State of the industry: A view from the CEO, Vishnu Mohan of Havas – ‘scam agencies should be banned from awards’

Looking back over a 25-year career at Havas, the chief executive officer for India and South East Asia Vishnu Mohan gets deep in conversation with Mumbrella’s Dean Carroll about the best and worst of the ad industry – including the all-too powerful procurement department and the need to ban scammers

Havas veteran Mohan

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?

“I think stating that our industry is changing at the speed of light will still be a euphemism. It is undoubtedly changing, largely driven by technology. Fundamentally, I still believe that any approach involving technology – be it AI or anything else – that supersedes the art of creating a creative product is still wishful thinking 

“There is no doubt that the human mind is and will remain ingenious and any disruption in the creative process will be caused by talented people and not talented machines. Therefore, there will be a segment of our industry that will keep getting commoditised, automated and machine-driven – and in all probability get better at providing outputs that truly result in outcomes. 

“However, any amount of step change that is required will come from people and their ideas and that will ensure the survival of our industry.”

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

“One does not know to be honest what’s coming up in the future. No one predicted Facebook or the collective economy. The industry has been talking about the rise of mobile for the last two decades, which has now been taken over by the sentiment around AI. 

“While we can gush about the shiny new objects that technology brings to the fore, the truth is that they are yet to be mainstream in a way that it radically influences advertising and marketing. Yes, there are occasional examples of brilliance but few and far in between. Everything that is happening from the technology perspective is to observe consumer behaviour based on what we see, watch and therefore use that behaviour to anticipate something.

“So, it is very difficult to look into the crystal ball and predict the next big thing that could be anything – and I would challenge anyone who says that ‘this will happen’ in our industry next year or in the next five years. In fact, unpredictability and uncertainty are what keeps this industry alive and on our toes. 

“The most interesting part, therefore, is not knowing what is coming next and that’s where we thrive. It is better. We are constantly improving and adapting, and any interesting challenge makes us more ingenious and innovative than what we would have been had we known exactly what is coming.”

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?

“I would say the fundamental ones are people and the value of people. It is no secret that there is a talent challenge gripping the marketing industry and we are struggling to attract, as well as retain, talent. The best talent is not lured by the shrinking ‘glamour and shine’ of the advertising industry, as there are multiple career trajectories in other sectors that are more gratifying.

“The other challenge is the value of people. What is the industry prepared to pay for the best people as compared to other industries? While there are well-paying roles, the majority of professionals in the field especially in the mid-to-junior levels don’t make enough and, as a result, we are not able to attract the sharpest talent and the vicious circle continues. 

“Additionally, machines and commoditisation has happened and ‘innovation’ so to say can happen in your backyard. So, what is the holy grail? What can you as a practitioner in this  industry do that no one else can? What skills are required that make us a client’s partner, rather than a vendor? To get above these questions and see the real value of it all, we have to be prepared to invest in the right talent and be fairly remunerated for the same.”

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

“The year was 2002 and a campaign involving a real life character called Dr.Inkbeer (Drink Beer) who was on a global trail to prove the theory that you can work hard and party hard at the same time. The campaign was created for our client Asia Pacific Breweries and aimed to combat the challenge of declining beer consumption, at a time when the youth were getting more and more initiated into wine and coffee culture.

“The power of the campaign lay in the simplicity of the idea to transfer Dr.Inkbeer’s values (cool, fun, intelligent, sociable) onto ‘beer’ by creating a simple experiment designed to prove the theory executed through clues hidden within media, web, SMS and at bars to be selected to take a global tour of the best party spots. 

“It was a huge success that shifted perceptions and created a huge buzz around beer. For me, it was a simple and intelligent campaign that ran ahead of its time. It was innovative, inventive and effective – picking up every possible Effie.”

What was the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career, and what did you learn?

“I would perhaps not put it as a mistake, but a regret perhaps. The hunger for learning as an ambitious account executive in my early days led to a job offer from Colgate-Palmolive, which I turned down for financial reasons. My career path would have been very different, on the client side, had I taken that offer and this is perhaps the only partial regret that I have.So, it’s a case of what would have happened if I had taken it as opposed to ‘I should have taken it and my path would have been different’.”

