Sudhanshu Vats: The disciplined storyteller

Viacom18’s Sudhanshu Vats believes in building ‘flatter organizations’

Sudhanshu Vats in his cabin in the old building.
Sudhanshu Vats in his cabin in the old building.

For the first time in seven years of writing Head Office, I enter a chief executive’s office and I’m horrified, wondering how fast I can beat a retreat. Facing me is a cluster of 12 TV screens, each tuned into a different channel. 

For someone who believes that television is the only thing that’s more old-fashioned (and far more intrusive) than a newspaper, the prospect of inhabiting a space with so many TV screens is nothing short of a nightmare.

We are at Viacom18’s headquarters, located just off the Western Express Highway in Andheri, Mumbai’s entertainment hub, where I’m meeting the cabin’s occupant, Sudhanshu Vats, chief executive officer of the media and entertainment conglomerate. I was expecting a couple of screens, certainly not 12. Vats laughs: “I need to keep up with the storylines on our channels. I even have the Middle-Eastern feed of (entertainment channel) Colors with subtitles.” 

Vats’ “TV corner” is, of course, fully warranted. However, the spacious cabin has more to offer. 

Collaboration pods in the new office.
Collaboration pods in the new office.

Open and closed

Starting from a cabinet behind Vats’ desk, and travelling alongside it, groups of neatly arranged objects narrate his milestones and passions. First magazines, then books and family photographs, followed by a curated display of memorabilia from his two decades with consumer goods multinational Unilever, before he joined Viacom18. Below the display is a computer monitor with a dedicated “social media dashboard of each of our channels, which a few of us watch. We treat social media trending as a lead indicator for ratings, which itself is a lead indicator for revenue, so it’s important”, Vats explains. 

Next, his professional awards and trophies, and adjacent to them, his “marathon corner”, with framed runner’s bibs and motivational messages. Many of these items can be found in any CEO’s cabin; but very few are so well-preserved—an organizational trait that will manifest itself in our conversation later. 

Vats now has a second office, in a similar glass-and-steel office block a few minutes’ walk away, to accommodate an expanding workforce which has grown to 1,400, with most of the employees based in Mumbai. The new building, which was occupied in February, houses 335 employees working across a group of businesses—digital, motion pictures, youth and music, among others. Vats works regularly from the new premises—most Fridays and whenever there are meetings, he says, so we walk over to see it.

Also Read | Viacom18’s new office: The design story

The open-plan workstation where Vats sits in the new office is a microcosm of his cabin, with an equally neatly arranged set of personal objects. But the similarity between the two workplaces ends there. Unlike Vats’ enclosed cabin, the workstation affords no privacy, has much less legroom, although Vats can easily access two conveniently located meeting rooms for confidential discussions. The new office also has far fewer TVs. 

The open-plan layout was a conscious decision, he emphasizes. “I am a strong believer in building flatter organizations, because I’ve always believed that every generation is smarter than the previous one. A hierarchical set-up undermines the ability to learn from one another.” Eventually even the old office will migrate to this way of working when it is redesigned, he promises.

Yet where the new office really scores is in its graphic design. Dozens of artworks dance across the walls and pillars of every floor with effortless humour and grace. 

Each floor in the new office has a massage chair.
Each floor in the new office has a massage chair.

 Method to the madness 

Viacom18 has expanded since Vats took over as CEO in 2012: consistent revenue and profit growth, new channels, more lines of business and many more people. Despite operating in financially treacherous industries like films and music, and navigating a demonetization-led slowdown in revenue, Vats maintains that the company is generating “double-digit growth rates in PAT (profit after tax)”.

So how does a CEO like him foster creativity in the corporate context? And specifically, can radical innovation take place in a large media organization? While my question is wider than workplace design, Vats’ two offices offer an answer: blending discipline and risk-taking. 

First, as the organized set of memorabilia suggests, Vats embodies a sense of process, order and method. In other words, his approach to his business is as disciplined as his habit of running 60-70km a week or his close monitoring of his social media data. 

As an industry outsider, Vats introduced previously unheard of management apparatus into the company: rigorous budgeting practices, annual performance management systems, regular town halls with all employees, monthly leadership team meetings, weekly leadership team lunches, monthly lunches with young employees, “content pe charcha” rituals where storylines are discussed, among other practices. 

These management tools are complemented by strategic marketing techniques to continually expand the business, find ways to better understand the viewer, and generate fresh, differentiated content. “Our four strategic pillars are (audience) segmentation, (business) synergy and ecosystems and (viewer) insight. What we do in them keeps changing,” he qualifies. 

Crucially, management science is calibrated with personal instinct and intuition, which allows him to bet on people and take appropriate risks. 

Vats at his open-plan desk in the new office.
Vats at his open-plan desk in the new office.

The writing on the wall says it all. Two creative agencies were shortlisted to take on the workplace branding project. Vats preferred the more conventional option. The other agency, Koba, was “very raw, passionate, creative, innovative but hadn’t worked on many offices”, says Vats. Sonia Huria, head of communications and corporate social responsibility, who was leading the project, strongly endorsed the second agency. Vats leaned on her judgement, and it has led to “fantastic results”, he says. 

For Vats, managing creativity is about “adding method to the madness…the ideas will always come from the gut, but to make the ideas bigger, sustainable and to be able to put upfront reasonably good resources behind it, we need to use data and insights to test and develop it. To me an idea is an uncut diamond. You cut it and then it shines,” explains Vats. 

This is a convincing explanation for creativity, but is it enough to foster radical innovation, the sort that can change how we consume content, not just what we consume, I wonder. Vats is both honest and hopeful. “Institutionalizing creativity is a tricky piece. The chances of us being able to do what someone is doing in their garage is low, I’ll be honest with you. What I would like to see, a year or so down the line, is the streak of a young individual entrepreneur, combined with the nimbleness of a small company, and the data-led science and artificial-intelligence of a large organization. If I can get the three going together, it is an unstoppable engine. And we will get an enormous differential competitive advantage, because it is nearly impossible to do all three at the same time. It is very, very difficult.”

It’s a tough ask. I’m prepared to be horrified, maybe dazzled, or both, in the future. For an industry that thrives on provoking a reaction, that would seem to be a fitting outcome.  

The CEO’s view

Experimentation: The eureka moment does not necessarily come by design—it comes by default, and for every success, there may be some failures.

Strategy: For me, it is a direction with a signature. 

Competition: It is a mirror that keeps me vigilant. 

Telecom: It is an enabler, partner and pipe. 

Aparna Piramal Raje meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspace design and working styles. She is the author of  Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns, published as part of the Mint Business Series.

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