The human mind has a tendency to dissect its world into two - the conceptual one where thinking holds its might and the real world where application of thought is the authentic weapon. Mallikarjun Das, or Malli as everyone calls him, wants to straddle both. "I just cannot breathe one world for too long. I need more," he says.
So, when Chaitra Leo Burnett Media - the earlier avatar of Starcom - came to campus, Malli told Pravin Tripathi (then associate regional director, media and strategic planning), who interviewed him, that he wanted to become a copywriter. Tripathi advised him to start with media planning and then, if he wanted to, move into copy.
As media manager at Chaitra Leo Burnett, Malli started working on the P&G business. It was also a time when cable and satellite (C&S) was in its hyper-growth pace. Media planning was becoming an aggressive science; more data was pouring in and the Peoplemeter system was falling in place.
"Those were the formative years of my career. Working on the P&G account was pushing me into a quantity-and-analytics experience. Moreover, Praveen brought in a unique set of quantitative thinking in media. As I went deeper, , it interested me further."
But, immersed in strategic planning strategy, Malli was not getting his hands dirty with the real world and this was causing him some discomfort. He wanted a sense of that experience and that was when he got a break in Asian Paints in 2000.
"As media manager on the client side, I got a chance to dabble with a few new things including activation, handling media budget and being responsible for it from the company's perspective," he says.
But it was the finance controller (who sat right next to him) at Asian Paints who provoked Malli to take an interest in looking at the RoI of advertising.
"He would ask all the hard questions, including why there was a need to advertise at all, almost every second day," he says. Malli gradually also realised that media planning from the agency perspective was far more attractive, wherein everyday was a new day. There were new challenges as one handled a palate of clients. He decided to move back to Starcom as head of the P&G Media Planning AOR in 2003.
In 2005, Malli got a break at Tata Interactive Systems, which was not at all linked to what he had been doing so far. A couple of Malli's friends felt that Tata Interactive Systems would be a good place for him to be in.
Malli says, "Tata Interactive was a very creative stint. I was totally out of media and yet I enjoyed it thoroughly. But, sometimes, while we may have the best techniques and analytics in place, unless you can bring it into the real world, I don't think it is that satisfying. That was around the time when I got a call from Punitha (Arumugam, former group CEO at Madison Media)."
Arumugam wanted him to head the Madison Media Research Centre and drive analytics. Within four months of joining, Malli got the opportunity to head Madison Media Infinity when Karthik Lakshminarayan decided to join Colors. "It was a good opportunity. I did not want to be just the analytics nerd. After all, you do not sell equations to clients. You sell a story."
This was then followed by his latest break as CEO at Starcom MediaVest Group in 2011. It was a transformational role. Now, as Malli replaces CVL Srinivas and takes on a bigger role in the affairs of the company, how does he view the future? "As an agency, we pride ourselves in being a future forward agency. We want to be very strong on strategy, analytics, digital and branded content," he says.