consumer.

What do you see as some of the big challenges facing the region, and what keeps you up at night?

One of the things we are seeing is that the consumer is ahead of the game in terms of both technology adoption and also engaging with brands – taking control of how they want to engage with us. The agencies – organisations like ours – are therefore trailing the consumer and I can say that marketers are trailing the agencies.

It is a function of serving current needs, the now, or preparing for the future. But my argument is that the now has already happened. So we need to make plans now. You can’t wait for things to evolve into the future.

Take an issue like consumer retention and time spent on mobile devices and digital screens. It is a disproportionately larger amount of time than the marketing that goes into it. I’m not talking just ad dollars, I’m talking (wider) marketing investment.

That’s a big gap. We are still trying to connect to our consumers in a conventional way and the consumers have moved on.

This is not happening tomorrow. It is happening now, and that’s something that keeps me awake. We have to battle two ends of the spectrum. We have to play catch up with the consumer, and at the same time take stakeholders along with us on the journey.

Are marketers ready for the challenges that some of these technological changes are bringing? 

I don’t think that they are. The reasons are that they are not constrained by growth, which comes pretty easily given the massive growth rates seen in Southeast Asia.

It might not make them lazy, but their priorities tend to be in the areas of distribution, packaging, logistics – and they’re still a nightmare. That is probably where the focus is, and what is being lost is the love that brands want consumers to have for them. The relationship is very transactional and that’s a risk.

We fundamentally believe that for a brand to entrench itself with the consumer you need to understand that historically when you are communicating with people, it has been for the collective and delivered to the collective. Now, we are fast moving into an age where brands need to communicate with the individual and deliver to the individual too.

There is a lot of talk about the lack of talent in the region. What’s your view on this? 

I’m very passionate – super passionate – about the space. I believe talent is not an issue. I sincerely believe that the issue is that we are all looking down the same rabbit hole and trying to get a different type of person to work with us. It is a nonsense.

We spend a lot of time with the universities and the millennials have a great work ethic, but the reason they are not able to realise their potential is because we are not aligning them on the purpose. That is where there is a massive disconnect.

Also, the definition of longevity of talent has totally changed now. The organisation tends to recognise five, ten or 15 years as long service, but our internal conversation and recommendation has been around making it 12, 18, 24 months.

Also, the way you reward needs to be different; $500 isn’t a big deal for a lot of these guys. What they are looking for is not another job, rather one that fulfils them.

It is the organisation’s responsibility to create the next gig before you feel the need for the next gig. Too often it’s that you’re doing a fabulous job on this client, the client loves you and so you stay in the job for a longer time, even though you don’t feel more gratification. Therefore talent is lost.

I think talent is not the issue. It is the way we look for it.

You mention the challenges of the rabbit hole. Do you think we need to be looking outside the universities and traditional pathways for talent? 

I’ll give you a personal example that comes out of my Indonesia and Malaysia experience [Somanathan used to run Starcom’s operations in those countries before his promotion in January 2013]. When I moved to Malaysia I was coming back to the agency for a second time. When I looked at our staff, less than five per cent were people I knew. Which to me is good because a massive new talent pool is emerging.

But in another sense, they were the same – their profile, capabilities and background. And since they are all of a like mind, they are not getting stimulated by each other. So there is a lot of stress and a lack of happiness.

So for the next six months we experimented on hires with multiple experiences. When headhunters came to us to discuss deals, I said I’m not going to negotiate with you on how much I am going to pay, but you are going to put on my table the best talent that you come across. If I hire then I will pay you rack rates. But if I brief you for a resource then I will give you just $500. Immediately I ended up getting on my table people who the headhunters felt were pretty cutting edge.

There was one guy I hired from a web hosting company. He was a web master. He joined us as a search specialist and lasted with us for just nine months, but he transformed the way we thought about performance management. He went on to do his own startup, but the stream of talent he brought in was great and he refers his community to our company.

Today we have many people in the company who come from engineering, arts backgrounds, or who are entrepreneurs.

Talent is not an issue – it’s our ability to look for the right people. Our limitation to look for diverse talent is an issue, and our ability to create the next gig before they feel the need to move on.

What trends are you seeing on the ground when you go through the various markets?

From a Southeast Asia perspective, it is an interesting dynamic because the transformation is happening everywhere, but the intensity is very different across various markets. When we are servicing a global network client we end up servicing the same scale as China from a regional perspective, but we have to service it with six client leads, six finance directors, etc.

Our service intensity to service those billings is multifold, but the expectations are still the same. The transformation speed is different in each of these markets and it becomes very important for us not to paint the entire region with the same brush.

How you deal with Vietnam and its ability to engage consumers via conventional platforms is different to how we do that in the Philippines. But the blind spot may be that there are coming capabilities in Vietnam that we can easily transport to Indonesia or Singapore.

This means that we must make the talent liquid and not restricting people to a geography because they originate from there. That could be a blind spot, and so we have a liquid talent program where if you are interested in going to, say, China then you can volunteer and we’ll work something out.

How are publishers and media owners keeping pace with the rate of change? 

They are moving fast enough from a sales mindset perspective, but that is their problem. One of the great advantages of precision marketing is that it can be solution-focused.

My biggest pain point with digital publishers is that they are sales-focused; ‘let me make a quick buck, let me sell you a masthead – agency people slow things down, so let’s go get things out of the client directly’, etc. That is creating a bit of a erosion in client confidence.

The client feels excited to deal with the publisher directly, but then when the publisher goes to them with a sales mindset they don’t feel gratified and end up feeling burnt.

Clients trust agencies, and we are in a day and age where you can’t be a gatekeeper. We encourage our folks to be a facilitator and put clients directly in touch with publishers and try to drive that conversation.

However, a lot of publishers have sales folks who come from aggressive print sales teams and their mindset has always been a perishable commodity – if I don’t sell today I’m going to get screwed. They are not selling audiences, they are selling high-cost real estate, which is perishable.

This is a tragedy which is eroding client confidence. Publishers need to have a change in attitude. They need to be more solution-focused and able to lean on all the data streams they create to go to an agency or a client and say this is how I create a meaningful solution for you.

What could Starcom MediaVest be doing better?  

Most of our people tend to be very humble, and if I had to make a change it would be to bring in a bit of a ‘hustling’ mindset.

When you are operating in an area of experience creation you do not have a precedent – and agency folk justify things by precedents. We have to have more conviction in our solutions and be more relentless in selling that solution and that’s where hustling comes into play.

It is a relentlessness. Media agencies will easily take no from any stakeholder. So our ability to have conviction to see ideas through and meet every objection as an opportunity for you to hone your solution – that is a cultural trait I would love to see more of in our organisation.


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