How to win over customers, understand your company’s strengths and weaknesses and bounce back from challenges. Hardened entrepreneur Akanksha Goel, Director of Socialize Agency, opens up in a candid chat with SME Advisor…
Walking into the swanky, plush offices of Socialize, something immediately catches my attention, and it’s not the vibrant décor or the friendly staff. It’s the wall dedicated to client testimonials that displays a line-up of almost every partner that Socialize has worked for. I’m seeing names such as HP, Samsung, Mercedes Benz and OSN. Intrigued by the number (and scale) of their successful campaigns, my first question is: what is your secret recipe? Is there a mantra you follow? “Traditionally, social platforms have been perceived as a way to interact with the customers, and not as critical tools to drive business. We take a slightly different approach – we work with our clients to use an effective combination of art (impactful creative) and science (innovative media) for digital transformation that creates measurable ROI,” Akanksha replies. Akanksha’s strategy is not a result of trial and error. She’s conducted significant research and undergone intensive training in the field at the prestigious Singapore Management University. Her vast experience comes from years of teaching social media masterclasses at institutions such as Murdoch University, Dubai Knowledge Village and Informa. After spending several years on ground, she realised that there was a gap in the market for agencies that could educate and guide brands on innovative ways to communicate with an increasingly digitally savvy regional consumer. “Can you take a second to think back to 2010? That was the time when marketing and communication agencies were a luxury,” quips Akanksha. “We entered the market at a time when social platforms as marketing and communication channels were not well known in the region.”
From start-up to SME success
What catapulted Socialize from a one-woman show to becoming an established, profitable business? The first step, according to Akanksha, was to identify her USPs. “Socialize stands out as a full service digital agency covering everything from planning and ideation, to creative and technical execution, to social strategy and digital media buying. So when clients work with us, they can consolidate all digital activities with a single account management team – which helps us stand out from competition that takes a segmented approach to media planning, social management and digital creative. Socialize is not a starter social/digital agency – we work with brands that understand the benefit of leveraging social networks to drive business growth and are looking for a partner in that journey,” she explains.
Next, Akanksha started thinking about her target audience. After a lot of research and ideation, she realised that her typical client was a large corporate, serving multiple markets who understands the importance of digital and has already started their digital transformation (possibly with another agency) before coming to Socialize. A combination of the right USPs and target audience gave Akanksha the results she was looking for. Socialize gained clients quickly and easily, starting from brands like Swarovski, Samsung and HP; it now services large brands like Mercedes Benz, General Mills, OSN, GEMS Education and Clorox Company. “Brands who have approached us, those who have come on-board, and even clients who have been with us for a while have repeatedly shared that they believe Socialize provides a unique value proposition – a true full service digital agency that can handle their creative, technology, strategy and media needs, all while measuring campaigns and ourselves by business growth,” she says proudly. “Since we worked almost exclusively with marketing savvy multi-national brands, such partnerships allowed us to grow and learn with them, catapulting Socialize into the successful agency it is today. Organic growth, coupled with selectiveness in taking on clients (and even more selectiveness in talent hired) has allowed us to enjoy unparalleled growth and become the region’s leading full-service digital agency, while remaining independent and completely self-funded,” she surmises.
Akanksha describes her the challenging scenario she was faced with: “Working with fast-moving global brands allowed Socialize to super-charge its growth and capabilities. Every year, the brands we work with task us with more responsibilities. In 2015 for instance, we built in-house capability for digital media planning and buying. This fit well into our solution offering – as we were already designing the message, and now we were able to decide when, where and by whom the message was seen. This resulted in more effective campaigns for our clients, and thus increased media organically as a part of our business. As this part of the business expanded, our core revenue stream, margin patterns and growth opportunities – all needed to be rethought. Additionally, we found ourselves competing against – network media agencies. These agencies had scale, bulk discounts and better relationships with suppliers. We had to rethink our approach and our value proposition to ensure media was an enabler, rather than a liability for Socialize and its clients.”
So, how did she go about solving it? “We decided to approach this problem from two angles,” she says as she begins to map her strategies.
- “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” – Dalai Lama XIV. Rather than play a game based on rates and suppliers that we would struggle to win, we decided to break the traditional rules. We decided that the media we sell would not depend on which suppliers we have a better relationship with, or which one gave us better rates – rather it would be based purely on which one would achieve a better result for the client’s working dollar. We focused our time (and the client’s money) on quick and frequent optimisation. We focused on bidding models which provide an open (and now wider) playing field. Most importantly, we stuck to our core principal of keeping business growth at the centre of all decision making.
- “An organisation’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” – Jack Welch. As our teams started deploying large digital media campaigns, we started to notice a knowledge gap between the media team and the digital account management team that were leading the client communication for the campaigns. We made a call to restructure the agency. Instead of have a centralised team doing media, we decided to embed the media planners and performance executives within our account teams. This ensured that throughout the process of ideation to execution, someone with deep media understanding and expertise was involved. By putting these resources under the Account leads, we enabled them to better leverage this capability, and ensured that the media plans and execution would adapt to changing client and campaign needs in real-time. We continued to maintain a Head of Media to ensure thought leadership, and shared learnings across teams.
Akanksha’s decisions are extremely well-thought out and always working towards the larger vision she has in mind for her business. Yet, as a hardened perfectionist, she wishes she had tackled certain situations in a better fashion. “To be honest, we didn’t effectively manage our workforce. The solutions I’ve just mentioned and their execution took some time to formulate. While there were multiple ongoing discussions amongst the senior team during this period, we made the serious misstep of avoiding involving the mid-tier/junior team members until we had a solution. This resulted in us losing some team members during the process, until we committed to the idea and got everyone on board. The lesson that in times of change we need to also communicate (directly from the head of business) across all levels has now been internalised,” she reflects.
The road ahead
Now that Akanksha has moved past her challenges, she is back to doing what she does best: scale her company to reach new heights. But, don’t mistake her ambition for overconfidence. She knows it’s a tough market out there and she is fully prepared for what’s coming. “Socialize operates on the bleeding edge of digital marketing. This has resulted in a very real-time view of changes and choices. We understand we are working in a dynamic market and hence we operate based on the best information available, and very quickly. This agility has meant that we have evolved many times over for our client’s changing needs. We have no preconceived notions about how to solve challenges. Our approach is to consider all the given information, and make a choice which works best at the time, and then continuously learn from and improve that choice. The only learning we continuously apply to our decisions is to keep everyone affected involved. This has led Socialize to becoming what it is today and it is only the beginning – I truly believe that sky’s the limit.” It sure is; fly away Ms. social butterfly!