“Inever thought I’d be in the media business again,” confesses Srinivas, digging into hot idlis at the ITC Maratha in Mumbai. He terms his current stint as chairman, Starcom MediaVest Group India (SMG), and MD, LiquidThread APAC, as ‘a culmination of all that I’ve done in the past’.
Our breakfast meeting follows a celebration that ended in the wee hours of the morning, to celebrate an account win - that of Axis Bank, the most recent of 26 wins since January 2011 when he came on board. He’s not complaining.
Things have changed a lot since Srinivas started off in media. They are also very different from the time of Ravi Kiran, who stepped down as CEO, South Asia at SMG in 2010.
“Ravi Kiran did a fabulous job of diversifying the agency from around the year 2000. It was also the pre-digital era, and the thrust was on activation, rural and other avenues. This is a different era; the rules of the game have changed,” explains Srinivas.
We had to agree. The specialist divisions have now become part of VivaKi, and SMG has defined its pillars for growth as insights, digital and content.
The early days
The engineer from BITS (Pilani) and MBA from XLRI landed between ‘the guy composing radio jingles’ and the ‘brand planner’ at Lowe Lintas (then Lintas) Bangalore by accident. Craving home food, he chose Bangalore as the city for his MBA summer project.
“I spent two full days at offices on MG Road, and dropped my CV off at 10 or 12 companies. I literally begged for a summer project. The last building on the road was Shiv Prasad Complex, where Lintas was located. They saw that I was an engineer and had an MBA, and thought I’d fit into media,” he recalls.
What might have also helped was work experience prior to his MBA, at the TVS Group.
The summer project was for Lipton Tea. On completing the project, he had a job offer from the agency. He was overjoyed to go back to Bangalore and join Lintas in 1993. Within two years, though he regretted joining the media side of the business.
Srinivas adds, “Those days, it was a backroom function. All the buzz was in account planning and creative. My batch mates were in MNC banks and FMCG companies, and very happy.”
That’s when the HUL (then HLL) pitch happened. He had already moved to JWT (then HTA), and was among the first volunteers to work on the Levers account. Alongside Sandeep Tarkas, Sundar Raman and Lakshmi Narasimhan, he was part of the core Fulcrum team.
“The first head of Fulcrum, Suresh Shankar, is to me the best leader we have had in the media industry till date,” he beams.
Having done enough of media planning, buying, and client servicing, Srinivas wanted to get onto the business side of things. He moved to Madison.
“I couldn’t have had a better mentor and guide at that stage,” he recalls, referring fondly to Sam Balsara. He added, “I credit whatever I’ve learnt about the business side of a media agency to him.”
The biggest high of his career, according to him, came a year after joining Madison: the Coke pitch of 1999.
“We’d done the pitch; I’d given up hope. My wife and I, with our family, went to Rishikesh. I got the news that we had won the pitch there. Rishikesh has since become one of our favourite places,” says Srinivas.
When Srinivas returned to GroupM in 2004, he wanted to be in a company that would give him exposure abroad. That was achieved through Maxus, where around a year after taking up the responsibility for India, he was mandated to head the Asia-Pacific region.
“We had a good team and there was great support from Andre (Nair) and Ashutosh (Srivastava). Around 2006-’07, seven of the top 10 GroupM accounts were with Maxus,” he recalls.
The regional role came with its drawbacks. In little more than a year of handling the role, Srinivas recalls that he was living out of a suitcase.
On factors at play during his exit, he says, “Running the Asia-Pacific operations out of India was just not feasible in those days. Also, I thought between Fulcrum, Madison and Maxus, I’d done pretty much everything in media. I had been on the verge of moving to Singapore, so I was already planning succession on the Coke business. So the exit wasn’t that difficult.”
A well-deserved break of six months followed, allowing him to ‘recharge’. It was during this phase that he started meeting a lot of entrepreneurs. It was also a time when a lot of ‘IT guys’ were coming back from the US. He came across a set of people looking to create a business out of media convergence technology. Consulting with them for close to two years taught Srinivas something new: how to pitch for funding.
That was also the time when he came into contact with Times Private Treaties. That too, offered fresh learnings for Srinivas.
“I did stuff I’ve never done before. There were people in my team who were CAs, and I learnt from them things like deal structuring and negotiation. The first year was about scaling up; the second year, when the markets weren’t doing too well, it was more about relooking at the investment model,” he notes.
The return to media, via his current role at SMG, was born of a meeting with SMG’s global CEO Laura Desmond in October 2010.
Srinivas explains, “The opportunity excited me: to leverage the global brand equity of SMG and create a truly differentiated offering in India. Especially now, when things have changed dramatically.”
The going has been good over the last 18 months. Srinivas is not looking too far ahead, though. Or if he is, he’s not telling us. He has a job on hand, he reminds us: consolidating the account wins at SMG, and staying ahead on research and tools to stay true to the promise of being the ‘human experience’ company.
“I never have planned too far ahead. If I keep getting challenging assignments and projects, I could go on forever,” he surmises.
The Flip Side
DOB 14 March 1966
Live in Gurgaon (originally from Bangalore)
Relaxation Listening to music, watching TV, time with family
What would you have done if not in media? May be teaching
Favourite movie Deewar (Amitabh Bachchan)
Favourite book Illusions (by Richard Bach)
Must have gadget Cell phone
Dream destination ‘Glasshouse on the Ganges’ near Rishikesh
Can’t leave home without My car keys
Mantra for life Listen to your heart