I am an entrepreneur and each individual in this agency is an entrepreneur – Shamsuddin Jasani, Isobar

Shamsuddin Jasani kick-started Isobar’s India business a decade ago as agency’s first team member and just recently he was promoted to become Group MD for South Asia operations. Gopa Menon has been with Isobar for 9 years, Anish is half a decade old there, Shekhar is 2 years old in the system & Suraj joined the party just last year. These five men constitute for crème de la crème at the agency.

We had a chance to talk to Shams face to face. As Isobar steps into its 11th year, we tried to get answers to some not so easy questions and some tough ones here and there. As a responsible agency and a daring leader, Shams tried answering all the questions with full honesty. At multiple points, he highlighted the importance of e-commerce in Isobar India’s plans. Here’s the full transcript of the conversation he had with our Mumbai correspondent and let’s find out why e-commerce is so dear to Isobar and what’s Isobar cooking:


When you just do a simple Google search about Isobar India, one sees a lot of interviews and too many campaign news, excellent this, excellent that, but globally out of overall 150 or so entries (Digital Category) sent to Cannes, NONE got any recognition. Is Isobar India going to change that next year?

Honestly, I think our work is good but I don’t think it’s good enough. Somehow we aren’t getting the flavor of the season right as far as Cannes goes. For example, the four agencies that won Digital Craft were all in the Augmented Reality category. (Each year) There is a wave for a particular technology which this year seemed to be AR and we weren’t able to catch that wave this time. Another example is that on the other juries there are Indian jurors also. It’s more important for an Indian to be there so as to give context (and explain) why something like this was done in India. Right now one of our biggest contender, we feel, is Reebok bruises campaign. As an Indian you understand that women face domestic violence as one of the challenges here in India but when you go to a country like France people don’t think about it that way at all. So if you see the digital jury, there are no Indians. Indians may be there in Media Category or Creative Category but none in Digital Category. So when the judging is happening, it is very important for an Indian to explain the nuances of a particular entry and why was it made. I have myself done a lot of judging across the region, and whenever I am the judge, I like to build the context which is a big challenge when we go to Cannes. Secondly, we are still not there as an industry especially digital, I don’t think we are good enough with packaging the way we should be packaging, while there is a decent amount of work happening but it needs improvement in terms of packaging. But, we will change it and it’s a target for my team internally. It’s also a commitment that I have given globally. We are getting into an understanding of what kind of campaigns win an award.

We are sweeping awards in India, but we now want regional & global recognition. We want to do better and better work. The work needs to improve and we are continuously improving our craft. We also need to showcase our work better. A lot of award-winning work is proactive work because a lot of work that we do for clients is an answer to a brief and tactical in nature. We have earmarked a significant (amount of) budget for prototyping and for coming up with ideas and concepts, giving them a proper finish and then showcase it to a client. A lot of focus in 2018 is going to be on proactive work. We need some gutsy clients like Reebok. We will use learnings from our counterparts in other countries.


The recently launched Whitepaper by Mustafa Rashid & Vikalp Tandon talks about how streamlined control over UX lays a foundation to long-term customer relationships. Can you talk about clients who with your tech’s help has been able to grow its customer relationships? How does ICP make sure that end consumer’s journey at an e-commerce portal & then at the store for the same product is uniform?

This whitepaper comes from the back of something known as Headless commerce. The way it works is that suppose you are working on a live website, and whenever you make any change, there are two parts to it, the frontend and the backend. First, you upload the changes on a server to test and then later on the website. In headless commerce, the changes are happening live on site but the way website has been made, those changes are not going to make the website problematic. This is the simplest way to put it. Increasingly UI & UX is fundamentally becoming a very big part of how people are interacting with the websites. UI & UX has become more important and hence the Fractal Ink acquisition. Isobar Commerce which we launched in India three years back is very important for us because as an Agency we see a huge potential in e-commerce side of the business which is now a bigger industry than the advertising industry. The e-commerce industry is growing by leaps and bounds, the advertising industry is also growing but nothing in comparison to the e-commerce industry. A lot of our future investments will be into e-commerce industry as such.

Increasingly people are talking about online channel experience which means how am I taking a person from online to offline and offline to online and what roles do each of these channels play especially in e-commerce where I have my own platform as well. As a primary e-commerce site, I will never be able to fight against Amazon or Flipkart of the world if I don’t have a good integration with my own channel because that is a very strong thing for me. Taking an example of Zara – you can buy something online or you can walk-in to the store, you can pick it up or you can drop it or you can experience it and if you don’t like it you can give it back immediately. I can’t do that with an Amazon or Flipkart. Increasingly, the success for brands comes when they have their own brick & mortar stores and their online/digital assets are integrated very well with offline assets. That’s where we are going to make a big play. As an agency we are going to work with clients to strategize on the entire e-commerce ecosystem for the client which includes first party which is their own e-commerce channel, third-party channels like Amazon and Flipkart, logistics, kind of products to sell on their own site vs. Amazon & Flipkart, type of content that should go on Amazon versus the content on another website for the same product as UI & UX is very different on both the websites and also when compared to your own website. We will do platform planning for the client and Isobar Commerce can actually execute a lot of those things which we are going to build. As a brand, the way you approach e-commerce has a direct impact on business. Marketing and branding take time to show its impact but in commerce, a slight change will change the matrix completely.


Is Isobar India a trendsetter or a trend follower? Tell us about three major successes Isobar India had because of being either.

Isobar has very much been a trendsetter in these 10 years. In 2008, we started as a full-service digital agency. No one else actually lived up to that promise. Either there were great media agencies which did a little bit of creative or there were great creative agencies which also did a little bit of media. The very first day we launched, our promise was that we are going to be a full-service digital agency and that was in 2008. Now you will see a lot of agencies which say we are a full-service digital agency. Increasingly the lines between media and creative are blurred on digital while in mainline media you can segregate it but in digital, you can’t because if you are using Facebook for example then you need to be aware of how to use creatives on Facebook as only the media guys interact with Facebook, creative guys don’t. The trend that we want to set now is that we want to be the agency for the digital age. By that I mean, we are going to clients and working with them on how we can make a difference to the business with our digital expertise, not just in digital marketing or marketing KPIs. The future will be about how I will work with the brand to do digital transformations. The other one is this whole investment in e-commerce because that again is something. Both of these are going to make a direct impact on business.

The biggest success is that last year the one big one was winning the Cleo. I think it was an achievement and that was cherry on the cake because we won 8 Agency of the Year awards. It was a culmination of a lot of work over so many years that’s gone into creating relationships. Reebok has been with us for 10 years till now which otherwise does not exist in the digital industry because agencies change every 1-2 years and finally it’s about the recognition that the team gets. If you see, 2016-17 it was not just Isobar that was winning but there were individuals in Isobar who were also doing so great. As Isobar we have created a team and not just dependence on one individual. I am the happiest on that part because today we have reached 300 people and if tomorrow, if you take me out of the system, it will run fine and that is the ethos I have created Isobar with. My objective is that I want my team to make themselves redundant in the system because that’s how I work. Today whatever happens to me, Isobar will only grow because it’s on the shoulders of 300 people, and not just one person. That’s the legacy we have built.


The global market scenario in the last 10 years has changed a lot and Agencies are getting tough competition from a brand’s in-house marketing teams. Has that happened for Isobar India too? What is Isobar India doing to stay above the competition, in general, and specifically to this new set of unseen competition?

It happens, but we are about digital transformation and e-commerce. There have been clients who have set up their own shop and that’s true even for mainline, why only digital but then they have come back saying ok, it’s not our job. The thing is simple if a client is manufacturing a car it’s his job to sell it. For me, I want to excel in the job that I am doing. The objective should be that if you find something that you can invest in and that does a great job and goes ahead then that’s great. I don’t think that the brief to an internal agency is to do the best they can yet generate x amount of profit. For me, I need to generate profit & how will I do that – by being ahead of the curve and need to be the best. If I am getting into experimenting and creating new frontiers the benefit will be of clients but the job of internal agencies is not to push the envelope again and again and again because that’s not what the company is for.


We have learned that employees at Isobar tend to stick in much longer than the industry standard. Is the environment too comfortable for them or the resources are well fed?

It’s about the culture of the organization. From day 1, my focus has been that we empower our people. We run it like an entrepreneur set up and it’s not just that I am an entrepreneur but each individual in this agency is an entrepreneur. It’s a very different environment where some people are not very comfortable with environment which just gives them a factory setup where they just have to do their jobs but a lot of Isobar that I believe is in that I want people to come back and challenge and say that they want to do more and how can they grow. We are looking at building more entrepreneurs. Seniority is something which is different from ability. If a junior person comes to me and says he has a great idea, I wouldn’t mind backing him up. The other thing that is very clear is that we are generally very nice people. We think a lot about our teams. And I believe my first job or responsibility is towards my team. We believe if the team isn’t there then we are don’t exist especially now that we are 300 people.


 Can we expect Isobar to emerge as a clear leader by the end of this FY? What’s in the pipeline? How is 2019 looking for Isobar?

Our pipeline is strong and we are hoping to hear at least 8 new wins that we will announce in the next three months. We are also looking at acquisitions because there are so many things happening in this places like firms which are good with AR, VR, Voice and e-commerce and some others. As a business, you can only do so much. Isobar organically will be focussing on 1 or 2 things. Acquisitions will fill some of these gaps which we feel that can’t be focused on because of bandwidth issues. The future goal, we will focus on at least getting two digital transformation projects by the end of 2018 and of course, a lot of e-commerce will be the focus. We will maintain the standard without any question. We will be always at the forefront of the changes happening.