Ashwini Gangal

Chat with Chandramouli Venkatesan, author of 'Catalyst'

A quick chat with Mouli, former MD, Mondelēz International, about his book on winning at work and life. Presently, he handles special projects for Pidilite.

Chandramouli Venkatesan, corporate veteran who has spent over 25 years in the Indian consumer industry, recently released a book titled 'Catalyst'. It's a simple, non-threatening, 'first principle'-based series of lessons on career management and professional success. In the author's words, the book is "a tool-kit and guide from a practitioner's point of view".

Chat with Chandramouli Venkatesan, author of 'Catalyst'

Chandramouli Venkatesan

Over coffee in the very room he wrote most of the book (Indus Club, Bandra Kurla Complex, Mumbai), I spoke to Mouli, as he is fondly known, about his debut literary venture and its application in the advertising and marketing world.

Advertently industry-agnostic, the book is not angled to address any one kind of professional. Even so, given his career-long involvement with the advertising and media side of things, we asked Mouli to wear his ad-marketing lenses and talk about the lessons his time at Asian Paints, Onida, Cadbury/Mondelēz and Pidilite (current; he's focused on creating new businesses and mentoring some of the company's existing businesses) taught him. Interestingly, though he worked across four different companies, they all, for the most part, worked with the same agencies. "I ended up working with a group of Ogilvy, Mindshare, Madison and Contract execs..." he recalls with a smile.

Chat with Chandramouli Venkatesan, author of 'Catalyst'

Catalyst - front cover
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Though he has been responsible for around 150-200 commercials across these companies, he has attended no more than one ad shoot. "If as a client you're on the shoot, you just complicate people's lives, without any value addition... on that day you have to let them lose; you can't come in their way and waste their time," says Mouli. The shoot he did attend was for Asian Paints Royale, back when the Nawab of Pataudi Mansoor Ali Khan was the brand ambassador; it was shot at his palace.

He shares a few advertising lessons, "The simplest learning in advertising is - be very clear in your mind. What I find in a lot of advertising is - people are not clear what they want to achieve. One should start with 'What is the change we want to bring in the consumer as a result of the ad?'... you should never do advertising if as a consequence of seeing the ad, there's nothing different you want the consumer to do. You either want a non-user to start buying the product, or you want a user to buy a more expensive version, or maybe use it more often. Be crystal clear on this right at the beginning. Don't think of advertising as 'brand-out'; think of it as 'consumer-in'. There should be clarity of thought starting with the consumer, not the brand."

Mouli started his career in an era when print was dominant, then he saw television emerge, and now he is part of the digital era. "Today, there's tremendous change in the science of buying media - from measuring 'cost of buying' we've moved to measuring 'cost of creating impact'. As an advertising and marketing ecosystem, we must learn from these transitions," he says, drawing on his own literary experience for an example: "Had I written this book 15 years back, when the digital world wasn't there, I'd have struggled because I can't spend money marketing it. I have powerful content but I'm not a brand owner. Today the digital world lets me market the book with a very marginal spend."

In the book, Mouli divides the typical career into 'first half' and 'second half', something that's likely to hit home for advertising folks, who often get 'discovered' in the agency system after many years of being in it. "It's a universal phenomenon, across industries, including medicine and sports even," he clarifies, going on to explain the target-measure-review-reflection (TMRR) principle in the context of adwomen and men: "People in the advertising industry are so frenetic in moving from one activity/campaign to the other that they don't pause and learn from what they have done." The lack of reflection is in part due to the nature of the business - when you release an ad, what do you reflect on, exactly? Just 'Did people like the ad?' or 'Was there impact on brand performance?' instead?

The process of selling advertising to the client, he points out, is a subjective one. "As a client, when I buy advertising, I am buying the output sold to me as well as the person who is selling it. Sometimes I tend to go against my judgement because I believe in the person at the agency who stands up for the work..." he says, underscoring the importance of individual credibility in the client-agency dynamic, one arguably hinged on trust.

As far as today's brand marketers, who no longer exist in a "broadcast construct", but do so in a "community construct", go, Mouli is hoping the book teaches them the art of "converting time to experience". He explains, "the important activities that a brand manager does - say, big campaigns, products launches - take pace at a very low frequency. If you miss learning from one activity/event, you have to wait a year or two before you get that chance again. So your need to learn from everything is that much higher..."

Mouli says, towards the end of our chat, by which we're discussing his view on ads in general, "Bad ads are almost always the result of a poor brief. Seldom is a bad ad because of a bad agency. But a good brief can lead to an average ad... that is often because of the agency."

In the 'Acknowledgements' section of his book, Mouli thanks a bunch of advertising executives - Piyush Pandey ("he brings himself into his work"), Madhukar Sabnavis, Govind Pandey ("both are the same today as they were 25 years back"), Abhijit Avasthi, Ravi Deshpande, Umesh Shrikhande, Rohit Srivastava, Sam Balsara ("most principled person in the ad-marketing world"), Vikram Sakhuja and Ambi Parameswaran, among others.

'Catalyst' is published by Penguin Random House India and has 189 pages.