interview by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Maria Grachnova, CEO of Dentsu Aegis Network Bulgaria, Romania and Adriatics, on the advantages of the digital world for the modern business

maria grachnova.jpg

Advertising is one of those businesses, which has changed so rapidly and dramatically in the past few years that if you have lived long enough to remember the olden days, you might think of the early 2000s as if they belonged to the pre-Diluvian age. Contemporary advertising is fast, digital, ever changing and constantly fine-tuning to reach its target groups more efficiently, helping old and young, big and small companies to prosper and succeed. Or to fail, if they underestimate how modern advertising works.

There are hardly any professionals more aware of – and eager to make use of – the rapid evolution of modern advertising than Dentsu Aegis Network. The company is an advertising leader with offices all over the world. It offers to its customer companies top-class expertise and opportunities in media as well as digital and creative communication services.

When we arrived in the office of Dentsu Aegis Network in Central Sofia for this interview, a TV tuned to the network's channel was screening one of the company's latest successes (having Coca-Cola China as a client) and the team was busy with the preparation of the upcoming Dentsu Digital Camp. The event in February gathered over 600 experts from Bulgaria and abroad discussing a pressing issue: how to win in digital economy.

Change is a constant state of being for this company and its CEO, Maria Grachnova. She became a part of the company as recent as 2012, when she joined as a managing director of the newly-established Carat Bulgaria. She was recognised for the successful start and development of two projects, the media brands Vizeum in 2013 and iProspect in 2014, and with the Dentsu Aegis Network Bulgaria's CEO position in 2015. In January 2017, Maria Grachnova broadened the portfolio of her current responsibilities for Bulgaria with becoming the CEO for the company's branches in Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. She also joined the Executive Board for Northern, Central and Eastern Europe.

What is the most important thing a company should know in order to advertise in an adequate way in 2017?

First of all, remember that you are living in the digital economy and the new digital order requires new rules especially when you advertise. And second – there are no small and big enterprises in the digital economy – you are either successful or not. Size doesn't matter. Because with the right technology and the right marketing efforts small businesses can change completely, and further lead to change in their entire industry. Two very often provided examples for such transformation are Uber, which completely changed the transportation industry, and Airbnb, which broke the rules in the tourism sector.

With all the disruption, almost every sector is seeing an 'Uberization' or new competition coming in from startups or more digital-focused businesses. What you hear a lot in industry circles is a concept called VUCA – where things are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The business environment, the world we're in, is a VUCA world.

The Bulgarian businesses just need to realise that the future belongs to those who are fast, and speed determines growth. I'll give you an example with our company. We want to be 100% digital economy business by 2020. We declared this ambition two years ago, and in 2015, we set particular targets and objectives how to accomplish this. This approach proves itself successful already as we are officially the fastest growing network in the world, with twice as higher growth than the market average and we are determined to keep this trend in the coming years. In 2016 we were crowned the most innovative marketing company in Bulgaria as well. Because we have a goal, we are working hard to achieve it and this is visible to all.

How are consumers changing the advertising market?

The reality is that consumers are changing, and we have to reflect those consumer changes. Who knows some of the nuances of what's going to happen? Do we know the overall trend? We absolutely do. And we've truly never had as many opportunities to engage with consumers, with people, in a more effective way. We've never had more opportunities to measure what really happens.

Trust in brands and advertisers used to be based on beliefs – you would create a belief around a brand promise – but nowadays people don't trust in beliefs, they trust in experiences. What do their peers say? What is the utility of that brand?

Creativity is about creating immersive experiences, and immersive experiences are much more valuable than one-way messages. And that is very much a brand commerce approach – every time you interact with a brand as a consumer, you should be able to buy it. It is a big challenge but it is a great opportunity for both the clients and their agencies.

What you consider as the biggest achievement of the Bulgarian digital scene?

Definitely – the rise of programmatic advertising and data. Data is becoming the new currency in our business. What we try to do as marketers and communicators has not been changed radically. We are trying to reach the right people at the right time in the most adequate and exciting way. The way we do this, however, is now radically different due to data and programmatic advertising. Each audience has the potential to create value, to be activated and that can be monetised. The data helps us dive deep into consumer behaviour to an entirely new level of detail; and programmatic advertising enables us to laser-target our messages, make them appropriate and personal to the users.

What global technology do you consider most important and why?

Virtual reality. It is the latest attempt to redefine 'interaction,' after the birth of world wide web.

Your favourite digital campaign is...
One of my favourite is the Roller Babies from Evian back far far away in 2009. This ad was different, adorable, and funny! This made the word spread and people repost and share this video. This ad started as a You Tube campaign and exploded from there.

Your first Dentsu Digital Camp conference in Bulgaria in February was perceived as a great success from the industry. How did you succeed to gather more than 600 people at one place?

This one was really a big achievement. It was built to be a success but even we did not expect to have such a great response across the industry. In my opinion the marketing professionals were just eager to acquire more knowledge, to discover new solutions, to share experiences and get inspired. And we provided them with a meaningful platform to do so and to understand how to win in the digital economy. We drew together globally renowned experts from Dentsu Aegis agencies with the most innovative media owners and the most powerful and progressive marketers, combining the C-level networking opportunities with topics such as multiscreen advertising, multichannel experiences, new media models, innovations and disruptive consumer trends.

It turned out to be a recipe for success that will definitely change the way we approach the consumers of tomorrow.

What is the secret of your success?

It's not a secret – my team! I believe in them. They are my strength. They are 'guilty' for the success of our business.

Everyone should realise that in this connected world, we must share more with them, to talk more with them and to learn – from them and with them. And perhaps most importantly – to stop the vicious practice to hire people who look alike – no one will benefit from a team that looks, sounds and thinks the same way. Digital economy teaches us that we should encourage the change, new ways of working and to appreciate different thinking. Here's what gets me really excited. We do a global check-in with our staff once a year – and one of the questions we ask is, 'do you feel empowered to make decisions to do your job better?' We had 100% positive response to that question. That's very powerful. I believe that all I can do is influence, and empower, and inspire as a leader. What people want is to know where they’re going and they want to be inspired about it.

Which are the challenges you're seeking to overcome this year?

We have this vision of innovating the way brands are built. That is our focus. We think there are four things: organization, talent, data and tech. Those are the things we have to continue to invest in.
And in terms of organization, we have to make sure we can become a systemic knowledge business. That will let us be much more effective and seamless, both in the way we innovate internally and the way we operate and deliver solutions to clients.


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