State of the industry: A view from the CEO, Dentsu X India’s Divya Karani – ‘Nobody loves walled gardens’

In an interview with Mumbrella's Dean Carroll, Dentsu X India CEO Divya Karani – winner of 'Agency Leader of the Year' at the Mumbrella Asia Awards this year – holds forth on the role of purpose in a world where people trust brands more than their governments

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?

“Continuous, compressed and faster disruption is par for the course. The communications industry not just reflects but leads this trajectory. Let us strap ourselves in for an even more exhilarating ride ahead. 

“We have always known that we make a difference. Today, more than ever before, we can engage in meaningful dialogue with our consumers; measure and calibrate the exact impact and value we bring to the table. We have an unprecedented opportunity and responsibility to our consumers, our stakeholders, our society and ourselves.” 

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

“There is no one big thing alone. Tech, furiously evolving digital productivity and data turbines, combined with our agile, ever-more-demanding consumers holding companies and brands accountable. These are the combined forces at play. 

“Consumers are calling the shots like never before – same-day deliveries, two-minute wait times for order-pick-ups and two-second loading time for apps. The current benchmark is to deliver gift-wrapped delightful consumer experiences.

“In this connected, always-on world countries, people and brands need to be authentic, consistent and agile in their delivery, message and actions.”

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?

“Singular bottom-line obsession, short-termism and lack of authenticity are the myopic speed-breakers.

“Reciprocity in relationships; brands need to respect consumer privacy and at the same time, share and show what they stand for. Access to consumers comes with certain responsibilities. You may abuse this access or be transactional at your own risk. Conversely, you may respect the privilege and the opportunity and reap the benefits.”

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

“Over the last three decades, I have both, learnt and been able to build teams and organisations that thrive even after I am no longer a part of them. I am lucky and proud of the people I work with, individually and collectively, within our organisation, as well as with our client partners. 

“Keen minds, that question and challenge the status quo, tend to disrupt the way forward. The outcome then is inevitably magical. The stupendous work we have done on Association of Mutual Funds and Maruti Suzuki is a reflection of this symphony.”

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

“Be more forgiving, of yourself and your team. Not all outcomes are determined solely by our actions. This applies equally to both undesired and desired results. Passion, compassion, resilience and the ability to not take yourself too seriously, are important.”

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

“When you have worked the years I have, there are very many that come to mind. Recent years have seen significant disruptions and debates on measurement and transparency. Multiple leading marketers have moved our agency business in the right direction by asking the right questions and challenging us to do the right thing. This has led to multiple innovations that are shaping the way we work.”

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?

“Surely marketing is so much more. Marketing adds an indisputable and tangible value to both, consumers and society.

“It solves business problems whilst serving consumers and society with tailor-made options, when and where they want it. It plays an integral role in raising societal awareness and championing causes that shape our collective thinking and actions. Given today’s rampant fake news and misdirection, marketing’s role is more important than ever before.”

Is brand purpose a worthwhile goal?

“Consumers want to make a difference. They trust corporations more than they trust their governments. So, there are greater expectations from brands and of themselves to actively participate in causes, big and small. Brand purpose is now evolving into brand activism.

“If companies proactively do not live up to this larger mandate, consumers will simply make them. 

“The challenge is that the purpose has to resonate inside out and be consistently worked upon. Knowing your consumers, what resonates with them, motivates them, is a story half-told, if not harnessed for a greater good. 

“Brands that reach out with authentic purpose-led goals tend to reap dividends for their constituents, for themselves and the larger society.

“Consumers are loyal to the ideas and the purpose that brands represent. The brands we choose proceed from the ideas we hold dear.”

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

“Erosion of trust within the industry – among the consumers and society. The catalyst for clients’ in-housing is not just because of the value of data harvesting but also due to trust deficiency and short-termism. 

“The sad part is that instead of a win-win, both parties, clients and agencies will pay the price. Similarly, when people’s privacy and security is not respected, it is a breach of faith, with a very high price to be paid.”

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

“Yes, publicly name, shame and debar scammers, both individuals and the agency. But not without trial. And even if there is an iota of doubt on whether they are scammers or not, the verdict should be ‘not guilty’. Simply because a strong, unequivocal message – not a witch-hunt – will prevent future misadventures.”

What makes for a great client?

“Clients who foster collaborative multi-function culture, across teams all having an equal seat at the table and all working towards a common goal, tend to see better results. 

“I have had the fortune of working with such clients, who seemingly effortlessly orchestrate all, to give their heart and soul to the common enterprise.” 

What makes for a bad client?

“Sadly, few individuals at client organisations, care more about themselves than the organisation they work for. There is acute insecurity coupled with an unwillingness to learn and change. In today’s world, they don’t last long; either they change for the better or they trip all by themselves.”

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

“There are plenty; I am optimistic about consumers, conversations and channels. Consumers want brands to be a part of their lives. 

“They are seeking deeper, personal connections and meaningful conversations with their brands. Brands, therefore, don’t just need to step up and do more but be more. Conversations will need to be real, relevant and authentic. 

“And finally, channels increasingly having the ability to serve these customised, curated offerings to consumers, when and how they are needed.”

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

“In-housing of adtech will continue as brands take charge of their data. In-housing of creativity remains a question, though. Consultancies, tech are changes we will grapple with, learn from and be richer for it. 

“The real threat is blatant fake news. It is a deliberate attempt to pollute public opinion with disinformation. 

