Profile: Growing together, sans baggage and the silos

Narayan Devanathan, EVP, national planning head, Dentsu India Group, talks Ananya Saha through his ad journey

Jul 26, 2013 10:23:00 PM | Article | Ananya Saha

Narayan Devanathan’s cabin is as lively as the man himself. With infectious enthusiasm, the executive vice-president, national planning head of Dentsu India group, is a man on a mission - to make Dentsu a place without silos where everybody leaves their baggage behind and grows together. When he joined in 2011, few months after Rohit Ohri took charge as executive chairman, it was action time at Dentsu India with several entries and exits. The going since then has been good.

Journey to advertising

Devanathan had a rather confused career path that led him to advertising. Belonging to an orthodox Tamil Iyengar family, his parents dreamed of him becoming a doctor. Since he did not get a good ranking in two entrance exams he appeared in, Devanathan ended up with an MBA (in marketing) from Osmania University. During the course, he did an internship with Mudra, Bangalore. “I thought it might be interesting but it was probably the worst stint of my advertising career,” says Devanathan, while admitting that the profile of door-to-door cold calling for surveys did teach him a lot.

After his MBA in 1994, he decided to become a copywriter and joined RK Swamy BBDO. After two years there, he joined a start up, Vyapti. While there, he applied and got through to Iowa State University for a Masters in Mass Communications on a full scholarship in 1998. The course, turned out to be very easy for him. After graduating, he joined Admerasia as copywriter in New York, where he worked for a year. With an aim to pursue PhD, he joined University of Wisconsin-Madison but decided not to continue and graduated with a degree in MA, Strategic Communications, in 2003. “The course opened my eyes to human behaviour. I thought that planning might be something I should try,” he reveals. The opportunity to work with Cramer Krasselt as senior planner came about, accounting for three enriching years.

On his stint in US, Devanathan recalls, “I got to work on GE Healthcare. This was a time when GE Medical was being recast as a healthcare company rather than just as a manufacturer of medical equipment, globally. It was probably the farthest you could get from selling soaps and shampoos (not to imply that the latter is not exciting). I got a chance to work with brilliant people - scientists and researchers who were literally putting together the next medical miracle. From an advertising perspective, I got to work on repositioning a global brand in a critical category.”

Devanathan returned to India in 2007 and joined Ogilvy, but quit after spending two years as senior director planning. He reasons, “I could not do the politics. It kills the fun and purpose of working.” From there, he moved to Euro RSCG in December 2009. Though everyone said would be ‘the biggest mistake of his life’, he still moved because of Suman Srivastava, he recalls. After Srivastava quit, he thought that he and the team would be able to take the legacy forward, but that was not to be. And again, he cites office politics as the reason for his parting ways with the agency in 2011.

Work in progress

Even before he had thought of quitting Euro RSCG, he got a call from Dentsu – which, according to him, “had a reputation of not even being worth talking about till two years back.” He met Koichi Fukomoto, COO at Dentsu India, which followed a meeting with Ohri. “While I had told the recruiter that I was not looking at joining Dentsu, I was pleasantly surprised to find a brutal honesty with which the gentlemen talked about what is wrong with the agency,” says Devanathan.

He is admittedly having the ‘time of his life’ at Dentsu, as he tries to integrate all the functions seamlessly, and create a culture of openness. Easier said than done? “Yes. We are creative people; we are territorial about our ideas. It is time to knock those egos down because ideas may come from anywhere. Learning by doing and having fun in what we are doing is what we are trying to achieve,” he explains.

Devanathan underlines that that the work has to do the talking, and touches upon another challenge: clients, at whose end too there is a lot of churn. “To get them aligned to our thought, and getting clients who give us freedom to partner and grow with them in a way that we believe is the best way, is a difficult task. But we are doing it especially after integration with Aegis group, the Webchutney acquisition, Dentsu Digital’s alignment with Carat,” he adds. The intent is to be able to present a common solution to clients leveraging the group’s resources.

Refusing to name ‘favourite’ clients or accounts, Devanathan says, “I have truly enjoyed every single brand and category I’ve worked on simply because each new brand or category has brought with it the opportunity to learn something totally new for me.” That, to him, remains the ‘single biggest motivation’ to continue to stay in advertising.

“When I look back at all the opportunities I’ve got, I realise I’ve been truly lucky. From fast food to healthcare, from technology giants to home and personal care, from household gadgets to mobile phones, from dotcoms to banking, from beverages to b2b, I’ve been able to work on brands above- below, through, and across lines,” surmises Devanathan, who has also written two books for children that are yet to be published.

The Flip Side

Age 41 years

What do you do to relax Travel

Recent travel trips Switzerland, Norway

Favourite authors Enid Blyton, PG Wodehouse

Music you like to listen to Carnatic

If not in advertising, what would you be Zoologist

Professional motto You don’t have to prove yourself to anybody, least of all to yourself