Shashi Sinha: Why the Industry Cheers his Lifetime
The IPG Mediabrands CEO reflects on key aspects of his career, the flood of affection showered on him by the industry as he received the AAAI Lifetime Achievement Award, and why he believes good times are ahead for advertising and media.
By Gokul Krishnamoorthy
The Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) honoured industry veteran and IPG Mediabrands India CEO Shashi Sinha with its annual Lifetime Achievement Award on December 1, 2023. It was a choice that would brook no argument whatsoever, and instead trigger a spontaneous outpouring of congratulatory messages. From clients and colleagues, present and former, to the many stakeholders he continues to work with across industry bodies, the view was that there could be no one more deserving.
We caught up with the industry statesman barely a week after he accepted what is defined by AAAI as: “The highest honour to be given to an individual in India for his/ her outstanding contribution to the advertising industry.” He also became one of the few people still active in an agency role to receive the accolade.
Sinha was his candid self when reflecting on the award. More than the honour, it was the flood of messages that had got him a little emotional.
“When I started this journey, I never realised that I would be where I am. Is this recognition right?” he ponders over the award. The question was on his mind as it has often been, for the market has always pegged him higher than he would readily believe.
“What this award has done is, it has created an outpouring of affection. What I have received in the last couple of days warms the cockles of my heart. The thing is to not let it dissipate,” quips Sinha, for once seemingly at ease with the pedestal the industry has placed him on.
(From left) AAAI President Prashant Kumar, Treasurer Vishandas Hardasani, VP Rana Barua, Shashi and Ena Sinha, Chairperson AAAI Lifetime Award Committee Anupriya Acharya.
The People’s Person’s Roots
Among the fond reflections from an endless array of people, the most repeated thing is about how good the adlander is with his relationships. Within that, Sinha is known for prioritising ‘People, Clients and Shareholders – in that order.’
Where does that innate ability to take people of all hues along have its roots?
He responds, “People tell me that it has always been part of my DNA. A lot of it came from sports. Though I was not very good at it, I used to be very active playing sports right from school. I think the best exposure comes from the sports field.”
Another factor that Sinha feels instilled in him a sense of standing for and with one’s people, is growing up in an Army environment in Dehradun, where his father was posted.
That ability to work as a team would see him assigned to HR duties by former FCB Ulka Chairman Emeritus, the late Anil Kapoor. Sinha happily took on the extra load.
Nurturing relationships and growing people has been an intrinsic part of the culture at the organisation. It is something Sinha takes immense pride in. This also extended to an acquisition under his watch – that of digital agency Interactive Avenues.
“Back in 2006-’07, we had no digital capabilities. IPG had clients like Microsoft and Intel. Ratish (Nair), Amar (Deep Singh) and three other founders had Interactive Avenues going. We met them and said let’s work together. Later, when we brought Reprise to India, it was a 51:49 JV with Interactive Avenues. We grew fond of each other. It was a partnership of many years that turned into an equity deal with our acquisition of Interactive Avenues in 2013,” recounts Sinha.
Sinha is among those seen as champions of adland for another reason. After his IIT and IIM degrees, he was comfortably posted at a large beverage company in Bengaluru. A Regional Manager at 26 or 27 years of age would have a field force of 300 or 400 sales people working under him, recalls Sinha.
As he disclosed in his acceptance speech, his boss at United Breweries had moved to Ulka and convinced him to join advertising – with a significant pay cut. The pitch was that he would meet senior people while being part of an agency, and that advertising would be a shortcut to brand management for the sales professional.
“I initially only joined advertising as it seemed like a shortcut to brand management. I was sold on the idea. And in the initial days it was in dramatic contrast to my job in sales. For the first three months, I was a one-man army,” he recalls.
And then, the legendary relationship with Amul and Dr.Verghese Kurien kicked in. Sinha says, “That’s when I knew that this was my calling. Within six months, I was on my feet, working with Bal Mundkur.”
In the initial days, Ulka followed a matrix structure. Sinha was running the Mumbai office alongside Ambi Parameswaran. And in its initial days, the Lodestar set up was quite small. When he was presented the opportunity to lead the media business as a separate entity, the ratio of business sizes between FCB and Lodestar was 90:10, reveals Sinha. What worked for him was the opportunity to lead on clients like Amul, including the creative part, and the excitement of running a separate P&L.
Ask him about the separation of creative and media functions to the situation today, and he is predictably forthright.
“On key clients, initially there was no great amount of separation. As we grew big, we drifted apart. Today in terms of P&L, media companies have scale. But I still believe that the best thing is when it is integrated,” he reflects.
For Adland, For Media
The rise and rise of Shashi Sinha did not happen without the share of long hours that one readily associates with careers in advertising and media. He recalls taking the train from his Andheri home to reach the office at Nariman Point in the early days.
“Working with Anil (Kapoor) was very tough. The world was very different. For the returns that advertisers got, you were very averagely paid. You worked hard. Anil would say that at 50, you will have a hockey stick (in your income graph) coming,” reflects the IPG Mediabrands CEO.
It was not easy on the family either. His wife Ena is most often his travel companion these days on work trips. Sinha admits, when asked, that it is a conscious effort to make up for lost time.
Sinha became CEO of all media units under IPG Mediabrands in 2013. Besides being credited with growing the businesses in scale and stature and his ongoing stewardship of Amul for over 37 years, he is respected by peers for his continuing contribution to industry bodies.
He is the Chairman of television audience measurement body BARC, and has formerly served as President of the Ad Club and Chairman of ABC and MRUC. His involvement in advertising self-regulation body ASCI, contribution to readership studies, and the AAAI, have seen him emerge as the industry’s go-to leader to solve crises and break deadlocks.
He has a view about donning industry body hats while helming a network of media agencies. “Doing industry work while being in the saddle makes it more meaningful because the company is very much part of the industry. They are interrelated; we are all interrelated. And industry work is always about arriving at the best way forward for all stakeholders to grow,” explains Sinha.
Value Will Increase
The ad veteran with a premier management degree acknowledges that the industry is not attracting the best of talent today. He reasons that it is because of the pay gap with other industries.
“We are offering reasonable compensation but not paying top dollar because we can’t afford it. Today the scale of the ad industry is very big. In terms of media volume, India is one of the biggest markets globally. But it is also a highly fragmented market and an underleveraged market in terms of CPM (Cost Per Thousand). The volume to value ratio is disproportionate. So it’s a double whammy. You get lower remuneration to handle a huge volume of media,” explains Sinha.
But things will improve, he underlines, with characteristic positivity: “As India’s GDP increases, the volume may not expand but the value will definitely expand. So with the growth of the economy, I am very confident that the compensation will go up.”
Like he was told by Anil Kapoor in his early days, Sinha has a prediction for the industry: “It will see a hockey stick.”