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Profile: Meet Mahesh Chauhan, the youngest CEO in advertising

By Chumki Sen , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Advertising | October 17, 2008
Mash, as he is popularly called, discusses his advertising career, his recent elevation at Rediffusion Y&R and more with afaqs!

At & #BANNER1 & # 39, he's the youngest chief executive officer in the advertising fraternity and the designation sits well on his shoulders. A B Tech (Metallurgy) from IIT Powai in Mumbai, Mahesh Chauhan takes his new movement as a simple phenomenon. "It was obvious. Just a matter of time," he says.

Chauhan speaks on how he got into advertising. "I got into IIT because of the classic middle class pressure. My civil servant father was very worried about my career," he recalls. Father and son struck a deal. That Chauhan would secure his career and then do whatever he wanted. After finishing his Class 12 from St Joseph's in Allahabad, Chauhan joined IIT Powai.

At Powai, he started with good intentions until, a year later, he realised that he was fighting an unequal battle. "Everybody else was so much into the physics, maths and the chemistry of the world and here I was with seemingly no interest. So, I decided to tide this over and use the experience on the campus," he says. He started taking part in extracurricular activities regularly.

Mahesh Chauhan
During Mood Indigo, the annual festival of IIT Powai, in which he was participating, he met KV Sridhar, who was then with Lintas. After the show got over, the discussion veered around to Chauhan's future. Chauhan remembers telling Sridhar, "Whatever I am doing, I am not interested."

Sridhar suggested that he try advertising and Chauhan thought of giving it a shot before he joined an Indian Institute of Management for an MBA. Thus began his stint in advertising with O&M in 1992 as an account executive.

But he did not do that MBA, because his then boss, Rahul Kansal, told him that he would probably learn more on the job than on a campus. Chauhan started reading management books. "My next presentation would be based on the last book I read," he chuckles.

From O&M, he moved to Rediffusion Y&R in 1994, to Chaitra Leo Burnett in 1996, back to O&M in 1998 and then again to Rediffusion in 2002. After a brief stint at Everest, he was back at Rediffusion as president in 2006.

What have been the learnings from the journey till now? "I think the culture and the empowerment that Ogilvy brings in is magical. The strategic rigour which I learnt in Leo Burnett was something special and the enterprise and passion that exist in Rediffusion is something I like," he sums up.

How would he define the culture at Rediffusion? Chauhan says, "From my experience of four agencies, I don't think any of the other agencies are as transparent as Rediff. Rediff was built by entrepreneurs and that is something the agency encourages - enterprise."

Speaking of changes he has brought to the organisation, he says, "I have been working towards making our people hungrier, making our work more contemporary, working towards our culture being more relaxed, far less judgemental and more fun. The game is about getting the right people on board and motivating them."

Chauhan's spirit is corroborated by his colleagues. Priya Singhania, business head, Rediffusion Mumbai, says, "There was a lot of speculation when he came in. It was a change for the better. The organisation became a lot more empowering. He got in a lot of energy and the work-hard-party-harder culture. He is also a very accessible guy even for the juniormost trainee. And that is something other seniors have adapted."

Chauhan is known to party hard. So, what else does he like? "Party harder" is the instant response. On a serious note, Chauhan says he still pretends that he knows a lot of sports. "I actively play more passive sports and currently, it is snooker and pool."

He is also trying to spend more time with his daughters aged 11 and six. "Another passion which is beginning to germinate is how I can contribute more to society. All of us need our lives in three phases. One is the learning phase, the second is the acquiring phase (wealth, fame) and the third is the phase when you start working for the larger good of society, for people in whatever way you can. I am beginning to embark on that journey," he concludes.

(Profile is a regular column which peeps into the career path of senior advertising, media and marketing professionals, who are currently in news.)