afaqs!

Profile: Nirmalya Sen: An Early Starter

By Prachi Srivastava , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | January 28, 2015
The chief executive officer of Havas Worldwide India, as he looks back on a 24-year-long career spent in honing his advertising and management skills and training people to be the best in the profession, appears quite satisfied with life.

Nirmalya Sen

He was just about 14, when his teacher asked Nirmalya Sen what he wanted to become in life. Pat came the answer, "Advertiser", taking his teacher by surprise. With that kind of focus, it was inevitable that Sen's career took the path he wanted it to.

Today, the chief executive officer of Havas Worldwide India, as he looks back on a 24-year-long career spent in honing his advertising and management skills and training people to be the best in the profession, appears quite satisfied with life.

Sen started his career in 1991 with Jenson & Nicholson as brand manager. The first thing, Sen learned was: what do you want your communication to achieve? While at J&N, he interacted with ad agencies like Rediffusion-Y&R.

His entry into advertising happened when S Ghosh (COO - Sista's) and V Shantakumar (CEO - Sista's) were moving from Rediffusion to Sista's (now Saatchi & Saatchi) and asked him to join. "I thought it a good opportunity. Anyway, I wanted to be in advertising, just that I took a different route." Being in a marketing organisation and working on a brand gave him a good sense of what happens on the other side of the table and what goes behind the brief.

"SG has been my guru since then. One thing that I picked up from him was that 'the relationship between an agency and a client is most effective when it is a relationship of respect - where the agency tells the client what to do and not the other way round."

After Saatchi & Saatchi, Sen moved to Trikaya in 1996. "There I got the privilege of working with Ravi Gupta, the founder and what I picked up from him was a sense of entrepreneurship," he shares. Trikaya, according to him, was the hottest agency at that point in time. "We used to make the ad and keep it on the client's table and if the client didn't like it, he had to convince us to work on it again. That was Trikaya's position," Sen recalls.

In 2000, Sen joined Mudra Delhi. It was his first exposure to a large agency office. He got a better sense of the shortcomings - and advantages - of the two worlds. "Having worked with the big boys you have a better idea of where the chinks in the armour are, and how you pitch against those guys," he explains.

The second thing he picked up from Mudra was the basic understanding about "integration". "Madhukar (Kamath, Group CEO and MD at DDB Mudra Group) was amongst the first to start talking about integration. I worked with them at the initial phase of figuring out how to integrate and that helped understand where the pitfalls are, what prevents agencies from integrating well."

After five years at Mudra, he got a call from George John, founder and chairman of TBWA India. John was the founder of Anthem, which was picked by TBWA as a partner to set shop in India. "The first thing I bought into was the man himself, his honesty and transparency. He told me that the agency's Delhi office, over time had dwindled, to almost nothing. He was contemplating retirement in two years time and wanted to walk out with his head held high and that would happen only if Delhi regained its days of glory. We managed to do that and he moved out in 2008," remembers Sen.

According to Sen, TBWA, the 'disruption' agency, instills in a person a certain disdain for conventional thinking. "It forces you to think like a challenger. The culture of the agency is anchored in two things - one is a philosophy called 'Create' - don't talk, create! Second, there is nothing called "it's my idea" - it's all team work."

Sen's firm belief is that one can't create disruptive work if there is no freedom to fail and experiment. "I try to do that leading by example. I have been told by my clients that I am a coach who is a captain and someone who also comes out to bat - and open the innings."