Defining Moments: Nagesh Alai: Striking the Balance

By Ashwini Gangal , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | March 20, 2012
Nagesh Alai is multi-faceted. The executive director (India operations), Draftfcb Ulka Group, has traversed finance, pharma and advertising, spending the past 22 years in advertising. Alai, who is also deeply interested in art and aesthetics, antiquity, numismatics and philately, talks to afaqs! about the key defining moments of his career so far.

I started my first job at the impressionable age of 16 when I joined my father's (G N Alai) chartered accountancy firm straight out of school. I would attend college in the morning and then go to his office. I used to curse my luck, as I didn't have the typical life that every other teenager around me had. But in hindsight it was one of the greatest defining experiences for me as it made me more aware of the world around me, taught me how to interact with people and made me a better professional. In office, I always got the rough end of the stick and that made me a better man.

Nagesh Alai

Pep pill

After eight years at my father's firm, I decided to step away from the profession - dealing with certain government officials didn't sit well with my principles. I moved to Boots Pharmaceuticals, where I grew from a rookie accounts officer to a management accountant. This wonderful experience further shaped me. I learnt how various medicines are marketed, how to deal with the government's price control and still remain profitable and how to interact with the stock markets. From Boots, I went to John Wyeth India. There I worked as chief accountant and company secretary for almost two years.

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Within six months of joining John Wyeth, I got an offer from Ulka. I refused because I don't believe in being a rolling stone. However, though I kept refusing their offers, they approached me through various touch-points until I finally thought, "Ok let me try it." I joined in May 1990 and this was a defining moment.

One of the reasons I joined was because it was a change from the process and structure-driven field of manufacturing. In fact, one learning that I transferred from my previous jobs to my agency roles is the importance of discipline and control mechanisms. There wasn't much structure in the world of advertising when I joined.

Also, since Ulka was a loss-making unit at the time, I saw it as an opportunity because a strong balance sheet is the most important thing for an ad agency. I joined as vice-president, finance and soon professional recognition came my way. In 2006, I was given the responsibility for finance and operations of Asia-Pacific and Africa. Over the next six years, I had some brilliant micro-level, transnational experiences. I learnt how to manage diverse cultures and attitudes. I learnt how Indians tend to be more generalist in their thinking and have a better world view. Abroad, people are used to specialisation and their perspective is always in silos.

Another defining moment was when I was elected president of the AAAI (Advertising Agencies Association of India) in 2010. Though I was involved with the AAAI for many years before this, it was a defining moment because it was the first time since its inception that a finance person was elected to head the group.

My father, Ulka's Bal Mundkur and Anil Kapoor and Boots' DM Gavaskar have mentored me at different stages in my career.

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