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We want to be the poster boy for Web 3.0-led marketing in India: WATConsult’s Sahil Shah

Shah chalks out the blueprint for the digital-first agency in an exclusive chat

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Hybrid digital agency, WATConsult from the Isobar India group celebrated its 15th anniversary this month by launching an NFT (Non-fungible Token) in the form of digital artwork. Titled ‘Once a WATizen, always a WATizen', it contained the names of all its 1500+ employees- past and present- to commemorate the milestone. The digital-first agency, which saw some downs but mostly ups due to the pandemic, brought 2021 to a wrap with double-digit growth and a host of new client wins including 59 new mandates. These include brands like Cricbuzz, Licious, Sava Herbals, UB Group’s Kingfisher Radler & Heineken, Joy Cosmetics, Lead School, India Circus, Dr Oetker, BIAL to name a few.

A key founding member, Sahil Shah has been with the agency for the last 13 years, and is credited with playing a significant role in shaping and building it.. Having joined the agency as a social media executive in 2009, Shah moved from being chief business officer- to managing partner in September 2021. He credits the agency’s recent successful run to the fact that post-2020, with client businesses bouncing back, everybody wanting to get into digital. He, however, does not discount the effort that went into building the brand up over the years, which he says has played its part in influencing the adoption of digital in the country to a large extent.

As we tread into 2022, IndianTelevision’s Anupama Sajeet caught up with the WATConsult head Sahil Shah spearheading the agency’s India operations for an extensive conversation on the agency’s foray into the metaverse and what it hopes to achieve by being a first-mover in the NFT space. He also shares forth on the rollercoaster of a year that 2021 was, his expectations from the new year, and insights on the trends that will dominate the digital marketing industry in the months to come …

Edited excerpts:

On the concept behind NFTs and how can marketers use NFTs as an opportunity for growth?  

NFTS, in the simplest terms, is digital real estate that cannot be replicated and is owned by an individual or entity i.e. digital ownership. It’s on the blockchain in the Web 3.0 world, which of course on the internet itself, but a highly decentralised form of it. So, there you have this NFT marketplace such as the Opensea, on which you can list your NFT creative and it can be monetised by selling. And that’s the reason there is a humongous commerce opportunity with NFTs for even Brands, and brands need to realise this.

Another usage of NFTs for Brands is as memorabilia or collectibles by using the power of its user community. Anything that’s ownable can be marketed this way- brand mascots or advertising creatives, or a public figure’s legacy in sports, entertainment or Bollywood. The collection would be unique - it is digital art and people want to own a piece of that art. For example, a brand like Amul, which has some iconic creatives, can list them on an OpenSea and get die-hard fans to actually auction for it and trade, resell and make a business of it! So the uses are many – as CSR, business, promotions, public figure marketing- the possibilities are endless.

On celebrating the 15th anniversary with NFT

As an agency, we have been known for doing a lot of new-age stuff. We have dabbled in and got into areas which the majority may not be cognisant of. So the thought behind such an initiative was to commemorate the 15-year milestone by actually building something that remains on the internet forever, and can be owned by each and every WATizen- past and present. And the answer was NFT because they are, by nature, “non-fungible” and the ownership lies within the people, the community, or the person who uploads or lists it on the marketplace.

We came up with the idea of etching everybody’s name on the creative and making it a part of history and keeping it on the OpenSea marketplace Ethereum blockchain forever. So that way each and every one of us is a part of it and everybody has a part to play in it. Essentially, it’s a way to thank each and every person who built this company over the years by making them a part of our history forever.

In fact, the same day we launched our NFT, one of our clients actually gave us a written brief on exploring something with an NFT for them. They want to be the first-movers in their industry in this space. So I’m excited about moving towards building not just “India-class” but “world-class” solutions for marketing in a Web 3.0 world. It's of course early days, but we want to be the poster boy for everything related to Web 3.0-led marketing in India. In that sense, WATConsult has been the “blueprint” for other competing agencies to watch and learn, as we’ve been able to lead changes in the industry over the years. And with the NFTs we continue to do so.

