Anirban Roy Choudhury

"It was Hindustan Unilever that made me a marketer": ZEEL CMO Prathyusha Agarwal

Profile: Prathyusha Agarwal, chief marketing officer, ZEEL, who is close to completing a year at the network.

Interviewing marketers and business leaders is part of our job, but it's not every day that we get to throw questions at the marketing head of a popular media brand at midnight, in person. At the fag end of a recent press event held by Zee TV in Mumbai, Prathyusha Agarwal, the network's chief marketing officer, who was appointed early this year, took time out to field our questions.

"It was Hindustan Unilever that made me a marketer": ZEEL CMO Prathyusha Agarwal

Prathyusha AgarwalWhen former HUL hand Punit Misra joined ZEEL (Zee Entertainment Enterprises) last summer, one got the feeling it would just be a matter of time before the media and entertainment conglomerate created an organised marketing unit and appointed a former 'mainstream marketer' to run it. And sure enough, Prathyusha Agarwal was brought in early this year to head this side of things at the group. One of the first jobs she was tasked with was overseeing the marketing campaign launched recently to commemorate the network's 25th birthday.

This Telugu-speaking marketer, who has about 17 years of industry experience, used words like 'tehzeeb' and 'spurti' during the course of this chat. "I am married to an Agarwal... that solved my language barrier forever," smiles Prathyusha, who, by the way, is also a dancer, a playwright and a former entrepreneur. "My mother is an amazing singer and my father paints very well," she says about her family's interest in the creative arts.

After getting a degree in engineering from IIT Madras, she went on to pursue an MBA in business management and marketing from IIM Ahmedabad. "Hum toh middle class hain..." she says with a laugh, about the chain of events, "Middle class people first become engineers and then decide what to do in life... When I was at IIT, I realised that after completing your engineering degree you either go abroad or do an MBA. I didn't want to move away and hence decided to do an MBA. That's how IIM happened."

Attributing her choices to instinct above all else, Prathyusha tells us that when she was in school (Loyola School, Hyderabad) a question that bugged her was 'Why do people do what they do?' Looking back, she tells us that it was her love for human insight, something she nurtured during her IIM days, that eventually guided her towards the world of marketing. "I used to say 'marketing meri dulhan hai' - that is how much I love marketing. When my professors asked questions in class, they'd say 'Anyone other than Prathyusha can answer...' I was (Hermione) Granger," she shrugs, likening herself to a geeky character from JK Rowling's Harry Potter books.

In 2001, after completing her course, she joined Hindustan Unilever (HUL), where she worked closely on the Pepsodent business. "That's the 'Mecca of Marketing'," she says about Unilever, adding, "No matter where you come, from HUL will mould you into a marketer. While I had great professors who taught me a lot about marketing techniques, it was HUL that made me a marketer," she says about the FMCG giant.

She stayed at HUL for five years, during which time she learnt several lessons on communication and consumer insights, "Even today, I carry some of the fundamentals with me; they can be applied to any sector," she says.

In 2006, Prathyusha moved to MarketGate, a strategic business and marketing consultancy, a year after it was launched by Shripad Nadkarni and Sharda Agarwal. The firm was acquired by Publicis Groupe in 2012. She says, "Shripad is an inspiring marketer. He used to say there is 'analysis' and 'synthesis' in marketing and that one needs to take a leap. To him, marketing is about taking that leap and synthesising new thoughts..."

At MarketGate, Agarwal worked on marketing strategy for clients across product groups including FMCG, banking and finance. "HUL is where I learnt my fundamentals of marketing and MarketGate is where I applied what I learnt, across categories," she says.

She tells us about a work trip she took when at HUL, to a village on the outskirts of Udaipur, for research. "There were families with around seven children and the man of the family couldn't even remember 'Mere kitne bacche hai...' I said, 'Show him a Karan Johar movie and he'll get inspired to do something in life.' I genuinely believe stories have that power - TV or entertainment. So marketing is not only about influencing a purchase decision, it's also about influencing life decisions... that's why I love the media space," she narrates.

2010 was her first encounter with a role in the world of broadcasting; she joined Star India as vice president, brand strategy, where she spearheaded Star Plus' memorable campaign 'Rishta Wahi Soch Nayi'. She also worked closely on Star India's corporate campaign 'Inspiring Billion Minds'. While the fundamentals of marketing are the same across the two worlds - of consumer-facing products and broadcast media - Prathyusha did encounter some differences.

"In the media sector, your creativity gets polished, because there is so much to play with. In HUL, you make one film in six months; in the media sector, six films are made in a week," she says, adding, "Also, in media, you are fundamentally influencing and inspiring minds, something no other 'product' can do..."

Her stint at Star was curtailed by an entrepreneurial bug, one she'd been carrying around for a while; in 2012, she launched a tech assistance company called allOK Tech Support. On her LinkedIn page she describes it as a 'start up venture that was for people at homes who own tech devices but have no reliable support system to manage them'.

"I still believe it is a consumer need, but it was not making money and I drained all that I had; I did not raise funds. I had put in my own money. I decided to exit the business," she shares. What went wrong? "I was hiring engineers; instead, I should have created a marketplace for all of them to operate on. I was building a Meru when I should have set up an Uber," she says.

Then in 2013 she joined HDFC Life as vice president, marketing and analytics. "Yaar, socha 'ab thoda paisa bana lu'," she recalls about the move. That was around the time the brand was sliding towards its 'Sar Utha Ke Jiyo' thought in a big way. In 2015, Prathyusha joined e-commerce platform Tata Cliq as marketing head and moved to ZEEL after about two years.

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