September heralds the onset of the Indian festive s e a s o n . I n Mumbai's western suburb of Santacruz, near the Grand Hyatt hotel, a thousand-odd employees of the Mudra Group - or Mudraites, as they call themselves - will begin celebrations of a totally different kind. Three of the advertising network's four agencies will have moved into a spanking new eight-storey building called Mudra House. The fourth agency, Ignite Mudra, an agency for entrepreneurs, will continue to be based in Ahmedabad.
Mudra is also set to unveil a new identity that will seek to reinforce its position as the No. 3 agency in India in terms of capitalised billings as well as set the agenda for the next phase of growth at this 30-year-old advertising network. At the time of writing, the new identity was firmly under wraps, but Madhukar Kamath, MD & CEO, Mudra Group, explains the trigger for it. "The new identity will reflect the growing ambitions, the transformation and the wider canvas that the group as a whole is going to be painting for the future."
Mudra's distinctiveness stems from being one of the few - and the largest - home-grown ad networks left in the country. The United States-based DDB Worldwide is a partner, but it has just a 10 per cent holding in DDB Mudra. Sam Balsara's Madison Communications is the other big domestic network, but it is more media-led than by advertising.
Kamath claims that Mudra is amongst the top three agency networks in the country, with only the WPP Goliaths JWT and Ogilvy & Mather ahead of it. Competitors such as Draftfcb Ulka and Lowe will dispute that, but No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 could be running neck and neck. Kamath, for his part, claims that Mudra is not in the numbers race. "Being No.1 in terms of the quality of solutions and work is our objective. Not size. We want to be the best branding solution providers not the biggest," he adds.
Having said that, Kamath is targeting a growth of 25 per cent in the current year, which should take Mudra up to Rs 2,500 crore. But that will still mean a sizeable gap between the WPP networks and Mudra (see How Mudra Stacks Up). "Mudra lacks the size and scale of JWT and O&M in India, but I would say it is a worthy competitor," says Ranjan Kapur, Country Manager India, WPP Group, who reckons that Mudra is still behind Draftfcb Ulka and Lowe.
Kapur acknowledges Mudra's efforts over the past couple of years to build itself as a "complete 360 degree marketing and communications group". Indeed, after being known as an Ambani agency for most of the '80s and the '90s - thanks to the work it did for the clothing brand Vimal and Reliance's public issues - Mudra has done well to break out of that mould. At one point in time, Reliance accounted for close to a fourth of Mudra's business, but today just three per cent comes from the Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (which got the network in the settlement reached by Mukesh and Anil when they split five years ago).
Over the years, Mudra's biggest strength became its weakness. Led by the legendary A.G. Krishnamurthy, the agency did some great work for Indian brands like Rasna, Dhara, Godrej, Paras and Reliance. That Mudra was at the forefront of building powerful Indian brands, however, backfired when it came to winning international businesses. Despite DDB buying 10 per cent in 1993, the association didn't reap too many benefits - international alignments were few and far between and Mudra gained little in terms of learnings of new methods and processes.
As question marks began to appear about Mudra's quality of creativity it began losing clients. Mudra had a tie-up with Cheil of South Korea, which helped it bag the Samsung account in the early '90s. But when Cheil set up shop in India in 2004, Mudra had to give up the Korean business. Reliance Infocomm (the earlier avatar of Reliance Communications, which was then owned by Mukesh Ambani) too went away, as did Rasna. "I was welcomed back into Mudra with the departure of our No. 1 and No. 2 clients (Reliance Communications and Samsung). But those setbacks helped us begin on our new journey, which technically began in 2004-05," says Kamath.
Kamath worked with Krishnamurthy at Mudra for 11 years before joining Bates Clarion in 1999, where he was credited with turning it around. He came back in 2003 once Krishnamurthy retired. "I had worked very hard to bring Bates into India and help it grow and acquire Clarion. I had laid the foundation for what probably could be the agency of the future and amidst all this I get a call from Anil Ambani asking me to come back and run Mudra. I could not say no, " says Kamath. Ambani also presented him the book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy & Ram Charan. The message was clear: Strategy, innovation and leadership are all fine, but at the end of day just get the job done.
He's been doing exactly that. Along with the CEOs of his other agencies (see The Arms of Mudra), and with DDB in tow, Mudra has since been getting back its groove. Big Indian brands like Big Bazaar and LIC and multinationals like Philips and Volkswagen are in the bag, ensuring a healthy mix between Indian and foreign business.
Mudra may never be able to topple the WPP agencies in billing terms. But then that's not Kamath's objective. His aim is to differentiate Mudra from other agencies by virtue of the work it does. "By consolidating the operations of three of our agencies, we are not attempting to put the client in the centre. We want to put the consumer in the centre. And that's how we are different from other agencies," says Kamath.