Forbes India 30 Under 30 2023

Wavemaker India's Vishal Jacob: Our product is our people and transforming them becomes critical

Vishal Jacob, chief digital and transformation officer, Wavemaker India, on new client demands, what excites CMOs these days, talent and skills in demand, and more

Published: Jan 24, 2023 05:33:34 PM IST
Updated: Jan 24, 2023 05:52:07 PM IST

Wavemaker India's Vishal Jacob: Our product is our people and transforming them becomes critical"Personally, I am excited about Generative Artificial Intelligence. Artificial Intelligence has been there for a while. However, the conversation around Generative Artificial Intelligence has picked up quickly because it is helping in creating content. That’s something consumers and brands haven’t experienced before. Of course, it has its pros and cons. Interesting times ahead for sure," says Vishal Jacob, chief digital and transformation officer, Wavemaker India

In 2022, Wavemaker India added over $90 million in billings from new business and had a strong stake in global wins like Danone and Audible, as well as the retention of a marquee account - Mondelez. Toby Jenner, the global CEO of Wavemaker told Storyboard18 how his India team is putting the agency on the global map. Jenner also said that they are proving that creativity and new technology have transformational powers when combined. One of the key members of his India team that’s driving a team of specialists and helping marketers solve new-age problems is Vishal Jacob.

Jacob, the chief digital and transformation officer of Wavemaker India, has held several positions across GroupM for the most part of his career. We caught up with Jacob to ask him what really the role of a chief transformation officer is. He also apoke about new client demands, what excites CMOs these days, talent that agencies need today, and more.

Edited excerpts.

Q. What's the job of a chief transformation officer?
As a transformation officer, I wear two hats. Let me give you some perspective, the recent meetings that I have had with a few CMOs were not about marketing but it revolved around their complex business problems. Today, CMOs expect agencies like us to have skillsets to help them understand these problems. My role, therefore, is to get specialists who can help in decoding these challenges. I orchestrate these specialists and pre-empt what marketers are looking for from agencies like us.

There are new roadblocks for several companies. Let me give you an example. Legacy brands are facing new challenges with new competitive brands venturing into their categories. They are feeling the heat. They are looking at restructuring certain aspects of their business keeping digital at the center. People like us wear the hat of consultants and help them navigate differently. That in a nutshell is the role of a transformation officer.

Also read: Wavemaker's global CEO Toby Jenner: Media and advertising have had a 'work hard, play hard' reputation

Q. Many in the industry believe agency job titles are becoming increasingly complex. What's your take on this?
I look at this in two ways. When it comes to a designation, it’s a function that one holds and a level at which he/she rises to. When it comes to levels, every organisation has a certain structure. We look at diversity seriously within our own agency. We have multiple people who come in with different backgrounds and skill sets. Let me give you an example. We have a function called Addressability, which works on personalising communication for a specific set of audiences. For Addressability to come together we need different teams to work together. I need talent that understands media, AI, ad operations along with strategists, copywriters, and designers. If I have similar or flat designations it might not be aspirational and inspirational for these people. That’s a bit of a challenge on that front. From an agency point of view, therefore it is important to get diverse resources. To the external world, these may sound like fancy titles, but there is more to the titles.

Q. As a hardcore digital enthusiast, what are the marketing trends that you didn't expect to take off in 2022?
There were a few areas that we did think that it was early to invest in but it ramped up. In the last quarter of 2021, we did a town hall on Web3, this was much before Facebook became Meta. We pre-empted this and build an interesting narrative on why clients will be interested in Web3. The way things took off, a lot of clients were expecting points of view for the metaverse. There was a lot of hype around it. We did latch on to some of these opportunities. Honestly, we didn’t expect it to take off so soon.

Social commerce was another piece. We put in efforts to build a social commerce practice. In India, social commerce is still not well defined and articulated like how you have it in South East Asian markets. There are aspects like inventories on social platforms that drive commerce, influencers pushing commerce, live commerce, and conversational commerce. On one hand, influencers pushing commerce did well in India, and on the other live commerce has still not picked up as it has in South East Asian countries.

Also read: New epicenters of influence are growing: Asmita Dubey, L'Oreal global marketing chief

Q. What trends are you betting on for 2023?
In our latest report Spotlight 2023, we have focused on areas like big tech, Connected TV, e-commerce, AI, cloud computing, Web3, digital payments, and some potential disruptive technologies which may impact the marketing industry and businesses at large. These areas will for sure create chatter and change up things in the year ahead.

Personally, I am excited about Generative Artificial Intelligence. Artificial Intelligence has been there for a while. However, the conversation around Generative Artificial Intelligence has picked up quickly because it is helping in creating content. That’s something consumers and brands haven’t experienced before. Of course, it has its pros and cons. Interesting times ahead for sure.

Also read: This is a moment of reckoning for Indian brands: Vivek Gambhir, boAt CEO

Q. What are clients excited about?
Largely, CMOs are looking at ways through which they can influence and drive sales, along with coming up with solutions for the right brand outcome. Brands that want to focus on sales goals are looking at different ways of targeting and re-targeting models. The ones who want the right brand narratives are chasing to get the right content in place. Today, clients are looking for new ways to grow their businesses and they are partnering with agencies like ours for it. This is a huge shift. Even legacy brands are hunting for tech insights and martech solutions to retain and get new consumers on board.

Q. Looking at the work that Wavemaker India has been delivering over the last couple of years, will it be right to say that the agency is breaking traditional media agency codes? How are you able to do this? What's the advantage that you have over others?
We consider ourselves a marketing service agency, which is why we are able to do a lot of things that set us apart. The industry is going through a lot of disruption. One of the many reasons why agencies today need both generalists and specialists. We are structured in a way that we have domain-level expertise that helps us generate solutions. Also, we are far more integrated as an agency. From a network standpoint and with global backing, we are at an advantage over many in the business. The biggest differentiator is the culture of the agency. That makes us unique.

Q. What kind of talent can add value to agencies like Wavemaker in the near future?
I think people who can understand and create algorithms will make a huge difference in an agency like Wavemaker. Data scientists are also adding a lot more value to marketing these days. We will need a lot more of them in the future. Sometimes attracting these kinds of talent becomes a bit of a challenge. Entry-level talent is not an issue for an agency like ours. People from B-schools and communication schools want to join us.

Also read: Storyboard18 | Navigating advertising controversies in the age of outrage

Getting data scientists or professionals who understand deep analytics is challenging. That’s mainly because IT companies also want them. We are finding ways to attract these professionals. At the entry-level, they go through a lot of operational rigor. It is important to create a solid foundation. A lot of young talent get bored. People who stay back after 4-5 years are able to unlock great opportunities in companies like ours.

Q. You have spent most of your career at GroupM agencies. What kept you engaged and excited through the years?
Over the years, I have worked with the best people in business across the roles that I have taken in the organisation. Also, I often get intelligent simulation by being around these people, which has kept me on my toes all the time.

Q. A few years ago, you took a sabbatical and went to Phi Phi Islands. How was that experience? You also wrote a book, Connecting With Yourself, then. How did that happen?

Honestly, I had burnt out. I worked for 10 years at a stretch. I went away for 3-4 months because we had a sabbatical policy then. It really helped me refresh and reset my mind. I didn’t write aiming to publish. I wrote over the weekends as a passion project. It was things around behavioural science. Professionally, I have to manage people, and it is important for me to understand why they behave in a certain way. This is also important for me to help them move up the ladder. Our product is our people and transforming them becomes critical.

Q. So... will you write a book again?
I am toying with an idea. It’s too early to put it out there.

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