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Divya Radhakrishnan’s journey from a media executive to an entrepreneur
MUMBAI: “Will we be done in an hour?” asks Divya Radhakrishnan as I walk into her office. Greeting me with a smile as bright as her office, the woman entrepreneur is busy juggling various things on her smartphone. In between a call from her mother, knocks of various employees on the door and fixing up meetings, the managing director narrates her journey of 28 years in the industry and what shaped her from a rebellious young girl to a calm and composed lady.
Radhakrishnan never aspired to become part of the media industry. She wanted to do something different and not typically Tam-Bram. Her career aspirations were very random, moving from a course in catering in 12 standard to TISS (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) for labour welfare.
Having studied Economics, she got a job offer from a bank close to her home. Her rebellious spirit convinced her to refuse the job, a decision that worried her father. “My dad thought I was mad and spoke to my cousins to try and convince me. He would say, ‘What is she doing? Next door bank, she will be permanent within 6 months!’ But I was sure that I didn’t want to do that.”
It was her neighbour Prasad Subramaniam, founder of Capital Advertising, who unknowingly inspired her to enter the media space.
“I got a keeda that I wanted to join the advertising industry because my neighbour Prasad Subramaniam used to talk about his job, which amazed me a lot. I would say to myself wow! What fun. I want to be there,” she says.
Radhakrishnan narrates, “When I started in 1987, I was primarily interested in getting into the business of advertising. But it is not an easy path when you don’t know anyone from the field within your family or friend circle.”
She started doing the rounds of different agencies, and people discouraged her from joining the media business as ‘it’s not a profession for women’ and to try copywriting instead.
Eventually, she got a job at DaCunha Advertising, whose most popular account back then was Amul. Bharat Dabholkar would pen the lines and her only job was to ensure the hoardings were painted across all 26 sites over India.
“Those were not the days of planning so it was all very simple. Gradually from there I started growing and there was a vacancy that came up because one of the media agency guys got a break in client servicing. My boss kept the positions open between me and another colleague, and said whoever does well in the next six months will get the job. So I worked towards it and got elevated to a managerial position,” she recounts.
Even in those days, when they had to just send an estimate, Divya would make sure that she tried and wrote extra, put it into a folder and made it look presentable.
“We were always told that if you can’t get bookings on Chitrahaar for Doordarshan, then you are a useless media person. If you can’t get front page Times booking, there is no work for you in life. It was all about opportunities and nothing else.”
Although the space excited her, there were times when Radhakrishnan would question her decision to enter the space, and that was when she started diverting her efforts to the right direction.
Being very intrigued by the newspapers, her boss TN Ravindran would ask her to go through all the newspapers, “check it out even if you can’t read the language, and see the tonality. There is the IRS but what efforts are you putting in and what value are you bringing to the table as a media person? You should be able to have a two-minute extra conversation with the client instead of saying this publication is so much and so on,” he taught her.
It was not a tough task as Divya calls herself a voracious media consumer. She being a Tamilian, there would be five newspapers in the morning every day at home and the kids were trained to read newspapers right from childhood.
She recalls precious moments where every morning she would have a one-hour conversation with her dad over coffee discussing the newspaper stories.
“I used to handle LIC and Tata Tea in Maharashtra and because of that I got to know all the places and newspapers. Even today, if you tell me Shrirampur, I will tell you Sarvamat is No 1 newspaper over there. It just fits into your memory because it was the early learning,” she exclaims proudly.
But then came an era where she would hear biggies like Ogilvy and Lintas pitching and making a creative presentation. Doing only what she was trained in, Radhakrishnan did simultaneously a diploma in management and passed the exam as an evening scholar so that she didn’t have to give up her job.
Being an Ogilvy school student and knowing the basics of media planning, Shripad Kulkarni did a workshop because he realised that a bunch of people are looking for opportunities. So he did a six months’ course at IMC Churchgate and the likes of Divya aspiring to get into planning would attend it every evening. Every week he would get one person from the media industry to judge their presentations.
“It was very hard because you are working during the day and you have to work on your presentations and go there in the evening. Kulkarni was a task master but an excellent person,” she says.
