"One year down the line, I can say my life has definitely changed in more ways than one"

The GroupM CEO shares his immense belief in youth imparting valuable lessons, his new role having changed his life, his take on competition, digital contributions growing by 50% and more

e4m by Priyanka Mehra
Published: Mar 10, 2014 9:08 AM  | 9 min read
"One year down the line, I can say my life has definitely changed in more ways than one"

GroupM South Asia CEO CVL Srinivas’ ability to think out of the box has earned him the compliment of being a disruptive thinker from his colleagues. In a freewheeling chat, Srinivas talks about his immense belief in youth imparting valuable lessons, his new role having changed his life, his take on competition, digital contributions growing by 50 per cent and more…

You have completed a year of your impactful second innings in January with GroupM, how has it been for you? What are some of the unlearnings that have happened in this one year?
Firstly, I’d like to make it clear that our agency brands are the real heroes. GroupM is only a support structure that leverages the overall scale of the business.

A large part of what we have been able do in the past year is due to the strong base and solid leadership team that was built over the years. When I came into this role there was not much to fix but lots to build on.

It’s been a very exciting year with lots of new learning and some bit of unlearning. My biggest learning has been the need to work with an open, collaborative mind-set, both with internal and external stakeholders. The Media Agency business is an ideas business. Given the multiple specialisations we have to contend with, collaboration is the key to success.

The year threw up a lot of challenges due to policy and structural changes in the media industry. Most of these challenges came with great opportunities as well, so learning was not to get bogged down by things you can’t control, instead look for the opportunities to grab and move on.

Leadership roles in agencies today come with an additional challenge of having to manage a very talented bunch of specialists. One needs to unlearn the old models of hierarchy and control, to be able to harness the latent energy that resides at the junior levels of the agency.

On a more personal front, I remember Vikram Sakhuja telling me that this role can be ‘life changing’. One year down the line I can say my life has definitely changed in more ways than one! For starters I packed bags and moved with family to Mumbai after 14 years in Delhi…but on a serious note it has helped me develop more patience and kept me completely switched on 24x7.

Has it been a risky year?
It was definitely a challenging year, but like I said it threw up a lot of opportunities as well.  The structural and policy changes in the market coupled with a slowdown in the economy put a lot of pressure on our client’s media budgets.  We had to take several mid-course corrections. On the brighter side, we saw a lot of innovation in media planning and buying. We developed a new tool to manage multimedia investment, established some new offerings in the market, diversified our talent base and built a few interesting partnerships.

This is your second innings at GroupM. Has it been comparatively easier since you are familiar with the organisation or is it a double edged sword which brings with it the dangers of pre conceived notions as well?
My earlier roles in Fulcrum (as part of the start-up team) and later at Maxus (again being part of a start-up team for the agency in India and later Asia-Pac) have definitely helped me settle into the GroupM role. The few years I spent outside of the media agency world (mostly consulting for start-ups) seeing the harsh realities of life without a safety net have made me come in with an open mind.

You have earned the reputation of a Disruptive Thinker can you give examples of how this approach has helped the business?
This is the first time I am hearing of this!!Today all organisations need out of the box thinking to grow amidst all challenges, having worked in media startup organisations I tend to be a bit more restless about defining the future. 

Given the changes in the media landscape and challenges being faced by our clients, we needed to find a new trajectory for our growth. As GroupM we want to shape the market. Early last year, our leadership team got together to chart a new course. We created a new vision for the company; we called it the ‘New Me’. The ‘New Me’ initiative puts digital at the heart of everything we do and ensures our product embraces the ‘new core’ i.e. Digital, Content, Trading, Analytics and Experiential Marketing. We built a 3 year roadmap with clear milestones. More and more of our clients are demanding integrated solutions which we are able to provide thanks to our unique structure and skill sets. Our core product remains media planning and buying, but the game is changing as most advertisers would tell you. GroupM agencies today have a very holistic media offering. All our agencies Mindshare, Maxus, MEC, Mediacom and Motivator did extremely well last year whether it was in enhancing value for clients, winning a record number  of new businesses or dominating industry awards. We have some interesting ideas on the table, some of which will take shape this year.

What is your take on the competition?
Unlike in the past when competition was only from media agencies, the game has changed.  Today competition comes in all shapes and sizes, from specialist agencies to full service ones. We respect all our competitors and acknowledge that many of them have been doing well.

How has the YCO journey been?
YCO, our Youth Executive Committee that we launched last year, has made a very positive contribution in a short span of time. We wanted to give the young stars in our agencies and specialist units the chance to take part in decision making and teach us a thing or two in areas like digital, talent management etc. The YCO works alongside the Exco (Executive committee- the senior leadership team) and helps us stay better connected to ground realities.

This is another initiative unique to GroupM, was it your idea?
It was an idea whose time had come.  One of my observations soon after joining was that we had become a large operation with multiple units and one of our challenges going forward would be to stay nimble and connected. YCO ensures we have the best of both worlds – a business with scale and skill on the one hand and strong connect with ground realities on the other. Similar concepts had been discussed in the past at the regional level, but this was the first market to formally set it up, define a charter and empower it.

I personally believe that the younger work force can impart valuable lessons especially when the world is going digital and old rules are being rewritten. I have often found my younger colleagues come up with extremely insightful ideas and refreshing ways of looking at things, making many of us feel extremely outdated. By giving the younger workforce a platform to participate in company policy, we decided to break established traditions and protocols. I wish the industry follows suit and gives our youngsters more share of voice. I am sure we will be much better off.

How has the digital journey for GroupM been? Has the shift in the internal mindset happened? Has the contribution to digital to overall revenues increased?
We established an in-house practice 12 years ago. Today, our digital practice is fully embedded in our mainstream agencies. Apart from this we have assets like Madhouse, India’s leading mobile marketing agency, Quasar, a full service digital agency, Blazar a search agency and Mashup a unit that helps build engagement through content & video. Last year we partnered the Social Media Week in Mumbai, and again in Bangalore a couple of weeks ago. We are partners to the Mobile Marketing Association to India and will play a key role in their events calendar. Besides this we started a series of in-house Digital initiatives involving all our agencies including a knowledge series called Digital Rendezvous and a unique online training programme called Digiversity.

Despite all the noise about digital, we firmly believe it is under leveraged by most advertisers. There is definitely a lot more we all need to do. And yes, changing mind-sets is the starting point.We no longer talk about digital and non-digital staff. As far as we are concerned all those who work in an agency these days need to be digitally savvy. All our agencies have a strong integrated product.The digital contribution has grown by 50 percent last year.

Whilst we have spoken about the business growth, unique initiatives, and diversification, and early mover advantage of GroupM in the digital sphere, what are the areas that need to be worked on in your view?
There is always scope for improvement given the rapid pace of developments and newer opportunities that keep coming up. Since technology is disrupting our industry like many others, we will need to stay on top of all new media channels going forward. As an industry we need to do a better job in talent management, given the extreme pressure our staff works under. No matter how many initiatives we may take, this is one area that needs to be on top of every agency head’s list. We are also mindful of the fact that we cannot afford to ignore the fundamentals of our business, ie sound media planning and buying, brilliant execution and robust processes. So while being at the cutting edge of media is definitely a key priority, continuing to perform on the fundamentals is equally important.

(Read the complete report in IMPACT’s issue dated March 10, 2014 in ‘The Man Who Adds Strategy to Scale’)


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