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BW Businessworld

'We Will Do Other Acquisitions'

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John D. Wren, 58, sleeps for only 4.5 hours a day. The president and CEO of the world's second-largest advertising holding company, Omnicom Group, says his lack of sleep has nothing to do with whatever goes right or wrong in the advertising business. Wren's visit to India coincides with the acquisition of a majority stake in home-grown agency Mudra, and the induction of Reliance ADAG's Anil Ambani into Omnicom's International Advisory Committee. Mudra was set up by Reliance's founder Dhirubhai Ambani in the 1980s.

Wren entered the advertising business in 1984, joining Needham Harper Worldwide as an executive vice-president and was part of the team that created Omnicom in 1986. He tells BW's Prasad Sangameshwaran and Suneera Tandon why the Mudra acquisition still matters when organic growth has helped Omnicom globally. Excerpts:
 
Compared to other advertising holding company heads (WPP's Martin Sorrell, Publicis Groupe's Maurice Levy, Interpublic's Michael J. Roth), you are very low profile. Is that a conscious decision in the high visibility business of advertising?
I can see how you can easily make that comparison. I have been doing my job for 25 years, rather successfully. To me it has more to do with the visibility of my clients and my client brands.

For most of my clients, I am far more engaged to whatever their needs and concerns are. I have always been very involved, whether or not I have been perceived by the media as detached. My job is to provide resources and tools to my partners and clients so they can do their job better and resolve issues to support the individual cultures that we allow to flourish within Omnicom. I sleep 4.5 hours a day and I am busy the remaining day, I am busy doing things that one should be doing.

Does a high-profile holding company CEO help a network get more business?
What clients expect of me is to provide the people who work with their brands the resources they need. If you see how the other networks companies have grown, you can see that our company has done better on organic growth. I believe Omnicom has the best track record historically from clients wanting to move from one agency to another within the group, and they (clients) don't opt for an external review.
 
If organic growth works for the group, why acquire a majority stake in Mudra?
Organic growth is the thrust, but it is not the only thing we do. Behind all of it you need talent, and you get the talent by acquisitions. In India, Madhukar Kamath, (Mudra's managing director & CEO) has done an extraordinary job of building such a big company with really talented people. Why wouldn't I take advantage of our partnership? We will still do other acquisitions in India.

We are looking to hire the best people in the world and to retain them and make them feel as part of the family. Clients are the most important thing because we have many businesses, some of which compete with each other. If you were to enquire from my country heads and network heads, everyone wants to win every piece of business that they have. They hate losing. But they respect their siblings so much that if they have to lose, they rather lose to their siblings, and that has to do with the respect they have for each other.
 
Will the 30-odd strategic business units that Mudra has built continue along side the international brands of Omnicom?
The way it would work is that the agency CEO will look at the resources that we have everywhere, and if we have something he wants or needs he will get it. But there is no army coming here to change anything because we didn't do the transaction to change things. We did it so we could be more supportive and get more resources, to create more jobs here to create more opportunities. 100 of the world's most famous brands that have a fabulous relationship with the Omnicom group. I would never introduce them to our agencies in every market, unless the innovation and the leadership in the market place matches the global offering. I feel much more comfortable introducing my international clients (to Mudra), which is what I will do initially. And then there are some very important Indian companies that are now global companies.
 
A bulk of the Mudra business is made of domestic clients. Will that change?
If you look at our four agencies, 20-25 per cent of business would be MNC aligned, but there are other MNC businesses we are working with. If you go historically, the composition of domestic business is the same in a lot of other geographies. You want great clients who make a great contribution. Part of this partnership is to drive that.
 
Isn't that happening already in some ways?
The only thing that changes is it is much easier for us to easily put resources. We wouldn't have withheld them in the past, but we are that much happier when we own it or we have more of an equity stake. I am the head of a publicly listed company. If I have to allocate resources, I would put them in areas that my shareholders hold the most of. This makes it easier for me to do that. It is like a difference between dating somebody and being married.
 
From the numbers that are doing the rounds, it seems like the acquisition of Mudra was an expensive marriage...
We don't comment on the specifics. But if you want to look, there are some things you should consider. If it was a horribly expensive acquisition, being a US-listed company, I would have to file something with the SEC. We paid a fair price.
 
Omnicom is huge globally, but in India it is a story that is yet to be told…
When you are dealing with important clients, what is key is that you have talent. I feel I have much more talent today than I had a week ago.
 
Does it enhance the role Mudra plays to the Omnicom group firms in India?
I love all my children. Do they (Mudra) have a renowned reputation globally? Yes, they do. Does that make my life that much easier? Yes, it does. But I don't want anyone to misread that I don't love all my children.

There are no generals in the army. What I have found in servicing every major client is that across the group everybody has their own culture. Everyone wants to win for themselves. We will put the clients first and our companies behind. And if we do that, we will create more opportunities for our clients and for the younger people who want to work with us.
 
What about talent-sourcing from India?
India has exported a number of people who have risen to the top in the organisations they are in. The more exposure we have and the more attractive we become to these people, the more opportunities it will create.
 
How do you envisage the future of advertising?
The business is changing very rapidly.If there is a theme, everything has to be better, cheaper, faster. But better is the biggest element in that. It is how we reach consumers, and how we help our clients grow their businesses. There is an enormous number of channels today that are complex. So our job is to make it simpler for our clients and have knowledge about other developments. When we have the best talent in the world, that creates the most opportunity for us to grow. That's why we are bullish about the future of advertising.

Behind what we do has to be a great idea and that idea has to travel across multiple channels, and then being experts in those channels is terribly important. So you can't have a big idea and stop. Whether it's digital or any other channel, you have to help the consumer buy/use/ love the product at the retail level. If you can do many of those things but you cannot come up with the exciting idea that works through all those channels, it's not very exciting.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 14-11-2011)