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C.V.L. Srinivas: The media maven

The CEO of GroupM, South Asia, on professional lessons from a long sabbatical and how he stays ahead of the digital curve

GroupM CEO CVL Srinivas. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
GroupM CEO CVL Srinivas. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The year was 2006. C.V.L. Srinivas, then chief executive (Asia-Pacific) at Maxus, the WPP group media agency, was flying back from Shanghai to Delhi. He was exhausted, but was already thinking of his next flight from Delhi two days later. That whole year, he had been living out of a suitcase—travelling 20 days a month, away from his wife, who then worked in Citibank in Delhi.

His next trip was not the only thing on his mind that day. While on long flights, he had been toying with the idea of quitting it all and taking a break. “Something told me that I was running too fast. You only live once, I thought. You need to take the time out to smell the roses," says Srinivas, 50, currently the CEO of South Asia at GroupM, remembering how he felt 10 years ago.

It’s not that Srinivas wasn’t enjoying his work at Maxus. He had, after all, rebranded the company (from Maximise) and turned it around. The media agency had pitched for 30 accounts in three years and won 27 of them. Big brands like Tanishq, Titan, Vodafone, Dabur, Disney, Britannia and Himalaya were now in its portfolio.

But on that flight from Shanghai, Srinivas wondered if, at this pace, he would ever find the time to do the things he really wanted to do.

On his return to Delhi, he announced his decision to quit. His wife Mona (Kachhwaha) was not only supportive, she, too, decided to take a year-long break with him in 2007. They travelled, spent time with the family and did whatever they had wanted to do all those years.

Srinivas grew up listening to M.S. Subbulakshmi but his fondness for Western classical is evident at his Bengaluru home. This year, his wife and he made two trips to London—to listen to Coldplay and Billy Joel, both at Wembley. London is his favourite summer holiday destination and his itinerary is invariably marked by a concert. He’s a fan of Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, U2 and Simon & Garfunkel.-

For Srinivas, the choice was easy. He was always interested in percussion and started taking tabla lessons. He attended the beginners’ class with children in the 4-7 age group. Of course, in his current role as the CEO of the largest media agency in the country, he barely finds time to pursue his hobby actively, “but it is something to go to when one needs to change the beat", he says.

The mid-career break clarified a lot of things “about the value of your own time and how priceless it is", he says, over green tea and cookies at Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel in Delhi, a hotel he prefers because of its proximity to the airport.

“I have tried to apply bits of what I learnt ‘in the wilderness’ when I came back to the corporate world. I think I am a lot more patient now and have learnt to have a much more balanced life," says the suave and articulate head of GroupM, the media agency that currently claims to have a 45% share of the media market in India, based on numbers from RECMA, the global research company that evaluates the media agency industry.

When Srinivas, popularly known as Srini in the advertising fraternity, joined GroupM in 2012, the RECMA ratings pegged the market share of GroupM at 39.5%. Clearly, the agency has seen tremendous growth under Srinivas’ leadership. In the last four years, it has been growing at more than 20% a year. What has also helped the company in the last three years is its project, “New Me", to change the mindset of its 1,500-strong staff. The organization-wide transformation programme aimed at making GroupM future-ready, launched in 2013, has helped to make the agency’s media product more data-centric and digitally charged to keep its clients ahead of the curve.

Currently, GroupM has six media agency brands. It has GroupM Trading, which supports the agencies in terms of trading and buying media, besides other specialist units such as Entertainment, Sports & Partnerships (ESP), the activation practice called Dialogue Factory and the mobile marketing firm called Madhouse. “We don’t gloat about our market share, but we have leveraged our scale in this market to create a newer practice and diversify our business far beyond media planning and buying," says Srinivas, declining to share the revenue of the company.

For someone who enjoys enormous respect in the world of media, it’s no surprise that Srinivas occupies important posts in various industry bodies. He is an executive committee member of the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI), a member of the board of the television ratings agency Broadcast Audience Research Council (Barc), and chairman of the Readership Studies Council of India (RSCI) that brings out the Indian Readership Survey.

Srinivas moved to GroupM in 2012 from Starcom Mediavest Group, where he worked for two years after his brief stint at Times Private Treaties, now called Brand Capital. Times Private Treaties was the ad-for-equity business of the Times Of India group. The opportunity for Srinivas at Times Private Treaties arose immediately after his sabbatical. “Lots was happening in the start-up space in 2007-08. Since I was working with start-ups those days and advising them on their journey forward, I was meeting a lot of people in that eco-system. One thing led to another and I landed a job at Times Private Treaties," he recalls. However, he soon realized that media and marketing was his real calling and he quit the Times group to return to the world of advertising and media with Starcom.

