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Profile: Sanjay Gupta - Onto a 'soap' opera

By Sapna Nair , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Publishing | May 26, 2009
Sanjay Gupta joined STAR India as chief operating officer, moving in from Airtel

An engineering graduate from the Delhi College of Engineering, Gupta aspired to do some breakthrough work as an engineer and joined L&T's R&D department in 1988. Eight months into the job, he realised that there was much more to do in business and decided to pursue management. "I wanted to learn the financial and marketing side of business," he says.

Passing out from IIM Kolkata in 1991, he joined Hindustan Lever (now Unilever) as a management trainee. It was an association that lasted for 16 years. "It's a great place to be in as a sales and marketing professional," says Gupta. Based in Kolkata, he became the area sales manager for West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar. It was the first time that he managed a team of 40-50 people, most of whom were older than him.

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According to Gupta, the people of Kolkata are emotional. "One of the crucial things with so many experienced people is how to get them to do what you want them to do - in a manner that they enjoy and agree with," he recalls.

Soon, he moved to the oral care category as a brand manager on Close-Up. It was a global brand but largely present in developing countries. HLL had set up a Dental Innovation Centre in Mumbai to serve as a global set up and Gupta was assigned to this. "I had to understand what consumers look for in different parts of the world and develop a product mix that would appeal to countries such as India, Brazil, and Southeast and West Asia," he says.

"The basic insights about consumers - wherever they are - don't change, but the context, habits and rituals may," adds Gupta. He managed the Close-Up business for a year, after which he was the marketing head for the Rs 700 crore oral care business, which had two other brands (Pepsodent and Aim).

The little changes mattered most, recalls Gupta. For instance, HLL had launched toothpaste in a sachet with a nozzle. "We realised that the used sachets had to be folded after use as there was no other way of closing it," he says about the need for the innovation. It worked very well for the brand.

Five years later, he moved to Delhi to handle the sales and operations for the northern region for soaps and detergent, a portfolio that included brands such as Lux, Lifebuoy and Wheel. The scale of the business changed dramatically as the turnover for that region was Rs 1,200 crore. "From managing 20 people, I was managing 150," he says. Buying habits, consumer insights and trade dynamics were also different.

He served in this role for 18 months and returned to Mumbai to handle the home-care category, which had two big brands - Vim and Domex. He was looking at this portfolio, which had relatively low penetration, for Asia. At that time, HLL was facing a big challenge in India, too - from Nirma.

Gupta remembers undertaking another innovation with an invention called polycoat. "We spent time with housewives and learnt that, in the kitchen, water keeps falling on the Vim bar, leading to much wastage." A simple solution was to coat the bar with plastic. This, he says, changed the growth trajectory of Vim. "Consumers can tell you what's good for them much better than a research agency can," he states.

Gupta's next posting was as head of western India for the entire HLL portfolio (personal care products, food, soaps and detergents). This was a Rs 2,500-crore business. Food, he says, was an interesting category to work on. As he puts it: "There are three 'morning habits' that people don't want to change - the tea, the newspaper and the toothpaste. These are ingrained and very difficult to change.

"In soaps, consumers don't look at the manufacturing date or packaging. But when it comes to tea or ice-cream packs, they prefer a fresher stock," he says. Consumers can be persuaded to change their habits after sampling the product. "There is no other way of coaxing the consumer to break an existing habit," he adds.

Gupta moved to Airtel in 2007 because "it was growing rapidly and changing human lives." He headed marketing for the mobile business for Airtel, worth US $ 3 billion then. The big challenge was that the industry was completely new to him. "I had to understand what works in this business. The other thing was to communicate effectively to a CEO as well as the vegetable vendor alike," he recalls.

Two years ago, the telecom industry was adding six million new consumers a month. "One had to ensure that the marketing system is geared to tap those new consumers coming from rural India. The other thing was to get the consumer to trust the brand."

Airtel roped in ambassadors such as Shah Rukh Khan, AR Rahman and now, Madhavan and Vidya Balan, for its brand building and communication. Though Gupta is cautious about the way celebrities should be used, he believes that Airtel has effectively integrated celebrities with the brand message. When Gupta quit Airtel in 2009, it was a US $ 6 billion business and a brand that scored high on recall.

What made an advertiser and consumer of media go to the other side of the table? Gupta's decision was backed by two reasons - one was the thrill of working with the No. 1 player, and the other was CEO Uday Shankar. "I liked Uday as an individual and a professional. I believe that you don't work for companies, you work for bosses," he states.

How does he see the media business? "Things in this industry change every week," he says, adding, "In most other businesses, your performance versus competition is known only after a month." He believes that STAR's primary task will be to make the business sustainable and consolidate the leadership position. "I hardly watched TV before but now I watch at least four hours of it. The good thing is that I get paid to watch TV now," he smiles.

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