State of the industry: A view from the CEO, Ashish Bhasin – ‘if you can’t manage stress, you can die in this industry’

In his first major interview since arriving in Singapore to take up his new role as as Asia-Pacific CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network, Ashish Bhasin talks to Mumbrella's Dean Carroll about a range of topics including stress, voice, programmatic and the industry's lack of good talent

Bhasin has big plans for DAN APAC

Many people suggest the media and marketing industry is in transition at best and managed decline at worst – but what’s your view on the trajectory and how fast the industry is changing?

 “The media and marketing industry today is probably changing at a faster pace than ever before and this pace of change is only likely to increase and not decrease, as we go forward. Ours is definitely an industry in transition, as we move from an era of broadcast to an era of personalisation.  

“Every single rule of the game is rapidly changing and the digital era is bringing about a new set of winners and losers. I personally believe that legacy agencies, working in silos, who may have enjoyed a good run for tens or a hundred years or so are going to find themselves in a dinosaurish situation – if they do not adapt to the digital world and its changing needs.”


What is the next big thing coming down the line for the industry whether it’s a technology, market trend or something else entirely?

“Things keep changing from time to time, particularly since the consumer is leaving a huge digital footprint in everything that he or she does; making purchases, travelling, anything. There is going to be a lot more emphasis on managing data, on developing martech capabilities. 

“That is definitely the trend we will see. More importantly than it is today, voice will become key. Particularly in the area of search and performance.”

Can you explain the obstacles, as you see them, that need to be overcome in order for the industry to move to a better place?

“The single biggest obstacle that I see is the quality of talent. The quality of talent coming into the industry is worse than the quality of talent going out. At one point of time the advertising and marketing industry was able to attract the best in the market. 

“With the advent of technology companies and the state of  remuneration in the advertising industry, this is an area where we have suffered. And I think that will be the biggest obstacle that we need to overcome, for us to move to a better place.”

What work or innovation during your tenure are you most proud of and why?

“I am proud of having built Dentsu Aegis Network India from a loss making 40 to 50 staff agency into a hugely successful and profitable 3,700 plus staff marketing communications giant in India.  

“We managed to overturn 88 years of ranking in India. I think the single biggest reason for that was that we saw the digital wave coming well before our competitors did and future proofed our agency far better than most of them were able to. I am extremely proud of the team that helped me in this journey.”

What is the landmark piece of work by others that was a game-changer for the industry, in your view? 

“One of the most memorable campaigns in advertising, during my early days as an account executive, which really inspired me was that for Hamlet Cigars – in the days when cigarette advertising and advertising tobacco products was allowed. It had a tremendous understated British humour and I think was then the new standard in introducing humour into advertising.” 

Given that marketing is an industry designed to create more consumption, can it be considered a force for good in a world of diminishing natural resources?

“I think we definitely can. Marketing satisfies the consumer’s needs and often enables them to make better choices. It is how you use the power of marketing that determines whether it does good or bad.

“Ultimately, advertising is all about influencing consumer behaviour. If we can influence consumer behavior for the good of the world, we can definitely leave this a better place than what we found – which should be the ultimate objective of every professional.”

Is brand purpose a worthwhile goal?

“Brand purpose is definitely a worthwhile goal, but I am not sure if it is being seen that way. Sometimes, it seems to me that it is a new fad or gimmick that people are catching on to. I think authenticity is key. 

“Brands that are genuine and authentic and adopt brand purpose that is completely in sync and character with the brand will succeed. Those who are attempting to ‘fake’ it just because it is a fad, will fall flat on their face.”

If you had to pick one thing that has damaged the industry as a whole, what would it be?

“The desire of agencies to create advertising just for the sake of winning awards has definitely outlived its ‘benefit’ and is now damaging us as an industry.”

 Do you think scammers should be banned from awards shows when they are caught, just like doping athletes face sporting bans?

“I definitely feel that scams not only pull down the authenticity of award shows, but also bring a bad name to the industry. It is a good time to develop a system whereby people are clearly discouraged from taking up this kind of activity.”

What makes for a great client?

“A great client is one who trusts his or her agency, gives them a clear direction and agrees to remunerate and value their work at a fair level.”

What makes for a bad client?

“Any client that treats the agency like a vendor will get the agency he or she deserves.”

Can you outline the opportunities ahead, as you see them, for the industry?

“I think at times like these, when clients are hard pressed to compete in the market, it is a big opportunity for agencies to move up the food chain and provide a greater level of consultancy services – in addition to just implementation, for which agencies were known in the past.”

And, conversely, what are the big threats to the industry – whether its consultancies, in-housing, technology or something else entirely?

“We have a huge amount of very intelligent people, with a great strategic bent of mind and a  superb capability of implementation at scale, and at an effective cost. To me, it is much easier for us to move up the value chain than it would be for consultancies to provide the last mile implementation at scale, and at the rates that we do.  

“While the rest of the world may see consultancies as a threat, I actually see this as an opportunity and I would like to see agencies using their huge implementation skills along with their strong strategic inputs. Thereby changing their remuneration totally. 

“The biggest threat though is something which I referred to in an answer before. It is actually the paucity of good talent coming into our industry. This is absolutely a people-based business and if we do not get and retain the best quality people, we will go downhill from here.” 

Are you paid well, or not enough, by your employer for what you bring to the table?

“My employers are very fair employers. I would like to feel that I am paid fairly. Of course, everyone can always do with a hike.” 

