Sam Balsara, Chairman of Madison World, talks of the USP of bringing Vikram Sakhuja on board, the comfort of not chasing revenue targets, launching a standalone digital media agency in future and the retirement conundrum
By Srabana Lahiri
Sam Balsara, Chairman of Madison World, played a master stroke of sorts last week by announcing that he is bringing on board Vikram Sakhuja, Global Strategic Development Officer of GroupM, as an equity partner, to head the Media and OOH divisions of Madison World. This means a significant structural change at Madison, consolidating the two divisions under one head for the first time, and bringing in a professional from outside the family as a board member.
Meanwhile, as talk of Madison selling to one of the big global agencies is regular fodder for some sections of the media, Sakhuja’s entry is being seen by many either as a preliminary step in that direction or an indication that Balsara is about to retire. An amused Madison Chairman terms such reports as “one of the occupational hazards of being a largish and sole media agency of some size operating in a large and growing economy like India” and patiently says, “We have to just suffer it”. “I take solace in the fact that any news is good news for Madison,” he adds.
There’s good news for sure, as Madison closed the year 2014-15 on a high, with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s massive media campaign to its credit, and in spite of losing a big client like Airtel, the agency won many new accounts including DHFL, Bandhan Bank, Viber, Lenskart.com, Zivame.com, Cricbuzz, gaana.com, MagicBricks.com, Total Environment and Amul Hosiery (JG Hosiery) among others.
It built on the four pillars of growth it had adopted in 2011 - harness people power, automate processes, ideate and digitize – with these strategies shaping the organization in the last four years, bringing in diversity and saving people hours. Balsara talks of Gautam Kiyawat, the outgoing CEO of Madison Media, as a good example of diversity within the organization, with his background in marketing, that too outside India. “Gautam encouraged people to think independently. That has substantially helped our people in feeling more empowered. Earlier, we used to hire only so-called media people. Now we have different kinds of experts in our teams, doing a great job,” says Balsara. Madison’s operating system Adwise (a software for media operations developed in-house) has been through its fifth upgrade, and the agency has added many new tools, especially in terms of dashboards, enabling many clients to do response-led planning. According to Balsara, the agency has combined the power of Digital with the power of traditional media, adding huge doses of creativity to it, with some wonderful results.
As for growth, Madison is still focused on the India market more than global expansion. While Madison Media Sri Lanka - a joint venture with Media Factory, a large independent Sri Lankan media agency – is operational, Balsara isn’t at the moment looking at other countries. “We keep receiving some kind of proposals from the Middle East, Africa, etc... and if at all we look at them, it will have to be an emerging economy but that is not our priority now,” says Balsara, pointing out that there is so much potential and opportunity in the Indian market itself, that there is no need to look outside.
‘It’s good to bring in diversity at the board level, and not restrict it just to the family...’
Sam Balsara’s partnership with Vikram Sakhuja has not just stirred, but shaken the industry. Talking of the USP of the association, Balsara says, “Vikram’s experience is wide, vast and very relevant for us. He has been in a media agency in India and then on the global stage. In India, he has worked on Hindustan Unilever, then headed Mindshare as well as Group M, then become global head of Maxus and Strategic Director of GroupM... I have heard him make many presentations to the industry at large and he brings a certain depth of knowledge and good insights into the world of marketing and advertising. His earlier experience as a marketer with Proctor & Gamble and Coca-Cola holds him in good stead for a highly technical job in a media agency, and he understands the overall context in which brands operate. Finally, he has the necessary stature to be not just an employee, but also a worthy partner and therefore I was happy to offer him some equity in Madison Media. Also in keeping with our philosophy of bringing in more and more diversity, which we have been relentlessly chasing for the last few years, it is good now to bring in diversity at our board level and not restrict it just to the family. Both clients and people within Madison are happy to have Sakhuja. “The feedback has been nothing short of fantastic. Everybody is delighted with the news,” says Balsara.
‘We hope to benefit from the synergies of consolidating Media, OOH under one head...’
