Publicis Media, part of the French advertising giant Publicis Groupe, says it has been doubling its size every three years in India, while more than half of its revenue in the country comes from digital, and a quarter from newer functions. King says India is also among the company’s fastest-growing markets.
Publicis Groupe, which bought Alliance Data’s Epsilon marketing unit for $4.4 billion earlier this year, says the acquisition makes India important in its global scheme of things because of the talent it now has access to in the country.
“Nobody else has this ability to access talent, educated talent, with specific skills as we can do, and it gives us the positioning like consulting companies like Accenture,” says Publicis Groupe COO & Publicis Media CEO Steve King. King and Anupriya Acharya, India CEO, Publicis Media, spoke to Fortune India on the sidelines of an event organised by Google in New Delhi. Edited excerpts:
The global economy is predicted to be growing at the slowest rate since the recession, while the Indian economy is facing a slowdown? How does that affect Publicis in India and globally?
King: We have been in a different economic environment since 2008 in most of the western markets. The advertising market today is at about $600 billion, if the growth for the decade before 2008 continued, this market would have probably been worth $800 billion. That is a huge resetting we have had, and whether it is London, or Paris, and Milan, or Madrid, you would still say there is an economic slowdown.
The U.S., by contrast, feels a lot more resilient. Housing, jobs, spending, advertising, they are all pretty positive. We haven’t seen a noticeable slowdown globally. The market is still growing, people are consuming more media, although you see a lot of people talking about a potential recession, slowdown in the future. Right now we don’t have any firm indication of what's going to happen.
Acharya: We believe that our success or our growth cannot be only a reflection of the market, in a good market everybody does well but that doesn’t mean that you don’t prepare for a not-so-great market. We have been preparing for it. We have invested a lot in future-facing industries and in future-facing services that we believe are going to be important—data, tech, digital, analytics, and performance.
The slowdown, beyond a certain point, doesn’t really matter because you are not only in a traditional ad market. When people talk about a slowdown, they normally mean the AdEx (advertising expenditure) market, but not everything depends on the AdEx market. There are a lot of new services that clients are looking for, like programmatic. Those offices and their requirements are growing at a much faster rate as compared to the average market.
We have been doubling our size every three years. And we are hoping we will continue the same.
In the last few years there has obviously been a shift towards digital, could you talk about that?
Acharya: Not a shift, expansion, and it is growing fast. If you look at the consumer journey and the time that they are spending on media, it’s not that TV time has gone down. At least in India, (consumption of) all media is increasing. Print is increasing, vernacular print is really on the run. It is not one against the other, and yet we see that the time being spent on the mobile screen is very high and that’s because people are using it everywhere. There are a lot of other time slots that it is filling up, which are when people weren’t doing anything possibly. It is an expansion and not really one replacing the other.
King: What we used to talk about is digital as a single channel, there used to be a head of digital in every market, I don’t think we have that anywhere now. For us, everything is becoming digital. It’s actually a new form of communicating. Digital is expanding our ability to communicate at scale on a much more personalised basis.
When you talk about personalisation, how you use data analytics to do that, and how do you plan to use it in the future?
At the moment we are using digital, to be very specific, in the area of performance marketing. A lot of what we do is very individualised, we talk to much smaller segments. The next is developing creative messaging which is not meant to be seen by everybody, it is personalised.
What about artificial intelligence (AI), how are you using it?
King: At the moment AI is something that we can see as having potential in the future we are not using AI at scale at the moment. But we are now doing tests in markets, where we are taking copy and re-versioning it based on AI. (For example) take someone who is going on a vacation, and say they are going travelling [with] their husband or their children, or are looking for a budget hotel, you can reversion the content based on those specific interests.
We have also made some very important acquisitions in the last four to five years, one was Sapient and now Epsilon. Epsilon has an AI team, and we can see how that potential could be applied to advertising messaging so that the messaging could be reformatted to be far more personalised.
How have you seen the industry change in the last two to three decades that you have been in it, how have demands from clients changed?
King: When we started the media platform, it was really about buying, you had creatives who would make ads and then we would buy that audience against TV ads. The big thing that has happened is the fragmentation of content. There are tens of thousands of newspapers in India. People are actually consuming more media than their parents.
With smart targeting, you can now reach people that you know are going to be a 100% in your target audience. Today, even in India, a quarter of our revenue comes from planning, strategy, and analytics, data sciences, content, building tech solutions, engineering, proprietary research, sponsorship, coordination, building dashboards. In London, just a few years ago, there were probably four or five key functions, media planners, media buyers, finance, and management. Today in London, we have 122 specific job functions— code writers, analytics, engineering, data aggregators, content developers.
How about the Indian market. When you talk of consumption in India, the story is moving towards smaller cities, how does that have a bearing on your strategy?
Acharya: In India, the growth in tier 2, tier 3 markets has been there for some time. Clients like Dabur and Unilever, and Parle have always operated in those markets, they are very heavily invested in rural parts. So that is not something new. It could be that the proportion has increased, the quantum has increased, but India has been a complex market always. The good thing now is that it has become easier, because as there is more urbanisation, and connectivity on the back of mobile. There is better data, better access. There was a time, where a large part of states like U.P. Bihar, all these were media dark markets. Television didn’t reach there because there was no electricity. But now you have the ability to reach everyone. Then, of course, there is a lot of work that is happening on the back of analytics, you can do micro-market segmentation and micro-market targeting on the back of the channels you have.
Steve, how do you find it different from other markets that you operate in?
King: It has more abnormalities, more distinctive features. I don’t think anywhere else in the world, there are 17,000 newspapers. In India, on the one hand, you have got heaviest readership in newspapers, but it is also the fastest-growing market in mobile. In terms of population, it’s one of the markets where you are dealing with greater disparity of health and wealth. The disparity is far more homogenous in other markets.
India is your fastest-growing market in Southeast Asia, in the global scheme of things how does India fit in?
King: It is definitely one of the fastest-growing markets. It’s not one of the top three markets globally, but we have talent and capabilities here. Because of the acquisition of Sapient and Epsilon, they bring us ten times more talent, these are engineers, computer scientists, data analytics in Gurugram and Bengaluru. By headcount and talent, the second-most important market for us is India. Nobody else has this ability to access talent, educated talent, with specific skills as we can do and gives us the positioning like consulting companies like Accenture.
Last year, digital accounted for about 50% of your revenue? Do you see that increasing this year?
Acharya: It is about 55% now and growing fast.
Are there any more acquisitions in the pipeline globally, and in India?
King: We have made hundreds of acquisitions over the years, some have turned out to be great, some have turned out to be tricky, some not successful. We acquired Epsilon which was a huge acquisition at a time of a tough economic environment. 40% of our market capitalisation went in the acquisition of Epsilon, we are not going to do a similar scale of acquisition until we have reduced that debt as a public company. We may be looking at some relevant, smaller acquisitions at a global level.