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Dentsu India hit by series of top-level exits

A raft of senior-level exits across agencies, unhappy executives putting out feelers to rival company heads and a rationalisation of agency brands. Storyboard finds out what’s happening within Dentsu India.

September 04, 2021 / 09:30 AM IST
Dentsu ad website (Source: ShutterStock)

Dentsu ad website (Source: ShutterStock)

The Indian unit of Dentsu Group Inc has been rocked by a series of senior-level exits, potentially causing more departures, and deepening turmoil at the advertising company.

In the past two weeks, six senior executives have left Dentsu International India. Four of these executives ran digital entities and divisions, which contribute nearly 50% of total revenue of the Japanese advertising giant in India.

Senior executives at Dentsu India are approaching the heads of other networks for jobs, a senior industry executive said. Panic has gripped executives at Dentsu India after a series of top-level exits from the company, said the executive, the chief of a leading advertising network who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In response to a query sent by Storyboard, a Dentsu spokesperson said: “This is a planned journey for Dentsu India. Nothing unexpected.” The company indicated that several senior-level executives will be joining it soon.

Dentsu is India’s second largest advertising network with more than 20 agencies offering services across media, performance marketing, experience, events, creative and digital marketing. In 2018, Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN), as it was known then, said it had total billings of over Rs 6,000 crore in India thanks to an umbrella of top creative and digital marketing agency brands such as Taproot Dentsu, Dentsu Webchutney, Isobar, Watconsult and Mcgarrybowen India, among others.

Dentsu also runs media stablemates such as Carat and Dentsu X. The Dentsu agencies have an enviable client roster of brands such as Swiggy, Lenovo, Uber, Google, Tanishq and Maruti Suzuki.

The senior-level exits come as discrepancies were found during an audit of marketing agency Fountainhead MKTG's operations.

The Mumbai-based entertainment, events, and activation company was acquired by Dentsu in 2015. We reached out to Dentsu with a specific query related to the matter. In an email response to Storyboard, the Dentsu spokesperson said, “The rumours are completely baseless and we would not want to comment.”

As for the exits, when, how and why did the churn at the top start? First, a recap of recent events.

In, out and in-between 

The departures began on August 18, when Vinod Thadani joined Dentsu Media Group as chief digital growth officer and CEO of Dentsu International India’s agency iProspect. Thadani came from a rival network company, the GroupM-owned Mindshare where he was chief digital officer for South Asia.

On the same day, news of iProspect’s chief executive officer (CEO) Rubeena Singh and Dentsu Performance Group’s CEO Vivek Bhargava quitting broke, triggering a domino effect.

Next to leave was Gautam Mehra. He was CEO of Dentsu programmatic, and chief data officer of Dentsu Asia Pacific. Out next was Dentsu India’s CEO Anand Bhadkamkar, whose sudden departure rocked the boat even more.

It was then the turn of Shamsuddin Jasani, group managing director of Isobar South Asia. Jasani wore multiple hats at Dentsu. He also looked after Taproot and Isobar Cluster and was the executive sponsor of Dentsu Programmatic.

Celebrated adman Agnello Dias, co-founder and chief creative officer of Taproot Dentsu, quit too. Dias had taken a step back from active work and relinquished his position at the company, but continued as a consultant for key brands.

This was in June 2021. Now he is making a full exit. Dentsu acquired Taproot in 2012 to give the network more creative weight to take on rival creative powerhouses.

A choppy start for Dentsu India 2.0?

In 2020, Dentsu announced it would cut the number of global brands from 160 to six as part of a major transformation of the Tokyo-based group’s international operations. According to media reports, the company is already 25% of the way to its goal in rationalising agency assets and has already hit its targets for the 2021 financial year.

“Dentsu India 2.0” will be seen as a more integrated network. The goal is to simplify the structure into three services lines i.e. creative, media and CXM, or customer experience management. As part of this transformation, the company merged Vizeum and iProspect in March 2021.

There is also a new structure in place for its creative services companies in India. Brands that will come together under Dentsu Creative as part of the redesign include Dentsu Webchutney, Taproot Dentsu, WATConsult, Perfect Relations, Isobar, Dentsu One, Dentsu India and Dentsu Impact.

The Dentsu spokesperson added: “This is all part of our plan to bring India in line with a fast and positively transforming Dentsu. We will retain our local-market specialisms as platforms of differentiation and growth, but the optimisation of our brands and operational structure will result in changes to the way our business operates, as well as the removal of duplicate roles.”

The review and transformation, however, are not going down too well everywhere across the network.

Pain of change

Dentsu India is treating its creative assets like a “stepchild”, a former company executive told Storyboard on condition of anonymity.

In June 2021, Amit Wadhwa was named CEO of Dentsu Creative India. Wadhwa’s promotion made other senior executives “uncomfortable,” said another agency insider.

Many creative executives are said to be unhappy with the way their businesses are treated in the system. “When media agency executives become CEOs, they don’t know how to run a creative ship. Dentsu India’s transformation is a clear example of this,” said the former Denstu executive.

At the time of writing this story, Dentsu announced the appointment of creative veteran Ajay Gahlaut as group chief creative officer (GCCO). He will report into Wadhwa and will be responsible for accelerating Dentsu India’s creative businesses under one optimised service line.

For now, it seems, Dentsu India’s transformation could also be turning into a clean-up.

Priyanka Nair
first published: Sep 3, 2021 06:37 pm