“The other threat is the lack of transparency and regulation of social media platforms. How and who is targeting us and what content are they using? The future has no space for participants who rely on relative invisibility as part of their business model. These practices undermine media and society and are downright corrosive.” 

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

“That is a conversation I will have with my organisation, when and if I need to.”

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

“There has been no paucity of talent, then and now. Every once in a while, I come across some raw talent that I just know is going to fly high. And having had my instinct play out itself repeatedly, I have come to trust it even more. 

“Recruiting basis resumes only, is suicidal, for both parties.  One needs to be able to recognise, nurture and celebrate talent. I have had/have the most brilliant minds working with me, and it is exhilarating.  

“Yes, emerging talent will have increased specialisation, attitudinal shifts, a flexible approach, nuanced differences perceptible across the years. These need to be understood and harnessed to fit into our business model. 

“Who wants clones, sameness or echo chambers? I celebrate my team’s diversity, vibrancy, even idiosyncrasies.”

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

“Yes, we are a service industry where everyday pressures and impossible deadlines war with zeal and pride in producing quality work. The flip side, however, is that the range of experience gained in the agency world is unmatched by brands or adtech.

“I mitigate this stress by hand-picking my team, work at seeping in our value system across the organisation and then trusting and empowering them to do what they do best. When the teams are empowered co-owners, taking their own decisions, there is a significant reduction in the stress levels. I step in to take hard calls only where and when needed.”

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

“It depends entirely on their calling. This industry gives all a chance to prove their mettle, salutes brilliance and calls out mediocrity. Yes, the pressure is high but then so is the acceptance once you pass the litmus test.”

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

“Programmatic is transformative but needs to be harnessed well alongside brand safety and suitability (context). It is a win-win situation where performance is better, as eliminating middlemen can lead to less latency, higher viewability and increased engagement. 

“Deployed to drive true addressability where segments are served tailored creatives, thereby increasing brand engagement, is the ultimate goal.”

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

“The unwillingness to proactively change is what usually destroys business transformation. We owe ourselves the wake-up call.  Long-term brand building is as essential today as before, but so is the need to handhold the consumers right through the journey via performance marketing, ensuring the short-term impact as well.

“Creating brand experiences that consumers remember, is vital; just so that the brands have to work a little less hard with performance marketing, or can charge a premium and stand out. Good brand building work will also drive short-term results. 

“Digital attribution models tend to overstate the effectiveness of ads that consumers see just before they make a purchase. We need to address both the metrics and the models; the need for better signals on brand-focused work.”

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

“More than ever before, attention-commanding creative ideas are the life-blood to brands. “Our Data2Decisions’ work shows that the creative execution is the second-highest driving factor behind the market size and has proven to have ten times the influence of cost and flighting on ROI.

“Consumers’ attention is the prize, and they are in complete control. They decide how many seconds they give us. By giving consumers a high return on their attention, we achieve a high return on their investment. Simple.”

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

“There are no short-cuts. AI offers ways to leverage big data, to anticipate the customer’s next move and personalise the experience. 

“To reap the benefits, though, the data and tech teams must be integrated with the business team, all driving to a singular goal. And we have just begun; it is a constant evolution and journey.”

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

“Both. AI will underpin most customer experiences in the future. In the near term, it is a high-risk, high-reward proposition, as well-publicised missteps have proven. 

“Companies have little choice but to stay apace, but some marketers may take steps that will prove to be too fast and too far, putting customer trust and their brand at risk.”

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

“When consumers interact with companies through conversations, it changes the relationship. India, with its large numbers, low literacy and many languages, makes for an interesting case. 

“We need to explore our way forward, provide tailored consumer-centric solutions and learn as we do so.”

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

“It is a young billion-dollar industry that is morphing fast. It promises to be a huge opportunity in forging brand partnerships. Brands that enable fans’ interactions will be particularly successful. Technologies are crucial though, in what they add to IP and the user experience.”

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

“The future belongs to brands and platforms that understand, respect and enable consumers to be their ultimate selves. Not as simple as it sounds. 

“The necessity for individuality wars at times with a need for belonging, the need for utilities to make life better and easier; the ability to distinguish when an institution is working for and with them, or simply seeking something from them; and a knack for making decisions emotionally rather than logically. 

“There are opportunities aplenty, provided one can keep pace.”

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

“I would call it a triopoly with Amazon very much in the fray. Nobody loves the walled gardens. Similar questions arise with Amazon – who owns the marketing or distribution?  Given Amazon’s size, linkage to commerce and its ambitions, marketers need to think short and long term.

“I see transformative traction for platforms combining paid advertising with payment options and e-commerce fulfilment. 

“The low hanging fruit to marketers is a visible direct link between marketing investment within these walled garden and sales performance, but we would be naïve to  discount the importance of other brand touch-points.”

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

“Drumbeats of change are reverberating across our world. The democratisation of information has de-centralised the idea of ‘global’ from any one privileged location. No one place is any more or less the centre of the world. 

“Yes, certain ideas catch fire in one geography but soon proliferate and flourish across borders. Centres of excellence do not exist for long, as good ideas spread, are assimilated and adopted. 

“When knowledge is everywhere, so are the thinkers. Ironical though, that consumers are embracing oneness and change, propelling humanity towards goodness and authenticity and our governments are trying harder to stoke protectionism.”


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing