From a digital marketing agency to an agency for the digital age: Isobar completes 10 years

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When Shamsuddin Jasani left his job at Hungama to launch Isobar in India, there were obviously some fears and doubts. But there were never any doubts about the future he saw for Isobar.

“When I launched Isobar, I was 30 years old. For me it is my first baby. I am synonymous with Isobar and that is because I do breathe and live Isobar. When we started Isobar, I knew we were onto something big,” said Jasani, Group MD, South Asia, Isobar.

Launched in 2008, it probably wasn’t the most opportune time to start anything new. The world saw a global financial meltdown in 2009 but according to Jasani, that worked very well for the organisation.

“The global financial crisis started in 2009 and the industry itself went through a down phase that year but it kind of worked to our advantage because we found really good talent. 2008-2009 was globally a bad year financially. But it was a good time for digital because people started cutting down budgets. If you have small budgets, you cannot experiment on television or print but you could do that on digital. So one of the ways in which recession helped us was that we could get small monies from clients to start experimenting,” said Jasani.

Jasani agrees that the first few years were all about putting one’s head down and concentrating on the product (which here is Isobar). To begin with, it was just a team of two people. Jasani says he has played multiple roles in the initial days of the agency’s existence. From meeting clients to discussing strategies to getting photocopies, he has done it all. The real growth, both for the agency and the industry at large, happened from 2012.

“It was 2012 when we really hit our strides and went from 40 people to 140 people in a matter of a year and a half. That is when we really grew. The first four years were all about putting our heads down and making sure that we had the right product going. It was not explosive growth in the initial years. It exploded 2012 onwards. This was also the time when digital became 12-15% of the market, that is when the uptick really happened.”

Today, the agency is 300 people strong and they still have the brands on their roster that came to them in the initial days.

“Our very first client was Symantec. In fact, in the first four months we signed on four clients, which is a very good number for a two-member team,” said Jasani.

The agency still retains some of the brands like Reebok they signed in their very first year. This, says Jasani, is not very common for a dynamic industry like digital.

For Jasani, one of the biggest measures of an agency’s success are its people.

“Our talent is one of the most sought after in the industry. Sure, that makes retaining talent that much harder but it also means that we have created an atmosphere where talent gets nurtured. The three main stakeholders for our growth have been the clients who showed faith in us, the work that we have done and most importantly the people we have and have had,” said Jasani.

One nugget of wisdom that Ashish Bhasin shared with Jasani and one that he still follows is “hire people who are better than you”.

“My biggest learning in these 10 years has been that make yourself redundant. Build a team that can easily replace you. If they are not able to do that you will be stuck where you are, you will never grow. Isobar doesn’t depend on me. Isobar is about the 300 people who are a part of the organisation, it is not dependent on one single individual. Even if you take me out of the equation, that will not change Isobar,” said Jasani.

In the 10 years that Jasani has headed Isobar, the digital landscape has changed dramatically. The country went from laptops and desktops to mobile phones and from buying things from the local kirana shop to e-commerce platforms. But according to Jasani, the biggest breakthrough that the industry saw was Jio.

“Now is really the exciting time, especially post the Jio explosion. It really changed the numbers drastically because data has become so cheap and internet and digital is in the hands of everyday consumers. Organically, the whole digital ecosystem might have grown 30% but because of Jio the numbers have shot up. In the last two years, Jio has made a major difference. When we started in 2008, e-commerce did not exist; we were still a laptop and desktop market. But so much has changed and if you look back, it has just been 10 years. Now, the changes are going to happen faster. What you saw happening in the last five years will now happen in a year,” said Jasani.

With the explosion of digital, one saw an abundance of digital marketing agencies coming up. Jasani believes Isobar’s positioning from day one – that of a full-service digital agency– has set them apart and held them in good stride. But going forward they want to be more than just a digital marketing agency. The recently launched Isobar commerce and strategic consulting are the two main pillars on which Jasani sees Isobar embarking on the next decade of growth.

“Digital is becoming intrinsic to everything a client does and what we really want to get into is how to use digital to transform businesses. We don’t just want to answer the marketing needs, we want to answer the business needs. We spoke about being a full-service digital agency from day one and of course we will not give that up. But going forward we want to be the agency for the digital age and not just a digital marketing agency,” said Jasani.

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