Srinivas has been fortunate to work with the biggest advertising agencies right from the start of his career. He began life in advertising at Lintas, Bengaluru, where he worked on brands like Brooke Bond and Lipton. From Lintas, he moved to HTA (Hindustan Thompson Associates, now J. Walter Thompson) and later to Fulcrum. “Hindustan Lever Ltd (HLL, now Hindustan Unilever Ltd) had called for a pitch and eventually decided to consolidate the media business of all its brands with HTA. HTA set up Fulcrum in 1995," remembers Srinivas. Now called Mindshare Fulcrum, it turned 20 last year and continues to handle the HUL business in India.

Had it not been for Fulcrum, Srinivas might have quit advertising, for he disliked being the backroom boy in the media department of an advertising agency. “Media those days was part of the full-service agency and a backroom function. It was not front-facing. Our clients were our own client servicing guys who went to meet the brand owners," he recalls. If Fulcrum was not created at that time, advertising would have lost Srinivas to the world of IT. “IT in Bangalore was hot during that period. In any case, my father wasn’t sure of what I was doing in advertising. But Fulcrum, which gave me the opportunity to work on several HLL brands and brought the media function to the fore, helped me stick on in advertising," says Srinivas.

During his stint at Fulcrum, he got the opportunity to work with D. Shivakumar (current chairman and CEO, PepsiCo India), who was then a brand manager with HLL, as well as with Gopal Vittal (current CEO of Bharti Airtel), who handled Fair and Lovely at Lever.

As Srinivas chronicles his professional and personal life, his crystal-clear memory stands out. Even his earliest memory of attending kindergarten in Boston, US, is vivid. “People go to Boston for their PhDs but I began schooling there as my father was on a sabbatical," says Srinivas. He can also clearly recall when he won the Coca-Cola India account for Madison in Delhi. “We were on a family vacation in Rishikesh when the news broke. Among multinationals, we were the only Indian company that had pitched for the business," he says.

A mechanical engineer by training, Srinivas had broken the family tradition by entering the corporate world. His forefathers and his father were all academics. His father taught aeronautical engineering at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru. It was clearly to please his father that Srinivas enrolled at BITS (Birla Institute of Technology and Science), Pilani to study engineering. Not just that, he started his career as an engineer at TVS Electronics in Bengaluru.

“But I didn’t enjoy being an engineer. I worked at TVS between 1988 and 1991 and in my second year itself, I asked to be moved to the marketing department where, for the first time, I got a chance to meet the ad agencies," says Srinivas. He then decided to pursue his master’s in business administration from XLRI, Jamshedpur. “I did engineering to please my father. I was an above-average student but a below-average engineer," he says. “Although I have no regrets as I had a blast on the campus in Pilani and forged some lasting friendships," he adds.

In the last 25 years, Srinivas has seen the media industry change. Firstly, the number of variables has increased. Television alone has some 800 channels today. The sources of data have increased manifold, providing information in real time. “When I was a media planner, I had to wait 8-12 weeks to find out whether my media plan has worked. Today, in the morning you do something, by lunch you know whether it is working or not—you can check the social media buzz around it," he says.

Owing to changes such as these and the emergence of digital media, traditional advertising as we know it may be losing its effectiveness, he says. Clients are now looking for branded content. They aren’t satisfied just by the reach of a media plan. Today, reach without engagement is pointless. Besides, earlier, only the outcome of the investment was measured. “Today, what one needs to see is the impact of the outcome on the market plan, market share and sales. A media agency has to deliver on hard-core business matrix. Given all these developments, we have to move up the value chain and become a business partner to the brand," says Srinivas.

The TV, print and digital equation may be changing too. As a media platform, print is facing the heat from digital. However, TV will continue to grow even as print continues to deliver. “It cannot be dismissed outright," he says.

When he’s not busy running the GroupM empire, Srinivas likes to watch cricket or tennis. Of course, his holiday breaks are integral to the work-life balance that he practises faithfully. A Bengalurean at heart who enjoys the work culture in Mumbai, Srinivas may decide to settle down in Delhi just for those weekend breaks. “Give us the hills any day. Not the Western Ghats, but the real hills accessible from Delhi," he says.

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