When Prasoon Joshi, 44, the recently promoted chairman of McCann Worldgroup, Asia Pacific, arrives dangerously late for an interview, we know there has to be a good reason. "I was at Antilla," he apologises, adjusting his black-rimmed Dior glasses, referring to Mukesh Ambani's residence.
McCann South Asia and McCann India's man of the hour has an envy-worthy life in Mumbai. And here's our favourite part - none of it needs to change despite his promotion, one that has put the agency's operations across the APAC region (including Greater China, Japan, Australia, the Philippines and several other nations) on his plate. He will continue to live in and operate from Mumbai. Has the tide turned in favour of Indian talent? Over to Joshi. Excerpts from an interview:
One would assume that an APAC mandate would bring with it migration--- to, say, Singapore or Hong Kong. But you continue to be based in Mumbai. Is India the new hub for global leadership? Another example is Vikram Sakhuja, the Mumbai-based worldwide CEO of Maxus.
Well, you don't ask this question ("Will you move or not?") to someone living in the US or London. Probably, we are biased to begin with. We still think India is not a developed country. We still think it is a disadvantage to be in India. Is it? No. But is there an iota of truth in this? Yes, there is some truth in it.
But that is changing. Today, India has accessibility. You can reach India from anywhere in the world and get to anywhere in the world from India. I don't think we are lagging behind in technology.
Yes, India is changing for sure, don't you think?
Yes, it is a changing reality. And companies are also realising that. Leaders also want the people they believe in to be in these markets, where the future is.
I chose to stay here because the action is here. There's a throbbing sense of life you get in India. Are we Singapore? No, we are not - in terms of infrastructure, law and order, security. Places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai are ahead of India in so many ways. But well, I chose to be part of a narrative here.
That's the reason I am very much the CEO of our Indian operations. That is my biggest responsibility - to be in this market, to grow McCann in this market, and to ensure that all our clients get me on priority. That's been made very clear at the time of my promotion. My worldwide CEO Harris Diamond said: "Prasoon's priority is to cater to India's needs. And then to the rest of Asia."
How much of a fight was it for you to stay back in Mumbai?
Not much of a fight. That's because my company's senior management understands me. My company - McCann and the parent company IPG - lets me be. Sometimes people decide to move out of the country. It's a personal call and they have their reasons. But I prefer to be in India.
Yes, it is the first thing to cross somebody's mind - "You're doing an Asia role; now you will move out of India..." But I'm telling you that thinking has changed.
For me to say, "I am a hero; I fought a war against my company and said, 'I have to be in India'" would be unfair. It was a collective decision.
Yours and the network's---
My company understands the importance of this market. My being here and operating out of India is a signal of how seriously McCann takes India.
One of our clients, Coca-Cola, has done this much before McCann did - take Atul Singh's example. He heads Coca-Cola across APAC and is based in Delhi.
It is just perception that you have to move out of India for this kind of role. That perception is changing. India is no longer the India it used to be. Today, the company sees value in Prasoon Joshi staying in India and operating as Asia Pacific chairman from India. That's the change.
We understand that your promotion was a collective decision, including yours. Even so, what was your immediate reaction when it actually happened? And what are you most apprehensive about?
I am not someone who plans his career saying, "This is my next position." I never think about the designation and position. Nomenclature and designations mean nothing to me. What matters is whether there are any new experiences for me.
Now that I have written films, many people ask me when I am going to produce a film of my own. I find this question absurd. I mean, don't you like a writer who is just a writer? What is this obsession with hierarchy? What is this obsession with the amount of power you will have?
I'm not apprehensive about anything. Worries will come and I'll deal with them. I was born in a small sleepy town in Uttarakhand, where people don't even lock their houses. That culture, as a child, impacts you hugely. It teaches you trust. So the fundamental instinct of mine is to look at the positives.
Your new role requires you to review ads from markets like China, Japan, and Australia. How do you plan to deal with the cultural nuances of countries that you don't know as well as your own?
For an Indian, diversity is something that comes naturally. As a country, we are multi-lingual and multi-cultural. And Indians operate a lot on instinct. That helps us go beyond what someone is saying and respond to 'energies'. This gives us a unique-ness when we deal with the world.
And it's not the first time that I will be working on Asia Pacific markets. I have worked in various markets in the past, including Indonesia and the Philippines. I have written a commercial for China.
I have chaired our global creative council. That involves reviewing, critiquing and debating work from various markets. That has given me a lot of exposure in dealing with work from different parts of the world.
You will now need to study these markets more closely, though, won't you?
I also think my experience will come in handy. For the last 10 years I have been judging various festivals across New York, London and APAC. I have also judged award shows specific to certain markets. For example, I have chaired award juries in Indonesia and Philippines.
When one sits and goes through work from various markets and different languages, how does one judge it? You ask for an explanation to understand the brand and cultural context but then you use your experience and instinct.
Unfortunately, you wouldn't ask me all these questions if I were born in the US. "How will you look at global work?" "How will you do it?" You'd just assume it will be done. That's the bias we have. And that's a function of our economy.
Is this bias felt while dealing with clients? Do they behave differently with Indian leaders with global roles than they do with non-Indian leaders with global roles?
