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From PR executive to business head, Sony YAY!: Meet Leena Lele Dutta

By Anirban Roy Choudhury , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Publishing | April 27, 2017
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We try to get to know the business head of Sony YAY!, the brain-child of SPNI CEO NP Singh.

Every employee on his or her first day at the office desk dreams of sitting in a cabin, having a team reporting to him/her, being chased by a few media people for an interview and a couple of executive assistants keeping track of a busy enough calendar; basically dreams of becoming a boss, someday...

Leena Lele Dutta

One such desk to cabin journey is that of Leena Lele Dutta, business head of recently launched, Sony Pictures Networks India's kids channel, Sony 'YAY!'. The kids channel is NP Singh, chief executive officer, SPNI's brain child. Many a times he mentioned that it's something Sony (media conglomerate) does not have which he would love to have.

But why did he choose Leena Lele Dutta to run his brain-child....

During the ongoing makeover of the Sony office in Malad, afaqs! met Dutta to decode the journey which her LinkedIn profile suggests started in 1995 at Sony Entertainment Television (SET)... "Actually it started in 1994, I didn't have much to write about it on LinkedIn," says she... So what was it? "You know business India the magazine, they wanted to launch a set of their channels - BITV (Business India TV) and I had joined them as sales executive. Pheroza Bilimoria put the team together and every thing was up but then there came some technical issues which we being freshers did not have any clue about. Basically they did not get the licenses and they asked us to wait for three months... that is the time I got another offer," she reminisces.

Dutta then got a call from a fraternity friend who told her about a job offer at ACE television (which was later split into Atlas and Grandway) which she decided to accept. Leena was born and brought up in Mumbai and is now mother of four year old twin boys. She lost her father at an early age of six, leaving her mother as the only source of income. Later her elder brother too started earning... "Earn as soon as you can... was not told to us but we could understand that's what the need is...," she asserts.

When she said yes to the offer she didn't know much about the company, "The only thing I knew about ACE was Jackie Shroff (one of the promoters)," she smiles, "We were told they are planning to launch something big in India," It was August 1995, she remembers.

October 1995, a couple of months after her joining, it was announced that the global consumer electronic appliances brand, Sony, is launching a TV channel in India and it will be called Sony Entertainment Television (SET) because it launched with the same identity in Latin America. "ACE se Sony, hum logon ki toh lottery lag gayi... was my reaction to the entire transition. That was my luck by chance entry into media and entertainment, a space which I love now.." says she.

Leena Lele Dutta with her twin boys

For the first nine months she was working in the PR team Charu Benegal (Currently India Practice Chair - Brand & Consumer Genesis Burson-Marsteller). "It was the manual era - use scissors, cut, copy, paste, carry large folders and calculate the media mileage from PR. This was my job. That is what I was hired for...," she informs.

After nine months of PR, she made a move to the sales team and there she stayed till 1999. HLL (now HUL) was her client and she was cracking the biggest of deals with them. "Rs 2 - 3 crore annual deals for us 23 year olds were party time... They were huge money. That is when I started enjoying sales and my job. The Arun Arora to Kunal (Dasgupta) transition had also happened by then. It was a fun place for us. Kunal who is young at heart even today made the place a joyous one," she recollects.

From Sony, in 1999 she moved on to MTV, again in the sales team. A year later in 2001, Ravina Raj Kohli, who was then the programming head of Sony asked her to join her to launch Kerry Packer's (Australian Media Moghul) Channel 9 in India. "That was an extremely challenging job because worldwide, Channel 9 only invests on terrestrial and free-to-air. So when Star was launching KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepati) and going desi, we were privatising DD Metro firstly 7PM to 8PM and then 8PM to 9PM," she adds.

In 2002, the one-year license with Prasar Bharti was over for it to never get renewed again, Channel 9 had shut its operation in India and Kerry Packer quietly exited the country. An Ekta Kapoor show and other top class content that Ravina got on board resulted in Channel 9 becoming a serious competitor in India. Subsequently, Prasar Bharti posed an exponential increase in the license fee which Packer refused to dish out. "We were all on a high because we surpassed the ratings of Star on a particular time-band, the advertisers finally understood the reach that Channel 9 can offer, we were all planning our next year. And all of a sudden 130 of us were stumped with no job in hand," she shares.

Many moved on... a few were helped by Ravina through her contacts, but being a part of the ad sales team which needed to see through the outstandings which the advertisers were due to pay, Dutta stuck on till it was all done. "The market was saying, jo haath mein aaye lo. My decision to stick on was a decision from heart..."

The decision paid off, Dutta then got a call from Ten Sports (then wholly owned by Abdul Rahman Bukhatir's TAJ TV). Sharjah Cup was the El Classico of those times, played between arch-rivals India and Pakistan. The broadcast rights were with Ten Sports which the Dubai based broadcaster was handing over to ESPN-StarSports for broadcast in India. "Why give the rights to others? Instead, why not launch a channel of our own was the logic behind the launch of Ten Sports in India. There are two India-Pakistan matches every year, sell them and thats the staple diet for the remaining part of the year, that was the business proposition," she recollects.

Few days after papers were signed, the entire match fixing controversy broke and Sharjah was banned. "I was thinking, is this my span of bad luck, and all the negative things started coming in," she remembers. But unlike Packer, Bukhatir decided to stay on and emerge as a competition to ESPN-StarSports. Eventually Ten Sports got the rights of FIFA World Cup 2002 and Dutta and team got 64 football matches to sell. "The biggest joyous moment for us was the bilateral India VS Pakistan series in Pakistan. I was there witnessing Sourav Ganguly and team India lifting the trophy," she smiles.

Ten Sports grew by leaps and bounds from there. The channel acquired the rights of WWE and other cricket boards. She emerged as the west head, sales, "I was enjoying it, when you have live cricket, sales is cake walk. It is about saying no to an RO. I still remember negotiating with Harit Nagpal and his team at Vodafone while my colleague used to be stationed at Airtel and it was more of a bidding war..."

She did not want to get into the zone where she was negotiating rates per ten second slots and hence she moved out for a break.

In 2007, after interviews in Honkong and Los Angeles, she was asked to head the content licensing business of Sony Pictures Television in India. Her portfolio did not include theatre which was taken care of by Uday Singh (now MPA MD). "We were in a span where the market was changing thick and fast. HBO, Star and PIX gradually started setting up business in India. New players MN+ and Romedy and Star Select all started coming in. Power of 10 (Dus Ka Dum), and the biggest one, Everybody Loves Raymond (Sumeet Sambhal Lega) started happening. When I joined it was a revenue of 1 million US$, seven years later when I left, SPT was making around 40 times more..." she adds.

"Here it is, figure it out. How SPNI is going to come up with a kids channel... is what NP Singh told me and then gradually after a lot of research, here we are with YAY!. Accepting the offer was a no brainer for me, I have two kids at home and a kids channel is a 24 hour affair there...," and now she is the business head Sony YAY!.

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