Mumbai: Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the world’s largest communications services group WPP, has served in that role ever since he founded the company in 1985. That was the time when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, and till even 12 years back, WPP’s digital turnover was hardly anything to talk about. Today, however, WPP earns more than $6 billion out of its nearly $18 billion annual revenue from digital media, and Sorrell hopes to take this figure to 40-45% in the next five years.

In an interview on Tuesday, Sorrell said the challenge of balancing traditional advertising with digital could be likened to flying an airplane while changing its engines. He’s bullish about brand India but waiting for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deliver the goods since expectations are running high. Sorrell sees the world’s largest online advertising company, Google Inc., not as a rival but as a partner and “friendlier frenemy", but continues to perceive Twitter Inc. as a public relations (PR) medium, Facebook Inc. as a branding medium, and believes that television advertising will eventually be cannibalized by connected devices such as Apple TV, Chromecast and Amazon Fire TV. Edited excerpts:

About 35-36% of your revenue currently comes from digital media, and your target is 40-45% by 2019. Do you see the share of online advertising in total advertising pie increasing, while that of TV and print shrinks proportionately?

The total pie is increasing, about 4-5% annually depending on whose numbers you go by, but digital is taking a bigger slice of the pie and growing faster than television, newspapers and magazines. Even in India (WPP earns a little over $500 million from India and about $1.4 billion from China but has about 14,000 employees in India and about 16,000 in China), which is not a big digital market, despite the fact that newspapers are still growing, the Internet is growing faster. Globally, the share of digital in the overall advertising pie is about 20%. So the total pie is increasing but the share of digital is increasing quite sharply. For example, our revenue for Google (advising clients to use search, etc.) will double here in India this year.

So have clients warmed up to digital...

Warmed up for sure. But not enough. We are now in the second phase and people are now willing to spend money, but they want to evaluate their digital moves more carefully and seek return on investment. They have become more judicious.

How fast is digital picking up in India?

Not (fast) enough. Spending on digital currently comprises about 8% of the total advertising spend in India. There is a certain caution in India, but that will disappear and we will have to do more on mobile here. Globally, clients spend about 20% of the budgets on digital with our advice. We know from consumer and media consumption that US consumers spend 46% of their time online but only 20-25% of their budgets on digital. That has to change. The other side of the coin is that in the US, we’re still spending about 20% of the budgets on newspapers and magazines, felling trees and distributing newsprint, which is not economically or environmentally very good. Yet consumers are spending only 6% of their time on traditional newspapers and magazines.

I do not know how much time Indians spend online, but I presume it’s more than 8%. But the growth of smartphones and tablets has enabled India to leapfrog from the desktop era to mobiles and this will speed the transformation to digital—from the current 8% to about 20%. When is just a matter of time.

Do you see brands taking advantage of the so-called trend of ‘Connected Device Advertising’—a spectrum of digital TV platforms ranging from connected TVs and game consoles to capable set-top boxes, and devices such as Chromecast (Google’s digital media player but not available in India), Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, etc.?

India still has a long way to go, but the next generation of Indians will be very savvy in digital. If you look at developments like 4G (fourth generation), it is quite clear that people are going to consume media and information in a far more sophisticated and digital way than in the past. Yesterday (Monday), I was shown a 4G device that will get 250 channels on a high-definition screen and will be introduced in 2015. This (such devices) will change things.

So it will also challenge TV advertising...

Definitely. It will take time in India, but it is already happening globally. People don’t like to hear that, but it is going to happen. Someone like Star TV or Zee TV will benefit because people with 4G networks will like to work with them. Content usually wins when it is pitted against distribution.

How do you measure the success of a digital advertising campaign?

Digital is easier to forecast. We are more effective in measuring online success because the data is more detailed and more sophisticated, so you can track from the time the search is made to the sale.

Are the challenges similar to traditional advertising?

One is primarily a mass medium while the digital medium is interactive. The challenge, however, (for both media) is how well you execute a strategy.

You have said that Google is a “friendlier frenemy"...

We invest about $3 billion of our clients’ money on Google (search, etc.). I recall that when I said that Google was a frenemy two-three years back, many of my colleagues in India wondered why I said that. Google is out to eat our lunch, they argued. Our relationship with Google now, in India especially, is very strong. We’ve gone from an era of mutual suspicion to one of two dogs kissing. (Laughs). Well! Not exactly there. We plan very effectively with Google (in India too) and pitch together to clients. This is the way it should be.

Do you still view Twitter as a PR medium?

Yes. I do.

What about Facebook?

That is a branding medium. It’s more long term. Search is the strongest. People can measure it.

The Cannes event now even has awards for data and data visualization. How do you balance creativity with data?

The two are not inimical. Someone asked me whether data is an art or science. But like everything in life, one has to find a balance between the left brain and right brain. In fact, neither should science replace intuition or the other way round. One will have to strike a balance.

When you look at the global five brands (BrandZ 100 list), the top four brands are technology companies (Google, Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp. and International Business Machines Corp., or IBM), but not so in India. Here it’s HDFC Bank (according to the BrandZ India list released on Tuesday)...

Broadly, the top brands reflect different stages of development. For instance, China is the second largest economy in the world. But it’s a $9 trillion economy as opposed to a $16 trillion US economy. So technology companies based in the US tend to dominate because of the sophistication of the US market. In India, you will see Indian technology and e-commerce brands like Flipkart becoming more prominent with time. (Brands like TCS, Infosys, Wipro, HCL Technologies do not make the BrandZ India cut since they are not consumer-facing brands, a prerequisite to make it to the list in India).

With Narendra Modi now at the helm with a resounding mandate, do you see the image of brand India improving?

Sounds like it was a resounding mandate. Many people say Modi is a doer, but others say running a government is different from running a state (Gujarat). There is a high expectation and even higher after Friday (Independence Day speech). Now it is about implementation. You got the strategy, the leadership and the vision. Now you need to implement.

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