The bias is more in Indian people than in people from the rest of the world. True globalists do not see nationality. They see ideas, minds and experience.
I heard this sher early in life and I disagree with it completely. It goes, 'Phool wohi sar chadha jo chaman se nikal gaya. Izzat usi ko mili jo watan se nikal gaya.' That used to be the truth in India previously. Not today.
Sure, we will always keep learning from other developed markets. We can learn brand building from the US and craft from Europe, especially London. But we don't need to learn the basics of advertising from anywhere.
How long will it be before we see people from other countries migrating to India to take on leadership roles?
It is a very good question. It will happen gradually - maybe in eight or 10 years. Europeans are keen to come to India. In fact, many people of Chinese origin and people from the Middle East are already working here. It's only a question of time before you see people from Japan, Korea and Thailand working in India. Even the US has a few 'explorers' who are curious about India and want to move here.
I have had in-depth conversations with people who have decided not to shift to India. The basic reasons are related to our governance, infrastructure, law and order, education and all those issues. They feel the way they live their life will get compromised. But nobody denies the potential of - and talent in - this market.
Latin America is pretty close in terms of the way they approach advertising. They are also emotional and have strong family values like us. Sometimes, I see strange similarities between Italy and India in terms of family values. And even the Middle East in terms of family structure and culture.
China is similar to India in terms of its past and spirituality, but at the same time, China's way of approaching things is very different from India's. I would like to learn more about Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Japan, like India, is a nuanced and culturally layered market.
The higher a creative person climbs within a network, the more managerial and less creative his/her role becomes. Is that why you have found so many other ways to quench your creative thirst outside of the agency system? And yet, if you hadn't taken on managerial responsibilities, you wouldn't have been heading the network across an entire region today...
I have always found parallel expression for myself in other mediums, much before I came into advertising.
Scaling up is important. As a writer or creative director you do a certain amount of work. However, as you become senior, you have to multiply your skills and see how you benefit more with the same set of skills.
When I took over as India CEO of McCann, I thought about it for almost a year. "Do I want to stay a creative director or do I want to take the role of running the company?" Today, my role is to influence many people.
It also depends on one's temperament. There are many creative people who are introvert-ish and don't want to share things or talk to people. For them, the role of supervising and guiding others will not suit. But I love it.
I enjoy large responsibilities. In fact, even as a copywriter or creative director, I have always been very interested in what my client's spend is and how he is going to get value for his money.
How do you manage your time between agency work, films, literature--- so many things! Is it fair to say that time management is your biggest skill?
A lot of people do lot of things. Everyone does something to keep their soul alive. If people go back from office and play the guitar at home, we can't hear it, so we don't know about it.
My good fortune is I have done things that have been successful. So people know and talk about them. That's when people start asking, "How does he do it?"
When you are in love, how do you find time for your lover? Time comes from love.
In large agencies, creative folk crave 'that boutique like' feel. How do you keep the creative spark alive?
We never had that problem of "Oh we've become a factory." That's our culture. That's the reason I have stuck around because I have built that culture. A young person can anytime just walk into my room and say, "I saw this ad and I didn't like it." So
we have enough room for individual expression. We are a large agency but we value small canvases.
We've never felt that we need to make exceptional attempts to keep the boutique culture alive. We're not boutique. We don't have to behave like a boutique. We are a throbbing agency and we build megabrands.
We are not an assignment-project based agency. Will we do assignments and projects? Yes we will. But what we love doing is building mega brands that impact popular culture.
A Note From the Editor
When I heard of Prasoon Joshi's appointment as the chairman, Asia Pacific, for McCann WorldGroup, my first reaction was delight. Then the idle question surfaced: with markets such as China and Japan also under him, where would Prasoon be located? Hong Kong or Singapore? Or Shanghai perhaps?
None of these because he will continue to be based out of Mumbai. This will be the second major case in the advertising business, the first being Vikram Sakhuja, South Asia boss of GroupM, who was elevated two years ago as the global CEO of media agency Maxus while continuing out of Mumbai.
Admittedly, where the chairman for APAC sits is less relevant in a decentralised service like advertising than where a CEO sits in, say, a manufacturing business. I know of at least one other example: Coca-Cola's head of marketing is based out of Delhi. There must be other such executives.
What does this mean? One, it's a tribute to Indian talent. Two, it is a recognition of the size - and promise - of the Indian market. Even if you were to dismiss it as mere symbolism - there is nothing 'mere' about it. It represents what the future for India could be.
Indians often dismiss their own achievements. This is mostly because of the 'China complex' since its economy has raced ahead of ours and is now five times our size. If it is any consolation, China's rise spooks much larger economies, including the US.
If you read the history of the world post World War 2, India has been one of the most consistently growing economies in the developing world. Barring a 19-month period during the 1970s, it has stuck to democracy - an unparalleled achievement among major developing countries. And it has an independent judiciary to boot. For perspective, it pays to remember how miserable Indians were in 1947: for example, the average Indian could expect to die at 32 years.
But, of course, we expect more from ourselves, as we should. Examples of the Prasoon kind remind us of how far we have come - and how far we could go.