Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

India is ready for 'digital first' marketing, says VML chief Jon Cook

Jon Cook, global CEO of digital marketing agency VML, feels the country has evolved from 'just being there digitally' to looking at digital as a channel to tell a powerful story

Shruti Venkatesh
Published: Sep 23, 2016 06:24:49 AM IST
Updated: Sep 22, 2016 09:57:10 AM IST
India is ready for 'digital first' marketing, says VML chief Jon Cook
Image: Shailesh Andrade / Reuters

By using global expertise and adapting it to the local market, VML, a full-service global digital marketing agency of the WPP Group, has grown its India business 15 percent year-on-year since 2012. It also has an impressive client list that includes brands like ICICI Bank, Hotstar, Pantaloons, Dr Reddy’s and Spencer’s. Jon Cook, 45, global CEO, VML, speaks to Forbes India about their decision early this year to increase investment in India, the adoption of digital marketing and how not to be intrusive while communicating online. Edited excerpts:

Q. How has VML’s growth trajectory been in India?
When we started, a lot of agencies were looking at India as a place to do outsourcing or offshoring. That was never our intention. We were, instead, servicing clients in Singapore from India. In India, we wanted VML to have a full representation of our capability—a combination of creativity and technology. Our growth from four to 80 employees (60 in Mumbai and 20 in Delhi) hasn’t been even. The last six months have seen most of that growth due to a combination of factors: Us putting more focus on India in terms of investments and hiring talent, and the market turning ready for what we do in terms of a ‘digital first’ mindset.

Q. Are Indian brands taking the digital route more easily today?
I think around the world people are realising that digital as a medium can be used to ensure better engagement with a brand. India has evolved from just being there digitally to looking at digital as a channel to tell a powerful story, like any other channel. That’s precisely why we are very excited to be here.

Q. Is ‘digital first’ the norm in marketing now?
‘Digital first’ is a popular phrase, but I think it is consumer insight first. We should use any channel that makes sense based on consumer insight. Each media has a reason to exist. Print has a very specific market here and a certain segment of the population will still go for print. Similarly, there is no way you will not do TV for a brand launch.

Q. What makes digital marketing more effective than traditional advertising?

First, augmented and virtual reality is a category of expansion in digital that allows you to further engage with the brand or tell a story. Second, digital is the best place to activate the use of data. We are not trying to be digital. We are trying to be personal and direct.

Q. When you say use of data, where do you draw the line between targeted marketing and being intrusive?
I think it comes down to the value of what you are offering. My tolerance to the use of my personal information is only so much as it offers me value. It is critical for brands to put focus on offering value. The key is to communicate, educate or entertain.

Q. What are the ways to track the return on investment in digital marketing?
Some brands are beginning to align it with sales by either isolating digital campaigns for moments in time or launching specific digital offers. We are also starting to see a lot of the traditional advertising metrics and testing being used in the digital world, which is good and bad. Good because it applies legitimate rationalisation for ad spends; bad because it is ruining the agile, brave and quick decision-making of the digital world with over-testing and over-researching.

(This story appears in the 30 September, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)