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

“There are lots and to pick out one from the universe is difficult. However, if I have to pick one – my vote would go Lifebuoy’s ‘Help a Child Reach 5’ campaign; to help end child deaths from preventable diseases through handwashing with soap. 

“It is an extremely meaningful campaign that showcased the brand value of Lifebuoy without actually being in the forefront. Not only did it address a relevant social problem, but it managed to literally reincarnate the Lifebuoy brand.  

“Since, we are talking about game-changing campaigns. Palau Pledge deserves a mention, even though its from our network. It addressed pressing issues, critical to the survival of future generations of the island and successfully shifted behaviour. That truly demonstrates the power of advertising and all the good it can do.”

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?

“While, it is true that we are living at a time when our planet is not in its best shape with excessive consumption contributing to its poor health, I do believe that marketing can be a force for good and influence meaningful consumption. So, it’s not all gloom and doom.

“We can’t stop consumerism, as that will be an axe on the economy but we can strive to make a meaningful difference with the brands that we work with. it is imperative for any business organisation to be even more focused on sustainability efforts and responsible consumption in their businesses. 

“The days of merely selling a product or a service are numbered and an entire generation of socially-aware consumers want brands that are unafraid to take a stand, to lead the way in influencing behaviour and offer solutions to real life issues. We know from our ‘Meaningful Brands’ study that doing good helps to grow business. The study showed that 76% of brands could disappear overnight and nobody would care. And brands that are meaningful outperform the stock market by +133%.”

Is brand purpose a worthwhile goal?

“I would say that it is mandatory not worthwhile. If you don’t have a brand purpose, you should not be in the business.”

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

“Procurement. The fact is that way too much power has gone into their hands with the only driver of success being efficiencies, not effectiveness. That said, I am definitely not against the role of procurement as I do believe that they have a critical part to play. What bothers me is the over-importance given to the department and a balance would be more effective.”

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

“Absolutely. The industry must not encourage any scam ads whatsoever.

“If you discover a scam ad – not only should it be banned but the agency should be banned from entering any awards for a fixed period of time, as it sets an important precedent and a disciplinary message.”

What makes for a great client?

“The client who respects you and your work. It can be an old-school value to some, but it is impossible to succeed without it. Our industry is inherently built on people and acknowledging, and recognising, the value of people goes a long way in cultivating strong relationships.”

What makes for a bad client?

“There is nothing like a bad client. If you are branded as a supplier and not a partner, then it means that the relationship has started on the wrong foot. While cost is one thing, value is another and it is that distinction that makes a client treats you as an investment, as against a value creator.

“Additionally, no one has to pay a tax for being nice and at times basic courtesies are overlooked which does not make for a conducive environment.”

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

“A lot. The fact is that the industry was at a phase when we were getting devalued significantly due to the way we were working. Then came technology and the internet that brought a level playing ground in the industry, pushing the industry to be more innovative.

“I believe now is the best time – because there is a real demand for disruptive work that pushes the boundaries. We need innovation at its extreme to deliver, as only then can we break  through the clutter, media fragmentation and the commoditisation. And the path to innovation always starts with brain power and talent. 

“We are far from being a sunset industry. However, we are trying to do too many things. We should do what we were created to do. This industry was born for creativity and not for anything else. When you do everything, you lose focus.”

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

“All of them. At the same time, either you see them as a threat or as an opportunity and push towards more innovation and better results.

“I think it is important to keep honing your skills in your core area of expertise. The consultancies are going to go through the same issues as advertising agencies once did. It’s not that easy to do upstream and downstream integration, as we cannot be good at everything. It is a natural thought process, though, as expanding your revenue streams is only logical. Ironically, that sometimes spoils the very thing that you are exceptionally good at.

“Similarly, when it comes to insourcing, some clients are realising that it’s not their core expertise giving rise to the hybrid model or partial insourcing. I do think it’s a full circle and eventually the dust will settle and we will settle down to what we are each good at.”

