Profile: Narayan Devanathan: No politics please

By Nandana Das , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Advertising | November 30, 2011
The national planning head of Dentsu Marcom speaks about his journey from a missed medicine career to an opportune MBA degree, a humble beginning, to playing a strategic role with the giant players in the advertising industry.

He describes himself as intellectually naive. And, he is soft-spoken. So, how did a soft-spoken, intellectually naive, Hyderabad boy get into the world of advertising? In his own words, it was because he was not good enough to do anything else.

Back in 1992, when he couldn't get into medicine, Devanathan applied for an MBA along with a bunch of his friends and luckily got through to Osmania University. An internship at Mudra Bangalore followed. He remembers working on the BPL (2-in-1 music systems) account, but he recounts in his own words that "I did not feel that I was wanted there."

Towards the end of his internship, Devanathan met a copywriter, who made a great impression on the young man. Recalls Devanathan, "He told me, copywriting is not about writing. It is about figuring out how things work logically."

Devanathan took up his first advertising job at a princely sum of Rs 1,200 in the small, Hyderabad-based Breeze Advertising. Hardly a week into his new job, he got a call from R K Swamy (now R K Swamy BBDO). "My boss, Vijay Kumar, was gracious enough to let me go," says Devanathan.

It was a different ballgame in a big agency. He recalls how he wrote his first ever ad and how the creative director threw it back at him. Go back and write something where each sentence will not have more than five words, the creative director had said. Devanathan kept at it by telling himself: "I am loving what I am doing and would never do anything but copywriting". He considers himself lucky to have had a mentor like Vikram Reddy (his boss in the agency), but quit as he did not know how to play 'games'.

His next stop was another small agency, Vyapti Communications. "The directors took a chance and made me the creative head. From nowhere, they took the agency's revenues to two crore in a year-and-a-half, primarily on the back of a Bombay-based client, First Flight," says Devanathan.

Wanderlust struck, and in 1997, he took the GRE and went to Iowa State University for a Masters in Mass Communications on a full scholarship. After graduating in 2001, he found a job in New York as senior copywriter in Admerasia, an agency that catered to Asians in America. Admerasia handled clients like, Metlife and Mercedes Benz.

When the mini recession struck America, he applied for a PhD course in the University of Wisconsin, Madison, to be with his girlfriend Divya (now his wife). After two years, it dawned on him that he wasn't cut out for academic research and got out. "I realised I am a people watcher. I do not look at them, I stare at them," he says pointing out that a career in planning suited him more.

After a decade in the US, Devanathan returned. An old friend had set up a design and communications firm Idolo Fori, and invited Devanathan to work with him. "But, I had to shuttle between Hyderabad and Delhi and it killed the purpose (staying with my wife's parents) of shifting to Delhi," says Devanathan.

Therafter, he joined Ogilvy. "It was after working under Madhukar Sabnavis that my planning skills took off," he says. He handled clients like KFC, Coke, Sprite and American Express. Pitching for Cisco was a rewarding experience. After a couple of years, the politics in the agency got to him and he quit.

Meanwhile, he met Suman Srivastava, then CEO (chief executive officer) of Euro RSCG, and found him to be 'the perfect gentleman with brains'. He joined Euro because his vision was in line with Srivastava's. "People thought I was mad, leaving the so-called, No 1 agency in India," he says.

Politics was something Devanathan dreaded. "I was kind of spoilt by the politics-free work culture in the US", he says. However, Euro too wasn't free of dirty politics.

Is Dentsu Marcom going to be better? "I sensed a new feeling in the agency, a brutal honesty among the agency members. Hence, here I am," he signs off.

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