For Anupriya Acharya, navigating the ad world was a chance encounter
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Growing up in the picturesque town of Dehradun, Anupriya Acharya, the 48-year-old chief executive officer (CEO) of Publicis Media India, the media planning and buying arm of Paris-based advertising behemoth Publicis Groupe, did not envision having to navigate the cutthroat world of media and advertising.
Acharya’s family placed great importance on career but, as is the experience of many young Indians, they told her she had two options: to become a doctor or engineer. As the eldest of three siblings, she was expected to set an example. Ideally, Acharya would have liked to study fashion design. “But that idea was shot down immediately,” she laughs.
We are meeting at the agency’s office in Lower Parel, Mumbai’s commercial precinct. Dressed in a suit, Acharya’s straightforward demeanour is one of the first things you notice.
Her heart wasn’t in pursuing a career as a doctor or engineer as was expected by her family—she completed a master’s in chemistry from University of Roorkee (now Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee). Then she decided to explore other options, which led her to applying for the first batch of women being inducted into the Indian Air Force (IAF). “I decided to apply along with a few of my friends,” she says. Acharya was the only one to receive an acceptance letter. She decided not to join the air force, however, because it came in the way of some personal commitments she had at the time.
Acharya joined the advertising industry in 1994, shortly after she got married and moved to Chennai. “I spent some time learning about the best shops (agencies/creative shops) in Chennai, and went in to an interview with Ogilvy & Mather. I was delighted that I made it through, not knowing much about the industry, or, for that matter, whether I would be in client servicing or in the creative side of things.” Given her analytical skills, she was picked for the media planning and buying side of the business.
Acharya hasn’t looked back since, in a career spanning more than 20 years, with stints at agencies like Mindshare, Aegis Media and McCann, both in India and abroad. Acharya’s husband, a banking professional, is transferred frequently, and, moving with him, she accrued vital work experience in a number of different places.
After Chennai, they were in New Delhi. “I wanted to work someplace nearby,” she says. Coming from a small town, where everything was practically within walking distance, she says she didn’t want to commute long distances. “I looked up agencies close to home. That’s how I landed my next job, working for McCann (formerly McCann Erickson),” she smiles. She was with McCann for around five years, before moving to Mumbai, where she joined Mindshare Fulcrum (a unit of Mindshare India) in 2000. She worked on the Unilever account, handling their media duties. Here she learnt how to best harness the power of the media, and sharpened her management and leadership skills.
In 2005, she was appointed president of The Media Edge (now part of GroupM). “A lot of people discouraged me from taking up this role,” she says. “I wasn’t trained in management as such, but I felt it was a good opportunity and decided to go with my instinct. Having said that, there were times I would wake up in a cold sweat, nervous about the thought of losing clients, or some other business worry.
“But it (the fear of failure) drives you as well. After working in leadership roles for nearly 12 years, it’s easy to admit that now.”
Acharya’s itinerant career then took her to a stint as the CEO at Aegis Media in Singapore for around three years. But she returned with her husband to Mumbai in 2012 to give their son a more grounded education. In 2013, she was appointed group CEO of ZenithOptimedia India, one of Publicis Groupe’s media agencies, as it was known before the restructuring.
Acharya often speaks of her growing-up years in Dehradun, arguing that it has shaped her as an individual. “Work was such an important part of my blueprint,” she says. She credits her mother for instilling a risk-taking approach and teaching her to always look ahead. “She was very practical,” says Acharya. “It was very important for us to have a plan B, something to fall back on.” Acharya’s father died when she was very young. Instead, true to her mother, she looks at the positives. “We were taught to be self-reliant early on. She (her mother) instilled that practical attitude in us.”
It is this attitude that’s helped her navigate difficult situations at work. In April 2016, when Publicis Groupe announced a global restructuring, Acharya was elevated from group CEO of ZenithOptimedia to CEO, Publicis Media (India), which would comprise four agency brands: Zenith, Starcom, Performics.Resultrix and Performics.Convonix. The changes were in line with the global mandate: to simplify the organization, invent modern approaches, introduce structures for greater collaboration and create value for clients.
“This past year has been one of our best in India,” she says. “We’ve doubled the size of the organization over the last three years and added a clutch of important new clients such as Nestlé India, Mars (Wrigley), Fiat Chrysler, Toyota, Parle Products, Kraft Heinz, Singapore Tourism Board, Micromax, Airbnb, Jet Airways, Etihad Airways and Dabur India Ltd, among others. Over the last 18 months, we’ve added the most number of new businesses.” Since the restructuring, Publicis Media has added new business worth over Rs1,000 crore. According to data published by Recma (Research Company Evaluating The Media Agency Industry) in June, the agency billed over $877 million (around Rs5,587 crore now) in 2016. The agency has crossed $1 billion in billing since, says Acharya.
India is among the top five markets globally for Publicis Groupe. They now want to focus on growing revenue streams like data analytics and performance marketing. “More than 50% of our revenue comes from future-facing streams like digital data and analytics,” Acharya says.
She adds that you can’t grow by following what the market leaders are doing. “One has to try and be as dynamic as possible in the fast-changing media industry.”
“We’re investing heavily in research, data and tools,” she says. “This helps us track how consumer preferences and tastes are changing, and it lets us provide clients with differentiated offerings.”
Acharya says she has learnt things by watching the people around her. She is quite close to her team of more than 900 and runs it like a tight ship. “This is really a talent business,” she says. “It’s important to build trust and transparency. It’s even honed my sense of humour over time!”
Looking back on her career, is there something she would do differently? “I’ve enjoyed every single day. I love coming into office, it charges me up,” Acharya says. And while she does sometimes consider that the IAF might have led to good things, media is an exciting industry to work in. “Today, there are so many more choices available to brands and marketers. We can harness data on how to reach out to consumers. That’s what makes it so dynamic and engaging. If someone was to ask me to plan a career in this industry, I would say it’s more exciting now than it was 20 years ago.”