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Landed by accident, led by passion – Ashish Bhasin’s 30 years in advertising

Saying that the love for advertising grew within him, Bhasin advises beginners to be sure they want to work hard every day. There is no glamour in the business,but the initial many years have to be spent on learning the business before the career takes a leap, he says

Ashish Bhasin

Today it is often heard that ‘if you stay too long in a company, you become like furniture. Your value goes down.’ Where ‘too long’ is less than five years. I have, personally, seen a lot of people who are currently in their fifth or sixth job, with merely a decade in the industry.

In such a scenario, it was fun having a candid chat with Ashish Bhasin, Chairman and CEO, South Asia, Dentsu Aegis Network, who has completed three decades in the industry, with just a single job change. Somebody who started off as a Management Trainee at Lintas is now heading the fastest growing advertising and media agency network in the country. Known for his acquisition spree and bold headlines, Bhasin has been on the radar of his friends and competitors both. In his own words, “I made more enemies the day when I proclaimed that DAN will be No. 2 agency by 2017, compared to what I made in previous 29 years of my career.” He claims to have reached there well before his own deadline.

Nobody would believe that, for such an ambitious and hardworking advertising professional, ‘advertising’ happened by accident. Born and brought up in the upscale locales of Colaba, Bhasin did his schooling and graduation from Campion, Cathedral and St Xavier’s College in South Mumbai. His last stint with education was at Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, Churchgate.

It was in the summer of 1988, when a summer internship in Citibank got converted to a job offer after an MBA in marketing. Somebody who wasn’t cut out for a banking job rejected the offer and bumped into another offer and accepted it. It was from Godrej that entitled trainees to own a one BHK and a car after a year of service. Bhasin got all ready to meet Adi Godrej at the Vikhroli office, as was the ritual for the to-be joinees. While returning home with the offer, he tried to take the 5.45-6pm train. Only his second time on the famous and notorious Mumbai local, he found no difference in the first class and second class and instantly decided that he couldn’t do it everyday to and from Vikhroli.

He had 48 hours to deny the Godrej offer and in between Lintas came in for the placement procedure. Not having heard about either Lintas or advertising, he asked just one question, “Where is the office?” The moment he heard, “Nariman Point”, he just went for it. And the industry can’t thank him enough for that decision. The company was then known for having a rigorous hiring procedure.

“Today when somebody asks me why advertising, I am just embarrassed to say it is because Lintas had an office in Nariman Point. We were that naive and unplanned in our career, but that’s how I joined Lintas on June 1, 1988, and thank god for advertising!” said Bhasin.

A lot in life is accidental but Bhasin, who calls himself ‘reasonably and brashly ambitious with misplaced self-confidence’, was always sure that whatever he does in life, he would make sure he will be among the best. Why ‘brashly’? He answers, “I still remember, after joining Lintas, at the end of the one-month training, the management committee would spend some time with the trainees and when asked about ‘where do you want to see yourself in 10 years?’, my answer was ‘I want to be in the management committee.’ I call that brash ambition as at that time I was talking to people like Prem Mehta and Alyque Padamsee, among other seniors.”

Tracking down a few major milestones that have built a man that he is today, Bhasin told us about how spending initial 10 years with Unilever (then Hindustan Lever) has been one of the best parts. “I grew up in advertising while working on this client. This is one of the best universities of marketing and advertising, especially working with people like Late Shunu Sen (former Marketing Director, HUL) and Harish Manwani (former Chairman, HUL) along with many other seniors. Even on the agency side, I ended up learning a lot from people like Mehta and Usha Bhandarkar (an advertising veteran at Lintas),” he said.

Another milestone for Bhasin was when he moved to Chennai (then Madras) in 1998 to revamp and reboot the energies of the Lintas office there. Starting off from refurbishing of the office, he made it a profitable branch of Lintas that become the agency of the year,two years later. “This was the first time, I was on my own. Managing a branch completely by myself,” he recalls.

The third important leaf in his Lintas book was to run Initiative Media, which started around the early 2000s. He was one of that core group of people in the industry who were instrumental in converting media from a support department to an agency to a vivacious business.

Initiative became the ‘unit’ of the year for two consecutive years. While in Madras, having put that branch of the agency on the map, Bhasin wanted to return to Mumbai and Mehta offered him to spearhead Initiative, if he was willing to. Bhasin grabbed it because he was convinced with Mehta’s thought that it can become an independent business and also because Bhasin’s family was still in Mumbai. “That worked quite well for me, because that was the time when media was exploding with new satellite channels among other multiple things. This gave me a good experience. There, I set up SSC&B Lintas and about 8-9 units under IMAG (integrated marketing action group), including Lintas Personal, LinOpinion, Linterland and many others.”

Thereon, in 2008, when Aegis was launching in India and they wanted someone to head the eight markets of South East and South Asia, the agency rounded up on Bhasin and approached him. Having spent 20 years in Lintas by then, Bhasin took up the offer. Aegis at that time had its minimal presence in India through Carat Media, which was a small group of about 30-40 people.

Having spent such a long time in Lintas and having got comfortable with the company, it must have been quite challenging to move out of travelling almost 22-25 days a month.Bhasin agreed that it was challenging to handle everything from his regional job in India. He added, “While I was well settled at Lintas, yes, but this was around the same time, Mehta and other senior managers had resigned and IPG had taken the balance shares. Aegis was a challenging, yet exciting opportunity for me and I felt that at Lintas, there is a job done well and, it might be time to move. Aegis was quite a landmark for me because while I had worked in a lot of countries, this was the first time I was given the P&L responsibility of markets outside India. I did this extensive travelling for almost six years.”

