The year 2020 has brought forward a situation where everyone has had to deal with change and perhaps learn important life lessons. I was asked to think about the quality of leadership traits or lack of it in our business of Creativity and Media, which together form Advertising. In my 25 years in the business, I have had the privilege of being a leader and have also been associated with many multi-faceted leaders. We learn or unlearn from our leaders and some of these learnings leave a life term impression on how we shape ourselves in our careers and jobs.
I started off in Calcutta (yes, I always call it that) as a trainee in an organisation located in the famous Mirza Ghalib Street, which had some major big names running that agency. I was hired by the CEO who had worked in a global agency in San Francisco (a rarity those days). I was a fresh proud graduate of the elite Presidency College and was always dressed in a way which the Union found ‘too Western’. The matter went to the CEO, who not just rubbished it but called me to his office, gaffed and said, ‘Don’t be a wallpaper to blend in, that’s not you.’
Lesson #1: Leaders don’t encourage bullying.
With stars in my eyes, I moved to the mecca of Indian advertising, aka Bombay, in the mid-nineties. I had three offers and chose the new age, younger sibling of a big ship that sailed from Nariman Point. The agency had a uniqueness –strativity – and it was led by the man who sported waistcoats and was one of the brightest minds. This agency encouraged out of the box thinking and won the first Cannes Gold for the famous magazine ad for a mosquito repellent. His advice to all was ‘celebrate the craft and keep challenging yourself.’
Lesson #2: Leaders should push to resist the usual.
Next career stop, with arguably the most aggressive leader of our industry I have experienced, who was famous for saying ‘new business is everyone’s business.’ He also encouraged us to say ‘No’. The agency had a picture of a spinal cord and how saying ‘No’ was an important lesson for self-respect. He pushed us to be brave and stand for conviction.
Lesson #3: Leaders should encourage courage (not fear) in their people.
How can I think leadership and not mention my Dilli days? I was with the biggest agency branch of the biggest agency, leading some mega big brands. The person who led the agency is known in our business currently to be leading the most creatively awarded agency but that aside, he taught us two things — client-centricity and work-life balance. He understood working mothers needed flexi timings, he surrounded himself with strong talent and encouraged all simply on merit. His leadership was also gender-neutral.
Lesson #4: Leaders help you find life balance.
I came back to Mumbai and joined a relatively smaller agency to lead its office situated in the mill areas and with a gorgeous wrap garden. My last creative agency job, with a leader who is a strategy powerhouse and one of the most tech-inclined individuals. He hired people who had different skills and celebrated the mixing of differences. That made his leadership almost unmatchable.
Lesson #5: Leaders celebrate differences.
Then in the last 5+ years, I made a shift from the creative agency side, joining a media agency, which was smashing all the set rules, winning innumerable awards and working for the largest advertiser in the country. It was making the entire digital journey come alive, as the lady who led it as future-ready. She had the intellect and wisdom of a world-class media agency leader. She and her work partner, another thorough gentleman, showed all how true partnerships are managed and celebrated. The agency under her invested in the right kind of diversified talent, almost yin and yang teams, finding business solutions for clients with the right use of tech and platforms. Much before it had become a widespread practice.
Lesson #6: Leaders surround themselves with strong talent, not sycophants.
While these were the good leaders in my career, there also have been the shallow, insecure and insignificant people who were placed in leadership positions. But only true leaders leave a mark, leave you with life lessons. So, I want to only remember the worthwhile ones.
As for my own leadership style, it involved building teams that pride themselves in their talent and work and raise the bar they set for themselves. I hope I have also left some of them with strong leadership lessons.
(The author is former Chief Client Officer, PHD Worldwide India.)