Ashwini GangalPublished: 12 Mar 2019, 6:46 PM
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"I didn't have to fight to stay back; I logically reasoned it out": Ashish Bhasin on leading Southeast Asia from Mumbai

As Dentsu expands Ashish Bhasin's role to include Southeast Asian markets, we take a look at the power of India as HQ for agency networks. Why are we so excited? Because he will continue to be based here.

Yesterday, Dentsu Aegis Network announced the expansion of Ashish Bhasin's role and purview to include several Southeast Asian markets besides India - this newly formed 'Greater South region' as the network calls it includes Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Myanmar. Bhasin will continue to be based in India... and that's the clincher. In the past, an elevation such as this one would entail relocation on the part of the leader at the helm.

We spoke to Bhasin, now CEO, Dentsu Aegis Network, Greater South, and Chairman and CEO, India. Specifically, we asked him whether he had to fight to stay put in India.

"I didn't have to fight to stay back; I logically reasoned it out": Ashish Bhasin on leading Southeast Asia from Mumbai

Ashish Bhasin

"No, it's not that I had to fight to stay back. I had to logically reason it out," Bhasin tells afaqs!, "I think it is possible to do a regional or even a global job based out of India. It's difficult but not impossible. Sure, Singapore is a very convenient country to handle the region from and yes, it is harder and more strenuous to travel out of India than it is to travel from Singapore..."

He adds, "In our case, India is one of the fastest growing markets, if not the fastest growing market, in the world and is of significant scale now. So given the relative scale and growth of India as a market, it wasn't a very difficult decision to make. Personally, I feel there's huge potential still to be captured in India, so it's important to be here. And in general, geography is history. We have so many tools to stay connected, including the mobile, today..."

Is India hub enough for the media and marketing industries, today? Enough to be deemed 'headquarter material' for the APAC region? To over-simplify, is Mumbai the new Singapore? "That's a presumptuous statement. Mumbai is the new Mumbai. Every country and city has its own positives and negatives. India is a large, fast-growing, dynamic market. On the other hand there are some serious infrastructure issues here. It's difficult to compare," Bhasin answers.

He goes on, "One thing I really believe is - Indian talent is equal to or perhaps better than that in many other markets. And India has been a big net exporter of talent, even in marketing companies like Pepsi (former CEO Indra Nooyi), Mastercard (Ajaypal Singh Banga) and the largest tech companies (Microsoft's Satya Nadella, Google's Sundar Pichai) in the world. So the recognition of Indian talent has increased of late - there's no doubt about that. But today, we live in a world where it's not about your nationality or location, but about your performance and delivery... focus is shifting from nationality and location, for sure."

Note that Bhasin's remit will exclude Singapore, which will be led by Masaya Nakamura, who is deputy chairman and chief growth officer of Dentsu Aegis Network APAC.

There have been other examples that are similarly symptomatic of the changing way in which global networks are regarding Indian leadership. In the world of media, recall the decision of The Walt Disney Company to give Mumbai-based Uday Shankar the responsibility of heading the APAC market, when it reorganised its structure recently. The elevation is part of Disney's integration plan for the acquisition of 21st Century Fox. Heads of three markets - the Greater China, Japan and Korea teams, the Australia and New Zealand cluster and the West Asia group - will report to Shankar. Also recall that few years back Vikram Sakhuja ran Maxus' global ops from Mumbai for a while. That was the first time an international media group, and GroupM at that, picked an India-based global CEO.

In the world of advertising, the one most readily recalled is the elevation of adman Piyush Pandey, who replaced Tham Khai Meng as worldwide chief creative officer of Ogilvy in December; he continues to work out of Mumbai. The development fetched headlines along the lines of 'Manhattan reports to Mahim' and 'Shivaji Park controls Madison Avenue'. Okay, most of them were ours.

Few years back when Prasoon Joshi was given the reins of McCann's Asia Pacific region (including Greater China, Japan, Australia, the Philippines and several other nations), we asked him about Indian talent staying put even after getting regional roles. Joshi told afaqs! at the time, "Well, you don't ask this question 'Will you move or not?' to someone living in the US or London. Probably, we are biased to begin with. We still think India is not a developed country. We still think it is a disadvantage to be in India. Is it? No. But is there an iota of truth in this? Yes, there is some truth in it. But that is changing. Today, India has accessibility. You can reach India from anywhere in the world and get to anywhere in the world from India. I don't think we are lagging behind in technology... Yes, it is a changing reality. And companies are also realising that. Leaders also want the people they believe in to be in these markets, where the future is. I chose to stay here because the action is here. There's a throbbing sense of life you get in India. Are we Singapore? No, we are not - in terms of infrastructure, law and order, security. Places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai are ahead of India in so many ways. But well, I chose to be part of a narrative here..."