Eccentric Engine – the startup that shifted from agency business to a tech shop

In an exclusive interview Varun Shah, Co-founder at Eccentric Engine talks about its recent pivot as a tech shop, its interesting tech work and what is wrong with the digital agency business

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There is a possibility that the next car you wish to buy might be shown to you on a computer or mobile before you even step out for a test drive. It won’t be just a 360-degree video or a look and feel demo on an app but a real car virtually loaded on your browser. You get to feel each and every component of the car by literally getting inside the car. Besides you can also see how the car drives on different terrains. Thanks to the new advancements of rich visualisation on browser, this is now a reality.

Mid last week I experienced a similar demo at the Eccentric Engine (EE) office in Mumbai. The product will roll out in the coming weeks for an auto giant, informed Varun Shah (Co-founder of Eccentric Engine). He added that the product is going to eliminate the reason for auto companies to build an app.

“When you visit a car showroom you spend a lot of time sitting in the car, looking around and taking a test drive. On social media the same car will have pictures and videos. What if I am able to reduce the gap between the offline-online space and built a website that replicates the exact behavior.”

The simple business metric that the startup is trying to achieve here is – How can the new tech product influence people in taking more test drives compared to what they have always done. “Website visit to test drive taken percentage is what we are targeting,” shared the young founder while sitting in front of me in the see-through conference room. The room we were having our conversation in looked nothing short of an engineering lab with geeks roaming around.

“The disruption that we are trying to bring here is removing the need of downloading apps. People hate downloading apps so we are removing it but at the same time we are loading heavy 3D files without any delay.”

Another interesting problem that the startup is trying to solve is in the Pharmaceuticals category. “Pharmaceutical representatives and doctors hardly have a connect. The doctor hardly has time to interact with the representatives, hence sales gets impacted. We have a task in hand on increasing the interaction time between both of them.”

The outcome is that EE has created a sales force VR visualization model which would tell all the doctors in the town on what impact will a particular drug have on the anatomy of a patient. For instance a doctor can actually see what impact does a particular cough syrup will have on different parts of the body and how does it benefit the patient. Additionally, EE is tracking all this and how it’s impacting the sale of a particular product.

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This is my second visit to EE in this year. A few months earlier when I had visited the startup, which looked more like an engineering lab, Varun had shown me a few interesting tech innovations. I wasn’t surprised; I’ve always looked up to EE as a startup that had its eye on cool tech innovations.

However, I wasn’t aware that the startup was in the phase of pivoting. Varun and his co-founder and an old friend Gaurav Rane started EE with a vision to be one of the best creative tech solution providers in India. Later on they realized that it was time to re-look the vision, as they were not happy about how things were shaping out.

“I am a content guy with an agency background, my partner is a hardcore techie. The earlier vision of our agency was building in-house interactive tech solutions for brands. But I see there is time for this to happen in India, where tech becomes an important component of a marketing campaign. We were not doing bad with the agency business but we want to exist for making good products to help brands.”

The calm Varun clad in a blue t-shirt over faded jeans, added that as a true evangelizer of content, there couldn’t be any worst feeling than seeing your idea die every few months. “We had three lines of our agency – social media, tech and animations. We were not becoming the best in all the three so we decided to focus on one segment and be the best. That one is tech.” Further he made a vital remark:

“Most entrepreneurs think very highly about themselves including me. But end of the day we need to be rational and take steps which are good for the company. After all it is business.”

Post the shift, Eccentric Engine is defining itself with this vision – “We leverage tech to create experiences.” Explaining more about the vision, he informs that the startup is going to remain platform or tech independent. Alongside it’s also about driving experiences. “We are looking at various touch points and see how tech can solve problems. We are as excited to do VR as we are building a game on a browser.”

One of the brands that recently worked with the startup took the tech experiences to its rural markets. The brand wanted to inform rural kids on how to protect their teeth from diseases. To do so EE developed a simple VR game that kills germs, which keeps attacking your teeth. While one person enjoys the game, his expression and emotions are shown on a large screen so that other kids or people watching it can also enjoy the excitement (Thanks to EE, I played the simple game while wearing the Samsung Gear. Simple and fun game!)

At this point I once again asked Varun whether the way agencies operate in India has disturbed him and might have influenced his decision to re-look at it. I had guessed it but wanted to capture his thoughts, as he has been in the business for 4 years, not just as a co-founder but also as an employee. The MBA graduate from NMIMS always had an inclination towards all things digital.

“Lack of value to an agency’s time is really disturbing. I have faced it. Most of the times you walk into a brand’s meeting room, you present a plan but the marketing manager suddenly says that we have already cancelled this campaign. Hasn’t our brand digital manager told you? It is this lack of value of time for an agency along with the digital marketer at the brand side. No one speaks of it as most of us have been working out of fear.”

The second challenge that he has observed is the lack of innovations. “Digital should have a say when we talk about innovations. While we have come a long way when we talk about content but we are still lacking when it comes down to innovation.”

It isn’t a new challenge and most of the agencies will agree to it. In my earlier conversation with the co-founders of Blink Digital, the same challenge had surfaced. (Read: Meet Blink Digital, Driving Innovation By Bridging The Gap Between Creativity & Tech)

Tech has its own face in the country. While there are few agencies who take tech seriously and try to solve business problems, most of them consider mere adoption of new tech makes them innovators.

Today every other agency wants to open a tech arm. It is not just about agencies, even brands are mad of adopting latest technologies just to top in the race and apply a check box for doing something first. For instance, open up any well-known brand’s YouTube India page, you can find one or max two 360-degree videos. The missing bit here is the brand objective and thought process.

