“In the last ten years, lot has changed and some things have not changed at all - the fundamentals of the business have not changed. What has changed, for the better, is the industry has become more professional, more accountable and more tech savvy. As a result, the turnaround time is faster. At the same time, a not-so-positive change is that remunerations have gone down in the last ten years. It has become more difficult for agencies to stand up and ask for what is duly theirs,” admits Suresh Balakrishna, chief executive officer, Brand Programming Network (BPN) and Lintas Initiative Outdoor, on the changed scenario in the media agency business. After a 10-year separation from Initiative and the agency business, Balakrishna joined Lintas Media group in January 2012. In 2002 he quit Initiative media to join Hindustan Times as VP - sales.
Balakrishna joined Mail Today (India Today group) in 2007 as the chief operating officer and set it up from scratch – moving from DNA. From recruiting the first employee, to building up the product, to managing the ad revenues, marketing, and distribution, he’s done it all. “With Mail Today, the intent was not to displace a Times of India or Hindustan Times but to create a niche which did not exist. By March 2011, we had more than 3,00,000 readers in Delhi, which is a significant achievement in such a cluttered market. We did well,” reminisces Balakrishna.
However, he rues the economic meltdown of 2008-‘09 which adversely affected the fortunes of the paper. Mail Today would have achieved far greater success had the downturn not taken place, he says in retrospect.
In March 2011, wild life enthusiast Balakrishna quit Mail Today and went on a sabbatical as he had been working for nearly 25 years without a break. Apart from travelling, reading, and catching up on movies, the sabbatical gave him a chance to pursue his passion: teaching. He became a full time lecturer at Xavier Institute of Communications (XIC) and an adjunct faculty at Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication (SIMC), teaching advertising and marketing. He also conducted training programmes for media sales teams of Dainik Bhaskar and Sakal.
It was at this time that he connected with Lynn de Souza, chairman and chief executive officer of Lintas Media Group (LMG). She informed him of IPG Mediabrands coming to India and the intent to start a new media agency. “Lynn told me that there will be a lot of international opportunities for learning and exposure to world markets, which I found exciting. Also, an international network has the added advantage of mobility where a person can become a head of a region even while sitting in India. You can expand your career internationally,” he explains.
“Secondly, Lintas is like home. I was here for seven years, and I know this place extremely well. Moreover, Lynn and I go a long way; we started Initiative Media in 1995, where she was the first and I was the second employee of the firm. The sense of starting something new and setting it up was very exciting. Thus, I joined LMG,” Balakrishna states.
Once back in the media agency arena, he took some time to re-orient himself with the business. When he joined LMG, the name of the new agency to be set up was being decided on and a lot of ground work had to be done. Balakrishna got busy with structuring the agency, introducing himself to clients, and deciding on which businesses would be given to the new agency. Finally, in June 2012, BPN was launched with a team of 70 people spread across five offices - in Mumbai, Kolkata, New Delhi, Cochin and Hyderabad.
On the journey so far, Balakrishna says, “Our billing volumes have touched Rs 900 crores. We are in a very exciting phase; we won many new businesses: Henkel , Jayalakshmi Silks , OCL, Yepme.com, Jon Deere, Dr Reddy’s and now recently the Malaysia Airlines business in Delhi. At the same time, we have not lost a single business. In fact, two of our accounts - Bajaj Auto and Jyothy Laboratories - have increased their advertising spends. We are trying to excel at the balancing act (between the new wins and retaining the old businesses), which every agency tries to maintain.”
While chatting up with Balakrishna at his office in Lower Parel, one cannot help but notice the plaque bearing the name ‘Eventus Corporate badminton tournament 2008’. On prodding, Balakrishna reveals that his team at India Today group had defeated Airtel to take home the plaque. He is an avid player and hits the courts thrice a week. “There are many people from this industry who play badminton, such as Nandini Dias (LodestarUM), P M Balakrishnan (Allied Media), and Ravi Rao (Mindshare). We do socialise over a game of badminton,” he says.
An eternal optimist, he believes in living life to the fullest. Despite a hectic work schedule and gruelling deadlines, he manages to take time out to learn Sanskrit and light music. He continues to teach at SIMC and is a guest lecturer at IIM Calcutta. If not in the media industry, he would have been either a teacher or a talk show host or RJ, he says.
As a Chemistry student at Khalsa College, he realised that he was a misfit. Hence, for post graduation, he enrolled at XIC to pursue the advertising and marketing course. His career started at The Times of India in 1987. Since then, he has spent two and a half decades in various capacities in the print space (DNA, Mail Today, Hindustan Times), as well as in buying and planning media (Initiative Media, Indusind Media, and Ogilvy & Mather).
Now at BPN, his focus is to provide brand strategy for clients with the impetus being on the brand and not just the media. He explains, “The difference BPN will bring to the table is that we are coming to you from a brand perspective not a media perspective. The value add that we are bringing in is that we are almost doing an account planner’s job for most of our clients. We actually look at the consumers, the insights we get from consumers, the brand, where the brand wants to go, and what the brand tasks involved are. There is a lot of brand planning or programming that goes on; it’s not just media.”
BPN’s newly created branded content cell is another important point on the media man’s agenda. It has a specialised team to handle in-film placements and brand associations. Some of BPN’s work in this space have been for Citizen Watches (Dark Knight), Big Cola (Spiderman), and Amul Macho (Agent Vinod).
Balakrishna’s game plan for the future includes bringing shopper sciences to India. The intent is to leverage significant technological advances that BPN has made internationally, and bring them to India next year. While the mission is to grow the agency and win more accounts, he wants the agency to be respected. “We are not necessarily going to be the biggest agency in India, and that is not our objective. However, we definitely want to be among the most respected agencies,” he surmises.
The Flip Side
Where do you live Chembur
Favourite TV shows Criminal Minds, Grey’s Anatomy, 24
Favourite gadget iphone
Favourite game Thor
Hobbies Sanskrit, singing
Favourite holiday destination Jim Corbett National Park
Dream destination Eastern Europe – Prague
Mantra for life I pretty much live life one day at a time and I am a very positive kind of person I only see the glass half full