Ashwini Gangal

"The day I stop being audacious, I will die": Praveen Kenneth

After selling his share in L&K Saatchi & Saatchi to Publicis Groupe, Praveen Kenneth has retired from agency life at 47. A look at how he built his agency, that employs close to 400 people today.

A day after this interview, Praveen Kenneth, 47, went completely off the grid. He went into the hilly hinterlands of Bhutan, on a three week-long, 300 km solo walk, with four mules and a local guide for company. That's Kenneth's version of walking into the sunset after wrapping things up on the business front.

"The day I stop being audacious, I will die": Praveen Kenneth

Praveen KennethAbout two weeks ago Kenneth announced his retirement from L&K Saatchi & Saatchi after he sold his share to the agency's parent network Publicis Groupe for Rs.380 crore (as reported in The Economic Times), in what he calls "one of the best deals possible..." at some point during the course of this interview with me.

Ask him about his next move and he says, "I've finished one part of my life. I'll come back with a new blueprint." In a 2014 interview with me, Kenneth vowed never to start another agency; "it's an exhausting business" he had said back then.

Over several cups of tea and giggles - (all traces of the angry young man, who built L&K over the last 12 years, gone) - at his Mumbai office, I asked Kenneth about his life, the milestones that led up to this sale and the lessons he picked up along the way. "Many people have tried their best to ask me all this, but I've avoided this conversation. I think it's best for people to know me for what I do and less for who I am," he says. That's about to change, I caution, before launching into the interview. Not many know he loves adventure sports like sky diving, trekking and rafting, by the way.

Early Days

Kenneth comes not from a business family, but from a family of educationists. "I was a pretty average, happy kid in school (St. Joseph's, Bangalore). I was pretty smart, not very intelligent. The most powerful thing I had was common sense. In many ways, what I became in college (Christ College, Bangalore, where he studied Science) made me the person I am today. In college, all my buddies were my seniors. Because I joined school a year earlier than normal, was 15 and a half when I joined Class 11. All the older guys were big bullies - I had a choice between making them my best friends and being scared of them," says Kenneth.

Around the age of 20, he worked at agencies like MAA Bozell and Ogilvy in Bangalore - "I had a very 'expensive' girlfriend to manage and the only place I could find a job was in advertising" - and subsequently moved to Mudra. "When I was at Ogilvy I asked myself - 'Why can't I be a CEO? Why should I wait till I'm 48?'

At 25, Sorab Mistry hired him at McCann Erickson. Kenneth was an account director looking after South East and West Asia; he handled the Coke business. "I was a young account director working with a bunch of 40-year-olds in the region. People said I wouldn't be able to manage. I always took on jobs much larger than who I was. Looking back, I don't think I did it consciously. It was just ambition," says Kenneth. Speaking of which, the question he asked himself about being CEO is the voice of an ambitious corporate climber. But the Kenneth I sit before today is every bit the fervent entrepreneur. When did that switch take place in his mind?

Youngest CEO to Entrepreneur

"When I became CEO of Publicis India at 29 (1999), I realised what was possible. The average age was 52! I realised that if I actually put my focus back on myself I can build a marvellous organisation. Also, I hated having bosses, I hated authority. Another thing I realised when I became CEO was - till then it was all about Praveen Kenneth. It was all about me. I remember meeting Maurice (Lévy, former CEO, Publicis Groupe) in Paris then; he said 'Praveen you're an amazing magician', but I wanted to build a bunch of magicians..." he recalls. At this point, when the conversation moves to his psychological transition from 'employee' to 'entrepreneur', Kenneth starts scribbling on the table in upper case with a black marker to illustrate his points. The scribbling continues over the next hour.

"Christianity was built by 12 disciples," Kenneth, a man of faith, who has a dedicated cabin at the agency with burning candles and religious books including the Bible, Bhagwad Gita, Quran, among others, says, "You can change the world with just 12 disciples. I was lucky to find four... many followed." He is referring to the early days of St. Luke's, an agency that British adman Andy Law launched in London in 1995 and that Kenneth brought to this part of the world in 2002. One of UK's most recognised business thinkers and authors, Law began his advertising career in 1978 and is best known for leading the bold and well documented buy-out of the London branch of an ad agency called Chiat/Day from its parent network Omnicom in 1995, and for the creation of St. Luke's - a firm that played a significant role in Kenneth's professional journey.

"Make 'first class' mistakes. Make epic mistakes. Don't make small mistakes. I have had epic screw-ups... I had a great job (CEO, Publicis India), but it was my youthful arrogance that made me say 'I'm going to throw this all and do something else...' People said, 'That's so stupid of this young kid'. Technically, it was the stupidest thing to do. I quit and then struggled for the next six months wondering what to do next," Kenneth says about his post-Publicis days.

So after working as CEO of the agency for about three years, Kenneth quit Publicis in January 2002 and spent the next six months looking to start a new company. But instead of starting his own agency the conventional way, Kenneth, then 32 years old, actively sought a partnership with an international creative hotshop that didn't have presence in India at the time. The trend back then was for global networks to enter our market by buying an existing agency, but a jobless Kenneth went pitching for a partnership with a Western firm, solo.

