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Prashant Kumar on the rapid rise of Entropia: ‘We fought against the best and won’

Two years after his high-profile departure from IPG Mediabrands, Prashant Kumar to Mumbrella Asia's Eleanor Dickinson about leading one of Malaysia's fastest growing marketing companies and the future of the agency model

When Prashant Kumar stepped down as the chief executive officer of IPG Mediabrands two years ago, he was regarded as one of the brightest young minds of the media world.

Then aged just 40, Kumar had spent the last 13 years spearheading the global holding company’s foothold in Asia, first as UM Malaysia’s general manager and eventually as the CEO of the entire regional operation.

When he finally chose to step down in April 2016,  it was less than a year after Australian hotshot Henry Tajer had climbed the global hierarchy of IPG Mediabrands and the shake-up of the leadership at the company across the world.

Although he may have appeared as a casualty of Tajer’s rise, in actual fact Kumar had long been mulling over the thought of new project. One that soon after emerged as Entropia, a Kuala Lumpur-based agency-consultancy aimed at creating the ‘marketing of the future’.

And despite the promotional gloss, there is some real substance to note: Entropia’s rapid growth in the space of 18 months is undeniable. Having started completely from scratch, the company now numbers 100 staff and has won a raft of major accounts from rival media agencies including AIA, Tesco, Nippon Paint, the telco YTL Communications and beverage distribution giant Etika.

Here, Kumar tells Mumbrella about his journey so far:

Entropia is nearly two years old, but yet has an account roster and headcount of one that’s more like five years in the making. Just how did you grow so quickly?

“This has been one of the fastest 18 months of our lives. While everything we could foresee went great – we got excellent funding, we got a great team, early clients and good support from the ecosystem. One of the biggest challenges was that the economy wasn’t really ready. Especially in Malaysia, economic sentiments have been really soft and the ringgit went down really deep as well. Sometimes we laugh and say there couldn’t have been a worse time to start a company, but 18 months later, looking how far we have come, there couldn’t have been a better time to validate our profit.”

What was it you did to overcome that uncertainty in the market?

“Well if you have a 40 per cent market share, then that softness impacts you; it hits your organic growth. But for us starting from scratch, we were able to tell clients we were bringing something new to their business. So our growth came from winning business from other players. Our biggest wins came from the biggest networks in the country; whether it was Tesco from GroupM or Etika from Carat, we fought against the best and won. Frequently.”

What exactly is the meaning behind Entropia’s slogan: ‘marketing of the future’?

“If you look a the traditional agency ecosystem, the holding companies are designed to keep silos in pens. So you have media, creative, search, performance and social media companies; you have them crunched by the holding company into one holding pen and expected to work together as one integrated, seamless play. Publicis has been slightly bolder in that respect, but we believe that model is unvalidated and doesn’t work.

“We started from a white sheet with no existing legacy model backgrounds, baggage or ways of working. We brought on multi-faceted leaders who are not insecure about collaborating. Being agile is part of our culture. So is being playful; not having any of those stuck-up, reserved or scary people who will not be challenged or discuss things with people. You have to have a collaborative set-up to deliver seamless integration. Everyone understands that, but not everybody has a working model.

“The other most important thing is Sentient – our big data offering. Big data needs big ideas. People who can bridge those two worlds are few and far between. So Sentient was designed to bring those together. If your data scientists understand that every bit of data hides a story and your creative guys know that stories have data at their soul, then there is commonality. Our average age is 26 right now, which makes it much easier (I’m the oldest at 42). And many do not have hard-fixed roles, which means they can be very fluid.”

How are you finding sourcing talent? Many in Singapore complain of the shortage of the right minds for today’s agency. Is the situation demonstrably worse in Malaysia?

“I disagree when Singaporeans complain about it; especially when they are one of those that drains the good people from every country in the region. There’s a glam factor of Singapore. At an agency, I believe you do not get the right talent without the right culture and if you do not believe in them.

“In today’s world, you never know what kind of talent you’ll need in the next six months. We recently hired an AI bot trainer. We have chatbots and they’re doing fine, but most consumers don’t know how to connect with them, so we hired a psychologist by background to train our AI to develop a personality. Last year, we would never have imagined we would need that. Today we have creatives who are specialised in personalisation – again something we thought we would never need.”

Entropia is divided into three divisions: Blanc, Noir and Rouge. How do you stop them falling into the old habits of agency silos?

“They don’t need to work together as they are client-serving. So for example KFC is part of Noir; everyone who works on KFC sits in Noir. Sometimes we draw resources from Sentient, but you won’t see Blanc guys working there. The traditional dilemma of working together was not cross-client but cross-discipline.

“Blanc and Noir are not organised around disciplines but around client position. Integration is a journey in itself. There is one level: creative integrated with media services, programmatic and social media, and so on. The second level is integrating those with platforms and big data. And the next level of that will be integrating those [disciplines] with marketing consultancy and digital transformation. We have managed the first level quite well. We are offering digital transformation and consultancy, but it’s not yet part of that seamless integration.”

You mentioned programmatic buying. As a small agency, how are you managing to compete with the large media powerhouses like Xaxis and GroupM, who are able to buy inventory on a colossal scale?

“Most programmatic inventory is real-time-bidding based; and therefore scale is not as bigger advantage as it would be with traditional media. Google and Facebook are all bought through RTB; it has created a level playing field. So we have never faced that dilemma in our media pitching when it comes to price. In the programmatic world, size is no more of value.

“The best technology and sources of data live in Silicon Valley not Madison Avenue; and those tools are available to everyone. The idea that huge scaling leads to better pricing is not correct. If your just focused on scale, you miss out on other things like strategy and a passion for getting the best value for the clients.”

Do you plan to take Entropia to other markets?

“I do imagine us becoming a bigger player than we are now. We would like to be the largest Asian network that’s much bigger than the world has seen. But we are a lot more particular about how different we are than how big we should be. Our excitement and gratification comes more from pushing the boundaries than the fact we are expanding. Scale helps us to invest in that differentiation. We have had investors say to go into seven markets in a month or a senior leader ask us to bring Entropia to a certain market, but we have been very resistant to the idea. We felt we should entrench our differentiation first; go deep before going wide.”

Last year saw the fall of Henry Tajer from IPG Mediabrands. As someone now sitting outside the tent, what did you make of his departure?

“Henry clearly is a very talented leader. He’s a complete commercial jock. I would have wanted him to succeed. When I heard about his departure, I thought it was a bit of a waste. In his own way he brought significant disruption to the company. So I was a bit sad when I heard. I would like to believe his intent was right, but he was perhaps in too much of a hurry.”

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