Six months ago, Vikram Sakhuja’s phone rang. It was newly appointed GroupM global president Dominic Proctor with a proposal that would change the face of the media business: would he be interested in taking on the global remit for GroupM’s youngest media network Maxus?
The offer marked the first time a global CEO would be based in Asia. Despite the significance, Sakhuja is keen to downplay its importance, suggesting instead that it is a natural step in a globalised world where technology blurs geographical boundaries.
He reveals that during the ensuing discussion around the new role, the conversation around where he would be based was brief. “He [Proctor] just said: ‘Where would you prefer to be based?’ and I said right now I am in Mumbai, is that an option? So he said ‘Why not?’ That was literally all it took.”
Despite his modesty over the significance of the appointment, Sakhuja admits there will be some curiosity within the industry about the decision, suggesting that if it results in the implementation of more relevant structures and models it may influence others to adopt the model. But he adds that his location may well shift if business priorities change and it becomes difficult to continue to operate out of Mumbai. “I think one has to be open to that,” he says.
The promotion was a significant step for Sakhuja, who has only worked in media for just over 10 years, having spent the majority of his professional life on the client side. He started his career at Procter & Gamble, where he is credited with appointing India’s first media agency-of-record, something he is again characteristically self-effacing about. “It was just one of those things,” he says. “Nobody had really challenged the status quo and this was something that was happening [elsewhere globally], so I just seized the opportunity and took it forward.”
After eight years at P&G, more than four years at Coca-Cola, and a brief stint at Star TV, Sakhuja moved over to the media agency side, climbing the ranks within the walls of WPP to take on the role of CEO South Asia for GroupM.
In his position as global CEO for Maxus, he will now be overseeing many more markets, a move that will undoubtedly bring fresh challenges. As Neil Stewart, Maxus Asia-Pacific CEO, pointed out, Sakhuja will now need to get his “head around the world, rather than the world of India”.
Sakhuja readily admits his experience and expertise is highly India-centric. “I’m clearly pushing my comfort zone when it’s coming to understanding how the rest of the markets are working,” he says. “I am very excited about it because I view it as a learning opportunity.”
Sakhuja says he is driven by a search for business initiatives that have the potential to be transformational, but adds he also works by a piece of advice from a colleague at P&G: treat your company’s money like your own. “It makes sure there is an entrepreneurial streak in you,” he says. “You could be running the biggest company in the world, but if you do it with the sensibility of managing it like it’s your own money, that is good business practice.”
It’s likely Sakhuja’s appointment will mark a change in leadership style for Maxus, with Sakhuja describing his predecessor Kelly Clark as “one of the best charmers I have seen”, before admitting that “charm” is not a word he would use to describe his own style. “I’m doing the smart thing and right now just trying to understand all the good stuff that he has done… and then slowly trying to put in some of my own plans,” he says. “Currently what has been great for me is this entire piece about walking into something which has got great momentum behind it.”
Certainly, Maxus has enjoyed significant growth in recent years — RECMA lists a 22.4 per cent increase in billings in APAC between 2010 and 2011 — and Sakhuja is tasked with continuing this trajectory. As such, he says new business will very much be the mantra going forward, pointing to plenty of room for growth across the globe, given the lack of client conflict.
Unlike other networks, Maxus revenues are “pretty evenly distributed” between the United States, EMEA and APAC, Sakhuja says, adding he expects all three regions to continue to be growth engines for the network. Given this, how does he view the challenge of delivering growth, given market conditions in Europe and the US?
“I’m excited, it’s a challenge and it turns me on,” he says. “I believe in the saying that growth comes to those who know where to look for it. And I seriously mean it. I’m an eternal optimist, so I always believe there is always room for growth in however mature a market you might have. You just have to find the opportunity.”
He says 2013 will be a time for businesses to innovate, improve products and ‘cut the flab’ — something he says Maxus doesn’t have a lot of.
“I think this is the time when we have to really build a strategy… and make some very decisive choices on the areas we would like to strengthen our capability and show our difference.”