"I approached everybody from BBH, Wieden+Kennedy, St. Luke's... I approached them all. Only St. Luke's came forward. I put my hand out and the only one who came forward and shook it was Andy Law," says Kenneth. St. Luke's and Kenneth had a 50:50 partnership. The task was to bring the agency brand to the Asia Pacific region, with Mumbai as the hub. Described by Harvard Business Review (Sept-Oct 2000 issue) as "the most frightening company on earth", St. Luke's was famous for its unconventional work environment (the agency introduced the then alien concept of 'hot-desking') and radical business model (all the employees owned the entire firm). Unfortunately, a year or so down the line things between Law and the management of St. Luke's got bitter and he was forced to leave. However, the India office of St. Luke's, that Kenneth was in-charge of, was intact.

Law & Kenneth: The Genesis

How did Andy and Praveen, entrepreneurs from different continents, turn their respective last names into a global agency brand? The agency was born when Kenneth took over St. Luke's by acquiring the company's share in APAC (the 'other' 50 per cent) and subsequently launching it as a new agency, Law & Kenneth, in 2005. But that's the business bit. There's an anecdote to go with it. Oh, of course it involves a bar, two drunk admen and an epiphany, duh!

"Andy and I were sitting in a bar in London... we were completely smashed. We said, 'Let's bring in an 'East meets West' global agency. Our best buddy in those days was Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop, an account at St. Luke's and Chiat/Day before that), who, by then, had been a friend of mine for two years." The late Roddick sold her company to L'Oréal in 2006. "In our drunkenness," Kenneth narrates, "we called Anita and asked her for funds. She said, 'No problem boys, you're drunk now, come over for breakfast at 8 o' clock tomorrow'."

Morning arrived, and all Roddick said to the now sober duo asking her for money over coffee was: 'I'll only give you money if you put your names on the board.' She wanted them to take full responsibility for the company. That's how Law & Kenneth was conceptualised. The agency was launched in 2005 with offices across London, Mumbai, Dubai, Stockholm, Sydney and Paris. The Indian part of the company was Kenneth's equity. The bulk of the agency's business came from the India market; it was here that most of the key accounts were won and serviced. Roddick's influence brought in advisory support from Bill Dalton (former CEO, HSBC Worldwide), Theodore Zeldin (professor) and Dave Stewart (musician).

L&K Saatchi & Saatchi, from the beginning, had the reputation of being 'entrepreneurially run'. Presently, the agency's clientele includes names like Renault, Hero MotoCorp, Dabur, Kent, Mondelēz, Thomas Cook, Jockey, Pepperfry, Godrej, ITC and P&G (Head & Shoulders, Olay, Pampers), among others.

Recalling the scale the agency managed to reach soon after it was launched, Kenneth says, "Within 12 months of its launch, Law & Kenneth made a bid to acquire a medium sized global network, which still has presence in India. We raised (leveraged) the money - more than 300 million dollars - but couldn't service the debt. That's how audacious we were. People see being audacious as being cocky and arrogant, but it's not the same thing. The day I stop being audacious, I will die."

Life Lessons

Kenneth is more than just audacious. He plans well ahead of time. "When I began (L&K) I was very clear that one day I will sell. And I was also clear about how much money I wanted to make from the sale," he says, adding, "I got much more than I thought I'd get." In fact, six months after setting up the agency, Kenneth went to meet Maurice Lévy to offer equity and make him a partner. Lévy said it was too early and that Kenneth had better make it a viable business first.

About a decade down the line, in 2014, Publicis Groupe acquired 51 per cent of Law & Kenneth and integrated it with Saatchi & Saatchi India. At the time, Kenneth alluded to walking out of the system after 1,000 days. And he stuck to it; about a fortnight back he sold his share in the agency to Publicis Groupe.

Presently, Saatchi & Saatchi has about 8,000 employees across 107 offices in 72 countries. In India the agency has three offices and 392 employees.

Our chat was peppered with several lessons. Here's a summary of Kenneth's advice to youngsters: "Ask yourself - 'Is it possible to be who you want to be in life?' It is. I was very clear I didn't want to be denied in this life. The world doesn't doubt and limit you. People doubt and limit themselves. You are your own enemy. Become your own best friend, be bloody ambitious, work extremely hard... and your life will change."

(This story has been published in the current (Nov 1, 2017) issue of our fortnightly magazine afaqs!Reporter)

A Note From the Editor

The story of Praveen Kenneth is inspiring. This Bangalore boy came into the world of advertising at 20 and today, at 47, he has already picked up his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and has walked into the sunset. While the rainbow, gold and sunset are all proverbial, I'm serious about the walking. A day after doing this interview with us, Praveen went to the wild grasslands of Bhutan for a 300 kilometre-long sub-Himalayan walk that typically takes close to three weeks to complete. For company, he took four mules and a local guide along.

About a fortnight back, Praveen announced his retirement from Law & Kenneth Saatchi & Saatchi, after selling his share in the company for a gasp-worthy amount to its parent network Publicis Groupe. In 2014, the network acquired 51 per cent of the agency, one he launched back in 2005 along with British adman and entrepreneur Andy Law and the late Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop.

Taken as we all are by Praveen's story, fact is we know very little about it. We know the highlights, as does the rest of the world, but we don't really know his journey. Lifestyle magazines call them 'human interest' stories. This interview - or shall we call it a biography? - was an attempt to get to know the anecdotes between the milestones.

Praveen is not your typical flamboyant adman. In fact, as a very senior member of his agency puts it, "Praveen was never part of the advertising industry..."

He's not an adman. He's a businessman. He shuns the limelight, something that's earned him a reputation of being snobbish and arrogant. Talk to him face-to-face, and it's a different story.

Throughout our conversation, he grumbled that it felt less like an interview and more like a blind date in which the girl was tossing strange questions to get to know him better.

Have news to share? Write to us