Sucheta Dalal :Meenakshi Madhvani - A rare interview to MoneyLIFE
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Meenakshi Madhvani - A rare interview to MoneyLIFE  

September 11, 2008



From selling Fiat cars to media space, client servicing to media consulting, Meenakshi Madhvani has done many things. Her career is worth describing because she has done it with a difference. She has dared to be fiercely independent, to speak her mind and reinvent herself every decade. As entrepreneur and CEO of Spatial Access she uses more than two decades of knowledge to tell advertisers how to cut out waste. "We analyse the four pillars of the media function: Planning, Buying, Implementation and Process. We study what has been done and recommend changes if we believe that there have been inefficiencies or lacunae in the media area", she says about her work. In an interview with Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu Madhvani tells her atypical story.


ML: How did it all begin… your first job and your decision to get into advertising?

Madhvani: I wanted to get into advertising ever since I was a kid. My dad used to read a

lot of books, including books on advertising. When I was in the seventh standard he used to cut out ads, ask me to read the headlines and to look at the copy. He was a finance man, but very interested in ads. Thanks to him I was totally fascinated and decided that I wanted to get into advertising.


I had it all planned out. Once I finished school, I would complete my graduation, do my MBA - then get into advertising. Unfortunately, my father died and that changed everything. It became difficult for me to go in for higher education. My brothers helped me through the college and later I joined an evening course in advertising at KC college. I had plenty of time to work and earn some money. I joined Bombay Cycle and Motor Agency who were the agents for Premier Padmini cars. In those days cars were bought mainly by taxi owners and being at the counter I used to help them fill up the forms and tell them about the procedures and other stuff. It was good fun and a fabulous experience for me. I was still very clear about getting into advertising, but the route had changed.


Around 1979 I went to my brother's friend who was the Creative Director at a big advertising agency and asked him if he could get me an interview with the head of Client Servicing. I just wanted an interview. He fixed it up and I landed at their Phirozeshah Mehta Road office. This guy gave me a good hearing, the interview lasted an hour and I thought it was going pretty well. At the end of it he tells me-'I don't think you are cut out for advertising, I think you should try and get into PR (public relations) or Travel.' I managed to retain my composure thanked him politely and left. There were tears streaming down my face, I was completely shattered. Right from the eighth standard I had only advertising on my mind and this guy tells me you are not cut out for it. When I reached home my mother saw my face and made only one remark -'So you have given up, is it'?


I calmed down and asked myself, will I let go my six years of passion just because of this one person? The next day I asked this friend if I could photocopy a few pages from a directory of advertising agencies. I decided to contact each one until I got a job. AdPlan was first on the alphabetically arranged list. I went there and asked to meet the Chief Executive. He agreed to see me, chatted for 15-20 minutes and offered me a job. He asked me to join the next day. I said what is wrong with today? He agreed to pay me a salary of Rs. 400, which I readily accepted. We had a small set up and Ozzie (Oswald Pereira) was a very creative person with about two-and-a-half clients. I learnt the nuts and bolts of advertising by doing just about everything - writing copy, handling finance and accounts, doing production, client servicing, raising invoices, media and even cleaning out the office. Ozzie used to have these long liquid lunches and not turn up till 4.00. So I was virtually running the company at the end of the first year. In the second year, my pay packet looked thicker and I found Rs. 800 in it. I went up to Ozzie and said he had made a mistake. He said he had given me an increment since I was running the entire show by then.


This is how I began. While I was there I was working on a piece of business, which we shared with Lintas. So the senior team at Lintas was exposed to me at client meetings. They offered me a job. I spoke to Ozzie and he advised me to go ahead since I had outgrown this job and he would not be able to offer me anything better. One very important thing that I learnt was that if any youngster comes to you and talks to you about their careers, ambitions and options always make the time for them… meaningful time. If you are too busy say sorry but don't thrust your opinions on the kids who come to you.


ML: How was your experience in Lintas?

Madhvani: I joined Lintas in early 1981 in Client Servicing. It was an amazing time to be there. Soon after I joined, I was put on to Fair and Lovely working with Shunu Sen who was a General Manager at Hindustan Lever. I was the account executive for Lintas, Alyque Padamsee headed Lintas and Vindi Banga was a Product Manager. We did some phenomenal work there. We were learning and experimenting with ideas and concepts and there was a tremendous sense of belonging and ownership between the client and the agency.


ML: So why did you leave Lintas?

Madhvani: In 1983 I felt I was not growing as fast as I should have. Also, my experience with AdPlan had made me greedy. In 1983 television was becoming very exciting and there were few sponsored programmes. That's when I joined a company called Act Commercial Advertising run by a gentleman called SS Oberoi. He was doing Vicco Vajradanti, Nirma and was also planning to produce a serial called Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi. I thought this was exciting because I wanted to try my hand at production. So I spent one and a half year producing Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi and also doing advertising. I was a General Manager and was over-designated and over-paid but when you are young you are really not worried about that - you think you have got your due. I soon realised I still had a lot to learn. So in 1985 I rejoined Lintas. I was put on to Levers and from 1985 to 1992 I was part of the team that fought the Nirma juggernaut, launched Wheel, handled the Liril re-launch etc.


ML: So when did you switch to media and why did you do that?

Madhvani: I was in Client Servicing and then Account Planning. One of the responsibilities of handling the Lever business was that I started working with consumer data, consumer insights, market research and I realised that there was a wealth of information available, if only one knew where to look. Many don't know where to look and how to arrive at the truth hidden in the data.


