DAN Interviews

Entrepreneurship is going through momentous transition - Vivek Bhargava

Nineteen years ago, Vivek Bhargava, CEO, iProspect India, actualised his entrepreneurial edge by founding Communicate 2, which has today emerged to be one of India’s largest Search and Social Media Specialist organisations. In 2012, Communicate 2 was acquired by iProspect (Aegis Media), and today, iProspect Communicate 2 dominates performance-oriented digital advertising domain in India, helping digital agencies in Europe and the US to become more profitable and flexible by providing Search offshore services.

Bhargava has spent the last 19 years guiding the Digital Strategies of several blue chip clients. The company enjoys a 160+ client roster across different sectors, some marque brands include Myntra, Shopclues, Koovs, Raymond, Aegon Religare, American Express, Axis Bank, Bharti Axa, HDFC, ICICI, Kotak, Maxlife, Reliance General Insurance, Royal Sundaram, Yes Bank, Cleartrip, Club Mahindra, Thomas Cook, Apollo Hospitals, Remit2India. It is home to over 270 people across four offices in Mumbai, Bengaluru, New Delhi and Chennai, with a presence in over 50 locations worldwide.

In conversation with Adgully, Vivek Bhargava, CEO, iProspect India, speaks at length about the new equations emerging in the digital landscape in India, state of entrepreneurship in the country, programmatic buying and much more. Excerpts:

How does the digital landscape look like from where you are standing today?
The digital landscape is rapidly evolving – what was typically seen as just another medium of advertising and marketing, has today become the age we live in. Digital is playing the role of a catalyst and multiplier across every facet of an organisation. As we move forward, digital combined with innovative technologies is going to be a game changer, a single digital technology like artificial intelligence may disrupt almost every single industry we know of today. The biggest differentiator between earlier technologies and digital is the nature of exponential growth it enjoys, coupled with the connections between all the current exponential technologies. Like I always say, soon there will be only two types of CEOs – those using digital and those who have retired.

Your thoughts on turning investor/ mentor - what are the factors that will compel you to put in your money?
I have enjoyed the good fortune of having wonderful mentors and investors like Mr Sushil Jiwarajka, Mr Dev Raman and Mr Vallabh Bhansalibe a significant part of my entrepreneurial journey. They have not just supported me with financially, but also blessed me with their time and connections during my early days of entrepreneurship. I am a strong believer of Karma. And I think God has given me an excellent opportunity to give back to the world through my mentorship and investments in budding entrepreneurs who want to make a mark in the industry through their start-ups.

For me, the two major factors that play a role in deciding if I will go ahead and invest in a business are: 1) The size of the business opportunity that the entrepreneurial team is attempting to solve; and 2) The background, experience and capabilities of the founders. However, the most important criteria is whether I feel that I will truly be able to positively contribute towards the growth of their business. Unless, I feel that I can add real value to the success of their business and immense scope for the same exists, I would avoid making an investment.

How did you come to be associated with The Vault?
I was approached by Mr Jatin Goel, the promoter of the show, who took me through the concept in detail and urged me to come on board as an investor and mentor. I was quite hesitant to do so initially since I came with very little experience in angel investing. I still recollect him mentioning to me that he isn’t necessarily looking for the wealthiest of people he can find as investors, but he would instead prefer the panel of investors to be those who can genuinely contribute towards the growth of these entrepreneurial businesses through their own expertise. As iProspect India, we have already achieved a scale where we are working only with large enterprises and enjoy a great market position today. The Vault now gives me a chance to go over and beyond, and contribute to the larger industry through my digital marketing expertise. It gives me a golden opportunity to mentor passionate budding entrepreneurs who will eventually move the world, but currently don’t have the capacity to hire us professionally.

What are the factors that define and dominate the Indian entrepreneurship scene?
Entrepreneurship in India is currently going through a momentous transition. A few decades ago, entrepreneurship was limited to a few large families and individuals who ran very small businesses. Mothers would be proud if their children became doctors or engineers, had a stable job in hand with a good company and earned their monthly salary. A father would think twice before giving his daughter’s hand in marriage to an entrepreneur. This conventional mindset and long-standing scenario is fast evolving as the digital economy is progressively sculpting a new face of entrepreneurship. I’m glad that almost 20 years back, I stuck my ground, believed in myself and started a company of my own. And today, I’m proud of being a part of The Vault show, because it is platforms like these that truly celebrate entrepreneurship. I truly hope that we soon witness the day when a father would prefer to marry his daughter to an entrepreneur rather than a doctor or engineer.

