Keeping suitors at bay

Last Updated: Sun, Jul 01, 2012 19:42 hrs

When news travelled of the much-feted and popular ad agency TapRoot being courted by the big ad networks, it didn’t come as a surprise to many.

The three-and-a half-year-old agency, which actually began as Roots before switching to the name TapRoot, had consistently outpaced its peers in terms of creative work, the highlight being 2011 when it made inroads into accounts such as Pepsi and Airtel, controlled by JWT till then. While the latter has retained the advertising duties of both brands (the Change The Game commercial featuring Ranbir Kapoor and the Didier Drogba ad with sportspeople such as Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli was all done by JWT this year), PepsiCo India rewarded TapRoot with Mountain Dew (the ad featuring a daredevil who goes sliding down a dam was done by the latter), sending a strong signal to its roster agencies that it was in no mood to let go of the creative hotshop.

Airtel also continues to repose its faith in admen Agnello Dias and Santosh Padhi, founders of TapRoot, who created the popular Har Friend Zaroori Hai campaign last year that bagged significant awards at Goafest this April.

The Mumbai-headquartered agency also bagged three crucial nominations at the just-concluded Cannes Festival of Creativity in film, film craft and Titanium & Integrated, converting one, in film craft, into a gold, sharing this award with Ramesh Deo Productions, the production house that created the commercial. The client was Bennett, Coleman & Co.

Padhi, co-founder and chief creative officer, TapRoot India says, “The day we decided to set up our own agency, there were proposals coming our way to have some kind of an affiliation or tie-up with the bigger networks. At some point you do need a partner, who can help you make that leap forward maybe with the investment he brings to the table or the access he has to potential clients. We are clear, however, that as long as we are not able to tick all the boxes we have in mind, there is no point we partner with any of the big groups.”

Industry sources say that TapRoot has been approached by WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, Dentsu, and even M&C Saatchi for a possible stake sale. Specifically, WPP, Omnicom, Dentsu and M&C Saatchi appear to have moved to the next level in their negotiations with TapRoot, persons in the know say. Padhi, however, declines to be drawn into a conversation about it.

But the rumours simply refuse to die down.

Why the big guys are after the smal
While TapRoot’s track record in the last three years is something that is clearly drawing the big fellows to it, the fact remains that in an important market like India, the big networks do not want to miss out on a likely acquisition target. The last few years have seen networks such as Omnicom, Publicis and Dentsu make headway in India, largely on the back of buyouts, even as the world's largest advertising group WPP continues to be in the driver’s seat here.

Martin Sorrell, chief executive, WPP, in an address at Cannes this year minced no words when he spoke about the shift in advertising’s epicentre from the west to the east. He said, “It would be arrogant for people in agencies located in London or New York to think they are the centre of creativity. The Chinese and Indians also rank up there.”

Today most large networks are quick to integrate operations of the acquired unit, appointing key people to global or regional positions in an attempt to make the best of the investment made. For instance, Dentsu India Group’s executive chairman Rohit Ohri was recently appointed to the Japanese giant’s global operating committee, which would help drive strategies for operations outside of Japan.

Sonal Dabral, who moved to DDB Mudra from Bates as chairman and chief creative officer earlier this year, was also appointed to DDB’s global creative council besides co-chairing the regional creative council with DDB’s global chief creative officer Amir Kassei. In an interaction with Business Standard on his first trip to India following DDB’s acquisition of Mudra, president and chief executive officer Chuck Brymer had said, “We will utilise India as a creative resource for all our offices around the world. We are already moving in that direction. The acquisition of majority stake is not just about DDB buying another company. It is about what we can learn from Mudra.”

The counterpoint 
But not all independents seem keen to sell out to the big networks, certainly not Creativeland Asia, the other hotshop that has also received expressions of interest from the big boys. Sajan Raj Kurup, founder & creative chairman, Creativeland Asia, says, “That was certainly not why the agency was set up,” he says. “While the first five years saw us move organically, the next five years will see us target inorganic growth. We are keen to do acquisitions and we would opt to tie up with a private equity investor rather than a network, where you are one among myriad other agencies within the group. We are not prepared for that.”

While the evolution of the Indian advertising industry in the last two decades has coincided with the growing interest of the big networks in the local market, Kurup’s contention serves as an interesting counterpoint in a scenario where ad agency promoters see no qualms in selling out or tying up with the big daddies. Agency sources say that the increasing worry among independents is the loss of creative freedom once there is an association with a big network. The change can be swift once the big boys come into the picture, say agency sources. But in a dog-eat-dog world, hotshops such as TapRoot are prepared to take that risk.

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