Arati Rao
Jun 07, 2011

Profile: “Creatives like client servicing to add value”

Jishnu Sen, newly promoted president and CEO of Grey India, tells Arati Rao about his career in account management

Profile: “Creatives like client servicing to add value”

With Jishnu Sen moving seamlessly up into his new position as president and chief executive officer, the evidence suggests that the Grey India machine runs on smoothly in recent times without experiencing either highs or lows. For Sen, it’s another step in a long career that surprisingly started in copywriting at Hindustan Thomson Associates (HTA, now JWT) Kolkata. At the time, in 1989, he was at the end of his first year in college, and a year and half later, he was asked if he wanted to join servicing after a presentation at a meeting. “I asked, ‘Is it because I’m a bad copywriter?’ Probably lying, they said no, and that I would make a better servicing person. I’m glad because I really enjoy account management,” he recalls. After three years, Sen shifted to HTA Delhi and was with the agency from 1992-98, terming them the “Golden years when Pepsi was doing everything right”.  Then in 1998, his first international vacation led to an unexpected broadening of horizons. “I met Gord McLean (who was then the global head for the Colgate business for Y&R based out of New York) through Ajay Banga (currently the global head of MasterCard). McLean asked me to come and work for him, and I moved to New York in 1998,” explains Sen.  

Sen describes his time with Y&R New York as fabulous – “It gave me real big brands, with scale.” He then moved to Singapore as the regional account director on Colgate for Asia, before deciding to head back home. “I came back to India to pursue love,” says Sen with a smile. He continues, “I rejoined HTA in Delhi as AVP – I used to run the Glaxo SmithKline Beecham, Pizza Hut and ESPN accounts. And then the famous story happened, that in 2002, Bindu Sethi, Ajit Kohli and I were fired.” News reports from around the time suggest the cause was that they were to join DDB Needham which was rumoured to be starting in India.  “It [getting fired] was a defining experience for me,” says Sen. “After that, I’ve never taken anything for granted in my life - my success or my relationships.” 

Sen admits he was a little out of sorts for a while, but eventually moved to Hong Kong with Y&R, this time running the Colgate business for APAC, and then took on another shift to New York around 2006. “My next life defining moment was when I bumped into Nirvik Singh on a visit to Hong Kong and he  asked me if I felt like running an agency. I asked which one, and he asked me to come and join Grey in India, with the job of running the Mumbai office,” he says. “After three months of vacillation, I decided to take it up.” 

Sen says Singh was right when he said there’s a difference between running an account however large it may be to learning how to run an agency. “When I came here, the first few days were fabulous. We pitched for Bindaas and JM Financial and won both. I still maintain Raj Kurup, who was the creative head then, is a fabulous creative person. It’s a pity that he left within weeks of my joining with half the creative department to go form Creativeland Asia. We lost a bunch of clients. So the first four months was a terrible phase in the life of Grey Mumbai. It was literally being thrown in to the deep end of the pool and we had to learn as we went along. But in that first year, we doubled the size of the Mumbai despite the losses. New people and clients were in place,” he says.  

Sen was promoted to chief operating officer in 2009, and was recently elevated further to president and chief executive officer of Grey India. “The difference between two years ago and now is that I was put in charge of operations but there was also Nirvik Singh who was CEO; now we’re saying, ‘Jishnu is it.’,” he explains. 

Asked about whether account management is viewed as a critical cog in the wheel, even by those in the stream, Sen replies, “Honestly I believe that account management is the thing that holds it all together. The best definition I’ve heard of account management actually came from an ex-client who said that account management represents the client at the agency’s office and the agency at the client’s office. So in the agency, it is your mandate to think about your client’s problems. You have a huge opportunity to value add and I think clients want that. Even creatives like an account person who adds value to the process. Nobody wants a courier. I really challenge account management to say, ‘I have an idea.’” He adds, “The second level is that you have to believe you’re the voice of the agency at the client’s office. And if you’ve bought into your company’s philosophy, then you should add value to the conversation in a way that will make you famous as well.” 

Questioned about how advertising practices abroad are different from here, Sen responds, “Now that I have the hindsight of having worked abroad for nineyears, I’ll tell you there isn’t much that’s different, except that somehow they get the paperwork right there more than we do here. When you’re going for a meeting in New York, there’s an agenda sheet etc. Here it’s a little bit on the fly.” On whether there are best practices in account management that he’d like to see adopted here, he says, “At the junior level of account management, I’d really like to see more organisation of information: basic hygiene stuff like competitive reviews. It’s about driving a business; what happens next in an account should be the juniormost account person’s job. In Delhi, one team sends five reports to the client by scouring the net, going to the dealership and finding out about their wants. A team here came up with their own category newsletter.” 

Sen is happy with what he’s achieved so far at Grey. “Over the last two years, Grey India has truly become a fabulous agency aiming to famous and effective work,” he says. Asked about the future, he preferred to name qualitative goals over quantitative ones. “I want us to be an agency that clients believe they get value from, whose work is talked about by other creative, and that work should have a clear strategic underpinning. Lastly, and the one closest to my heart, is that I want to be an employer of choice, within the advertising world. I want to have the most fun, and I want to be an agency that spends and invests in training,” he states. 

The lowdown

Age 41

Where do you live Worli

How do you relax I take the word ‘couch potato’ to a different level. I’m a consummate movie and TV show watcher (I download a lot of stuff, besides going to theatres). I listen to all kinds of music, especially jazz, old Hindi, and am now on this whole Coke Studio trip. And I’m a fabulous cook – one of my Sunday relaxations is that I cook both meals for myself, something new and from scratch.

Always in the fridge More stuff than you would ever want in it – everytime I go to a supermarket I end up picking up more stuff thinking I haven’t made Mexican in a while, or some other dish.  And I don’t get around to it, and it expires. There’s also beer and wine in the wine fridge. 

Favourite media The Indian Express, Mint, the British edition of GQ, Top Gear, Newsweek

Gadgets you own BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad

Motto Be happy; I’m an eternal optimist, and I try to spread that cheer.  

Campaign India

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