One of the big structural changes happening with Sakhuja’s entry into Madison is the consolidation of Media and OOH under one head, and according to Balsara, it is because outdoor companies have now come of age. “When we started MOMS, we kept it a little away from Madison Media for several reasons, one of the main ones being that the skillset required to run MOMS is very different from that required to run Madison Media. However, now that these outdoor companies are sufficiently mature and large, the time has come to sort of integrate them at the top. Hence, in the new structure, the Madison OOH CEO, Soumitra Bhattacharya, will report to Vikram and not to me. We hope to benefit from the synergies that would come from having both these functions under one roof and under one head,” Balsara says, adding that his daughter Lara Balsara Vajifdar will continue on the board as Executive Director, and her responsibilities will remain new business, diversification, HR and administration.
‘We allow people the liberty of working with budgets rather than targets...’
Ask Balsara about the ‘secret’ of Madison World holding its own against competition from MNCs, and you are promptly told that in today’s business life, you cannot have any secrets. “You just need to keep your nose to the ground, and keep on at it and I am sure at some point in time, it begins to work. We are considerably helped by the fact that we are not a public limited company, and therefore have no need to focus on quarterly profits, quarter after quarter. I am not sure that I will be able to operate in an environment where every quarter, I have to deliver on Madison’s profits. Especially in a creative business like ours, that could get a little stifling... so I think our people are also lucky that we allow them the liberty of working with budgets rather than targets. That is a big difference and a lot of people who come in from other agencies tell us that the atmosphere at Madison is far more relaxed than it is at other agencies,” says Balsara.
‘Madison’s growth should be a byproduct of the kind of work that we do for our clients...’
Balsara is particularly pleased with the agency’s performance in 2014-15. In his own words, “It has been an outstanding year for all Madison World units, whether you take Media or Outdoor or PR or Mates - all the units have grown their billing and revenues. We are delighted that 2014’s single largest account, the BJP political party’s account for the Lok Sabha elections, and subsequently every state election, was won by us over stiff competition, despite the fact that other agencies were offering BJP a much lower rate of commission. In terms of awards too, our performance in 2014-15 was very good. We did a good job of utilizing our people not just productively but giving each one a lot more meaningful work in terms of quality and quantity. That worked well for them and it worked well for us. The focus is on growing clients’ business and not on growing Madison... Madison’s growth should be a by-product of the kind of work that we do for our clients and the kind of results we achieve for them.”
‘There are a lot of opportunities for a young entrepreneur like me...’
With the business of communication advancing in new-fangled directions, and much of the action in advertising moving to the social media and e-commerce space, the obvious question is whether Madison is venturing into any specialized units to service those areas. “We may venture into a standalone digital media agency, which could operate a little independently of Madison Media. So Madison Media will handle Digital for Madison Media’s clients, but a lot of other standalone Digital clients could come into that Digital standalone unit,” explains Balsara. “We want to restrict ourselves to everything that is related to communication. India is a growing market and there are lots of opportunities for a young entrepreneur like me to get into lots of diverse areas, but if I may say so, one of our strengths has been that we stick to the knitting and because of this, we pass up a lot of opportunities. But it helps us remain both focussed and grounded.”
‘If you don’t see it (retirement) happening, I just might surprise you!’
The 64-year-old Balsara has recently been quoted in the media as saying that “he doesn’t play golf”, and hence he is not retiring... but he turns around and says, “If you don’t see it (retirement) happening, I just might surprise you!! Generally, journalists read me wrong... for the last 10 years, they have been saying that Madison is going to be sold... However, one thing I can say is that I cannot retire because my wife has told me that I am not allowed at home on weekdays during office hours. She says that I will be a nuisance at home and I will make everybody’s life miserable.” Therefore, all he can do is keep Madison buzzing!
Know your Madison World!
One gripe Sam Balsara has is that most people tend to confuse ‘Madison World’ with ‘Madison Media’ and hastens to explain that Madison Media is just one of the units of Madison World, which has nine different functional areas including Madison BMB (advertising), Madison PR, Madison Outdoor (with three companies - MOMS, Platinum, Entrust), Madison IES (activation), Anugrah Madison (rural), MRP (retail), the joint venture PMG (sports management), and MATES (entertainment). “Perhaps we have not done a good job of communicating that,” he rues.