Ashwini Gangal

"We do two famous campaigns every year; I want five": Yashaswini Samat, GREY Group India

An interview with the newly appointed chairperson and managing director, GREY Group India, who has built a 25-year-long career at the agency, cutting her teeth on the P&G account.

Yashaswini Samat joined Grey in 1993, around the time the agency was looking for talented people to work on the then new P&G business. It was an era when Ravi Gupta made sure the business team sat far from the creative team lest the suits "contaminate" the creative atmosphere of the agency.

At Grey, Yash, as she is fondly known, has worked on the P&G business, across markets including Malaysia (four years; handled Pantene for South East Asia and India; handled clients in Bangkok), Singapore (four years; handled Philippines, Indonesia, India markets from there), London (two years; handled planning for Central, Eastern Europe and Middle East), India (four years; handled Pantene for all of Asia, including China, Japan, South East Asia and India), New York (two years; looked after Pantene globally), and India again (2014 onwards; handled all P&G brands across Asia, including South East Asia, China, Japan, India and more recently, Middle East and Africa).

Then, few days back, she was promoted to lead GREY Group India as chairperson and managing director.

Overall, she has over three decades of industry experience.

Edited Excerpts

In what way has this promotion changed things for you?

For me, it's a big change.

My career path has been driven by work on one massive client - P&G - across brands, disciplines and countries. So it's about going deep into one client versus heading a company by working across a large number of diverse clients - P&G will be one of them, but there are many others - like GSK, Ferrero, Volvo, Dell, IOCL, Raheja, some government accounts... As a business leader, my role has become bigger; leading your company for a country comes with a lot of new implications.

The official communiqué around your promotion was titled 'First woman to lead Grey India'. Does this fact make it more special for you or would you rather not 'genderise' it?

There are no black and white answers.

Do I believe this industry has been very fair to women? I don't think so. Don't you think it's strange that in our industry, at lower levels we have more women than men and as seniority increases women just disappear? So yes, that is an issue.

I give a lot of credit to Grey; it allows people to drive their career the way they want to, as long as they're doing a good job. This helped me. It's important for companies to make it easy for women to stay. Very few women reach the top in our industry.

But I'm not here because I'm a woman and because Grey wanted to tick the box on diversity. It's too big a job; it's too important. All of us who are in these roles are there because we are bloody good.

You've worked on the P&G business across geographies, over 25 years. How have the challenges changed?

In many ways.

When I went to Malaysia (1999-2002), that was the time P&G was moving from 'country' to 'regional' operations, especially on communication development. It was new - people were not used to 'regional' dictating things to them... I learnt how to get work done through 'influence', from people who don't necessarily report to you. I also learnt how people from different cultures work. For instance, they may not be as loud, argumentative and strategic as you (Indians), but they're very creative, insightful and much better at things like innovation... you have to appreciate these differences.

During my Singapore years (2002-2006), while the 'regionalisation' of P&G was increasing, the flux period was over. The regional operations were set up by then. Challenges included - getting work that's creative enough for different countries... how regional should you go for scale and efficiency? How local can you get?

Tell me about your time at London...

By the end of (the) Singapore (stint), I wanted a change. I didn't want to make another film for the next five years!

I took on a planning role. I was living in London (2006-07) but traveled to Beirut, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Turkey... it was great. I enjoyed not being the account management leader for a while.

But after a few years, I started missing being head of the business; I'll be honest - I missed the power.

After spending the next four years in India (2008-12), you went to New York and then came back to India after two years to lead P&G across Asia...

I loved working at New York (2012-14), but that was also the time P&G's troubles started; Pantene wasn't doing well... so that brought in lot of stress. It was really tough. But it was also exciting because we completely re-looked the way we did communication on Pantene.

When I came back to India, the role was not so brand driven. I didn't work on day-to-day brand communication; I worked on figuring out local (Asia) business opportunities for P&G. It was a move from equity-driven communication to building activation, digital, shopper capabilities within Grey, to get some of that business too. It was challenging because that's not 'assigned business'; the agency has to fight for it.

What were the three most challenging phases of your career?

First - Frankly, I think the most stressful period is what we're all going through - as an agency and an industry - now. Our FMCG clients are struggling. They're pushing back and asking us to change the way we work... they want us to be more efficient, agile, cheaper, and more attuned to the digital world. So the last couple of years - and it continues - have been pretty stressful. But it's also exciting. It's time to do new things and re-invent the agency.

Second - my time in New York (P&G crisis; referenced above).

Third - my last couple of years at Singapore: I felt P&G was putting a lot of pressure on us; I was frustrated. In hindsight, pfft, what was I complaining about? I was stressed for nothing.

Speaking of pressure, recently, Marc Pritchard (P&G's global marketing boss) said he wants to build a new agency model that pools in talent from different holding companies. Do you think that kind of model would ever work in India?

He said that in the context of fabric care, yes. And Downy (fabric softener brand from P&G) is (a) big (account) for Grey (overseas).

The bigger question is - What do we feel about that kind of model? Yes, it did make us all a little uncomfortable when we first heard it.

But you know what? It's a new world. Everyone is trying new things to see what works. We should be open to new ways. If we think something's not working, we can pull back. The days of a blueprint are dead. You have to keep evolving.

So we should see how this model does and what happens with it. If it does well, then why not?

Sure, but does this model bring with it a sense of loss of power? The client has always been powerful, but now more than ever...

When the client dictates how the agency should function, yes it does bring with it a loss of power. But the reality is - clients are more vocal and more heard today. And we ourselves are doing different things to change our model; we try new things every day.

There are many small agencies that have started out with very different models. It's easier for them - it's easier when you have no big business to defend and no baggage of the 'old world', which all old agencies have.

What Marc wants to try for fabric care is out there and talked about... but actually everyone is trying new stuff, new models, and so are we. It's a little bit of tough love, but it's fine. Every time Marc says something there's a lot of chatter and controversy, but he's provocative to make a point...

I'm glad you brought up the 'old world', because I want to know what you make of all the 'new' talent out there - independent creative freelancers, content creators, creative boutiques. They're a threat to big agencies...

We're very aware of it. As we re-invent, we obviously want to play to our strengths, but we know there are things we need to change. We're working on it.

20 years ago, 'the agency' was supposed to die. That didn't happen, did it? Clients want those amazing, interesting things from content players and digital agencies, but they also want the strategic thinking, the ideation and the cohesive business management that we, big agencies, can do. People who work in big agencies come with a certain 'training' and that will always be needed...

'Content' is a broad word; while we must integrate some skills into our teams, others can be bought or borrowed. Some expertise should be left outside...

What's your plan for Grey? Any wrongs you want to right?

Sunil (Lulla, former chairman and managing director, GREY group India) has done a great job to stabilise a lot of things, to make Grey more non-traditional in its thinking - but I think it needs to go much farther.

I want to build capabilities on digital, social, e-commerce, content play - we need to get better at that. We need to think more about retail, and about how data (WPP Kantar) powers our creativity. We need to start looking at cheap and agile production.

Also, as clients ask for the 'agency of the future', we also need the 'client of the future'... they also need to work differently, with us.

When it comes to the way clients perceive Grey, what is your biggest pain point?

We have a creative heritage, which, between then and now, has become patchy. I want Grey to be known for its creative product. We have two famous campaigns every year; I want it to be five.

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