Shephali Bhatt
Jul 28, 2012

Profile: From Magna to Disney, a storyteller’s journey

Subramaniam’s love for advertising and creativity is partly inherent and partly acquired. Shephali Bhatt tells his story

Profile: From Magna to Disney, a storyteller’s journey

Your age and the average age of the market you deal with need not always correlate. In fact, it can be just the opposite, as it has been in the case of Vijay Subramaniam, executive director, Disney Kids Network. “As I have grown older, I have started working for brands that target a younger and younger audience,” he adds. In his mid 20s, Subramaniam was targeting the 35-plus age group as a management trainee at Magna Publishing. In his 30s, he was trying to understand the psyche of Indian youth as national sales head of MTV India. And now in his early 40s, he is dealing with a market that caters to the four to 14-year olds. The kids’ network has kept the child in him alive and kicking. “I don’t even feel like I am coming to work except when I am looking at the excel sheets,” he quips.

Subramaniam’s love for advertising, creativity and storytelling is partly inherent and partly acquired. Having spent his early childhood shuttling between Abu Dhabi and Bengaluru (of which he prefers the latter any day), he picked up the habit of reading from his father. It grew on him since he was travelling frequently on his own (He had a passport at the age of two and a half which was a big deal back then). The fascination for advertising came from his uncle who was in Sista’s in the 60s. “I loved the man. He was a wordsmith, a charming adlander who used to smoke a pipe. I started associating all those facets with advertising,” he says. The love for storytelling was born of watching a piece of animated cinema, ‘The Lady and the Tramp’.

The orientation came in handy during his graduation, helping him devise  ways to market college fests via the storytelling route - with a dash of branding. “I didn’t even know those terms back then but all I remember was that I was fairly active in organising these events and I would enjoy public speaking, extempore.,” he chuckles.

Post graduation, he pursued mass communication at KJ Somaiya, Mumbai. “Though I had realised that love for advertisng, copy and storytelling doesn’t mean I would be an ace writer,  I thought the course would help me better my writing skills,” he admits. In 1992, two days after his birthday (31 July), he saw an opening for management trainees in a publishing house. He went for the interview, only to find out that the publishing house was Magna Publishing and that he was soaking wet thanks to Mumbai monsoons. “I told myself that you have braved the rains to get here, take the interview, there’s nothing to lose,” he reminisces. The then CEO of Magna, Neelkanth Shetgeri interviewed him for five minutes and asked him to meet Nari Hira. Subramaniam had to discontinue  mass com after that meeting because he was hired within the next few minutes. “Six years later I got to know that in a note that Shetgeri had sent to Mr Hira before he met me, he had written, ‘this guy reminds me of me when I joined you’,” he recollects.

From learning the basics of ad sales to running the branch in Bengaluru which involved distribution, product development, commercial negotiations, Subramaniam gained varied experience in seven years at Magna. “Working with Mr Hira was fantastic. It was like standing in front of John Lasseter of Pixar; you are bound to be stunned. On his bad day, he would be two steps ahead of you in thought process. On a good day, he would be twenty steps ahead,” he recalls.

In 1999 he found a ‘new shiny toy’, television. He joined Mediascope. “Rohinton Maloo hired me at the agency where they represented the entire Turner network in India - Cartoon Network, CNN and TNT. It enlivened the child in me again and made me look at animation professionally. Most of all, it rekindled my whole fascination with storytelling,” he says. Six months later, he was given an offer to join Channel V (STAR TV). He recounts, “I met Deepak Mirpuri for what was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting. It lasted for over an hour and a half after which I was offered a job. My love for music pushed me to join the organisation (He has a collection of 11,000 audio cassettes to date). At STAR TV, Subramaniam was working under Raj Nayak (Colors). “He paved the way for my journey into the world of TV. I started off with Channel V, and then went on to NatGeo, STAR News and finally STAR Plus. I saw both the pre and post KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepati) days at STAR Plus and learned how success reshapes an organisation. Not to mention the experience of working with Peter Mukerjea. He is the best people manager I have come across. He has an appetite for risk and the knack of managing people through that risk,” he adds.

He moved on to Radio Mirchi in November 2002, after Nayak left STAR to join NDTV. “Radio Mirchi was planning to set up stations in the South. It was a completely new medium which made it all the more exciting,” he mentions. At Radio Mirchi, Subramaniam not only sold the medium but also coached creative adlanders to inspire them to create interesting work for radio. Next stop was MTV India which happened in 2003, courtesy a friend. Abe Thomas, asked him to set up the MTV office in the South. “Six months into the job I was made the sales head of West and South and within a year I was made the national sales head. We started seeing increasing returns on brand-led propositions and realised the opportunities in borrowing a brand’s equity to build another brand,” he recounts. The concept went on to become what is now Viacom Brand Solutions.  

Just as Subramaniam wondered ‘what next’, the Disney opportunity came his way. He joined  Disney in February 2007. “At Disney the vision was to integrate ad sales and promotion to result in a 360-degree marketing communication in order to build Disney’s equity in Indian market,” he explains. Following his vision, Disney India Media Solutions and Alliances was launched in October 2009. Keeping kids and their families at the heart of the strategy, Subramaniam says, “We definitely want to be the leading network in terms of share. That’s the target.” His challenges: cost of entertainment content, underindexed space. His edge: Disney’s legacy and his passion for storytelling.

The Flip Side

Age 42

Where do you live Close to IMAX

What do you enjoy doing besides work? Watch movies, listen to a lot of music, work out, read a lot

Favourite movies Finding Nemo, The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean – 1

Book of all time All I needed to know I learned in Kindergarten

TV series The X-Files

Holiday spot Home

Dream destination Bahamas

Always in the fridge Apples

Gadget iPad

App Flipboard, Echofon

Mantra for life If something feels good, overdo it.

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