Defining Moments: Rajiv Sabnis: Almost an army man

By Shibani Gharat , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | May 20, 2013
Rajiv Sabnis, president, DDB Mudra Group, attributes everything that he is today to his army background. Here, he shares a few defining moments from his life.

I was born into an army officer's family in Jabalpur, where my father was posted. I have been all around India starting with Bareilly, Dehradun, Secunderabad, Delhi, Simla and finally, Pune.

Rajiv Sabnis

Thanks to the army, I had cultivated a lot of discipline early on in life. But my biggest defining moment was when I chose to come to advertising. My family wanted me to join the army. I had appeared for the Combined Defence Services exams and was ranked second in the country. After the group discussions, debates and the pilot aptitude test, I appeared for a medical check-up, but because of a small abnormality in the spinal column, was debarred.

Around this time, I happened to meet a gentleman from Rediffusion. He was the brother of an army officer and was working with the agency. At that point, I was finishing my Bachelor's of Science from Nowrosjee Wadia College in Pune. I must admit that I was quite fascinated with the glamour and creativity of advertising. My mind was made up.

I finished MBA from Symbiosis Institute in Pune, with marketing as a specialisation. Those days the agencies wouldn't come to campus to recruit. So I applied to 25 agencies and finally got into Everest in 1986. I joined there as a management trainee and spent almost eight-and-a-half years there.

My next stop was Contract Advertising as account director. The 10-and-a-half years that I spent at Contract, were the best years of my advertising career. I forged great partnerships here with people such as Umesh Shrikhande, Ishan Raina, Ram Sehgal and Syeda Imam. When I became associate vice-president in Contract Mumbai, I met Sehgal. He called me to his office and insisted that I could not say 'no' to what he was going to tell me. He also suggested that I should not discuss it with anyone but my wife Madhavi. I was pretty much in awe of him and agreed to his clauses. All he said was "pack your bags and move to Delhi as head of that office".

It came as a shock to me. Delhi was Contract's second largest office. The next few years (starting from late 1997) were marvellous in terms of personal and organisational growth.
I came back to Mumbai as a senior vice-president in 2001, to run Contract Mumbai for four years.

I admired Subhash Ghoshal very much. He would sit in the Contract office, after he became the chairman emeritus of HTA and Contract. He had earmarked me and this gave me the benefit of being called to his cabin often. He would give me a book and some case papers to read. In the next meeting, I would return the book and discuss the case papers, after which he would pose questions pertaining to the book. That was his way of grooming me.

After Contract, I moved to Publicis Ambience and this agency taught me the lessons of transition. I got to learn what an agency goes through while transitioning from an Indian agency to a multi-national set up. I joined Publicis Ambience as chief operating officer.

In 2009, I moved to DDB Mudra, which has given me a lot of independence and responsibility. With the restructuring in March 2012, both the agencies of the DDB Mudra Group came under me as far as the west region is concerned. Having worked in both a western set-up (WPP) and an Indian one (Everest) helped me to be hands on with the new DDB Mudra Group structure, where Mudra has very Indian roots and DDB has an international touch.

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