Pointing out to a rusty brown artefact on one of the shelves in her office, Radhakrishnan smiles, “I topped the course and that is the trophy I won. I didn’t go and look for another job but was certain that if I made a presentation, it would on a par with the industry.”
When Bharat Dabholkar quit DACunha’s to form Zen, Radhakrishnan moved with him.
Narrating an incident as a young planner, Divya says, “Prakash Chauhan in a meeting once asked who was doing the Bailey media plan. When I said I was doing it, he asked me if I knew how Bailey was manufactured. When I answered in the negative, he asked me to meet him at 7 am at Sion railway station the following day. He came there in his red Mercedes and took me to the plant in Patalganga where I went through the entire manufacturing process. After it was over, he said, ‘Now you are qualified to make my media plan’.”
“That was the level of involvement so you knew more about the brand than making a random media plan,” she adds.
Then the satellite boom happened in 1991, which keenly interested Divya. “When Zee launched, the first release order, and in fact if Subhash Chandra has actually kept record, would have my signature on it.”
The first spot was of Good Knight, the second spot was of Frooti. Radhakrishnan convinced both these clients that they should come onto Zee. At that time, they did not know how to do the plan as it was the first Hindi general entertainment channel.
“There was a programme on Zee that used to run songs and we ran ads on that because we didn’t know what soaps were until ‘Tara’ and all happened. After that suddenly client servicing people wanted media presentations. Then gradually one started getting into the forefront, slides were made for media also, and we were also given 10 minutes to present,” she recalls.
An incident according to her that marked the arrival of media was when her client Adi Godrej was in a meeting regarding the launch of ‘Hit’ in Andhra Pradesh. At the meeting, there was a huge table where the creative people had put up lots of stuff like mock-ups and layouts. Godrej walked in, asked questions on sales, and then asked if there was anyone from media present. He said he first wanted to hear her as she would tell what should be done and then look at the creatives.
“Then every presentation was a journey and then at one point it was all about international agencies, and their development in India. When I started thinking if I should join an MNC agency, Zen got sold to Publicis. So things just happened around me that I didn’t have to change jobs,” she states.
A lot of the Optimedia clients like HT and Nestle were based in Delhi, and Radhakrishnan would keep shuffling between Delhi and Mumbai. After much struggle, she went to Dabholkar saying that she is going to look out for a job.
She then joined Rediffusion as the head of Tata AOR. After two years, the Tata AOR itself got dismantled, and she moved on to handle other brands at TME. Anupriya Acharya then took over as head of the media brand TME and said she would be splitting the agency into planning and buying.
“I thought of getting into buying because there wasn’t a face for buying. It was very back room, the same issue I had as a media planner. So I thought let’s try and see how we can bring buying into the forefront. Secondly, most of the sales heads back then were people who started business with me so my relations with them were strong and it just makes it easier,” Radhakrishnan explains.
One of the toughest clients she handled then was Colgate, and there were many new systems. When Acharya quit, she got to head the agency at TME with Mahesh Chauhan as boss, and together they created several initiatives.
TME grew with market expansion in untapped regions like Kolkata and Delhi. “We consolidated our presence in Kolkata with wins like Eveready and Lafarge and continued to hold the prestigious Colgate account in spite of it moving globally to MEC,” said Radhakrishnan.
Rediffusion had 7–8 verticals and, together, it would give 360-degree solutions to clients. Hence, they launched One Rediffusion headed by Wasim Basir, and developed tools and did inductions and programmes to pitch it together.
Chauhan then put the contact companies like PR, events also under Radhakrishnan. “He said I was contacting the consumer so this should be under me. There also we did a lot of innovations, for example I introduced the concept of running the coverage given to a brand through IRS and letting the client see the number of consumers we reached instead of just plain newspaper cuttings.”
At Rediffusion, she also created a terminology called OTX (Opportunity to Experience) from OTS (Opportunity to See) as there are so many different ways to communicate.
Not many know that Radhakrishnan voraciously consumes Hindi TV soaps. This helped her at TME as a client once asked questions about soaps. Everyone would then call Divya. Incidentally, it was the same passion owing to which TME had won the Colors account. In fact, the only time Divya doesn’t watch GECs is between 9 and 10 pm, when she watches Arnab Goswami.
