Abid Hussain Barlaskar

"I'm always in beta mode": Amitesh Rao, McCann

We profile McCann's recently appointed Delhi head - Amitesh Rao, adman turned marketer turned gaming entrepreneur turned adman.

A sales professional turned agency man turned entrepreneur turned marketer, this trajectory of Amitesh Rao's career isn't necessarily in chronological order. Rao is the newly appointed EVP and head of McCann Delhi. He is set to take up his new assignment from his current role as executive director at TBWA India.

With over 23 years in the industry, he has moved back and forth across roles on various playgrounds and has been on both sides of the business -agency and client.

"I'm always in beta mode": Amitesh Rao, McCann

Amitesh Rao

In general, we would either see an agency person stick to the setup and take up larger global roles or move over to brand marketing. Aside from being a 'salaried' professional, Rao has co-founded two startups - ARI e-Business (Applied Research International), a software and simulation solutions provider and Nova Gaming Ventures, an e-commerce platform for digital games.

He started out as an area sales manager at RPG Enterprises (1995) and moved to an agency setup as an associate account director at McCann (then McCann Erickson) (1996). He followed this with his first startup (ARI) in 2000. He moved to Publicis as AVP in 2004 which was followed by a stint at JWT as VP (2005). He then proceeded to Rediffusion Y&R as COO where he handled the agency's Airtel business in India and headed Y&R Sri Lanka. His role as executive director - marketing at MTS India (2011) came next. In 2016 he launched his second startup - Nova Gaming Ventures and in 2018, he joined TBWA India as executive director.

Over our chat at the TBWA India office in Gurugram, Rao compares his career to software - always in "beta mode", "never perfect and always developing".

He talks of his experience selling pagers at RPG, his startups, establishing Y&R in Sri Lanka, building the MTS brand, and his return to an ad agency. Rao considers himself lucky to have been part of industries at crucial stages of 'inflection' and expresses his disinclination towards "mature, tried-and-tested industries with clear rules of engagement".

"At RPG, I had to create a retail distribution chain for pagers. It was very interesting to figure out how a retail channel could work for a new tech product being sold door-to-door and through enterprise selling only. It was a huge challenge and quite an experience," Rao says.

With a B-school education, a management training program and a sales stint under his belt, Rao felt that his "learning curve was tapering off". "I somehow felt I had not found my calling. That was the time I happened to meet some interesting people working in a charged environment and having a lot of fun while doing it and decided to join them - that was in McCann," he says.

About his experience setting up Y&R in Sri Lanka, he mentions that he went in expecting the culture to be almost like an extension of India.

"It was not. The client-agency relationships were collaborative, set in a different culture and value system. Simply put, people start with liking each other. When you walk down a street, people smile at you - go to a restaurant, people talk to you openly and that spirit translates to the work environment as well. It's a bit more hard-nosed in India - you don't just smile at anybody, do you?" Rao says.

Speaking of client-agency relationships, we asked Rao about his take on the power equation from both sides of the line; a crucial point, especially when marketers seem to be seeking more 'control'. "Sure, ad agencies do not exert the same amount of influence they once did. And the equation between client and agency is lopsided in many cases. But the question is, why?" Rao asks.

While Rao has been on the agency side on multiple occasions, he has also worked alongside agencies as a marketer and an entrepreneur.

"It is not so much a question of 'power' as it is of value being delivered - at both ends. The client is running a business with targets and is not sitting on an ego. It all depends on the agency's ability to deliver differentiated value - something the industry is relearning. It's a challenging reality, one that I'm ready to deal with," he explains.

Having had his hands in the telecom industry while handling Airtel at Rediffusion Y&R, Rao joined MTS as executive director - marketing in 2011. "It was the 12th telecom company to enter India while countries have an average of three operators. We had to take a bold strategy of being data-focussed, that too in 2010-11 when the entire industry was focused on voice. All companies are data-focussed today. It was a sharply differentiated and risky position for MTS to target a niche base of data-users, but very interesting from a marketing and branding point of view," he says.

Next, he zooms in on his startups; his 'major learning experience', both professionally and emotionally. "Apart from the challenges, the kind of fulfilment I derived from them were massive," Rao states.

Rao describes himself as a gamer, a simulation-racer. His second startup, Nova Gaming Ventures, was rooted in his love of games.

"In 2016 the PC-gaming ecosystem in India was underwhelming - most Indians couldn't buy a legal PC game online even if they wanted to, local multiplayer servers were non-existent, the community was fragmented across myriad social pages and WhatsApp groups. We set up payment gateways, server farms and online and offline platforms to aggregate the community. The ecosystem is still developing today, but is now at a fascinating inflection point," Rao explains.

His move back to advertising was to get back to a structured "job environment" and still retain the open work culture. "I wanted to be in an environment where I do not feel boxed in. There were options to go to a conventional marketing role, but I returned to advertising as it would be a better fit culturally and I had already seen it from the client's end," he says.

"Today there are a lot of people who are cynical about advertising. Whether you want to or not, it is going to change and it's an interesting time to be in the business. That's why I came back," Rao adds.

Apart from work and his gamer self, Rao is 'anti-Luddite'; he's an old-school metal-head with a taste for the 70s. He has an appetite for historical fiction and history, with intrigue for eras like those of Nazi Germany where peak civilisations and utter barbarity coexisted. He is also a fervent motor-sports fan, particularly of Formula 1.

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