On his priorities since taking over as managing partner last year

My priority is to make sure that we get three to four things very right: One, is everything that’s centered around the creative use of digital for, that’s the core of what WATConsult was, is, and will be. Second, we want to be extremely high on everything that’s around client delight and customer focus and make sure we deliver on it, which’s in a way linked to our revenue, growth, P&L, etc. Third, we always want to be the first movers and the early adopters, while continuing to be in the news for the innovations that we bring to the table. Additionally, ‘Talent’ and ‘People’ for me is a big focus area, besides revenue and recognition, and I want to make sure the company gives back to its people by different ways and means.

On the industry’s new emerging categories

I think one of the new and emerging categories is everything ‘new-tech’- so anything that’s born out of digital, such as financial tech or fintech, e-commerce, food tech- for instance, brands like Licious, Edtech, and so on. The kind of categories that are coming up are very exciting because they understand digital innately, being fully digital themselves.

Having said that, while that’s one domain where digital businesses are booming and scaling up, there are also the businesses that are legacy brands but are wanting to embrace digital. For eg: One of our big wins in e-commerce solutioning was the UB Group, where we acquired the mandate for their entire commerce duties last year, which’s online selling of its Kingfisher Radler & Heineken non-alcoholic beverage category. We’ve been scaling up their business on Amazon, Flipkart, etc which has given great returns to a client whose business was 99 per cent offline. If we are able to move that metric from 99 to even 95 per cent and create like a 400 per cent growth in e-commerce sales then it would be a huge validation for both the client and us.

On any major trends that the digital marketing industry witnessed this past year / is witnessing

One big trend that sparked in 2020 was the fact that India woke up big time to short videos. For the TikTok revolution that started around 2018-2019 and then scaled up in 2020, 2021 has been by far the year for content consumption in a short format- which is a 5-20 seconder clips and visuals- that everybody from Facebook, Instagram to YouTube adopted. That was one clear shift in consumer content consumption that was happening. At the same time, users are also hooked on long-form web-based content on OTTs and online. The bottom line is that video in both short forms as well as the longest forms- kept on growing and it continues to do so as a primary piece of content consumption.

The second was definitely ‘Bharat’, with the growing internet penetration in India’s hinterlands, which we were fortunate enough to latch onto and build a multi-lingual and regional/ localised service solution around it.

Third is data-tech or data-led solutions. One of the things the industry is moving towards is everything that technology can aid. Technology today has the power to create a life-size, 3-D version of anything we want it to be, like a ‘Virtual Influencer’. This trend has already been explored in markets like the US, Korea, or Japan, and is an example of how Tech is going to influence a lot of content creation and even creatives per se, and this is just the beginning.

Another thing that the world started opening up to towards the end of 2021 (the Oct-Nov-Dec period) was the idea of Web 3.0 with NFTs, Cryptos, the Metaverse etc. It's still early stage and an up-and-coming trend, but I think in the next few years it will change the way we interact.

On Expectations from 2022

From the industry, my expectation is to continue the digital growth at around 40 per cent Y-O-Y. I know we are at scale but there is a lot that digital can still do for brands and marketers are realising it. So I just hope the digital part of the pie continues to grow.

Secondly from a 2022 perspective and maybe for years to come, I think the world is going to be hybrid- the way we work is going to be hybrid. I don’t see the culture of people in offices from 9 to 5 for five or six days a week coming back. And it’s honestly okay and maybe even a good thing- it’s a healthy way to operate where people connect in groups, as well as, detach and work by themselves. So hybrid is here to stay, possibly even post-Covid.

Additionally, adoption into Web 3.0 while we continue to do our campaigns in the Today. At least for WATConsult, I wish that we continue to think into the future while we execute in the present. So our focus will be to keep pushing the bar for creative use of technology in the marketing communications space and continue being the blueprint for others to follow.

On any personal learnings, you will take into the next year

Although I have seen various changes in the last 13 years with the agency, the last one and half to two years have been a huge shift in the way of working, and in my personal & professional beliefs. So one of the major learnings I want to take forward is to make sure I declutter from all the noise around and focus simply on just two or three things that I want to move towards, personally as well as professionally.

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