However, Rediffusion also had its own issues with clients like Colgate and Airtel moving out. Soon Chauhan also quit which prompted Divya to move too. But her dilemma was that she didn’t want to go to another media agency.
She mentions, “From Day 1, I was never working for money, otherwise I would have quit jobs every two years and made a profile for myself. It was all about the intellectual satisfaction.”
After quitting, she spent her free time chatting with her friends from the industry from where she got an idea to start a specialty sales network.
The idea further fuelled when her brother Yogesh Radhakrishnan was gearing to launch MTunes. But Divya had never worked with him in the past consciously.
The sister in her was generally helping Yogesh, and one day asked him about sales. “He said I don’t know whether I should outsource so I asked can I do it for you? He said OK, adding he would not give it to me because I was not a sales person. He said put a face in front of me and then you can go ahead.”
With the brother-sister duo completing 25 years in the industry, there are still many in the industry who don’t know about their relation.
“I remember some conversations where a friend called and said she was trying to reach a gentleman with the same surname as mine. I asked the name and she said Yogesh Radhakrishnan. I said he is my brother and she was shocked.”
Although she took the first step, the road ahead was tough as she did not have experience in sales. Divya then met a lot of people pitching her concept by saying that “I want my people to go out and talk in the market like the way I would want to hear a sales guy. I don’t want them to talk about GRPs, and rather talk about the platform.”
This was another lesson that she had learnt in her media planning days as this was exactly how the print guys used to sell. Anand Bazaar Patrika would come and talk about Pujo. They would show videos and tell how in Kolkata it’s all about Pujo. They used to educate. Meanwhile, Thanthi would talk about Tamil Nadu and Pongal, and how Diwali means nothing there. Similarly, Bhaskar would talk about Rajasthan.
“This is the story I sold to people and a lot of them bought it. The first training I impart to my team is media planning. I do workshops and make sure people understand buying and planning.”
Incidentally, the first person to come on board was the person with whom Radhakrishnan had one of the biggest fights when she was a media planner. This was Bala Iyengar, business head of Zoom.
Adding to the story, Iyengar states, “I was the first person to join Helios and thought Divya had a very interesting concept. I have known her since she was in Zen and I was in Times of India. We had a lot of conversations then.”
He perceived Divya as an intelligent person who was quick to grasp things and was a quick decision maker. Calling her a trend spotter, he recalls the work they created together when he was with MTV. “She was handling Parle and instead of just ad spots, we created lots of humorous short films which got a good response from the client and the channel.”
Iyengar agreed in the first meeting itself and then they worked together on the concept. All this was going on around June-September, and because he believes a lot in numerology, he convinced Divya to launch on 1 November as 1 is a powerful number and it would be 1/11. So, when Helios launched, the date was 1/11/11.
“When I started Helios, every single thing that I possessed materialistically I put into the company. So, if this didn’t work god forbid, I would be on the streets. Of course, I would have had to start my savings from scratch, but I would have found a job,” she mentions.
She remembers her nervousness when she had to quit her job and had to purposely go around asking people if she should quit or not.
“I told my mom about quitting my job and she was OK with it. When I told my dad about it, he told me don’t worry about your food I will take care of it, but rest you see. He told me to take care of my extra-curricular spending, and since I was not into travelling and parties, it was fair enough. I had some basic saving to take care of my petrol. My only luxury was having a driver since I can’t drive and my weekly Bollywood ticket was all that I could take care of.”
One thing that helped her happened in the first year: Divya stumbled upon a government scheme for women entrepreneurs through State Bank of India which gave an overdraft of Rs 1 crore without any collateral.
“When I went to the bank, I was trying to explain the Helios Media concept to them and it was a hilarious situation. They kept asking me as they couldn’t understand my venture. In the early days, I used to handle the international ad sales of Sun Network in the US and UK markets through a friend of mine who had their franchise. It wasn’t a direct appointment but the brand name helped and I told them. With these cuts and turns, I managed to pass through the interview and got them to the office, showed them the people, and finally got the approval,” she says with much relief.
“Then the whole Helios story came up. Friends helped a lot. A very good friend helped me with the logo. I told him I want to have something to do with the sun because I believe in the power of the universe centred around the sun more than any ritual or god. But I told him I want an international name and not something like Surya because I have a dream which is an inspiration from Ajit Balakrishnan, founder of Rediff, to get listed on Nasdaq. I said when we list in Nasdaq people should be able to say the name properly,” she narrates.