I needed to start looking at the media buying side, and frankly, client servicing had become boring. One was more focused on implementation rather than strategy, and meeting deadlines rather then worrying about quality. That's when I said let me do something that makes better use of my skills.


I was sensing that media was going to be the next big thing even though the advertising business then was dominated by Account Planners. When I asked for a transfer into media it was greeted with shock. Media was then considered a backroom function…basically number crunchers. In December 1991 we had the gulf war and CNN started broadcasting its 24-hour coverage.


ML: When did you join Zee Films?

Madhvani: In 1994 Digvijay Singh was Head of sales and marketing at Zee. When I was in Lintas he would ask me for help in making their rate card and discuss strategies to market and sell. I wanted to get into the media and understand it thoroughly, so when they asked me to join Zee in 1994 I thought the best way to understand media was to work with a media owner. No matter what, you don't understand the nuts and bolts of a business till you work with a media owner.


ML: What was the experience of working with Zee like?

Madhvani: Whatever knowledge I have of finance and legalities I owe to Zee. Subhash Chandra has been a fabulous mentor. I also got exposure to overseas market because I set up a sales network for Zee globally. The biggest and most important learning I had was that the advertising industry is built on the myth that the man who is buying has real power and the seller is somebody who comes to you with a begging bowl. In the two years at Zee, media heads would not even meet me willingly because they thought satellite television was not up there and they did not need it in their business plan.


It is very unfortunate and I don't know why media buyers are allowed to get away with this. I will give you an example. After much effort I got the appointment with the then Media Director of HTA (Hindustan Thompson Associates). I land up at their office I am made to wait in the reception for one hour. Luckily, Mike Khanna (Chief of HTA) was passing by and asked who I was waiting for. If it had not been for Mike I would have probably waited two hours.


ML: Doesn't this attitude damage the relationship between the ultimate client and the media… because ultimately it is a give and take?

Madhvani: For agencies, it is a one-sided relationship. For them, it is only take, take and take as much as they want to.


ML: What about the client? Doesn't it harm them?

Madhvani: Unfortunately clients take the easy way out… pretend there is no problem and the problem disappears. This is the client attitude unless they feel the brunt of media's poor equation with the agency. Often, clients short circuit this connection and build a direct relationship with the media because they are actually dealing on a principal to principal basis. I often find that many agencies, instead of adding value to the whole business of advertising and communication actually end up becoming an impediment.


ML: When did you decide to turn entrepreneur?

Madhvani: After Zee I set up Carat. At Carat we worked with clients to plan and buy media for them. Having made the transition from the media owner's side to the buyer's side I was in the same position as agencies. I then discovered that media owners felt tremendous resentment towards media buyers. Since I had been on their side of the table they opened up. Part of the media buying business is that they try to beat down the media by getting bulk deals and volume rebates which are often not passed on to the client who should be the ultimate beneficiary. They then sell the bulk of the purchased space more expensively to those clients who badly need a certain slot - say a cricket match - and offer it at a discount to new clients who are being wooed by the agency. All this has become a part of standard operating procedure.


ML: Don't the clients get to know?

Madhvani: I think a lot of clients are realising and asking questions but they don't know the truth. Don't forget that the agency is a necessary part of the client's marketing structure and these relationships are often built over the years…they are in a comfort zone and don't want to destabilise it.


That is why a lot of clients may be aware that things are not actually hunky dory but don't want to ask questions. Fortunately, in my new venture (Spatial Access), there are clients who not only feel the sense of discomfort but are willing to address these issues. Media planning and buying can play an important role but these days they are focusing on the wrong things instead of looking at how to enhance value for their clients.


ML: What has been the response to Spatial Access from industry?

Madhvani: It was a new service and took head on the very issues that were being brushed under the carpet. In the first year it was extremely tough. Many a times I thought I was extremely foolish to have ventured into this business, but at the end of the first year it has been a fabulous experience. We have forty clients today. We have expanded our services to cover non-media marketing expenditure where there are huge inefficiencies.


ML: How exactly does this service work?

Madhvani: We try to understand exactly where the clients are spending money, how much are they spending and what value are they getting out of it. We then work out how much money the client is wasting and tell them what they need to do to stop the waste. We don't actually recommend alternatives because that is the planning agency's call. We act as a catalyst and encourage the client to ask us the right questions. For instance, we came across a case where the client was asked to spend 10% of his budget on the internet, specifically on a micro site! Another old trick is to make sure the Managing Director of the client company gets exposed to your media campaign although he is not the target audience, because he pays the bill. Find out the newspaper he reads, the television channel he watches and use it. If you do this on a national basis, you are magnifying the error a million times over. In my years in Carat only one client congratulated me for not having seen his advertising; he was a male managing director of a food company and the communication was targeted at women.


ML: What kind of metrics do you use in your evaluation of media?

Madhvani: You can always measure the impact of a media plan in terms of standard industry metrics. One metric is reach, the second is frequency. We use standard industry data but we modify it. For instance, one of the concepts we have created is competitive overlap. When you are looking at media environment today there is tremendous competition and clutter. Let's say you have two telecom companies running their commercial in the same program; if the two commercials appear back to back they tend to have an impact on each other. What is the value of that overlap? Can you measure it?


ML: Let me end with a personal question. You are married, have a kid and have had the space to do what you want. How did this work?

Madhvani: I have been extremely fortunate because I have always had an amazing support system. In India, we have a culture to fall back on - there is mother, mother-in-law and a full support system that you can create for yourself.


-- Sucheta Dalal