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 Home > City Resources > Advertising & Marketing > Meenakshi Madhvani

 Focussed on Media - Meenak shi Madhvani

Meenakshi MadhvaniAt 40, Meenakshi Madhvani is the CEO of Carat Media Services India, a 3-year-old media independent that already manages a billing of Rs 200 crore. We talked to her on her career and her endevour to be the complete media professional.

Tell us more about Carat India.

Carat India started in March 1997. I was the first employee of the company. I started from getting approvals, setting up the company, finding an office, hiring people, going after business... all of that. This year the company is going to have a turnover of Rs 200 crores - to be contributed from two companies, Carat Impact and Carat India, both about Rs 100 crore each. So from zero to 200 crores in 3 1/2 years is not bad, I presume.

The other company used to be Percept...

Yes that is right. The thing is that year after year we used to have 100% growth. After a point it is difficult to double your turnover every year. So the collaboration was a good way to increase our business dramatically.

What differentiates Carat India from other companies?

I think that what makes us different from every other company is that we are a media specialist and are completely focussed on the media product - media planning, media buying, media consultancy. Unlike an advertising agency, where the focus has to be spread over a variety of areas like creative, account management and media - media is actually seen as a back room function by most advertising agencies. It is only in the last couple of years, after the success of Carat, that people have started saying that media is an important function. Being a media specialist allows us to invest in the business, in people, in the client.

Could you tell us more about the role that you actually perform?

As a media specialist we advise our clients on where they should use their media money, develop media strategy, plan on the basis of this strategy, and also implement the plan. The range of services that we offer goes from media strategy to post evaluation. We are also a very research led organisation. We work with the marketing departments of the clients - more as an extension of the marketing arm. Typically, a team working with a client would end up spending 40 - 50 % of their time at the client's office rather than at our office.

On last count Carat India had 22 employees doing a business of
Rs 100 crore? How do you manage that?Meenakshi Madhvani

Now across the two companies we have 40 odd employees. We operate in a business where our margins are extremely narrow - we work on a 5% planning and buying fee. Typically an advertising agency would charge 15%. So controlling our costs become extremely crucial and makes the difference between a profit-making and a loss making organisation. We have to be efficient and the ratio of billings to the individual, tends to be extremely high as compared to other agencies. Then again we are a very lean organisation, we do not have too much support staff. There is no secretary in the entire Bombay office. We cannot afford the luxury of bigger organisations where there are 5 people to do one man's work or one woman's work as the case may be. And the wonderful thing today is that every kind of service that is required can be subcontracted.

Who would you call your competitors?

If you look at it one way, there is no competition in the country because there are no other media independents. But looked at differently, every advertising agency is our competitor.

How do they take to you?

What is happening today is that while advertising agencies may not like us, because obviously, we take part of the business away from them, there is still a grudging respect from their side. That is what really matters because I do not think that we are in the business of winning popularity polls. The agencies have much to gain because we take over the media side of the business - an unglamourous and uninteresting side of business, for which we need people actually committed to the media. We help agencies control their numbers and manpower, by making the media function a little less important in the advertising agency. So we should help them in the long run.

What is your opinion on print v/s television v/s internet?

It is important to understand that the role of a particular media is a function of the client's strategy. I, sometimes, get very disturbed when I find people generalising about television being a stronger medium than print. In this business, making general statements is very dangerous. Everything has to be seen in the context of the client, and the objective. There may be instances where for the same client, at different periods of time, different media become more relevant. Take for instance Fischer Price, a brand of Mattel toys. During the launch it made sense for us to use newspapers because we were announcing to the market that Fischer Price toys were available in India. But the follow up campaign focussed on women, and we used women's magazines and then television. So, at one point of time for the client, newspapers were relevant, at another point of time, magazines were relevant, at the third point of time TV was relevant. Therefore it is dangerous to say that one media gains at the cost of another media. Each medium has to stand on its own and has its own role to play.