How did you beat the odds when you started out? What were the biggest challenges that you had faced?
I don’t think I really ‘beat’ the odds, I learned how to instead survive the odds beating the hell out of me for 14 years. I started Communicate2 back in 1997 when digital was growing at a snail’s pace in India. In such an environment, the biggest challenge was for me to keep believing in myself, my passion and my vision. I owe a large part of my success today to the grit, determination and undying spirit that I demonstrated years back. It’s easy to lose both focus and hope in such situations, what’s important is to keep moving in the direction of your dreams and never give up.

I distinctly remember this one conversation that I had with my father that pretty much summarises my entrepreneurial journey. Ten years had passed and one day my father sat me down and said, “Son, you leave for office daily at 7 am sharp, come back home not before 2 am. You work on the weekends too. You’re probably the most hard-working person in our entire family!” I vividly recollect that feeling – I was so happy that my father was finally recognising the enormous efforts I was putting into my business. Alas! He carried on saying, “Why do you then make the least amount of money in the entire family?” At the rate of sounding melodramatic, my entire world came crashing down that instant. I can never forget what he once told me – “Don’t tell me about your labour pains, show me the baby!” Not one to let go that easily, I did give him an answer at that point in time, “When God gives you less brains, then you need to work harder. Also, most people chase monetary success so that they can be happy. For me, my success lies in what I do and the happiness it brings me, so I don’t need to have an external monetary measure of success.” However, those words of his echo in my mind till date.

What does it take to transform a digital media agency to a digital strategy consulting company?
The digital agencies and consulting companies are both going through an evolution. Digital agencies are great at rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty in execution of a given strategy, while consulting companies are better at creating a strategy blueprint of what an enterprise must do over the next five years. Both these areas need a transformation if they want to succeed in the digital age of today. The mantra here is to co-exist and ensure these functions are performed hand-in-hand, complementing each other. Consulting companies need to realise that a blueprint strategy can fails to work in isolation, especially in a world of exponential technologies. It runs a high risk of redundancy as by the time you complete the blue print, there will be a new industry concept which will make the blue print absolutely irrelevant. The digital age is all about taking a compass and starting to move towards a goal.

We started strategic consulting around two years ago. We have been able to deliver wonderful results as apart from drawing out just the overall strategies, we are like a Sherpa to our partners who walks with them and guides them every step of the way till they reach the summit. Our ability to immaculately execute the strategy for our clients gives us a huge competitive edge in the market.

What are the key hurdles facing the spread of programmatic advertising beyond digital?
According to me, the key hurdles are as follows.

  • The cost of infrastructure to make non-digital media programmatic is a concern. In many cases, it would take years to amortize this investment, so the risk takers here are far and few in between.

  • The lack of expertise in programmatic amongst the current stakeholders who manage the non-digital media space.

  • The measurement of conventional mediums is not precise in its current form. Programmatic would make all of them extremely measurable, which may not benefit the current eco-system.
Having stated the above, it’s only a matter of time before conventional media will go programmatic – some of the larger stakeholders of conventional media are already on the verge of being disrupted.

What are the elements of social media marketing that are yet to be explored?
I, in fact, believe that the internet itself is social media. Why would a reply all on an email not be considered as social media? All the exponential technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual and augmented reality are together set to transform the way we perceive and use social media or the internet. Infinite bandwidth, zero cost of energy, and endless computing power will create a world that one can’t even imagine at the moment. The future of social media could well be the “Matrix”.

Dealing with creative challenges?
Well, for starters, most creative professionals come from the world of conventional media. A world where they had to interrupt the user from the content he or she was consuming, which demanded some clutter-breaking technique such as humour. Secondly, the nature of all advertising was one to million, where one had to communicate a single brand proposition to the larger audience, for example, Volvo stood for safety. Today’s digital world allows one to one communication, wherein one can know the intent and psychographics of the user you are communicating with. It’s important that conventional creative professionals adapt to the digital way of things and quickly so.

Creativity in the digital age is more about creating actionable insights from data. To cite a hypothetical example –we found that if the number of items in a particular product category on e-commerce portal Koovs has less than 5 results, the conversion rate drops. In this situation, we can create a site scrapping software that pauses Google AdWords whenever inventory for particular products is low, while bid higher for categories which had larger inventory. In my eyes, this is a creative solution. However, most people in the conventional world may not be of the same opinion. Thus, creative is largely subjective as well.

Why does content marketing need stories, and how can these stories be made relevant for consumers?
Digital marketing is essentially made up of three pillars – paid, organic and social media. Content gives a multiplier effect to all of them, reduces the cost of media on paid, gives free organic traffic and lastly helps create more engagement on social. It’s the innate nature of people to love stories, so stories need to be an integral part of content marketing. Today one can tap data from Google AdWords and social signals to decide what kind of content they need to create. Google is known as the database of intentions, while social media is known to be database of actions. If one knows what the world is thinking and what the world is doing, it is easy to create insights on the kind of content that will be consumed by these users.