Truly digital means changing from the core: Razorfish India CEO Charulata Ravi Kumar

Mumbai: Charulata Ravi Kumar took charge as CEO at Razorfish India in 2014. Her two-decade career includes stints with WPP, 141 London, and the MullenLowe networks in India, West Asia and Europe. Kumar has also established her own successful innovation and leadership skills consultancy, Coffee Kettle. She speaks to Anuka Roy about the digital disruption that Razorfish wants to implement, the milestones in her journey, and more.

It’s been a little less than two years since you took charge at Razorfish. Do talk us through the journey, milestones and all…

Let me start with a little background. Razorfish was owned by Microsoft many years ago, and then got bought over by the Publicis group globally. It started operations in mid-2013, and got into full-scale operations in early 2014. Before I came on board, in the last quarter of 2014, the objective of the company was to consolidate. There was DigitasLBi, a Razorfish and all of that was together as one group and it kind-of separated to bring in more efficiency and more capabilities in more companies etc. The year 2015 came with a startup state of mind. Although we had had some really good clients, we were still putting together the India strategy: What approach and capabilities should we bring in India? What is the market ready for? I was given a blank canvas to chart the journey, and we focused on two or three things. We were doing a large amount of business, but nobody knew us, probably because the energies were focused on establishing Razorfish and consolidating the business. The first thing we did here was that we started talking to people about ourselves. That did well for us; people sat up and took notice. Until then, aggressive growth was not our objective till 2016.

Building capabilities and getting the right set of people was important in 2015. These were the two big things we did — we plugged the gaps in talent and got people to notice us. A third thing we did was get out of things which were ‘vanilla’ kind of services in the market that millions of other shops were there to deliver. We are here to transform the client’s business, to help them find how they re-imagine the customer experiences themselves, and that is our expertise. We decided to focus on that.

The digital domain has seen much action in these last two years. Your views?

[Earlier] hardly three or four per cent was put into digital, and that was still more social media, some banners and ads on certain sites. But even today, just about 10, 15 or a maximum of 20 per cent of advertising budgets is digital. People are looking at the digital piece in the wrong light when they refer to just digital advertising. Two kinds of digital transformation is happening [today]. The first is where brands are doing more advertising on digital, creating more content and video. But the true digital transformation is happening when companies are looking at themselves from the core of their business, and transforming the entire organisation from the core business platforms they are using — from HR practices, to product R&D to the experiences they are creating, both offline and online. Offline, a lot of customer experiences are using technology in the retail space, and we do not classify this as advertising anymore; this is truly customer experience. But if you talk to the companies investing in this, you’ll find this spend is not a part of the advertising budget; it comes under capital expenditure. All processes are moving from analog formats to digital platforms.

That is where the spends really are and that is where we come in and work on, with our clients.

The IPG Magnaglobal study still puts digital spends at much lower than television or even print.

For us, advertising is a very small part of the revenue that comes in. What is important is the entire digital transformation we create for clients — setting up the e-commerce platform, the entire technology at the backend, integrating it with CRMs, data and analytics to study consumer behaviour and changes and such. We work with different technology teams, and not just advertising agencies. But marketing is still at a low level because research methodologies are still poor in terms of impact that digital ads can provide and measure. But internet penetration is low and the infrastructure is also very poor, often not allowing for downloads. You cannot expect all these to pick up or for companies to invest too much money into it, as we cannot measure it accurately yet. We do a lot of performance marketing work; create communication where we can track how many people clicked it and how many converted to buy your product and place online orders, or how many people called you up to say they are interested and such. People are spending a lot of money on videos, but what impact is it creating on the consumer? Are they seeing and remembering the ads? What are they doing after that? In India, television will be ruling for a long time because of the penetration.

There are many digital media agencies. How do you differentiate Razorfish from the others?

We are not a typical digital agency. We do social media as well, but it’s not just that. We create customer experiences both online and offline. We create e-commerce platforms for clients end-to-end and integrate it with their backend systems; we create the interface that customers will see to experience the brand ad go all the way to delivery to your doorstep. We manage the entire e-commerce process which other digital agencies do not do. There is no nomenclature for us, so for want of better name, people call us a digital agency. We are somewhere between a business consulting company and a digital agency. We have technology, media and creative, so the differentiator for us is the technology part. We have an entire team which develops, implements and runs the technology. That is something digital agencies would not usually do.

As digital gets more mainstreamed with even regular ad agencies doing great digital work, where do you see specialised entities like Razorfish fitting in?

We would not fit in anywhere, that is why I joined the company. The DNA of Razorfish is that it was created for disruption and to create new customer experiences by reimagining how brands are living right now. We have an in-house system that actually focuses on re-imaging the customer experience for our clients. Our process and planning is very different, and our R&D labs focus on different things.

Razorfish is a key component of Publicis.Sapient (earlier Sapient Nitro). And then there are entities like Resultrix/Peformics, Indigo etc.

Publicis. Sapient has been created to leverage the strengths of all the digital companies under the Publicis Group and create one entity at the top. But the brands remain very distinct, whether it is a DigitasLBi, Razorfish or Sapient. This helps us to develop and focus on the technology part of the business very distinctly, as opposed to the advertising part. All the advertising companies come under Publicis.Communications.

Please take us through some of the important work done by Razorfish India…

Globally, Razorfish is very significant and out work for Audi — creating a customer experience and changing the model for them – has been much-talked-about. All car manufacturers find it difficult to set up a showroom [in the heart of a city]. For Audi, we created a showroom in the heart of London, as well as in Berlin and Shanghai, where this showroom is a complete interactive customer experience zone. There is not a single car on display but you can configure your own car from a combination of 40,000 options. You can take an engine from the many engines that are there, take the body and paint it however you want. Then you can experiment to see what it is going to look like. It’s like a gaming zone. You can place the order and test drive it, and also take it back in a chip and take a look at it. This was a complete breakthrough in the auto industry. We have done some exceptional work for Maruti as well. And changed the model of business for Eureka Forbes.

Tourism New Zealand has been one of our biggest successes. Indians want to go to Australia but not New Zealand. We did a sustained, two-year campaign on performance marketing; and a lot of analytics to understand what people like. We started geo-targeting all the communications and this year, Tourism New Zealand has won the most highly-visited adventure destination for India. We do a lot of work for Madura, based out of Bangalore, managing their social mandate, social listing and engagements, and converting it into commerce.

India doesn’t do too well in digital at international awards. Why?

A lot of our good entries go in the ATL (Above The Line) space. I think it is a mind-shift the creative people in India need to make. Many creative people believe, myopically, that the television campaign is where the future lies. We do well in ATL television because a lot of agencies are just nominating that. Social media agencies are small, and they do small interactions and peg it more for Indian awards. Organisations like ours go deeper in setting up the entire digital and technology capabilities for a company, and there is nothing to recognise how well you do that. Global and Indian awards events need to re-visit how awards are structured. They are also living in the past. They have created awards to glorify each other. I think where we need more awards platforms, relates to the impact we have made in transforming a client’s business. But there is no such thing as a Client Effectiveness award.

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