Anindita Sarkar
Interviews

"There is no such thing as a safe decision": Sam Balsara, chairman and managing director, Madison World

Sam Balsara has been in the press extensively this past week because his independent media agency, Madison, has just turned 25. Since reams has already been written about Sam the Media Specialist, afaqs! decided to interview Sam the Entrepreneur instead. Excerpts from the interview:

Edited Excerpts

Nowadays it is much easier to launch a company than it was when you started up. What kind of hassles did you face?

I think it was a little easier then compared to now. In those days there was less competition, businesses were more relationship-based, clients were easier to handle and yes, they were more forgiving!

Frankly, it was relatively very easy to start Madison. Instead of starting a new company from scratch, I took over an existing agency called Madison. It was already accredited with the INS and had an office (in Fort) in Mumbai. In hindsight, it was a good thing to do. I did not have to hassle too much about the administrative details and I could focus more on our clients and advertising. Two of my clients - Godrej and Nelco - readily agreed to give me rather largish businesses.

What was your ambition when you started? And what were you afraid of the most?

I am not a very ambitious person by nature. However, what scares me the most is letting my client down. I like to do a job that is given to me or that I have taken up, with precision. It must be a job well done.

What were your hairiest moments in terms of managing clients or employees?

If we are talking of clients, well, for me it has to be when Madison lost Cinthol in 1998. Cinthol was Madison's first account and an account with which I was intimately involved.

But in terms of employees, I don't think there were any such moments. In the early days we employed only as many as we could comfortably absorb and give a reasonably solid future with growth prospects. We did not hire people in anticipation of growth. That way Madison has always been conservatively managed.

Many independent creative ad agencies have succeeded but hardly any media agencies except Madison. Why is that?

It's not that many independent media agencies started off but could not survive. Rather, not too many media people have ventured out to start agencies of their own. Perhaps they find the entry barriers a little more daunting compared to those in starting a creative agency.

One needs a larger infrastructure in terms of people, systems, technology and working capital to start a media agency. However, I must also say that despite all the factors, one has to decide and take risks.

There is no such thing as a safe decision for if it is safe, then it is not a decision. Risk is an inherent element in business and therefore, to take safe decisions is unwise. And for me, my motto has always been, if it's safe, it's risky.

Is business about relationships? People trust you with their business because you are good, not because they know you. Do you agree or disagree?

I will agree, but only partly. Ultimately all businesses work because you deliver something to someone else who needs that something to be delivered. As long as you deliver that thing, you are in business. Once, you stop delivering, you are out of business. Relationships can aid a business, yes, but cannot be a substitute for performance.

Why have you kept Madison Media away from an international association? Don't you think it would only help improve your network's strength?

As I have said before, we are not averse to it. Partnerships are not always easy but when the right one comes we will partner them. What we are averse to is a sellout. What would I do then? I don't play golf; I do not enjoy long holidays; so what would I do without Madison? That's my life!

Madison World entered into a 50:50 joint venture with the UK-based BMB to create BMB Madison Advertising in India in 2010. However, it has not been able to create much buzz. Are you disappointed that 'Madison' is associated only with media and not with creative?

Yes! Very much. But I am still young and I will fix it one fine day.

How?

If I knew it, I would have fixed it by now (smiles).

If you could do this all over again, what would you do differently?

I think I would focus a lot more on the creative product and on awards. In the early stages of Madison, it was a mistake not to focus on awards and take the stance that 'we win awards in the market place and not on daises'. Winning awards in the market place is important but I have learnt the hard way that winning awards on daises is equally important.

Also, I would be more tolerant and patient with creative processes. The nature of the creative process is such that you have to give it more time, space, flexibility and resources.

Any general advice for young entrepreneurs?

You need to be ready. It took me 16 years to get ready. Somebody else may do it in 10 years. But I think it's better to be a few years late than one year early. And once, the business has been set, I believe that in the early days of the trade, focusing on reputation and offering a quality service or product are all more important than just growth - be it growth in sales, or market share or profits.

One should also be able to create an organisation that is worthy of the entrepreneur working in it. So, one needs to ask oneself the question, "If I did not own this organisation, would I be happy working in it?"

If the answer is a yes, then somewhere he must be doing the right thing.