I, Tanya Shridhar, bring to you an enriching conversation with Mr Kunal Jeswani, Chief Executive Officer, Ogilvy India. Mr Jeswani has worked with iconic companies such as Unilever, Mondelez, Vodafone, BMW, Dabur and Pernod Ricard. He has also worked on the launch of the Indian Premier League (IPL) for BCCI and has led the South Asia Cricket Boards' bid for the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup. He is a distinguished alumnus and a member of the Governing Council of one of India’s premier Marketing Communication Institutes - MICA, Ahmedabad. In this interview, Kunal talks about his years in the advertising industry, his journey as a CEO, his takeaways from MICA and the value of having a strong point of view.
Tanya: You have been the CEO of Ogilvy for 5 years now and have been in the company for 14 years, how has the journey been so far?
Kunal: Exhilarating! It has been a period of constant change, crisis and opportunity and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. I have been fortunate enough to be in a company that lets me try different roles and shape my own career. I joined Ogilvy in 2005, in the advertising department, as a Vice President in charge of a set of businesses including Cadbury Chocolates, Unilever Beverages and Kotak Bank.
After a few years in that role, I realised the company had a strong team of planners in the advertising department but had no planners in any of the other departments, including digital, activation and public relations. I asked if I could build and lead a small planning team that would drive strategy for these departments. The company agreed to let me do it. A few years later, OgilvyOne (our digital arm) needed new leadership. I asked if I could take that role. The company agreed and let me do that too. From there, I moved to become the company’s first-ever Chief Digital Officer and then, in 2015, took on the CEO role.
The last 5 years have been eventful but my focus, every year, has been on only two things: (1) Talent: Finding the best people for every role in the company and then supporting, motivating and retaining them. (2) Digital: Driving our digital capability, resourcing, thinking and creative work.
Tanya: What was the biggest challenge you faced post becoming the CEO?
Kunal: We’re right in the middle of it. The Corona / COVID-19 virus has crippled industry and impacted consumption dramatically. This has put significant pressure on our clients' businesses and this pressure transfers to us directly. Our company moved to 100% working from home a few days before the Prime Minister announced the first Janta Curfew, and well before the official lockdown. Our teams are operating exceedingly well, at full capacity, collaborating and producing outstanding work together in the midst of the lockdown. It is a fantastic effort. But still, the reality is that when our clients’ businesses get affected, no matter how well we respond, we get affected. This is going to be my hardest and most challenging year as the CEO.
Tanya: What motivates you to keep working hard every day, especially when you have reached the highest position – that of a CEO?
Kunal: There is always more to do. More challenges. Different challenges. You realise after a while that designations and titles are less important than what you want to do this year and next year. It is the challenge that motivates you. Today, delivering for clients in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, later this year it will be delivering business results and protecting all our best people as the business environment gets volatile and unpredictable. Over the next few years, I’d like to consider running our business in a different country. I’d like to see how I adapt to leading a business, teams and brands in a different cultural context. There’s always more to do. You have to shape your own career and keep it interesting.
Tanya: Being a MICA alumnus, what is the one key learning that still impacts you?
Kunal: The single most important thing I took away from my years at MICA was the ability to form a coherent point of view on any problem, and the ability to communicate that point of view convincingly.
Tanya: What do you miss the most about your stint in MICA?
Kunal: Campus life. No question about it. I miss the luxury of time I had with the friends I made at MICA. Living with them, talking endlessly with them, singing with them, cooking with them, eating with them, and yes – working with them.
Tanya: What, according to you, are the top three qualities that will help a young professional succeed, especially in the advertising world?
Kunal: The top three would be:
(1) The ability to listen - without your own agenda impacting the quality of your listening.
(2) The ability to distil - from data, from consumers, from client conversations – what is really important and needs attention.
(3) The ability to have a clear point of view that is based on what you have heard, what you have distilled, and what you think. This is not about hiding behind data and research and regurgitating bits and pieces of it, but actually learning from it and taking a position.
Tanya: If you had to give one piece of advice to the MBA community, what would it be?
Kunal: I have two pieces of advice to give instead:
(1) Listen to the people around you, trust your gut, and have a point of view. Our world is filled with too many MBAs who are afraid to take a position and find comfort in hiding behind data or mirroring their boss’ opinions. Learn to recognise this behaviour in yourself when it happens. Make the effort to be better.
(2) Respect different points of view. And when you hear an argument or a point of view that you genuinely agree with, don’t be afraid to change your point of view and support someone else. Our world is also filled with too many people who refuse to acknowledge points of view that are different from their own. They are insufferable and intolerant. Learn to recognise this behaviour in yourself when it happens. Make the effort to be better.