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How I got here…Wavemaker’s Ajit Varghese

Having risen through the ranks of India and Asias' advertising industry, the-now global president of market development at Wavemaker recounts his career journey over the past 20 years

Education

I started my education in a small town named Rourkela in India. Looking back, I think it was probably the best thing that happened for me to grow up in a small place compared to bigger cities; it had a good cosmopolitan life, a very diverse population; the friendly neighbourhood concept was very active. But life wasn’t easy. My parents struggled to raise three kids on a tiny salary of less than USD$100 per month, but they ensured that we were all well-invested in education and inspired us to work hard to make sure we succeed. Our parents had to keep many balls in the air at once – juggling our livelihood, education and moral upbringing.

The two life lessons that remain with me to this day are, one: work hard and don’t be restrained by limited resources, and two: enjoy the simple pleasures in life.

Throughout this journey, being active in sports (football, cricket, badminton, and athletics) was my passion and inspiration to keep going. It was almost like I studied hard and performed well so that I was allowed to play sports as much as I want.

But as much as my parents taught me, I was actually constrained by my father’s wishes and so in 1989 I went to Agricultural Engineering in college to fulfil my father’s wishes to become a ‘professional’. I had no idea what I was getting into but I had a core aim in mind: get out of my home, attain a professional degree skill and start earning money quickly to lessen the burden on my parents who sacrificed so much for our lives at the expense of their own.

My life took a turn at the end of my third year at college when I realised that I really didn’t want to be an Agricultural Engineer. The choice was between aiming for my secret childhood dream of being in the Air Force or undergo a professional management course. The former led me to enrol and begin my pursuit of the Indian management and defence services course. Despite passing, I wasn’t selected to join the Air Force (my young dreams shattered) though I did not let the passion, leadership, drive and the respect that I saw in an Airforce Commander die.

Once again, good lessons were learnt. There are times in life where we are directionless, unsure of our goals. It is essential that we take a step back and look at the wider picture – is this what we want? Where do we see ourselves in the next 10 years? And also, have a back-up ready as a contingency plan. Looking back now, it seems like getting into Defence Services was my back up.

My start 

I got my first job in 1995 with a research agency (IMRB, part of WPP) in Kolkotta.  In my management studies, research and data were what inspired me the most apart from pure marketing.

After one year in the research industry, I had my calling. I realised that it was basically a number cruncher job even though I tried to push boundaries with clients to show them that I could influence and help them make decisions. One of the advertising agencies, Lowe Lintas Mumbai, clearly liked my approach and offered me a job in media planning in 1996. I soon realised I had finally found a job to fit my personality. There was no looking back.  I put in the long, long hours, worked all the time, and learnt even more; especially the ever growing challenges of media and the role it plays in marketing and the ability to gain trust from clients to make decisions on their behalf. I consider myself to be lucky at the right place and in the right time; my confusions of what to do in life was over. Everything else came second to my work.

And my professional life started looking up when ‘learning on the job’ becoming the key metric for success. Three years after working as planner for Unilever, I got a break with Madison Media to work on the Coca-Cola business. I moved to Delhi and working on Coca-Cola gave me the best of management lessons; how to lead clients, lead conversations and businesses.

Coca-Cola shifted their marketing office back to Mumbai and it was a blessing in disguise for me.  Eventually I was made COO of Madison Infinity, a business unit which eventually went on to grow multifold over the next few years.

When I was the MD of Maxus India in 2007, I had the opportunity to create a brand and an agency that had a vision and philosophy that I believed in. As a relatively under-leveraged brand in the GroupM network which did not even have a global network of its own, we aimed high to become the Number One agency in India within the decade and I’m so proud that we did it. The fastest growing agency for more than five years in a row came with a lot of hard work and passion for all the people who came together on this exciting journey.

I took on Maxus’s APAC role in 2014 and it gave me the true experience of leadership in multiple geographies such as China, Australia, and SEA countries. The fastest growing agency tag continued all the way until the creation of Wavemaker when we merged with MEC. Now in my current market development role at Wavemaker, I oversee over 50 markets across the globe. I believe that it’s an exchange of experience, learning something new from different markets and helping to redefine our product, services and offer aligned with the growth plans of our clients.

My Approach

Walk the talk – Nothing upsets a team more than a leader who doesn’t walk the talk. So it is great to roll up your sleeves and use your tools to go for it. You should be able to inspire your teams with the same enthusiasm you expect from them. It is imperative that we nurture a culture of creativity, passion for the business and entrepreneurship attitude.

You are as good as your team: Excellence is an individual pursuit but we need to realise we are playing a team game. The sooner you realise this in your workplace, the faster you can move ahead in life.

Develop referral power: We are known by our actions, deeds, values and not by our standing in the organisation. The real power lies in the teamwork forged as a result of how well we connect with people and the respect they have of you as a leader.  

Clients understand value and are willing to pay for it. This may sound a bit contradictory in our industry where cutting fees/ commissions is a natural phenomenon and to some, at abysmally low levels. But from years of observation, clients who are looking for real media value and professional advice are willing to pay a fair price.

Highs and lows

Highs:

  • Maxus India’s rise to Number 1 in revenue and perception is a great story for the network and I.
  • Establishing a challenger brand attitude by being a winning agency in new business, retention, industry award shows, forums gave us an all-time high that money can’t buy.
  • Retaining Vodafone, Nokia and Google (only in India) against global mandates were defining moments for Maxus India, and winning the L’Oréal business profiled us in the market.
  • Bringing these learnings into Maxus Asia Pacific and keeping the “fastest growing agency” label.
    Winning Agency of Year simultaneously gave us an edge, especially as weren’t in the top 5 in most markets.

Lows:

    • We have had lots of decisions which did not go our way, either personally or professionally. But a low for me is about attitude and perspective so apart from wishing I got more time with my daughter while she was growing up.

Low: Not enough time with the family

Dos and don’ts

    1. Intuition is a hard ‘soft’ skill, develop it: trust your intuition. If it feels wrong, it probably is. While we all bring our intellect and reasoning to work, don’t forget the human part in you – intuition.
    2. Own the moment by living in the present: I made a conscious choice to live in the moment to take the decisions that are the outcomes of repeated learning and unlearning. This can be achieved by implementing learnings, constantly bringing the needle of your judgement to the moment and be aware of all options to constantly innovate, while staying open and receptive to new ideas.
    3. Being adaptive is better than being the first at everything: Skills can be learnt on the job, but aptitude and attitude are much harder to grasp. Past successes, rules of the game and style of functioning are not going to ensure future success.
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