being a hardcore sales person to shifting to the business of building brands and finally settling into the world of integrated marketing services and the digital medium, Srikant Sastri has done quite a bit of travelling and explored various ways of bridging the gap between the consumer and the product. We caught up with him at a time when he has been identified for a pivotal role as the country chair, India, of Publicis Groupe's recently formed unit, VivaKi. Sastri continues to hold his existing position as managing director of Solutions Digitas.
"I started out in my career when the sales guy was the star performer. Brand managers were almost non-existent then," reminisces Sastri. After completing his engineering and MBA from IIT Kanpur and IIM Calcutta, respectively, he joined Unilever's Pond's business as a sales manager in 1985.
After a stint of four years involving long trips across the country, he decided to move towards advertising and understand brands and consumers in detail. So, he joined TSME (Tara Sinha McCann Erickson, now McCann Erickson) in 1989. As an account director, he worked on some of the agency's key businesses, such as Nestle and Gillette. "Work was fun and informal then because it was run by that grand old lady, Tara Sinha, and not the multinational McCann," says Sastri.
When Sinha stepped aside in 1995, McCann Erickson took over the agency completely. There was, Sastri acknowledges, a mismatch in ideologies and thoughts with McCann and the blurry focus as far as marketing services were concerned drove him out of the agency to start a venture of his own.
"Fifteen of us from the agency pooled in Rs 15 lakh and started Solutions. We decided not to be just a local direct marketing or sales promotion company, but have a pan-India presence instead. So, from day one, we had offices in six metros. Thanks to supportive clients like HCL, HP, Cyber Media and Microsoft, the first year was a cakewalk," he says.
But then came the bad times. "We got a bit overstretched in our second year and did aggressive hiring and added infrastructure. This is when the market went through a rough patch. Again, in 1998, for almost a year, we were running three-six months behind in our salaries. This was when the IT industry took a hit and so did our revenue," recalls Sastri.
In 2000, however, the company raised money and decided to expand and move beyond technology. "We identified four broad verticals - events and promotions, digital marketing, retail and trade marketing, and loyalty programmes and customer relationship management (CRM)," he says. Happy times started rolling once again for Sastri as the company made its first foray into Southeast Asia with an office in Singapore.
While in 2006, Solutions became part of the Publicis Groupe, which took up a 60 per cent stake, in 2007, Digitas, another digital major, became a part of the Publicis Groupe in the US. This eventually resulted in the formation of Solutions Digitas, which now employs more than 3,000 people in 12 cities in Asia.
But the icing on the cake came recently when VivaKi was announced in India and Sastri was made its country chair. Worldwide, VivaKi was formed as a strategic unit in June 2008 when the Publicis Groupe decided to unleash the combined forces of Digitas, Starcom MediaVest and Zenith Optimedia.
"On their own, the media entities cannot make the best of the digital medium, so Digitas is helping out… We [now] have an entity that delivers complete digital solutions," says Sastri.
(Profile is a regular column which peeps into the career path of senior advertising, media and marketing professionals, who are currently in the news.)