It was a rebellion of sorts when the small-town boy from Kankhal near Haridwar - who loved playing gili danda, swimming in the Ganges and reading Thomas Hardy - opted for a career in advertising after graduating in History from St Stephens College in 1986.
"At St Stephens, it was a norm that if you were doing History honours, you would sit for the Civil Services exam. But I was not convinced about a career where I had to obey my political masters," says Sanjay Trehan, who, very recently, joined Microsoft as director, digital, in its consumer and online India (COI) division. But when did an advertising professional turn digital?
"Advertising, I discovered, is fun and allows you to do what you want - and pays you for thinking creatively and generating ideas," he says.
After his graduation, Lintas picked him as trainee copywriter during the campus recruitment in 1986. But after 18 months, Trehan decided to go the freelance way. "A nine-to-five routine was not very exciting," he says.
He was associated with small agencies such as Montage and Crescent in Delhi, copywriting for brands like Jaquar (he came up with the brand's baseline, 'Too good to resist') and Liberty Shoes ('We are about people').
Advertising taught Trehan about consumers, people management and lateral thinking. "Advertising is about decoding people's aspirations," Trehan says. After spending 10 years in that space, two things happened, which changed Trehan's career path. "We were becoming smart salesmen, creating hype around products which were, sometimes, not great."
Secondly, he discovered the power of the internet. He chatted with people, tried online gaming and discovered bulletin boards. With that experience, he became a columnist, writing in PC World, Cosmopolitan, The Economic Times and Hindustan Times. Two years later, Trehan entered the internet space for a full-time career. In 1999, he was appointed vice president (content and strategy) by Jaldi.com, an e-tailing portal owned by KLG Systel.
Trehan believes that Jaldi.com was successful in building hype and getting the traction, but failed in controlling the supply chain. "The portal used to get more than one lakh unique users per month. In May 2000, we were able to sell Rs 4.5 crore worth of consumer durables. But we faced a big problem with the air conditioners we had booked. They were delivered three months late because we had no control on the supply chain and the consumer durables company failed to cope up with the rising demand. It was a disaster," says Trehan.
The dotcom bust came along soon after. "eVentures, a venture capitalist firm, ruled out the possibility of investing in Jaldi. We had to scale down our business," he recollects.
So, what did he learn from the dot-com bust? "The internet will not help you just as a medium. You need to develop a viable value-proposition which consumers will appreciate," he says, adding, "The bust separated the men from the boys. People who came for short-term gains failed."
Trehan's next destination was Razorfinish.com, a reverse auction travel portal, which he joined in October 2000.
But five months later, he moved to Hindustan Times - "a bigger brand" - as head of the internet business. His mandate? To revive Hindustantimes.com, create a profitable brand in three years and clean up the mess created by Go4i.com. "HT had burnt $11million in a misadventure called Go4i.com, a joint venture with the US-based Chase Capital Partners. The internet business was merely earning Rs 16 lakh," says Trehan.
He built a team of about 100 people at HT. But one of the tough challenges he faced was pruning the employee strength of Go4i.com from 120 people to half of its size. "When I moved out after four-and-a-half years, the internet division was making a profit of about Rs 1 crore," claims Trehan.
In June 2005, he joined Indiatimes.com, where his mandate was to reinvent the portal in the broadband era and set up a gaming function. "Gaming helped me to understand that rich-media content can be used to build a loyal user-base," says Trehan.
After two years, Trehan moved to NDTV and set up its digital arm, NDTV Convergence. He launched various digital properties including NDTV.com, NDTVKhabar.com (Hindi news portal), Nogyan.com and also created the presence of NDTV on mobile via mobile.ndtv.com. "NDTV Convergence is earning Rs 11 crore and if all goes well, it is expected to make profit in 2009-10," says Trehan, who has trained his sights on taking Microsoft to another level.
(Profile is a regular column which peeps into the career paths of senior advertising, media and marketing professionals, who are currently in the news.)