Features

How I Got Here… Havas Group’s Vishnu Mohan

From a childhood spent visiting road accident sites with his motor vehicle inspector father to an early dabble with a job in India's public sector, Havas senior executive Vishnu Mohan had an unusual start to his career

Education

Sahiyar – A sleepy, nondescript satellite town tucked away in the Buxar district of Bihar is where my story starts.

Vishnu Mohan in the centre flanked by a couple of his siblings

One of six children – unfortunately, two of my siblings passed away by the time I was 20 – I was born in Sahiyar and spent the first 13 years of my life in various cities across Bihar. An extremely restless child, I was always on the lookout for something to do. Noticing this trait, my father agreed to let my 12-year old self accompany him on site visits to inspect road accidents. He was a motor vehicle inspector (MVI) by profession and his report on an accident was crucial in determining its cause.

While accompanying him on those visits was an unlikely activity for a tween, it kept me out of mischief’s way and more importantly, seeded the skill of developing a probing, analytical mind — a trait which has shaped me as a professional, and a skill that I continue to sharpen till date.

At the age of 14, my bags were packed to start boarding school in Goethals located in the beautiful hill city of Darjeeling in India. Those were formative years where the seeds of discipline, independence and self-confidence were sown, and life-long friendships bloomed. Life in the mountains taught me patience, rigour, and channeled my restless energy into something constructive.

I went on to do my engineering in petroleum from the Indian School of Mines Dhanbad, driven by my desire to work in an industry so vital to the world. This was followed by a stint as an engineer on an offshore production platform at Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) — one of the largest producers of oil and natural gas in India.

In the Indian public sector phase

The job proved to be my key motivator to do my MBA at IIM (Indian Institute of Management) Ahmedabad – as I realised soon enough that I was not cut out for the public sector.

The MBA was a turning point in my life in more ways than one. I would not be in this industry if not for a mesmerising pre-placement talk delivered on a Saturday afternoon by Ajit Balakrishnan, the co-founder of the ad agency Rediffusion. I walked in by accident, but learned valuable life lessons.

My Start

Ajit Balakrishan’s presentation on the role of advertising was so inspiring that I took a big risk during the placements. I waited right till the end of the interview period, rejecting a few offers, to secure a position from Rediffusion Y&R – one of the best agencies of its time in India.

My four years at Rediffusion Y&R really grounded me as professional. I soaked in every bit of knowledge and experience that comes from working in a full-service agency, which made it easier to transition to later roles.

Driven by my hunger to learn all aspects of the industry, I did not hold back. Even as an account executive, I insisted on being at the forefront, presenting to clients. This hunger for learning led to a job offer from Colgate-Palmolive, which I turned down for financial reasons. My career path would have been very different on the client side, had I taken that up and this is perhaps the only partial regret I have.

Post Rediffusion Y&R, I landed a job in Singapore as media director at BBDO, amidst immense personal challenges. It was another life-changing moment that really built my perseverance and resilience. Unfortunately, an incident happened while at BBDO that led to me losing my job. On hindsight, it was a great learning – how to adapt to a different working culture and thrive in it.

It also heralded the start of my Havas journey on the creative side at the erstwhile Euro RSCG. After nine years, I moved to the media side of the business at Havas in what used to be known as MPG.

In early 2014, Havas as a network embraced the operating principle of Together – a strategy that transcends the traditional separation between “creative” and “media” in order to guarantee an agile, seamless and fully integrated service.

It became an operational reality in 2016. To ensure the success of the strategy, Havas Group brought together all communication disciplines: creative, media, digital, activation, events, public relations under one roof and P&L to create Havas Villages. I took on the role of chairman and CEO for Havas Group SEA and India.

Integrated: with the leadership team at Havas

The role was a huge learning and challenge as I had the unenviable task of rolling out the Havas Village concept to all markets under my remit. For an industry rooted in silos, the concept of breaking them down, making this approach resonate with clients and our people through active collaboration, and most importantly, making them believe in it, was daunting and yet immensely fulfilling.

The learning from the past from my various roles — account, creative, media — has been phenomenal and seamless. In many ways, my journey in the industry parallels Havas Group’s journey of being the integrated network it is today.

While the integrated agency model of 20 years back was led by the creative agency and clients, integration of today is of equals – a more powerful value proposition.

Approach

“Leadership is hard to define and good leadership even harder. But if you can get people to follow you to the ends of the earth, you are a great leader.”

This quote by PepsiCo’s former CEO Indra Nooyi resonates with me. In any business, people are your biggest assets. While it’s no secret that business success is centred around finding the right employees, finding such people is not a piece of cake.

Over the years, I have learnt to trust my instinct when it comes to hires and focus on building an army of entrepreneurs, who would treat the business as if it were their own.

Building a culture that encourages autonomy and risk-taking is challenging, for sure. But it’s an absolute necessity in today’s new economy, rooted in creativity and innovation. Making myself redundant by the next wave of talent is an integral component of my hiring philosophy.

Mohan’s personal motto: Be simple, be honest and be yourself always

Empowering my team and allowing them to grow, learn and reach greater heights, without micro-management but always ensuring that I have their back – these are principles that I live by. I believe in guiding rather than being controlling. When the team wins, you win too. It’s akin to conducting an orchestra, choosing and guiding musicians to give their best performance.

My approach to work is characterised by a challenger mentality. I learnt early in my career that hierarchies are meant to be broken and it’s important to make your voice heard. The onus of building your career is entirely on yourself.

My personal vision is to inspire self-respect. It empowers you to have the confidence, to set firm boundaries and make others aware of what you stand for in terms of values, strengths, weaknesses.

My personal motto – Be simple.  Be honest.  Be yourself always.

I believe in providence, destiny and completely mindful of the fact that whatever happens, happens for the better.

Highs

Turning greenfield operations into success stories.

Having built a network (Havas Media) in the region from scratch — being employee #1, it’s great when you are told you have employee #1000.

Building a brand from ground zero by punching above our weight, leveraging a challenger mindset is a reminder that nothing is impossible if you are driven and focussed in your goal.

New business has played an integral role in creating Havas Media and winning is a high that never goes out of fashion. Over the years, we have a built a steady repertoire of brands. Being a part of each pitch has been a learning, especially the ones we did not win.

Nurturing talent is a passion. The joy of retaining people or having them rejoin after leaving is a hugely gratifying feeling.

Lows

After having spent 27 years in the industry, it is disheartening to see the decline in the client-agency relationship. As an industry, we are not doing enough to cultivate long-term relationships that build trust and longevity.

However, I am optimistic about the future as technology is a great leveller. By default, it has given the advertising industry the opportunity to reclaim its rightful role as a trusted advisor and partner.

The counsel that an agency can provide in navigating the complexity of the marketing landscape can be transformative.

Additionally, creativity wins hands down and cannot be templatised. As long as we continue to nurture creativity and ideas, the advertising industry will thrive.

Dos and Dont’s

Don’t complicate: it’s a complex world and technology is adding layers to it every day. Let’s not build more layers by over jargonisation and instead focus on simplicity.

Mohan: Don’t complicate, overthink or abdicate

Don’t overthink: we become our biggest enemies by over-analysing an idea. Jump into it and swim your way out. Failing at times is not bad but killing an idea before its born is hara-kiri.

Don’t abdicate: Resilience is key to success. We must remain determined to cross the hurdles, once we have decided to get in the race.

Vishnu Mohan is chairman and chief executive officer for South East Asia and India at Havas Group

ADVERTISEMENT

SUBSCRIBE

Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing