March 2013 – I first interacted with Vineet Gupta over a Skype call, then MD at 22feet, a Bangalore based agency founded in 2009.
February 2014 – The news is out: DDB Group Asia Pacific and Omnicom Group Inc acquires the agency. The new entity has been named 22feet Tribal Worldwide, with Vineet Gupta taking over as MD, Brijesh Jacob as joint MD and Deepak Nair as the COO.
June 2016 – I finally meet Vineet for a face-to-face conversation at the 22feet Tribal Worldwide headquarters in Bangalore.
Vineet belongs to a rare breed of entrepreneurs who believe that work should do the maximum talking. Other than the acquisition news, you would hardly see any coverage on Vineet or his agency.
There are agencies who do good work and then there are those who do good PR. The only PR by the agency has been for its clients. Two years post the acquisition, the six-year-old agency still has its feet comfortably placed on the ground. It’s been executing interesting work with tech at the center while rapidly shifting offices every two years. I was told that the present premise is already getting smaller for the rapidly growing 150+ strong agency. Very soon the shifting will happen.
To know more on how life, agency and digital had changed post acquisition, I dialed in Vineet for an appointment (very tough to get hold of him with his busy schedule). I really need to thank my stars to finally manage one, had I called a day later, the man would have flown to the US for an extended work and leisure trip.
22feet Tribal Worldwide is at one end of the city. And no matter how early you plan your day in Bengaluru, the city is bound to give you traffic nightmares. Keeping aside the Bengaluru traffic woes, I somehow managed to be at the agency.
The moment you walk out of the lift, you are greeted by a giant agency logo, a big table football and a reception at the corner. After a 5-minute wait and brushing through the Bangalore Times, I was told Vineet is waiting for me in his cabin.
The moment you enter the agency passing by the reception, you come across a giant hall, which shines with employees and not fancy big cubicles. The crowd was young, colorful and busy in their world.
2 years post acquisition
Dressed in a black shirt, blue jeans and a big smile, Vineet was standing right at the end of the floor. With a confident handshake, he escorted me to his cabin, only to be back in a few minutes. He was busy wrapping things up before he flies off for his trip.
Meanwhile I take a good look at his cabin – a white rectangle box with nothing much to explore. I have been to quite a few founders’ cabins and most of them look no lesser than a museum. But, on his desk you have a Mac laptop, a water bottle, two frames on the wall, of which one is a quote from Steve Jobs – ‘Why join the Navy… if you can become the pirate?’
This answers his love for white and the minimalism reflecting from his work place.
Sitting right opposite, sipping my hot coffee, I ask Vineet, so how would he say agency life has changed post acquisition?
“A lot hasn’t changed and we continue to work as an independent one. Lot has changed in terms of processes, compliance and how we work as a business. There has been a positive change for our company as well as our employees.”
“Independent is a mindset and culture but not a status. You are responsible for what you do, good or bad. When you have complete freedom of not only saying yes but also saying no to things that don’t make any sense that is when you are independent.”
After the acquisition, the agency is working on a much larger scale while collaborating with several Omnicom companies across the globe. “Again this kind of a business opportunity has opened up doors for our young employees, who are now working with people across the globe. Which otherwise wouldn’t have been possible if we had stayed independent.”
Elaborating on how young employees are getting global work exposure, I was given an example. Few months ago, a couple of people from the agency spent a month in Vietnam working on a beverage brand. The objective was to understand how alcoholic beverage brands work in markets like South East Asia.
22Feet is also benefiting by bringing in international resources to share their inputs. For instance recently the agency made a pitch to an automobile company and they were lacking a particular skill set at that point of time. “We reached out to the network and a gentleman from DDB Hamburg came down to help the agency. All this knowledge sharing and kind of exchange program has helped us eventually as we won the pitch.”
