For moments I did debate whether to call this chapter ‘brown ceiling’ or the ‘network jam’ — the first seemed more evocative. But both amplify troubles caused by the same disequilibrium — multinational holding companies deliberately blocking global career paths of Indian advertising folks. This is indeed a very significant betrayal, leading to abrupt halts or detours in many a bustling resume.
To understand it plainly, we need to glance gently at industries and companies with comparable global lineage. The banking industry has been buoyed by the adoption of Indian talent, for every Anshu Jain helming Deutsche Bank there are thousands populating mid-to-senior ranks in every topography. RB, P&G, HUL, Nestle and their peers insist on global postings for able managers — inability to accept proven to be career-threatening. Consulting, Investment and Technology firms operate willingly on this rationale — an entire indigenous cohort advising business leaders across the globe. It is vital to note that this migrant cadre is an offspring of Indian education and socio-cultural systems, the B school and IIT, building their early careers in home, and not away, conditions.
In advertising though the story is frighteningly different in spite of being largely similar. We too belonged to large networks, benefitting from identical global processes, training gigs and reporting structures. Yet, except the token aberrations, our career paths invariably terminated in the Arabian Sea — except Grey I cannot think of a single WPP company which enjoyed seamless global role play. In the mid-levels, the doors were most firmly sealed, the stray planner or network account manager piggybacking on personal alliances with global seniors to wrangle an invite. That too, for temporary periods, as if a mercenary in an exhibition match never to be enlisted for the real derby. Quite like the NRI returnees of the 1960s, those who came back managed to wrangle exceptional wages and stature, a minor and frankly useless personal triumph.
Now evaluate this scenario with delectable evidence points, the first being the unscheduled migration of industry Indians to South East Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa. By unscheduled I mean that the job search occurred at an individual level, directly routed through head hunters or fellow natives in the area. Amenable immigration laws smoothened the transfer and once entrenched, the ‘regional’ Indian shone rather brightly, securing fame and fortune for self and employer. In fact, our intellectual acumen, easy adjustability and hard work earned an edge over the copybook Western expatriate, not quite FILTH (Failed in London try Hongkong) anymore but certainly not wealth. Even more mystifying why the holding companies did not open up a universal channel — the answer was obviously nothing to do with merit.
A lethal alibi does the rounds quite smoothly—advertising being a pop culture profession, the native has greater prowess than the émigré. If that was indeed the case then global brand custodians would not be Indians, nor would a wealthy German heed the advice of one of us for her million-euro investments. Neither would the finest corporations in the universe adore the wisdom of an IIT-Delhi graduate Rajat Gupta— for further proof do interrogate RB and Pepsi, where Indians routinely acquire topmost jobs. For strategy and business roles, the argument is a no-brainer — we are mirroring the functions of the FMCG companies and if they can do it so can we — acumen and not locals necessary to decode the locals. For creative as well, we underestimate the process complicity of creative leadership — a fine mind from Mumbai can surely incubate a match-winning thought in New York — the execution function can surely be abrogated to a nuanced local. So, once again, the logic of ethnic sensitivity is plain hogwash — undermining the diversity and skill innate to our craft.
So, why does this network jam recur in the most networked industry of our era? A colonial corporate culture still persisting in an otherwise open-source world, nullifying the most liberated creative DNAs. Truthfully most advertising holding companies still flaunt disgraceful vestiges of first-world racism, the ‘brown ceiling’ a discriminatory and not a competency barrier. Where ownership supremacy, usually Western but sometimes Japanese and Korean, creates an unwritten code of denial in spite of India being a supreme source of committed talent. Senator Joseph P Nye had coined a term called ‘soft power’, the potency of the popular culture of a nation, suggesting that it was often as valuable as military might. At times I surmise that occupying the mind spaces of home audiences is a space beloved to both political and business leader, outsourcing leading to a loss of core identity that is truly non-negotiable.
The network jam has been an under-rated but mammoth factor in the talent and remuneration imbroglio that we face today – let me elaborate why. If, quite like other industries, a steady stream of worthies across disciplines enjoyed a global outlet, their careers and bank balances would have been cemented. Importantly, it would open up India slots for the next levels and thus create a fluid funnel of progression, ensuring desirable magnetism for the industry. Currently, with the borders being hermetically sealed, the big jobs in India are the only prized stakes and those acquiring them understandably hold on for dear life, succession planning never a serious KRA in this business.
It can be thus alleged that the holding company does behave like a legacy racist, a new-age Cecil Rhodes, the spirit of the East India Company shining bright. Where India is a land of immense wealth which deserves to be systematically looted and the Indian to be pampered sufficiently to extract the available goodies. There are exceptional networks of course, but still too few to make a scalable mark. More tomorrow on the next silent betrayal, till then do dwell on this ridiculous aberration.
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