Adopting new tech is cool but doing it without much of a thought process is not at all cool. Varun believes that to an extent agencies are to be blamed. “We have worked and are working in fear. I know it is because we as an agency have gone through it. Brands here in India are not ready to experiment with digital agencies, you try something new and it fails, you are fired. What happens with this mentality is that a lot of agencies who have the potentiality to do something new and exciting stop taking those ideas to their clients. Since stakes for smaller and medium agencies are higher, we don’t see much innovations happening. ”

“The problem is also that digital agencies are judged on a day-to-day basis and hence the fear. The trust that brands have on their mainline agencies, the same is completely missing for digital agencies. Both agencies and brands are to be blamed for this. We need longer stay and relationship for innovations to happen.”

According to Varun while digital is growing, spends are growing but they are driven by media spends. The non-digital media has not seen an  increase of spends. “No body out here wants to do mediocre work but there are different hurdles that different people face with time. However, I also understand that we are still in the nascent stage and maybe with time things might change.”

It is education and awareness that will do good for Indian digital marketing sector. The same also applies for the tech world since not every client will be up for it and then you can’t build something for every festival or occasion. Varun understands the various challenges the new move throws on to the agency.

“If you are a social media agency, you can walk upto an FMCG or auto brand and pitch your idea. Because the platforms, spends, strategies, etc. are more or less the same. When you talk about tech it is not that one size fits all. You need a lot of learning and understanding about the business and then only things start materializing. It is about trying to understand first which industry works best for you, not try too many things, and sticking together.”

At this point a break was much required, as we had both been talking for more than 50 minutes at a stretch. The sky got darker and the agency got more active. People were suddenly more energetic, I thought it was time for them to leave but I was wrong. Food was coming in for different members and the startup DJ was at work by playing some cool dance numbers. I am told that the team has been working on a delivery so they generally leave office post midnight!

In our next sitting, Varun took me through an entire set of interesting works executed by EE this year. One of the examples that he shared was about a simple tablet game created for Castrol. The business problem was around the mini truck segment which people use to deliver goods in the city. If you are in a city like Mumbai, then your vehicle will stop a lot which results into heating of engine. And hence to mitigate the heating, drivers use engine oil.

EE created a very simple tablet game where the player picks up Castrol oil on his way as the engine starts heating. While it was a simple vanilla game, Castrol wanted to stand with its community; it organized a competition among different dealers and mechanics.

Prior to the release of Bollywood film, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, a 2016 Indian biographical sports film, Garnier, one of the brand sponsors, wanted to connect with fans around pimples. The idea was to talk about pimples with the Dhoni movie, so a game was developed on Nintendo Wii and installed at the theaters. As you hold the controller, a ball is bowled and you need to hit it hard. Here the ball represents a pimple, and you are hitting it for a six.

Recently the startup tied up with Tata T1 Prima Racing. Tata Motors Commercial division holds the race at the Buddh International Circuit to promote its Prima Trucks. However this time the brand wanted to extend the property to the real truck drivers and mechanics. To do so it worked with EE in developing a 3D game where a player can experience the race.

“We created a 3D game which featured different terrain such as dessert, mountains, snow and forest. The trucks were controlled by motion control using Kinnect device and it was deployed at the Auto Expo 2016. Additionally the game was also deployed in villages and dhabas, where drivers can experience it,” Varun explained while sharing that they tried to bridge the gap between the actual event and its target audience.

Another on-ground digital activation was done with Wheel during the Kumbh Mela. Wheel wanted to spread its brand message but in an entertaining manner. EE partnered with Mindshare and created an immersive experience that leveraged the Augmented Reality tech. Click on the video to watch how a simple selfie with Salman was made interesting.

Varun also took me through some more exciting tech work related to fields of retail, real estate, auto, and education, among others. I can’t reveal them because most of them are demos or work in progress. But they are interesting tech executions that are not only cool but also simple to consume while justifying the brand objective.

Time for another quick break: I stretched myself a bit; Varun was kind enough to order some healthy food for me. The food was going to take some time, so few more interesting demos and my last question – “How are you going to scale the new business when brands don’t want tech implementations on every occasion or festival?”

Varun understands the challenge, this isn’t about campaigns anymore. “We understand that brands want social media campaigns and communications continuously and not tech implementations. Tech is fancy but not always. So the only way we can make it an ongoing thing is by making a series of things, which are our properties. For instance the auto tech product that we are building is a property as it could be implemented with other auto brands.”

While it is too early to make a prediction on EE, the next two-three years will be crucial. Going forward the startup wants to work on various diverse technologies like it is doing now and it is going to be its USP. Thanks to the talent pool the startup has, it has been very agile and successful in rolling out effective implementations. “We are well equipped to meet a brand’s tech needs but our main aim would be to create specialized properties.”

For a layman tech should be simple, effective and engaging. The startup is on the right path and if it continues to grow like this, very soon it is going to be one of the interesting experiential tech companies from India.

The healthy sandwich and tempting smoothie was in front of me. After few more minutes of talks, I called it a day. Plugging my headphones and wishing all the best to Varun, I walked away. People were still busy in their work, the music was loud and some were ticking off work task lists from the glass walls of the conference room.

I left with this very pragmatic thought from the entrepreneur:

“The agency business was very close to my heart as I was a strong believer of old-school advertising. But you need to take rational decisions and I am happy with it. But the good thing is that I see the agency business growing and I am happy for others. But it would be good to see some of them who are doing good, own a thought and do something good for the digital eco-system.”