In 2023’s WARC Effective 100, Wavemaker India was ranked the most effective media agency in the world. Its “Not Just a Cadbury Ad 2.0” was the most awarded campaign for effectiveness and Wavemaker CEO for South Asia, Ajay Gupte, tells WARC India Editor Biprorshee Das how the agency continues to be truly effective.

WARC: How does Wavemaker define creative effectiveness?

Ajay Gupte: Creativity is a very big word and is extremely important. It can be further guided by the data we get from (and of) consumers online – we collect the data and understand what makes them tick and what drives them to eventually deliver an important outcome.

Every piece of work that we do is about delivering certain outcomes. It might just be for them (consumers) to know about the brand, it might be for them to engage with it or it might be for them to make a purchase. If we were to understand them better, we can only derive the desired outcome using creativity customised for the consumer.

For example, let’s consider idli dosa (a popular Indian food) batter mix maker MTR. We manage their consumer data, e-commerce, media and even fulfilment delivery, giving us access to various types of consumer data. Say you are browsing the net, you see MTR communication and make a purchase. I then have some data of yours. I can match the same with other data sources, like your mobile service provider, digital payment platform, or Google or Facebook to know more about you. I also know an Ajay Gupte who has similar characteristics as yours and might be interested in the brand. When Ajay sees the ad that you see, he might buy the product too. Hence, this has worked for me in two ways – making you buy more of the brand and finding people like you who will buy too. 

In this example, we are not playing with the main (brand) communication that entices the consumer and creates the wow and delight factors. We are only landing the communication in a way that generates more or better results in the desired direction. 

Creativity backed by data is creativity on steroids, which can help us deliver better ROI and that's the journey we are on. We are making sure we are collecting the right data in a compliant way, especially in terms of privacy, respecting norms, enhancing it by creating partnerships and then using that to deliver better results.

If you could pick one measurement of being creatively effective, what would that be?

It is difficult to pin it down in that way because there may be various objectives you are trying to achieve. Creativity is finally directed to the achievability of a goal. To elaborate on that, maybe we can look at Cadbury (Mondelez International). One goal is to create brand love. The campaigns around Valentine's Day and the Purple Heart are doing good. Herein, all we were looking for really was to create that connection with people and therefore, get people to look at Mondelez as a brand that enables you to appreciate those around you. 

We also have an objective to drive sales. Consider the Raksha Bandhan ad, wherein we featured a Bollywood actor (Hrithik Roshan), whose speech could be customised and personalised for the customer. Here, creativity drove a very different objective – it drove sales. 

Creativity is not for the sake of creativity itself but for an end. That end may vary and hence, the ability to measure or evaluate is dependent on what end you put and how you put it. The success of creativity is in being able to deliver the desired outcome.

For the Cadbury ad and in the WARC Rankings Report 2023, I see that three of the top five campaigns listed (including Cadbury) feature celebrity endorsements. Is this still an idea that delivers?  

It’s about how you use a celebrity. What I think is lazy is when you use a particular celebrity just like another model. In this case, you’re just achieving attention because Amitabh Bachchan’s face will attract a lot more attention than mine.

However, if you imbibe some of the values that a celebrity brings to the table and get a rub of it on your brand, you get the audience to sit up and engage, interact or relate to the communication. Then, you're doing a lot more and truly putting the brand ambassador to use. 

You have cases where there are 10 cricketers just sitting together doing nothing and then you have the Cadbury campaign, wherein Shah Rukh Khan is actually being grateful and these are things that you relate to him for. He is bringing his largeness to the communication that is enabling a common man to use a “God of the masses” to communicate for them. How will a local sweet shop ever get Shah Rukh Khan to talk about them? Impossible. And that is the beauty when you're using the quality of the celebrity and piggybacking on it to deliver a message.

Media, content, and technology are three concepts that feature strongly in Wavemaker's story in India and globally. How are these ideas setting you apart within the network and the industry?  

I used to be with Maxus in India in 2005 and then I was with MEC in Indonesia. In 2017, we at GroupM decided to put Maxus and MEC together to create a powerhouse agency that would have the ability to invest in media marketing and technology. It was a visionary move. It was then when the pivot was happening when data was becoming all the more important. 

A few years back, when we used to try and sell a digital campaign, I remember I would tell the client that a search happens when a customer is hot. A customer won’t search for anything unless he/she is really interested. And when the customer is hot and is going to buy, you (the brand) need to be there. These conversations didn't happen in the previous century but a few years ago. Now things have changed. The importance of data, of being able to use media and data in a way powered by addressable content and creativity to deliver better outcomes was the reason Wavemaker was created. 

It would not have been possible for a new agency to start doing this or for any agency to pivot by itself and do it. Why? Because it needs investment. We are not in a business that makes a tremendous amount of money. For us to be able to make such investments, we needed to do something that would break things down and put them together again. We got two powerhouse agencies together. It gave us the ability to invest and we invested massively in technology, data and tools.

If you look at our suite of tools, the Wavemaker operating system, it's incredible because there are more than 100 countries across the world from where the data and research come, and it's part of our operating system.

What are the different aspects of the Wavemaker operating system that enable the agency to be more creatively effective?  