Looking to industry talent – is it more difficult now to find the right people now than say 10 years ago  – given the pace of technological change – and how do you see this playing out over the next decade?

“Yes, it is getting more and more difficult to find the right people because the options and choices available to people are much more today than when they were 10 or 20 years ago. Also, advertising is hard work. 

“Most people see a supposedly glamorous industry, but they don’t realise how difficult it is to consistently perform in a service industry governed by deadlines – day in and day out for decades. I see the difficulty of getting top quality talent and then retaining people as the single biggest challenge the advertising and media agency faces all over the world today.”

Mental health is a taboo topic for the industry, but given the long hours, short deadlines and sometimes unreasonable demands on staff – are you as a leader doing enough to combat the effects of stress within your organisation?

“I think all leaders are trying to maintain as much of a balance as they possibly can. What makes it doubly hard for me personally is that I myself am a poor example of work/life balance. It should not be a taboo topic, it should be discussed and addressed. 

“It is equally true that advertising, because it is a service industry which is very deadline oriented, is a high-stress profession. One of the key success factors of making a career in this industry is the ability to withstand stress. If you cannot manage your stress you can literally die in an industry like this and, hence, we owe it to ourselves to manage this as well as possible.”

If your children wanted to enter this industry, would you say it was a good idea or a bad idea?

“I would say it is a great idea. No better proof of the fact than that my son is, indeed, in advertising and enjoying himself very much. My children are free to do what they feel is best for them, but I feel this is a great profession.

“If I were to be starting a career again today, I am pretty sure I would still get into advertising. I say this with a bias because this is the only industry I have worked in and I’m only on my second job in the last 32 years.”

I’ve heard industry leaders state that ‘everything will be programmatic soon’. Is that a good or a bad thing – and why?

“As industry leaders, we tend to grab keywords and soundbites. Programmatic is very important and will grow more and more so, simply because it is not humanly possible to plan for advertising in an effective manner without the use of technology. However, to say that everything will be programmatic is a bit of an exaggeration. 

“But in my view, the importance of programmatic will increase as time goes by. I think it is a good thing if used effectively because machines can help process mechanical data faster and better than humans can. It will though become a problem if it is all we do and we stop our thinking abilities.”

With internet peer reviews now driving the last mile to purchase for consumers, is the traditional marketing funnel dead?

“I don’t think it is dead, but it is changing very rapidly. What started of as an AIDA [attention or awareness, interest, desire and action] model several decades ago is probably turned on its head as years have passed. I think traditional marketing funnel has somewhat changed its course, largely thanks to ecommerce. Peer reviews are definitely contributing to the change.”

How valuable is creativity in the modern industry landscape so dominated by technology and automation?

“I think creativity is the last unfair advantage that you can have over your competitor in today’s day and age. Technology and automation are great ways of bringing in efficiency. Creative is what will make the difference. I would like Dentsu Aegis Network APAC to be creatively led, data driven and technology enabled. All these will have to go hand in hand.”

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the rise of artificial intelligence and its effect upon your industry?

“I am actually optimistic because I feel that the holy grail of advertising, which I hope is achieved during my working life, is to be able to create advertising for the person it is meant for; in the manner he or she will receive it best and serve it only to them, with the least amount of wastage. This won’t be possible unless artificial intelligence is used to the fullest.”

Virtual personal assistants and artificial intelligence – should marketers be scared or view the technology as an opportunity?

“I definitely view this as an opportunity, although we need to quickly learn to harness it for the benefit of our brands. Every new technology gives you an opportunity to do something better, faster and cheaper as does artificial intelligence, but technology can never be a substitute for a great marketing idea.”

How long will it be before ‘voice’ becomes a force in marketing?

 “I think this will happen sooner than later. Earlier this year, I was at Google’s Mountainview HQ and the amount of work going on in this area surprised me when I first saw it. Like everything else, the real impact of any development is when it builds critical mass. 

“We are at best, 18-24 months away from that inflexion point. It’s coming and its going to be here in a big way. And it will catch the laggards off-guard.”

Esports – is it an opportunity or waste of energy for marketers?

“It is definitely an opportunity because anywhere consumers go with high engagement is always a marketing opportunity. It is how we use Esports for marketing that will determine whether it was a waste of energy or an opportunity. For many brands it will be an important element of the marketing mix going forward.”

New millennial platforms are emerging like Twitch, TikTok and Snapchat – which of them, if any, will own the future?

“I think TikTok will make a significant impact in APAC, particularly where user generated videos spread like wildfire. Of these three, I would definitely think TikTok would be the one.”

The Google and Facebook duopoly – do you love or hate it?

“I absolutely love both Google and Facebook. I don’t agree with Martin Sorrell when he says that they are our ‘frenemies’. I think we are all in the same business, they are our friends but we as the advertising and marketing industry need to realise that they are just platforms and not substitutes for advertising.”

Finally, which international market will lead the way for your industry over the next 50 years and why?

“I feel very positive about the future of India as a market 10 or 20 years from now. The reason is it is going to be one of the few scaled markets that will continue to grow over the next 10 years but more importantly, I think it is going to be a huge net exporter of talent. 

“There is great advertising and marketing talent in India, of a global standard, which over a period of time will get more and more globalised. And, hence, will start leading the way for the advertising and marketing industry 10 or 20 years from now, I feel.”

Ashish Bhasin is the Asia-Pacific chief executive officer and India chairman at Dentsu Aegis Network


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