I find Asians more optimistic than the rest, says Nirvik Singh

By Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | January 20, 2009
Soon after Nirvik Singh was elevated as CEO, APAC region, Grey Group, he spoke to afaqs! Here are his views on Asian consumers and markets

Nirvik & #BANNER1 & # Singh has just gotten a tad busier, if that's possible. The recently elevated chairman and chief executive officer, APAC region, Grey Group, now has 17 countries to oversee for the group. That means he can barely spend an hour from his workday on each office.

In Singh's own words, he manages his workload by using the simplest method known to man - daily to-do lists. He admits to being extraordinarily organised, almost to distraction. Singh has spent 19 years with the Grey Group, including some with Trikaya, the agency launched by the late Ravi Gupta in 1977. In a chat with Devina Joshi, he speaks of what has kept him going, his key insights across various markets and the way forward for Grey in APAC.

Q. Work, work and more work, we take it right from the Trikaya days…
A. Oh, yes. I set up the Kolkata office at Trikaya. We started in my house - a month later, we moved to a business centre. Nine months later, we moved to an office. We designed the office ourselves and I remember, we forgot to order chairs… so we had loads of tables, but no chairs!

Kolkata grew from strength to strength quickly. I held different jobs in Trikaya, whether it was the opening - or, later, the reopening - of our Bengaluru office. We set up Trikaya in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. By the late 1980s, a minority stake bought by Grey made the company Trikaya Grey.

In 1997, unfortunately, Ravi expired and I had to take over from him as chief operating officer of the agency. At that point, the company was bankrupt. But luck and the hard work we had put in paid off and we reengineered the company.

By 2004, the agency had been taken over by WPP and became Grey Worldwide in India. I was put in charge of Southeast Asia, which included Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. In 2006, we signed a joint venture in Vietnam to open our office there, about the same time that I was given the additional responsibility of running G2, our marketing services company across Asia. Now, I shall oversee 17 Asian markets.

Q. It must be like lunch in one country and dinner in another for you... What are the key insights you have gathered on Asia?
A. In most parts of Asia, modern trade rules, while in India, only part of the trade is modern… Some research reports suggest that Indians like to 'see' advertising, unlike other markets, where there is a greater degree of ad irritation.

Take Malaysia. Malaysian consumers are divided largely into four ethnic groups and the country's infrastructure is way ahead of ours. Kuala Lumpur is a first world city, so naturally, things are more advanced there. The approach to shopping, for instance, is way more sophisticated.

I think India can be compared to China in many ways. Both house value-conscious consumers. If you've studied social anthropology, you'll know that a closed economy hankers for something that it thinks is better than its own. When we were growing up, there was this need to own a (pair of) Levi's jeans in order to be a part of Western culture, for instance. When such an economy opens up and becomes a significant part of the world, it marries the best of both cultures. A lot of that is happening in Asia. I find Asians a lot more optimistic than the rest of the world's citizens.

Q. That is what Grey's own research study, Eye on Asia, deals with…
A. Eye on Asia is in its fourth year and offers insights into work-life balance across various Asian markets. The Indians and the Chinese, for instance, don't necessarily want too much extra time to balance the work-play aspects of their lives. They are fine with a work-oriented life pattern.

In other markets, people feel the need to manage their work-play balance better. But consumers, on the whole, are in a state when they want it all. Indian parents are getting increasingly conscious of the kind of education their children receive. They want Gen Next to get more opportunities than they ever did. This is also true of China.

Singapore, with a population of four million, is known as a 'safe' city. It is economically vibrant, whereas Hong Kong is a financial hub. Consumers in the latter are go-getters, not laid back.

Q. Grey has suffered tremendous management churn in the Indian subcontinent, while awards and accolades are a sore point at present. Your comments?
A. That's where our NCD (national creative director) Shalini Dam steps in. She has done some great work for Samsung in the past. Her primary task over the next year will be to up the creative bar at Grey.

The fact that Grey has sustained itself despite management churns and many changes is because we have all fought for a cause. And the management churn that you're talking of… Prathap (Pat) Suthan, Naresh Gupta and Ashutosh Khanna left us after having spent a significant number of years here. While Pat and we shared different views on how Grey should surge ahead, Ashu moved out of advertising altogether. Harish Shriyan and Jasmin Sohrabji left MediaCom to set up OMD, a new company. With Priti Nair, there was a cultural difference of opinion, nothing else.

Q. Which of the 17 Grey offices in APAC do you hold dear to you?
A. That's a tough one, but I'll select two - Malaysia and Vietnam. The Malaysian one, because it turned around from a 'bleeding' outfit to a wholly integrated one. The Vietnam office, simply because it was born out of nothing - much like Trikaya in India, which also I hold dear to me.