Along with these positives, one thing does bother Vineet and that is the business demands when you become a part of a larger network. He adds, “Pre-acquisition period if we had grown by 20% then we would have been partying. But after acquisition, let’s say we had a target of 25% and by any reason we achieved only 24%. Instead of celebrating the 24% growth we are moaning the 1% misses.” No doubt it is a good learning and challenge for us but at the same time Vineet was quick to assure that he still does his best to celebrate the 24% and not moan the 1% much!
As a co-founder and MD, Vineet has been very vocal about the culture that the agency stands for. But again culture is the most over used and often misunderstood word. “Culture plays a strong role in our agency. For instance the people we hire are less than 15% from advertising. The kinds of people we hire are very different and across industry who add to the culture. The second is the work we do and the ones we decide not to do. If you see the brands we work with, there is a certain bit of commonality with the brands. So we have built a team that works with these brands that adds to our culture. Finally we don’t believe is structures which is visible when you enter the office.”
Two years post acquisition, the culture of being open, young, vocal and minus hierarchy has been retained. The only bit that has been added to the culture is a sense of responsibility and accountability.
Technology is driving digital
Along with the agency, the digital industry has drastically evolved. Last year we observed brands investing in digital led integrated campaigns but this year there has been a complete shift and focus towards videos. From long form video to having all formats, videos have become the centerpiece of digital campaigns driven by influencers.
For Vineet a lot of things have changed, he believes that technology stories have started to play finally. “Digital is not just about advertising, there is more to it when you look at the larger piece of marketing. Whether it is about integrating your CRM with digital or commerce or omni-channel, we are seeing all these conversations happening with brands. The advertising bit has gone the way as it should go. The moment agencies remove the advertising lens they will see a lot of things happening.”
In the same breath, he also adds that at the end it is technology that is going to be the deciding factor.
“Those who have better technology capabilities will drive digital better than those who are only looking from an advertising perspective.”
At this point he stops and explores the technology bit citing an example – With Cafe Coffee day, apart from the digital communications, the agency is trying to work on how to drive more genuine influence at the store level.
With Levis, the agency is working on interesting ways to increase footfalls at the store and an automobile brand is trying to track the lead conversion rate between various segments.
Another interesting campaign he remarked about was the Kingfisher Twitter tie-up during the recent IPL. Called as ‘Name Targeting’ – a custom solution effort that delivers personalization at scale. Kingfisher took an unconventional approach by leveraging Twitter’s Big Data and created personalized videos of all six-partner teams at IPL and posted them from @kingfisherworld as a token of gratitude for the fans’ support. The brand made use of Twitter’s rich archival data to bring fans closer to their cricketing heroes, showcasing videos of the IPL teams they support, personalized with the mention of their names.
Besides work, the association with brands for the agency has been fairly long term at a time when most brands change their agencies in three months. Today the agency is scaling up very rapidly without overlapping with the parent company; it also has a handsome bunch of fat clients for whom the agency is doing exciting work driving business results.
So the obvious question: What next is in store for Vineet Gupta and how does he want to take the agency forward from here?
“The job is not yet done, there is a lot more we need do and that is the beauty of the medium. The opportunities are tremendous, I have not zeroed down on anything. However, I see that there is a communication space, which has too many players, and there is the tech space that is what we are betting on. It is the tech piece that will define everything on digital and those who don’t get their act right on the tech piece, will eventually be under stress. End of day it is the execution that will define who is better.”
In our hour-long conversation, Vineet emphasized on the word ‘tech’ so many times. He believes that tech will define the agency in the coming years.
“We are a solutions provider as far as digital is concerned, tech is a part of the solution and that’s what we want to focus on going forward.”
As I made my way back home, the tech part continued to buzz in my ears. Today when I speak to any digital agency, tech is bound to come up in the discussions and the cool things they are doing. But the big question that we need to ask, ‘Is the consumer ready for it?’
When it comes to 22feet Tribal Worldwide the largest team is the tech team. While they have executed quite a few cool tech stuff when required but the focus has been on creating an impact with the consumer. “We are not doing tech solutions just because it is cool, we are doing to achieve business goals that also create value for the consumer. Today tech is way ahead than the consumer and we need to keep that in mind.”