Advertising Interviews

Ashok Kurien

| 13 Apr 2012

Business is like boxing. You have to walk in the ring expecting blows and knowing that you will be hurt. It then is all about getting up and throwing your own punches. In the boxing ring, you have to think how you outlast your opponent. It is the same in business – competition can have deep pockets but you have got to be smarter, agiler and you have to know how to survive and fight back.

He is fondly referred to as a serial entrepreneur. There in fact are very good reasons as to why Ashok Kurien is seen as one the few Indian media veterans who have earned the reputation of knowing and investing in the businesses of the future. Known to be associated with various media start ups, Kurien at present hold several titles. He is Founder-Promoter/Director, Zee Entertainment Enterprises, Playwin/Lotteries (PIPL), DishTV and He is also Senior Advisor for Publicis Groupe. He is Founder-Promoter, Ambience Advertising and Hanmer PR. He is also co-founder of and He is also a Director at Solutions Integrated Marketing. Ashok Kurien indeed wears many hats.

In this interview with Noor Fathima Warsia, Kurien speaks on why he likes to be this engaged in start up and how challenges of the industry have evolved over the years.

Q. You have been very busy with for the last couple of years. What are some of the other things that consume your time these days? is perhaps 90 per cent of my time at present. Apart from that, I am spending some time on Remindo is an employee engagement tool, and in today’s times when companies are looking at solutions to keep their staff engaged and excited, is a product that helps them achieve that. I work on with my partner Rehan Yar Khan with whom I also own Flora2000, an online flower shop.

Q. Just about every business you have worked on, you have done it in partnership?

That is right. For over 25 years, I have run all my business in partnerships. You always need another shoulder, another arm or another leg to work with you. I know my strengths and weaknesses and the right partner is someone who compliments it – where I am weak, she/he is strong. That is the way to manage partnerships. But you have to have the right partner. I think I have had only one instance where I may have not worked with the right partner but after that, I have carefully observed three rules before getting into a partnership. The first rule I just told you, the second rule is to be able to trust and the third rule is to be with someone who has the same passion for the same kind of goals. Whether it is or Zee, DishTV, Ambience or Hanmer, I have had some good partnerships.

Q. There is quite a bit you have done at the Zee Network in fact...

...Yes, the last three years I was mentoring DishTV and the amazing team there. It was like my team when I played rugby, which was ready to go out there and get it done. And Jawahar Goel is a fantastic leader. It is the number one in its space right now, owning 33 per cent of the market. My relation with Zee dates back to the time when Subhash Chandra was my client. When I had Ambience Advertising, Subhash was a client for the Essel World business. This was back in 1990. Someone introduced us and we drove all the way to Essel World. It was pre-TV days and we had a print campaign, which got them immense response, more than they could handle I was told. While we helped turn around and create a momentum for Essel, in the process Subhash and me became good friends, and then one thing led to another.

Q. You mean you started working on more projects with him after that?

Yes. In 1991, we were both watching the Gulf War on CNN and we thought there should be something like this in India. He asked me what I knew of TV and I had said, more than anyone else. While I was in Rediffusion, my previous agency, I was involved in buying and creating programming for Doordarshan and then marketing it and getting sponsors. Much of that experience could come into play then. Subhash asked me to give him a proposal. He had asked someone else also to send a proposal. He got a nice 300-page document from them and he got six handwritten sheets of paper from me. The amazing thing was that despite that, he asked me join him and for 25 years now, we have had a brotherhood of understanding and trust. We have worked, wherever I can be of help to him, which really means anything that needed consumer touch. I think I understand that, better than most. Not in a textbook kind of a way but having actually lived with people with modest lifestyles, in a societal way. Having run away from home when I did and living in village for three years has given me some sense of sensibilities and how it changes in the different strata of our society. There is some kind of basic human understanding, which actually comes in play when I had to make marketing and strategic business decisions.

Q. But it was interesting you looked at the PR domain nearly two decades ago, when advertising was still in its sexiest avatar ever.

I was honest with myself on what advertising could do or could not do. I did not have a PR unit and I did not understand much about it but everything in that year had already told me that word of mouth, and that is long before it became a buzzword, was going to be far more powerful than advertising. Sunil Gautam had left his company abruptly for some reasons and he met me. In that particular instance, in about 30 seconds, I stood across the table, shook his hand and said let’s start a PR company together even though it was against the rules of my joint venture with Publicis D’Arcy but I did it anyway.

Q. How did Publicis take it?

I explained to them that in a sense, I was holding 51 per cent stake there for them to buy but they kept quiet - they bought it eventually! I was doing my own thing. Sunil did 99 per cent of anything that was to do there. All I did was stand by him and support him, hoping we were able to find a way of making that space grow.

Q. You are amongst one of the first people to have sold your agency to an MNC. What led you to sell your agency?

It was an intense emotional move and deeply thought through. For me, advertising had lost what I enjoyed the most about it, which was working on a business as part of its extended team. If my client was Marico, I was working with Harsh Mariwala. If it was Ramesh Chauhan, I dealt with him - I was his marketing manager. My relationship with many of these business leaders even today is of deep friendship. Because the equation was ‘how do I make this money work for you’. I had given some of my clients marketing ideas that had became brand and product ideas later. And that was much more fun than just advertising the brand. In the 90s, the industry’s culture started changing. Indian owner companies started hiring professional CEOs. Naturally then, it was the CEO who was to make the final call, and it could never be a gutsy call. Very few had the guts and today, they have done very well for themselves but the larger number would back their decision on research and numbers rather than on intuition. Dealing with that kind of conversation was frustrating.

Q. So you wanted to exit the business?

Not exactly exit the business but control the toll it was taking on my time. The realisation was that my children don’t want to inherit the business. I could keep growing it since I had the passion but after the 90s, even I was not enjoying it any more. The big question was how to let go of something that you had grown as your baby. The only person you would consider was someone who promised to nurture and protect it like you would. In those days, there were no Indian entrepreneurs with whom one could have merged and created India’s largest advertising brand. Somewhere along the course the P&Gs of the world started coming to India. They were looking to work in their set ways and we had to start recruiting people for those ways -- the joy was over.

Q. It is a rare calibre to even let go. When did you know it was time?

There were multiple things at play but the biggest was seeing many industry doyens fade away. My first agency job, even before I went to college, was with a company called Ajanta Advertising in 1968. When I went back to studying, I watched the agency collapse. When I came back in 1973, I was selling ad space and I had a set of my hero agencies. Then I started seeing all of them fading away. They held on for too long and did not get anything in the end. That was sad but bound to happen because there would be young competition and new blood in the system. I wanted to leave when I was on top.

Q. You have been working on one start up after another. Why was that the modus operandi always? Why not manage the large businesses yourself?

Because I like being involved completely and doing everything myself. We took only two clients a year in Ambience and for many that was mad but I wanted to be able to work on these businesses myself and do justice to it. Start ups allow you to chart a growth path and you have the option to create new paths. You will see many compasses on my desk, which I give to the youngsters I meet and work with. My advice to them is, don’t get a road map. Take a compass and look for the right direction but create your own path.

Business is like boxing. You have to walk in the ring expecting blows and knowing that you will be hurt. It then is all about getting up and throwing your own punches. In the boxing ring, you have to think how you outlast your opponent. It is the same in business – competition can have deep pockets but you have got to be smarter, agiler and you have to know how to survive and fight back.

Write A Comment