Your views on the internet

The internet is a very exciting space but unfortunately we have a problem. I think it is something to do with Indian culture. When there is a boom, there is a huge boom, when there is a drop there is a huge drop. For the last one year everyone has been going on about the dotcom boom, like three years ago everybody went on about satelliete television. All this is very cyclical. Some things become very popular - the flavour of the month, and everybody starts talking about it till the next in-thing comes along. The internet unfortunately is facing the same problem. You cannot make it out to be something it is not. I think it is a fabulous medium which is going to grow really fast, but to expect the internet to replace mass media in the next 6 months is like expecting to have a government that knows what it is doing.

How did you get started in your career?

I completed my graduation in sociology and geology from Elphinstone - so far back that I cannot remember. Actually it was 1978. The only reason I did not pursue a career in geology was because the classes were held in Kalina. And I did not want to commute to Kalina . Instead, I did a one year post graduation diploma in marketing and have been in hardcore advertising for most of my career. I spent a long time at a variety of jobs in Lintas - climbed the ladder at Lintas, left Lintas, went back to Lintas, in what Alyque Padamsee used to called 'the rubberband effect', where people who left Lintas would come back again. I did accounts management for many years - had handled the entire soaps and detergents business of Hindustan Lever. It was really getting quite boring. I, then , decided to get into media. By then (1992), cable had started, Star had launched one of their channels - it was a tremendously exciting time to be in media. Way back then I had sensed that media had a tremendous opportunity and was going to be the difference between a good agency and a mediocre agency.

Then you had a stint with Zee...

Zee had just been launched in October 1994 and they got in touch with me. I realised that I would never be a complete media professional until I see life from the media owner's side of the business. I moved into Zee and took over their sales and marketing. The Zee experience was wonderful, it taught me how to run a business. Lintas was a very large organisation, lots of people, infrastructure, everything being organised and heirrarchical. Zee was chaotic, completely disorganised, no support systems, no infrastructure, everything had to be done from scratch. Lot of financial issues, legal issues, fantastic experience.

Why the move to Carat?

I was in Zee for about two and a half years. While I was in Zee, Carat approached me as they were looking for somebody to start their operations. They were very concerned whether I would be able to handle it or not, and also about my age, as across the Carat group, all the country heads were 40+ senior citizens. At the time I was offered the job, I was 38. That made me the youngest CEO across the group. But I think now they realise that age does not really matter.

A lot of my friends were concerned when I left my career at Zee to join Carat. It was felt that the market was not ready for a media independent. But it was my conviction that the market would be ready when the service was available.

The parting with Zee was not sweet ?

The parting was very sweet, there were no problems at all. The chairman wanted me to stay back. But I was very clear that I wanted to widen my horizons. I think I left without any illwill whatsoever. The way I put it to Subhashji was that if I left with his blessings, he would lose an employee but retain a friend, but if I left without his blessings, he would lose an employee as well as a friend.

In the back of my mind there has always been the question - being with an organisation you do not know how much of what you did is because of yourself, and how much is because of your organisation? Very often professionals make the mistake of believing that it is their own capability whereas it is actually the chair that they occupy. For me that was the acid test, being able to say that I did it.

Forgive the cliche, but the fact that you are a woman and a CEO - does it help, not help, does not matter?

I think gender is frankly immaterial, it does not matter. The same kind of pressures that a man goes through, a woman goes through. There may be some pressures slightly different with respect to the homemaker responsibilities that the woman has, but that is something that you live with. But as far as the industry is concerned, I have never been handicapped, because I have never thought of myself as a woman working in a man's world. I think of myself as a professional, able to hold my own.

What keeps you going?

Other than work, which is an all consuming passion - I spend about 12 hours at work everyday - it is music, cooking, travel and reading. I read a lot, about 2-3 books a week.

Author: Tushar Uchil
Photographs: Vinayak Prabhu

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