There are three parts to it. The first one is what we call the unlock audit. It is the client's current ability to collect, harness and execute data across omnichannel sales. It’s a starting point. The second part is called maximise. It is all about understanding the consumers, for which we have a lot of our own proprietary data, and understanding the consumer’s purchase journey that we call momentum. It's another proprietary research done by us, wherein we're saying that the purchase journey is not a funnel but a cycle. 

Why is it a cycle? There is a priming stage where you are not interested in a product. You’ve just bought a phone and are not interested in a new phone right now. But then there is constant communication hitting you. You are registering it without being interested. Then there is a trigger. You spot a bonanza and you want to upgrade to a new phone. And that trigger causes you to enter the active stage. Now in the active stage, you start searching or going to a store; you look for prices, deals and discounts, and you buy a phone and purchase it. Again, the cycle starts; it is a continuous one. 

We know from our studies across 100-plus countries that if you have a strong priming stage bias for a particular brand, whether a phone or a bottle of water, you are 70% more likely to purchase that brand in the active stage. It also tells us the stage that is more important for a category. Maybe for a bottle of water, the active stage is more important than priming because you will end up buying what is available. But for a phone, the priming stage is a lot more important.

The third stage is transform – it's where creativity comes in. Now that you know the math, what are the big ideas that you can come up with? How will you land it? Therein is where we made our last piece of investment – the content part of our business. We have a massive team in content. It's all about creating content, which is completely media agnostic. It can be digital, activation, a metaverse idea or a film, whatever it takes to deliver communication as prescribed in the maximise stage.

What kind of talent does the agency need to hire to pull this off?

It is pleasantly interesting to me that I am hiring people like data and audience “scientists”. I have been in this business for 25 years and only in the last three to four years have we spoken about such designations. 

E-commerce is not only about media. You don't want to waste money – you don't want to have everything, you want what will work better, what will give a better return. How will you deliver? What kind of product shots will you put in? What kind of product descriptions will you use? How would you attract the consumers? How will you ensure purchases? So we have e-commerce specialists who come from various backgrounds. We have creative people, film producers, audience scientists. Ours is a varied group of people. 

One interesting statistic: 83% of everyone I hired in 2022 was from a non-core media background. That, to me, is transformation.

Is this why you have invested in creativity by appointing a “chief creative officer”? It isn’t something you often see in a media agency.

We don't want to compete with the creative agency, that's not our game. Our game is to make sure we deliver the most effective communication. If it means we want to do an on-ground activation, make a flicker book, or do something in Web 3.0, we just want the best way to be able to deliver communication, which is what George (Kovoor, CCO) brings beautifully to the table. 

What does diversity mean in India? In India, diversity is not only about gender or sexual preferences but it's about background and training. It's about so many more things. Today, when you have a George in the team, you have a creative person in the team of 700 left-brain people and he brings diversity. You have a data scientist speaking a language I have never heard before. Today, I talk about data clean rooms, cloud computing, and ADH – all words I have learned in the last three years, thanks to these incredible people. To us, this is diversity. The biggest task we have as a team of 700 is to make sure that we make everyone feel well and add value to each other.

You have held leadership positions in markets outside India. Have there been learnings that you brought home from those markets and vice versa?  

It has taught me to appreciate differences. That really comes into play when we work together and create this team that is so diverse. You need to nurture differences and allow them to flourish. 

I have learned that you constantly need to experiment and do things differently. Africa and Indonesia were on very different growth paths. India is on a completely incredible one. But the common constant in all three was there was always the ability to differentiate yourself. In our business, there is very little to differentiate between agencies. But whichever stage you are at, there is always something you can strive for that will set you apart from the rest. 

When I was in Africa, in 2008, I evangelised search. It was not on anyone's to-do list in that continent. I was one of the first people in the market to get a Google Ads certification. It was such a no-brainer and we managed to differentiate ourselves because we were the ones who were certified. 

When I went to Indonesia, it was a different time. People were using a lot more digital. Then, it was all about investing in performance and digital capability at a base level. But it kept us ahead of the curve. 

Today, when I come back to India, I think the opportunity in India is immense. The environment is supporting us because the consumer is getting access to cheaper devices, and cheaper data and is accustomed to the digital way of life. Things are moving in a direction where there is so much more play of data and creativity. 

The big thing I learned is how to harness diversity and make it work for you. Wherever I have been in the world, the important thing was to stand out and drive the curve. 

How is India different? We are extremely analytical, we are at the forefront of technology, and we are blessed with a very strong education system. The ecosystem is supporting us to actually move up a lot faster than everybody else. 

The kind of work we're doing in India at Wavemaker is appreciated, lauded, and acknowledged across the Wavemaker ecosystem everywhere in the world. It is possible because of the kind of minds we have in the country. We have a favourable infrastructure. We have great opportunities available.

As a country, we have talented people from a strong education culture. It has added to the kind of capability we can bring on board. If it is performance, you've got engineers and data scientists easily accessible. When you talk about creativity, we have wonderful creative capability, which is flourishing in our country.

Great talent, great opportunity in terms of economy, infrastructure, and the kind of clients available in the country make me hopeful.