Bhasin changed the 30-40 people team to a 3,500 people who work at DAN India, today. Not having made a CV ever after the MBA college placements, Bhasin is surely a man who would only change a job for something extremely challenging and something that opens upnew vistas for him. He has the same phone number since he got the first one.

Currently at DAN, Bhasin has more number of creative agencies than media agencies. But people mostly carry his image as that of a media person, despite having a strong creative side to his personality. What actually does he like to be known as – a media person or a person who could be seen as both media and creative head?

“I would like to be known as best business person in advertising. There are enough creative people in the business, enough client servicing and enough media people in the business. But we still don’t consider the advertising industry to be a business. We don’t knowhow to run a business of advertising as an industry. I think we do ourselves injustice over there because this is a serious industry. The business of advertising is a tough one. One has to grow, despite change, despite dropping margins and various other challenges. Not many people are able to do that. A lot of people in the industry get happy by creating headlines about good creatives or big account win, I think we should be equally or more focussed about the bottom lines,” he added.

The number of M&As that Bhasin has done in last three to five years was never done before in double this time. “My skill lies in the business part of advertising. While I have changed my job only once, I had experiences of running businesses of almost every part of A&M communications,” he mentioned.

Whilea lot of people have been complaining about dropping profitability, Bhasin claims to have grown DAN profits by a significant margin every year.

A candid conversation:

What would it have been, if not Lintas?

Whateverit would have been, I would have enjoyed. I would have done it as best as I could have. I changed my job only once in 30 years. I believe that whether it is a marriage, a partnership or a job, there will be 100 reasons why things can go wrong, but one hasto be determined to make it succeed, unless it is a complete disaster which is not the case in most cases.

WhateverI would have taken, I would make it succeed provided I would have enjoyed it. I have enjoyed advertising completely. There have been bad moments, but there have been equally or more good ones too.

What has changed in advertising since 1988, when you stepped in?

Back then, if you were from South Bombay, you spoke good English, you know theatre, then you would be in advertising. We were among the early batches of MBA who were getting into advertising. So, we brought in some business sense to the industry. Then was aphase when clients started figuring out that speaking to the creative person made more sense as the business person was just an intermediary. It was at this time when some of the creative people became agency heads. Post this, clients realised that 80-90% of the money was going to media and that’s when the media people got more famous and important.

Right now, we are at a cusp where digital is the future and we are on the verge of morphing from media to digital and the beauty of that is here’s where it goes back to where it began. Within digital, there is no line that separates media from creative.

It looks more business centric now, than then. It was more fun then.

How difficult is to maintain oneself at this level where you have a little chance to go wrong?

Don’t take yourself too seriously. You are not a rocket scientist or a neurosurgeon. It is difficult because when you are at the top, you are very lonely. Everybody is looking at you, waiting to interpret or misinterpret each of your actions. You have lesser leeway of going wrong, yes. But I suggest keep doing what you feel is right. If I waited to see what everyone else spoke about me, I would have remained at home.

If given a chance to choose your first job again, where would that be?

It will still be Lintas, the profession will still be advertising, but for a different reason than what it earlier was.

Any alternative profession that you would want to take up through an academic course?

Law. It has always interested me a lot. I have read almost all the criminal procedure code (CrPC), civil procedure code (CPC) or Company Act among others. Also, because my father, a lawyer by academics, used to always say that you must know a fair amountof law to do business in India, so that you are not on the wrong side of it.

If not DAN, where would we have found you?

Either I would have still been at Lintas, or I would have started something of my own. But Aegis (now DAN) gave me the best of both worlds, entrepreneurship and an advertising professional.

All about the man:

First ad:  Wheel Powder, an anti-Nirma ad that sported tagline ‘Door hojamerinazron se. Maine mangithisafai, tune di haathonkijalan.’

First client: HUL

First boss: RP Kumar, (then at Lintas, currently at Ketchum, New York); PrabhaParameswaran (then at Lintas, more recently at Colgate)

Brand I spent most time on:Liril. I know the history of the brand better than anyone else, mainly because I got it from two people who were called fathers of Liril – Sen and Padamsee.

First appraisal: Account Executive

Client that I have learnt the most from: HUL

Most challenging colleague: A lot of them, more in Lintas. Those who are not very good at their work, indulge in more politics because that is their mantra for survival.

Most challenging clients: Those who feel that they know it all and they feel that they can treat the agency the way they want. I love to sack such clients. There’s a difference between providing the best service and being servile.

Inspiration in personal life: My father. I learnt a lot of business from him, learnt a lot of life lessons too. He was a very well read person.

Inspiration in professional life:Prem Mehta was inspirational for me, in the way he was managing and growing the business. Currently, I work closely with Nick Waters (CEO Asia Pacific - Dentsu Aegis Network), and I really value his professionalism. We relate very well on the decisions we make.

Still taking lessons from: A lot of people who report to me, and I think I have the best lot. The energy, dedication and passion of these people are very infectious.

Friends in the industry:Shashi Sinha, Nakul Chopra and many others. I am not a sort of person who will easily make close friendships.

Is making friends in this industry difficult? I think we have some very good people in the industry and largely you have the same 15-20 people everywhere. When we compete, we compete; but otherwise, it’s a nice cleaner industry than many other verticals. There are few personal rivalries here.

Key success factor in advertising: Your ability to withstand stress and be resilient. It is a tough business, deadline-oriented service industry. It needs you to be at it every day with the same rigour and passion.

One thing that you are left to do: Write a book about Indian advertising. I think there are hardly any books relevant to Indian advertising for students of advertising.

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