Shashi Sinha's journey from a shy executive to the CEO-India of IPG Mediabrands

The effervescent leader shares some early day challenges & his future vision

Coming from a sales background, Shashi Sinha had to actually take a pay cut to join the flamboyant team of Anil Kapoor at Ulka in the mid-80s, with the likes of Arvind Wable, Ambi Parameswaran, Niteen Bhagwat, and Nagesh Alai. The core team of the agency then, the men turned out to be the fortune turners for the agency, that was struggling to keep its boat sailing in those years, and Sinha gained prominence as one of the most revered minds within the industry, like all of his counterparts. 

Today, after several decades, this soft-spoken, extremely shy yet confident man, sits on the chair of the CEO of IPG Mediabrands in India, the parent company, which bought the entire stake of Ulka in 2007, managing the second-largest media agency group that manages approximately 20 per cent of the overall media spends in the country. 

In a virtual fireside chat with founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief Anil Wanvari, Sinha shared his journey from being the part of the ambitious suited-booted team of Billy to leading the parent group’s functions in India and more. Edited excerpts follow.

There have been two men in your life who have inspired you greatly; Dr Verghese Kurien and your boss Anil Kapoor, or Billy as you might call him. Please share with us the experience of working with the two. 

The two definitely had a great impact on me. I met Dr Kurien when I was very young and worked for more than three decades with him. He taught me the importance of integrity, conviction, and self-belief. 

But with Anil -- I never called him Billy though as coming from an army background, I was taught from a young age that the boss is sir, and it took me quite some time to get used to calling him Anil too -- it was a different experience. It would be far-fetched to say that he taught us marketing and advertising. But he taught us having guts. 

He used to be very aggressive, very passionate about his work and I have seen him say such difficult words to clients, even to Dr Kurien for that matter, that none in the industry could even imagine saying. 

To give an example, which was also our turnaround story, we were presenting to Air India at that time; JWT was the incumbent agency. Present in the room were (Subhash) Gupte and then minister of civil aviation, Madhavrao Scindia. As usual, we had prepared several designs and while we were presenting it, Scindia said that he is running short of time and Gupte asked us to quickly present what we had got. So, we started showing them the creatives without any logic, that’s when Anil (Kapoor) interrupted us and said, “...han han… aur dikhao… sab dikhao inhe…” (Yes, go on, show them everything you got).  He was visibly pissed. 

But Scindia understood that this man is very passionate about his work and believes in the right campaign while we are forcing him to show more. The rest, as you say, is history. 

There have been so many such incidents and imagine being an agency head so gutsy in those days. 

Read about Shashi Sinha sharing his experience with Dr Kurien  

Thanks for sharing that. You too have had quite a journey within the group. Did you ever imagine that you will reach here, where you are today? 

I did not. Let me tell you a story, I have never shared it with anyone. So, I was working on the servicing side of Ulka, Ambi (Parameswaran) and I used to handle the Mumbai branch. It was in the late 90s that Anil asked me to take up media roles as well, and we began planning to set up Lodestar division. Kalpana Sathe Rao, Apurva Purohit, Arpita Menon, Ambi Parameswaran, and I worked together for it with ten other people. Apurva coined the brand name for us, and it was all going well. We were doing pretty good, we were winning awards, but we used to be very small, contributing hardly 5-6 per cent to the revenue. 

Somewhere in the early 2000s, I was also expected to take a leadership role at a regional media agency that FCB was setting up, but that role was dismantled, and it was very painful. Then in 2004-05, Anil called me, Nagesh was also present in the room, and told me that since I have little exposure to media, why don’t I spin-off and start-up media as a separate company. 

I discussed the proposal with some of my good friends then and they told me that probably Anil is trying to sideline me from FCB Ulka. They suggested that I start looking for other jobs. It was heartbreaking but I said, no if Anil is asking me to try something, he must be having a strong logic behind it. 

I took the risk and just requested Anil to give us a separate office so we could create a separate entity altogether. He knew my independent streak and probably thought I will run away, but nevertheless, we moved from our Nariman Point office. 

It took me some time to wrap my head around the job we were taking up and I was told by good friends, that we won’t be able to reach there as the job is about critical masses. But one of my good female friends told me that I don’t need to worry about profits as we are going to act as a service provider to a large agency.

So, it all seems easy now, this decision was very difficult to take back then. But then luck played a big role. We got TATAs as clients, and then IPG started consolidating. UM was the first brand we acquired. We were working with them as partners for many years, since 2008-09. And then in 2013, the global company acquired it. 

And then further acquisitions happened… Is your acquisition appetite over or we are looking at more, going ahead? 

We don’t believe in acquisitions but believe in working as partners. Yes, there are multiple brands that we are consolidating, but the acquisition has been only for the digital agency, the story I just mentioned. 

My personal belief is that acquisitions are all about merging with culture and managing them, which is not an easy task. That’s why around 80-90 per cent of acquisitions fail globally in the advertising industry because cultures do not match, entrepreneurs have different visions. I rather believe in partnerships and profit-sharing than having 51 per cent or higher stake. 

And I am proud to say that we have been excellent in retaining our people. Even from the acquisition, we did in 2013, the core members of the team are still here with us. 

Because you have retained your teams, is that the reason why your retention of clients is pretty high?

I never thought like that. But as I speak now, I feel that the two are integrated but not related. Integrated in the sense that consistent teams and people understand the brand philosophy better and then they work as teams. 

Additionally, we are very hands-on with our clients and their queries. We are not in the advisory business, but we consult them. That keeps the relationships with clients going. Even today, 60-70 per cent of our revenue comes from clients who are with us for more than 10 years. 

And how much is the Indian business contributing to the overall group revenues, globally?

India is a strong market for IPG. If we look at it from the purchasing by the parity factor, we are amongst the top 2. 

Also, the culture of American companies is very stock market-driven. So, they don’t look at your profits as such, but there is constant pressure to maintain margins. That’s what we have to focus on. 

Read More news about Shashi Sinha 

But maintaining the margins during this pandemic would have been challenging...

Yes, there is always this fear of pay cuts or job losses when it comes to maintaining margins. It was difficult in the past few months. In April-May, our revenue went down by 30 per cent. But we are slowly getting back on track. Also, I am glad that we are hanging in there. We all took pay cuts, but I am happy that we did not have to let any people go. 

And also at an overall agency level, as some of your counterparts have shared with us, the valuations are low, toplines are shrinking, and share prices are suffering. And with big data and tech companies posing as a threat, it might get difficult from here. What are your thoughts?

I think we tend to undervalue ourselves. Yes, the advertising industry has faced losses to a certain extent, but having said that, each and every agency has taken some positive strides. All of them are making profits, they are earning money. 

It’s very easy to say that big (tech) companies are coming in but see, we have a unique capability as advertising agents; we have service industry mindset and we also have analytical skills, which are different. No one can match our ability when it comes to price points. I think we will stumble initially, but we will make our own way surely. There are challenges in the business, but it is a business of fun and joy. We have given life to it and we will continue to do so. 

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