Suraj Ramnath

"Shashi Sinha is expecting a lot from me in this new role": Vaishali Verma, CEO, Initiative

The newly appointed CEO of Initiative speaks about her plans for the agency.

Vaishali Verma (45), the newly appointed chief executive officer of Initiative, had no plans to get into media planning when she graduated from the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad in 1995.

"Shashi Sinha is expecting a lot from me in this new role": Vaishali Verma, CEO, Initiative

Vaishali Verma

"I didn't know what to get into and I was just a fresh graduate. I had no clue about what the advertising world was like. It is always interesting when you talk to people from that world. I never liked numbers in my entire life and I am surprised at what I am doing today", she says.

So how did Verma find her calling in media planning? "What interested me was that media sits at the crux of a brand; we need to understand how a consumer is consuming the brand and how a consumer is consuming media. So, I thought it was an interesting intersection. I also thought, back then, that entertainment is big and in India, it was huge, even today. So I wanted to do something in the area of how consumers are consuming brands and media and I thought it was a perfect amalgamation of both. Hence, I thought of media planning and, of course, only later on, did I find out that it is about analytics and numbers."

Verma has a total of 22 years of experience out of which she has spent more than seven years at IPG Mediabrands. Prior to being elevated to CEO, Verma was chief operating officer of Lodestar UM and Initiative, Bengaluru. She started her career with Mudra Communications in March 1995, as media planner, moved to Universal McCann and worked with the agency for nine years and then moved to Lodestar UM in 2006.

What's changed post her elevation? Verma says, "From COO to CEO feels like just a one letter difference, but it comes with its challenges and, at the same time, I am really excited. Two big differences are that I was running only the South and now I have a national mandate so that involves having a hand and a leg in all the different offices that we have (Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi). We have large and multiple businesses across these three offices so that would be one challenge and now I kind of handle all the three offices based out of Bengaluru. But today it is seamless and it doesn't matter where you are based, thanks to technology, so that's a big change."

Talking about her challenge, Verma says, "One of the challenges is that you are in a position today and have that mandate to drive the brand. So, as a leader, you know that Initiative is a legacy brand. I will be working a lot on driving this brand forward, building a robust team of leadership across all offices in strategy and business planning both. So, these two go hand in hand and I am in the process of getting all this organised. I think another two-three months will go in re-organising and getting the leadership team ready and once that is done of course, the ball will start rolling on consolidating the existing business and then vying for new business. And that's what we do, which is a part and parcel of our life."

In this new role, Verma will directly be reporting to Shashi Sinha, chief executive officer, IPG Mediabrands India. Talking about Shashi's expectation as a boss, she says, "Shashi is expecting a lot from me in this new role. Initiative did not have a CEO for a while. In fact Premjeet Sodhi (ex-COO of Initiative) was there and he was looking after Delhi and Mumbai and I was looking after Bengaluru, but somewhere it did not have a leader so, from Shashi's perspective, I think he really wanted to see Initiative being driven by a leader and being seen that way."

She adds, "A lot of what I said is a roadmap for Initiative. Basically, the current clients get a lot of assurance that there is a leader and, of course, Shashi, who is so approachable, is also present. He has an amazing relationship with each and every client of Initiaive, but having said that, to have somebody who will be able to take that role to the next level, is what Shashi is really expecting from me."

In the past few years, media agencies have been making digital ad films. We asked Verma if there will come a point when media agencies will start making TVCs too. She says, "Not TVCs, but certainly some content. A 30-seconder TVC cannot be adapted to a 10-seconder digital banner because the way people consume television is different from the way they consume digital. So, what was happening is that a lot of creative agencies were thinking TV when it came to audio-visual content and that's where the client realised - I don't want to convert that into a 20-seconder or 30-seconder banner. That, I would say, was a point of deflection when a lot of advertisers realised that digital agencies, end-to-end, is best to advise them not only for digital media planning but also the digital media assets because each and every element of a media plan has a different asset and hence, they started doing it."

Talking about how a role of a media agency has changed over the years, Verma says, "The role of a media agency today, is at an elevated level than what it was earlier. Earlier, it was a media department of an advertising agency and then there was a client servicing department. You would always be an additional in this so-called eco-system and a lot of times, a client would start with advertising/ creative strategy and then, by the time the media strategy would come in, the client would say let us know in 15 minutes what the media plan is. It has completely changed today."

How has it changed exactly? "The clients are working with us way before they work with their creative agencies. That's a big change and a true partnership that has evolved over the years and I think the role of a media agency has gone beyond just a media plan. We are advising them on portfolio management, where they should invest their money and on their budgeting calendar. We are partnering with them in advance, even before they engage with their creative agency. We have a far deeper relationship with the client because it's all AOR, so a lot of clients work with us for a long period of time, three-five years and at IPG Mediabrands, we have clients with 20-25 year relationships. Vis-à-vis, I don't see that happening with a creative agency because each of the large advertisers is working with four creative agencies so that relationship and partnership is much stronger with the media agency", Verma adds.

"Had it been only media planning, it would have been extremely boring and I don't think I would have survived", says Verma.

For Verma, it was a combination of the pulse of the consumers, a lot of interesting work on the brand and media ethnology that had picked up during the start of her career. These are the very reasons why Verma opted for media planning back then. "There wasn't a single day where I felt I don't want to do this", Verma signs off.

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