Ashish Bhasin: Eyes wide open

It is the Monday after Christmas, and I am meeting Ashish Bhasin, chairman and chief executive officer, Dentsu Aegis Network (DAN), South Asia, for lunch at San-Qi at Mumbai’s Four Seasons hotel. Arriving a few minutes early, I am reminded of the long boozy lunches the admen were always having in that epochal TV series Mad Men. When Bhasin walks in, a few moments later, it is with the air of easy familiarity. Bhasin has the build of a prosperous Punjabi man and the sartorial style of an adman, in his beige suit and maroon tie.

The 52-year-old says he is brash; he exults in it. “I have announced that the Dentsu Aegis Network wants to be the No.2 player in the country by 2017,” says Bhasin, who believes in putting pressure on himself to perform by going public with his objectives. So far, the strategy seems to have worked. In 2008, Bhasin left Lintas to join a bare-bones operation at Aegis India. Eight years later, he presides over DAN with 2,800 employees and revenue of Rs3,500 crore in the year ended December 2016.

The last few years have seen Dentsu Aegis on an acquisition spree, buying companies as if they were candy. From digital marketing companies like Webchutney, Communicate 2 and Happy Creative, to public relations firm Perfect Relations and, most lately, user interface and user experience design company Fractal Ink Design Studio, Dentsu Aegis has been on a roll when it comes to the business of buying.

“If you are not growing, you are dying. Acquisition is something where when you talk to 20 people, four-five may come into the final consideration set. So at any point of time we are talking to four-five people. It’s like a courtship,” says Bhasin. He says it takes him about a year to complete an acquisition. More than the money, it’s the chemistry with the management team that matters. “I spend a lot of time interacting with the people, across several locations. If they are too full of themselves, you know early on that this guy is never going to be a team player,” says Bhasin. He says he has let good businesses go because he felt the promoters were talented but cavalier, “like cowboys”.

Many of Bhasin’s learnings came from his 20 years in Lintas. “When I joined Lintas (in 1988) as a management trainee, I used to be the envy of my peers. I was working on the Liril soap account, and one of our key tasks was to find the new Liril girl. We had to hang around in colleges and had to attend the auditions of bikini-clad models in a bathroom with a shower,” he reminiscences.

The Lintas days, where Bhasin shot commercials in curfew-struck Burma (now Myanmar), and managed everything from the “health of bathrooms to the health of the balance sheet” at its Chennai office, make for a fascinating backstory. But a waiter is hovering discreetly in the background. So we break to order lunch. Bhasin is a regular at San-Qi, and recommends green Thai chicken curry and sautéed prawns, with a side serving of rice. We place the order and move on to trends in media.

“The whole industry is focusing on ad shots and angles. That is all very important, but guys, the cheese is moving. I don’t know why people in advertising are blind,” he says. Media is no longer the print and broadcast medium it used to be. The power has shifted to digital. “Today people are still spending Rs3 crore to make an ad. But there are digital agencies that make very good ads for Rs30,000 and (they are) getting more views than you are getting on your Rs3 crore ad,” says Bhasin

Our food arrives. The Thai curry is bland in a pleasing way, and the prawns are bathed in a delicate tomato gravy. “No onions,” Bhasin comments, as the waiter spoons out our individual helpings. That done, we return to the business of media, and to the nuts and bolts of managing a growing organization.

Adding employees and acquisitions to DAN has meant that Bhasin has also had to buy or rent real estate. The Bengaluru office recently inaugurated a brand new DAN House building in Koramangala. “I am a big believer in co-location; I like to have all my people together,” he says, adding that he puts great store by interactions with his employees. “There are no walls in my office, there is a glass partition for sound, but everybody can see everything. My email ID is known to everybody and I encourage them to write
to me.”

Some of the best ideas come from the youngest employees, who pick up competitive information as well as knowledge of new trends. The other knowledge source of new trends has always been travel. “Ï went to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); I went to Tokyo to see the latest advances in AI (artificial intelligence) and robotics. I am constantly keeping myself updated and shaking up my guys. Wake up, this is reality!”

The constant travel can be trying for his family. Yet Bhasin’s son Abhinay, 24, likes advertising and would like to make a career in it. His 16-year-old daughter Abhilasha plays squash for India. Wife Mayuri, a classmate from St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, worked as a lecturer and then with American Express in Mumbai. Bhasin himself did his bachelor’s in science (zoology and biochemistry) and then a master’s in business administration from Mumbai’s Sydenham Institute of Management Studies, Research and Entrepreneurship Education.

The family likes to travel together, going on cruises, wildlife safaris, or just to their holiday home in Lonavla. There hasn’t been a lot of that in the last few years though, for Bhasin hasn’t managed to take time off.

It’s almost 3. Bhasin orders a kulfi and I take a cappuccino. And we continue our conversation.

Bhasin is clearly a man on a mission. “It burns me when I see any part of a client’s business going out, either because they are sharing it with other agencies or because I don’t have a service to offer,” he says. He is determined to make DAN No.2 in the business, ahead of Interpublic Group and second only to WPP. All this while the media business sees radical change.

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