Helios started with MTunes and in the initial days, they didn’t sell because the channel hadn’t reached a critical mass and the management didn’t want them to monetise till then. MTunes being the 16th music channel, the team would brainstorm on how to position it in the market.
Radhakrishnan adds, “We kept asking the channel what’s different. They said they were also playing music back to back but the only thing was we were going to put it on HD. Then we created a whole model called Dare on how to position a channel where you define. I consulted Ormax researches, spoke to youth who knew all about technology and music. We took it all as a brief and created a proposition that said Bollywood music like ‘Never Seen Before’. Therefore, the first tagline was ‘MTunes Dekha Kya’.”
The combination of HD and music helped them get brands like Mircrosoft, Blackberry, and iPhone on board, which helped pick up a premium. The channel runs full on inventory even today. It’s a Rs 50 crore (Rs 500 million)brand purely on position play, Radhakrishnan claims.
In parallel came the FoodFood story. Helios was in conversation with them almost for a year and once on board, it created the packaging around lifestyle and sold the entire health platform on the channel to Marico. They came on board in the channel’s third year and brought in brands like L’oreal, Unilever, Marico, and more.
Later, they also signed up with Fashion TV, but it got into a licensing issue in India. Helios worked with them in terms of branding opportunities on a project basis. Helios now also handles the Epic channel, Bengali music channel FataFati, rural lifestyle channel Green TV and Spin TV, which is a specialty channel for the real estate sector.
For a short time in 2012, Radhakrishnan also tried her hand at production with Vinta Nanda, who used to produce ‘Tara’. Nanda was coming back into the scene so they jointly formed a company called Toucan.
“We did try a bit but the market has become very different, and the decision-makers at the channel’s end are no longer creative. They no longer understand creative pitches. They are more business oriented. That started becoming an issue and Vinta got into social work and we decided to part ways amicably and we are still good friends,” she remarks.
Being a hands-on person, Radhakrishnan herself designed the new swanky office in Andheri East. Perched on the seventh floor, it greets one with bright colours like yellow and orange all around.
“I had a friend who gave me the floor plan and I had an interior designer who did my house to help me with colour schemes but the whole concept was mine. I wanted yellow and orange, and I needed someone to understand my madness. My conference room is completely yellow because I learnt from experience that if it is black and white, people go to sleep,” she asserts.
Similarly, the desks have been placed as sunrays. In fact, Radhakrishnan had told the designer that she wanted no walls, but was countered with a statement that it would look like a fish tank. She eventually agreed to wood partitions.
As one looks around, one can’t help noticing the lawn with a water fountain that can be seen from a glass wall in Divya’s office.
“I wanted to put a logo in the lawn and thought of putting a water body as that is the whole balance of universe. The designer also gave me a bar in one corner, and somebody gifted me a Buddha so I put it there and called it the Buddha Bar. So every last Friday of the month, we have a small party on the lawn and bring in the birthdays of the month,” she says.
Radhakrishnan adds that the office is like a meditation centre for her. Bullying others to grab the corner office overlooking the lawn, she says that she is at her peaceful best there.
Helios manages a sales billing of close to Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion). Going ahead, Helios will get into production. Pointing out to a meeting going on in the bright yellow conference room where the team is huddled, the MD reveals that they are creating a set of 60 vignettes with Vikas Khanna for a food product that will run on digital media and on FoodFood.
They are also on the verge of launching a YouTube channel on food and have got the mandate of handling the entire magazine division of Times of India for food-related ads.
She reveals, “It’s become a much larger space where we are operating in. We are in the process of getting a lot of chefs to co-create stuff for us. These include the upcoming chefs and we have had discussions with the Masterchef contestants. We have also got a couple of food bloggers with us who help put trends together. My idea is to create multiple food domains. Another domain that is still not explored and is big in this country is fashion. So if there is something that can come up there and I have a media brand to back me on that, we will start working there as well.”
Having a team of 40 people across Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore, and Kolkata makes it easier as the client relationships are strong and for a new venture, Radhakrishnan just needs to make the two points meet.