Starcom boss turned startup incubator Ravi Kiran on what entrepreneurs think of media, defining innovation and the value of paranoia

Ravi KiranRavi Kiran is the former Southeast and South Asia CEO of media agency Starcom MediaVest Group. He left the media business in 2011, and has gone on to co-found Friends of Ambition, a growth platform for mid-sized companies. He later launched VentureNursery, a start-up accelerator.

In this interview with Mumbrella, Kiran talks about why he left Starcom, what startups think of the media industry, the definition of innovation, and why “agility is the antidote to fragility” in business.

Describe the moment when you thought your talents would be put to better use in the startup world? Why did you leave Starcom?

Frankly, it wasn’t anything as romantic as that [‘that my talents would be put to better use in the startup world’]. It was just another Monday when I was driving home from work in Mumbai and it hit me that I completed 20 years of working that day.

In 20 years past, I had worked in two of the greatest organisations alongside some very smart people, building teams, helping clients, scaling Starcom MediaVest Group in India and building its product portfolio and reputation.

I wondered if I would like to spend the next 15-20 years of my life doing similar things or something new and different.

That night, I spoke to my wife and later wrote a note to my boss Andrew (Swinand).

It took me several months, meeting hundreds of people, mostly outside marketing and advertising and talking about all sorts of things, to come to a decision of what I wanted to next. Coincidentally, both businesses I started between 2011 and 2012, are to do with entrepreneurs. Friends of Ambition works with growth stage entrepreneurs and VentureNursery helps those at idea stage. Both are businesses driven by a purpose, rather than a need to earn an income, and I sort of like that.

What do you think the start-up world thinks about the media business from an innovation point of view?

I don’t think the start-up world knows enough about advertising and media to think much of it when it comes to innovations. They look more for business innovations and I don’t think media and advertising has provided the world with many examples in that area. I guess most people, including startups, know that innovations can help break clutter in a cluttered world, but I don’t think the startup world refers to what we call innovation as innovation.

Nic Hodges at Mumbrella360

Hodges to media agencies: “Stop saying agile”

At a Mumbrella event in Australia a few months ago, a former MediaCom executive turned entrepreneur, Nic Hodges, said that “media firsts are not innovation”. Would you agree with him that often the media industry does not really understand what innovation means?

I would not fully agree with Mr Hodges that media firsts are not innovation.

People have two contrasting views on innovation – not just in media but in business – the harsh view and the kind view.

People with the harsh view respect only radical innovations, the kind of innovations about which speeches are made and books are written. To them, if you don’t push the limits and take big risks, you will not come up with innovations.

Those with the kind view are okay with incremental innovations, perhaps because they have a less than extreme view of human abilities.

Naturally, the harsh view folks think incremental innovations don’t deserve the innovation tag and are actually created by people who are complacent.

Personally, I feel there is a role and need in business for both kinds of innovations – radical and incremental, the economic, business and customer context decides where we apply ourselves more.

The problem in media, I feel, is we don’t differentiate between the two types of innovations and therefore end up claiming incremental innovations as radical and force people like Mr Hodges to say what he did.

I believe if we recognise each type of innovation for what it is, we will be less defensive, and be able to deploy the right resources and create the right processes for each type and achieve more radical innovations, which I feel should be the goal of all businesses.

I also feel we need a debate between innovation and innovativeness, as two powerful but confusing concepts. Personally, I put a lot more emphasis on innovativeness, it’s an everyday need for the organization.

When I was in SMG for instance, we used to take pride in defining a target audience or competition for a brand more innovatively, or segment a market more innovatively and that resulted in innovative planning, something which is not visible as what we call ‘an innovation’.

What’s the most exciting innovation in media you’ve noticed emerge in recent years, and why should the media industry take it seriously?

This question can easily get a biased answer, because hidden inside it is a bias for radical innovation. Radical innovations are noticed and remembered, including by people who are not relevant to the brand. Incremental innovations are not remembered, even if they may work hard for a purpose.

We see very few radical innovations in India, that’s why it’s very difficult to remember one.

Also, since brand managers demand innovation quite regularly from their agency partners, agency folks put too much emphasis on tactical and incremental innovation and put a ton of money on it to make it noticeable. So you can question what makes it noticeable – the idea and execution or the money.

Our award shows and how they are organized also add to this problem, but enough has been said about that.

Where do you think India stands as a country that produces great, original ideas in the media context?

I think at a fairly low rung. And I am not saying this because I am out of advertising and media now. I used to say this when I was ‘inside’ as well. What we call original ideas are usually radical. Indian culture accepts mediocrity too much and takes too little risk, for it to produce big hairy radical ideas.

And it’s not restricted to media alone. You can see that in marketing and in business overall.

For instance, if you look at the start-up world, while there is a lot of exuberance about entrepreneurship and thousands of start-ups are being launched every month, most are copy cats. So while we celebrate the permission Indian parents are beginning to give to their educated and employment-ready children to take the risks that entrepreneurship necessarily involves, the ideas around which most people are creating new businesses themselves are fairly mediocre.

This is why ‘Startup Nation’, one of the most celebrated books on new age entrepreneurship, is on Israel, a country with a population close to that of Himachal Pradesh [India’s 21st largest province] and Hong Kong, and not on India or China.

If you were still at Starcom, what would you do to ensure that the agency is future proof?

I doubt any business today is really future proof. I even doubt the phrase future proof is useful today. I feel businesses need to be future excited, enthusiastic about opportunities and challenges alike.

That said, if I were at Starcom, I would do what [businessman and author] Andy Grove told us to do nearly two decades ago, be and stay paranoid. Paranoia forces people to stay polished.

I would add another word in today’s context – BE AGILE. I believe most businesses, often entire trades such as marketing, advertising and media are fragile today, not because of lack of management competency, but because of a ruthless external environment. Agility in my belief, is the antidote to fragility.

But in businesses, we give far too much importance to stability and past accomplishments and try to hold off the future.

How would I build agility? By taking risks the start-ups are taking today. By attracting and celebrating the people who make me uncomfortable and nervous, rather than those make me feel nice about my past. By hiring technologists and software engineers into my company and disturbing the status quo, even if they stay only for a few months.

Like someone said recently, the techies* are taking over the world, not artists. I would put techies inside my company.

[*A techie is someone who gets technology and how it changes human behaviour, not just someone who can code]

Is there anything you miss about the media industry?

Not really. I have my three bad days every year in my present life as well and on one of those days, I may wonder if I did the right thing leaving the trade and my company. But I survive each of those days and the next day is another beautiful day full of experiences of a year.

What advice would you give someone working in media who wants to start out on their own?

Talk to people. Read Quora. Talk on all social sites. Meet techies. Attend start-up events. Stop reading the media websites for seven days and read start-up websites. If you have money, go to San Diego, Tel Aviv and Sao Paulo. If not, then to Pune or Gurgaon or Singapore. Hang out with someone you would have never met in your life. Listen to all advice.

After all that, get out and start.


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