Profile: Mahesh Narayanan: Ahead of the Curve

By Devesh Gupta , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Digital | April 07, 2015
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With over 16 years of experience in the digital media industry, Mahesh Naryanan, global COO, Saavn, fondly remembers how an unplanned step at the beginning of his career has taken him so far.

Sixteen years ago, while studying for his MBA, Narayanan's batch mates were eyeing the HULs and P&Gs. But, he found himself in a digital company called Rediffonnet, for an internship. He liked the work so much that, at the end of that internship, he urged Jasmeet Singh, senior leader at Rediff (then) to hire him after college.

Mahesh Narayanan

Singh later advised Narayanan to begin his career with team, a start-up, which was later acquired by Narayanan fondly remembers how Singh believed in his talent. There, under the leadership of Rajan Mehra (former country head, eBay) Narayanan learnt to create and shape an unknown and non-existing market. Neither brand nor consumer had any idea of online.

Post the acquisition, he moved to but in 2002 shifted to Mediaturf, India's first digital marketing agency, founded by the late V Ramani, who trained Narayanan in digital marketing, media buying, selling, traffic and creatives. Nearly all of Narayanan's reporting managers and colleagues at Mediaturf are successful industry leaders. Amardeep Singh and Ratish Nair, who founded Interactive Avenues, are two of them. Narayanan remembers Ramani as a maverick with a knack for attracting the right talent.

In 2005, he moved to Times Now as digital marketing manager while still negotiating with Google, where he finally landed up. Narayanan calls Google a mother ship (it steers the industry), a worm cradle (one feels comfortable and secure) and an ocean of knowledge (depth it provides about products and what it does for advertisers and consumers).

At Google, he was early to the party. While brands were debating on the need for a website, web interactions and use of Google ads, he was working on search marketing, a category unheard of then. "I used to tell people that Google is a multi-billion dollar company by putting those small Google ads and people didn't believe me," he says. He also won a Google Hero at a Sales Conference in March, 2008 for outstanding contribution.

Four years later in 2009, he decided to quit and try his hand at mobile advertising, an unknown territory, with Admob. Narayanan recalls an interesting story with his resignation at Google. When Narayanan told Shailesh Rao (currently VP, International Operations, Twitter) his reporting manager then, Rao starting evaluating the opportunity and advised him to go. Rao also mentioned that Google might acquire Admob and Narayanan may be back. Twelve months later Google acquired Admob and Narayanan returned to Google. All Rao said was, "I told you".

Joining Admob for Narayanan was a leap of faith because the era of smartphones had just begun. To believe that advertising on mobile was the future, one had to be a visionary or a mad risk-taker. His first day at work was spent alone in a coffee shop.

Narayanan's second stint at Google began in 2010 when he took charge of mobile advertising. He was like a coach to the sales team. Later he also worked with YouTube. The urge to learn something different took him to Sociomantic Labs in 2013.

It gave deep data-led insights for real time marketing. And when Dunnhumby from the Tesco Group eventually acquired it, Narayanan decided to move on. He worked with two companies that got acquired within 12-18 months. Narayanan is now with Saavn. Passionate about technology and music, he remembers that his first yardstick for choosing Saavn was if they had the music that he listened to. "Saavn is a fantastic combination of my passions and represents my vision most aptly," he adds.

Narayanan's theory is that a tap of finger can destroy or make a digital product. His biggest challenge was convincing clients to come on board the eco-system he was working on, since it was always ahead of time.

As a leader, he thinks that it is a leader's responsibility to establish objectives and drive the team to fulfil them. Narayanan feels quite satisfied when he sees brands and CMOs taking to digital in a big way and not just as an afterthought.

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