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

“Some 25 years with Havas. Do I need to say more?”

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?

“As mentioned in an earlier response, talent is what makes this industry thrive and this is the same area where we are stumbling a bit. The pace of change and digital transformation breeds a different skills sets where we fail to attract talent or lose out to other industries like technology.

“There are more of the right people in the industry today than there were 10 years ago. However, there are equally more opportunities in the world today in sectors like technology and the new economy. So, it’s a question of creating attractive opportunities in our industry, which will motivate the talent. That is something we are not doing well right now and it will get worse in the years ahead unless we get focussed in what we do.”

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?

“We often take for granted that mental health is just about the absence of illnesses/disorders like depression and anxiety. It’s also about our ability to cope with the normal stresses of day-to-day life and to work productively and fruitfully. 

“Rigid work environments add to the stress that employees face, making it harder for them to deal with issues. It is very important to inculcate a culture of open communication, so that there is no scope for any taboo to creep in.

“As a leader, talking to my people takes up almost 50% of my time. The more time you spend at an individual level communicating with your people, the better it is to deal with challenges and pressures. 

“What is important is to create an environment where people can express themselves without fear and that is what I do in my capacity as a leader. This also helps to complement the external coaching and initiatives that are put in place at an organisational level.”

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

“Nothing to do with a good or bad idea, it’s their choice and as a parent I will lend my support to whatever they want to do and the industry they want to enter.”

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

“Creativity cannot be programmatic  and I will fight till my last breath with anybody that challenges that.”

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

“I don’t think it’s dead but it’s closer to the truth. In a way it’s not bad as historically word of mouth has been a force in the purchase journey. We have moved to a point – now – where we have created an entire ecosystem devoted to a new form of WOM – influencers and internet reviews. 

“Basically, because of social media, WOM has moved out of the pantry conversation to an open system. Does that mean the traditional marketing funnel is dead? I don’t think so, as every media component has a role to play – depending on the context – even if diminished relative to the past.”

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

“To quote the inimitable Jacques Seguela, tech without ideas is nothing but the death of advertising. Creativity wins hands down and cannot be templated. As long as we continue to nurture creativity and ideas, the advertising industry will thrive.”

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

“Optimistic. I see it as a good thing for the industry because there are many areas that AI can help us become better and sharper at what we do. However, we must not forget that the A in AI stands for ‘artificial’ as compared to ‘real’ intelligence.”

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

“Voice marketing is a looming opportunity and it should have been ‘in’ already. The other day I was in Korea. I took a taxi and the driver took his phone out and just asked me to mention my destination in English, over the phone and that’s it. I reached my destination without any hassle. 

“Will it take some time to be an integral force in marketing? Absolutely, yes, as there are a lot of nuances that we have to get right before it becomes a norm.”

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

“Who would have thought that people glued to other people playing video games could be a billion dollar industry. Any spectator sport is essentially, witnessing the win of one over the other. In a real life sporting event, those nail-biting moments of who is going to win makes a later entry, as compared to Esports which gets your adrenaline pumping from the word go. 

“As such, they are more engaging in nature and consumer interest in this area will grow. Younger audiences in markets like China and South Korea are already flocking to Olympic-sized sports stadiums to watch professional gamers compete against each other. It is only a matter of time for the scale to widen. Naturally, this makes it too lucrative of a segment for the marketer to ignore.”

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

“To be honest, none of these will own the future. I believe these are fads, which will come and go. As we move along, a lot more new platforms will emerge and they will also not own the future.”

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

“I don’t really love or hate it. The fact is that, it is there and we have to embrace it.”

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

“China and India, due to their sheer ability to show to the world how trends can be amplified. In China, WeChat’s success story is simply mind boggling. They did not invent a chat service, but they took a trend and turned it around into a universal idea. 

“In India, T-Series is the first YouTube channel to reach more than 100 million subscribers after months of racing to the top – an incredible achievement. There is a lot to learn from China and India and their ability to make a seismic change.”


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