Ashwini Gangal

"All of us need a mountain to climb": Praveen Kenneth

From the youngest CEO of Publicis India at 29 to the 43 year old co-owner-cum-chairman and managing director of Law & Kenneth Saatchi & Saatchi, Praveen Kenneth has come a long way, professionally and personally.

On the professional front, well, the Publicis Groupe - an obvious choice, given Kenneth's history with the network - has acquired 51 per cent of Law & Kenneth, the advertising agency he established in 2004, along with Andy Law and The Body Shop's Anita Roddick. The group has integrated L&K with Saatchi & Saatchi India.

On the personal front, he says, "I have become a lot more sober, I laugh more, I'm less angry. The biggest learning has been this - business is a game. It's not life and death. At 29 I thought everything was life and death. I've got a lot more perspective now."

We spoke to him about his decision to sell, about his new partner and about his future plans. Edited Excerpts.

Edited Excerpts

Usually, the buyer's name goes first. That's not the case with L&K Saatchi & Saatchi. People say L&K has salvaged Saatchi in India. What do you make of such buzz?

I wouldn't be so harsh on Saatchi & Saatchi. The fact of the matter remains that Law & Kenneth seems to have done a slightly better job than Saatchi & Saatchi. Since the brand is much stronger, I think it makes sense for Law & Kenneth to lead the wagon. It makes sense that the Law & Kenneth brand drives the Saatchi & Saatchi brand.

What does Saatchi bring to the table? It has lost many people and accounts in the recent past. Isn't it a liability in a merger like this?

Saatchi's not a liability. It's just a great opportunity that needs to be used right. Anything in this world can be a liability if it is not used well. Here's an analogy - just because a piano conks off it doesn't mean the musical instrument called piano is screwed up. You need to go back, tune it up and start playing the music. That's our job now. We will tune it up and start playing the music. That's as simple as it is. So, it's an asset.

The reason I decided to be part of this madness is because it's a challenge. There is a set of people that believes it has not lived up to expectations. Thousand days from today, if we turn things around and make it possible, it will be a great story. It's a great challenge for me to turn this around. I've had many people questioning this, saying, "Why Saatchi and Saatchi?" My question is, "Why not Saatchi & Saatchi?" All of us need a mountain to climb.

Why now? What's the tipping point after which a founder of an agency puts up the 'For Sale' sign?

I could keep playing the game in the same small field the rest of my life. But we've grown. It's time to play a new game.

For me it was this strange reality - we were growing, we were rocking... and one day I realise we're 340 people. I said, "What if the plane crashes? What if we get run over?" Then I realised I was being extremely irresponsible. For me the tipping point was this - the realisation that life is fragile. It can all go in a minute. I thought, "I am responsible for so many people. They all depend on me. In what way am I assuring all these people - and my clients - stability?" The moment you realise you're responsible for so many people, you tell yourself, "Ok, come to your senses."

So you see not selling out as being irresponsible?

Not just irresponsible... it means you're running from your ego. It means you think you're indestructible. I've seen many stories like that...when people start making themselves larger than life - it's dangerous.

How does it feel being answerable to more than just yourself? You now report to Chris Foster (chairman and CEO, Saatchi APAC). Interestingly, you choose to call it 'working into him' and not 'reporting to him'...

I am the owner of the organisation. We're responsible to each other. It's like a marriage. When you're single, you can come back home whenever you felt like but when you're married you need to be responsible to each other. In a partnership, there's give and take. That's where it stands. It's the same job. Just that now I have a partner. There's someone to walk with me and carry my responsibility equally. That's comforting.

I have management control. Publicis has equity control. Whenever a merger happens, the finance of the organisation is managed by the team that owns majority share. So, my finance team (led by CFO Vijay Agrawal) will now report to the Saatchi APAC CFO (Johann Xavier), but they will also work closely with me.

Anyway, after three or five years, after I'm done here and decide to leave the company, I need to hand this over to somebody. So, somebody has to take responsibility eventually.

What's your plan after three to five years? Start another agency? Turn financer?

Start another agency - never. People may say great words about it but advertising is a really exhausting business. I'll spend the next 1,000 days making sure L&K Saatchi & Saatchi is successful. The person that I am, I only focus on what's in front of me. I spend less time daydreaming. I haven't daydreamed yet.

I'm on the job for as long as it takes to make this partnership win. When I make L&K Saatchi & Saatchi a success, my task is done. Nobody owns me; they own Law & Kenneth.

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