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From computer engineering to media specialist: The journey of Karthik Lakshminarayan
MUMBAI: There is a popular adage, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. Madison Media COO Karthik Lakshminarayan had started his career with this proverbial phrase. He evolved from being a software engineer to helping Madison and India win its first ever Digital Cannes award as early as 2006 when the rest of the country was still figuring how to come to terms with digital in India. The other feathers in his cap include leading teams to success and launching some of the most iconic TV channels like Colors and FoodFood, as well as becoming the current COO of Madison Media Ultra.
TVP brings to you the journey of this ‘accidental media man’.
A software engineer with an MBA in marketing, Karthik was picked up from campus by Dalal Street Journal and had visions of writing Artificial Intelligence-based software for predicting the stock market trends. Excited at the prospect of being closely associated with the stock market and given a software background, he was quick to grab it like any young enthusiast. However, here came ‘the lemons’.
By the time the campus interview took place and he joined, there being a six months’ lag, the stock market had gone into its own tailspin and crashed in the great depression of 1996.
“On our first day, we were actually told that there was no software to write, but there was a magazine called ‘Dalal Street Journal’ for which we had to sell ad space and generate revenue,” he says.
While he had another job offer in his pocket from a software firm, Karthik commenced his career as a space-selling executive. With limited knowledge of space selling and no connections whatsoever, he took it up as an opportunity and made what he calls ‘lemonade’.
After a brief stint of four months in space selling and having understood the ropes, Karthik got an offer from Strategem Media, where he joined as media executive.
“The media industry at that time was at a nascent stage and readily customised software was a rarity, so I started writing small pieces of software to perform basic daily calculations. The data would come in books (manual form) and computations like Reach, GRPs, incremental reach and duplications were done manually. I used to write software to automate some of these processes and to generate customised reports at the push of a button,” he says.
“My friend was with Chaitra Leo Burnett and asked me to join them as the media department was being revamped and starting afresh.”
After joining, he heard that Praveen Tripathy was also to join the agency, and this further bolstered him to stay on the task of media.
Despite having changed his field after having invested so much time and energy in it, Karthik found huge support from family. In fact, on his very first day at work in Chaitra Leo Burnett, he was given the opportunity to work on a media plan for P&G. He returned home that night at 2 am and thus began a long and arduous journey of media planning and buying in the scientific way.
Eventually at Chaitra Leo Burnett, Karthik handled media planning for all clients starting from P&G to Balsara Hygiene Products, Fiat, Heinz, Pennzoil, Pillsbury, Corn Products and more. He also went on to start the buying unit for the agency under his erstwhile boss Ravi Kiran. Together they designed and developed the entire media buying and implementation software for the agency including hiring a software firm and supervising their progress.
“I spent a good four years there and learnt a lot. In fact, we won the P&G AoR for media planning at the end of four years, following which Sam [Balsara] and Punitha [Arumugam] took recognition of me and called me over to Madison. In the summer of 2000, I joined Madison and that was when the journey really started fructifying. I became a media man merely by developing the chances that came my way and not by design,” he states.
Since his exposure to media planning was limited initially, Karthik faced several challenges. One such period was when he wanted to better understand how duplication between media worked and how it was accounted for.
“Getting to understand all of this took a while as answers were not readily available and then having tried to understand them, one had to write software for it, as that was really what I wanted to do back then. It was thus critical to get the basics and fundamentals right.
“We never had anybody who could teach us because most of the people in those days were also not clear on how these things worked. However, I was lucky to have people like Sundeep and Praveen who were so knowledgeable. They would actually write it down on a piece of paper, explain it with great ease. It was almost like back to school when I worked with them and they just made it so simple,” he says
It was the learning from his initial days that he took with him to Madison.
“Now we ensure that when someone joins the agency, s/he doesn’t have to go through a similar kind of struggle to learn things the way we did. We try to automate a lot of stuff so that people’s workload comes down. We have put in place work–life balance norms. We have a rule that no one works after 8 pm or on Saturday–Sunday unless it is absolutely critical,” Karthik says.
There are dedicated teams for brands so that people can concentrate on one particular brand and company and grow with that company.
Karthik explains, “People have told us that we need to change but I think we all believe in the philosophy and subscribe to it. Very often, youngsters after 2–3 years get bored or grow complacent, and want something new. It’s how you actually explain to them why this is beneficial, that we have managed to retain most of our employees.”
At Madison, Karthik spent three and a half years on the Godrej AoR and then another five years on Cadbury. He also handled other brands like Marico, Asian Paints, McDonalds, Bharti AXA and more.
It was his work on Cadbury that helped India earn its first victory in Digital Media at the Cannes festival of creativity.
Narrating that story, Karthik says Cadbury, along with the creative agency O&M, had come up with the ‘Pappu Pass Ho Gaya’. It was a big innovation that Madison did on digital and mobile, which in 2006 garnered an award for innovation on mobile at Cannes.
“We were contacted by a telecom company who had around 26 different exam results being declared on their WAP platform. They wanted us to give them gift hampers for the toppers of each of those exam categories like MBBS, HSC, SSC, IAS, etc. This got us interested,” he recalls.
That was when the brain wave hit him and Karthik thought of placing a small banner on the screen at the ‘moment of truth’. If a candidate had passed, the banner would flash ‘Pappu Pass Ho Gaya’ and show them the results.
“Hitting a consumer with a brand and an apt advertisement worked very well. The simple banner reached out to almost 30 million people and the ROI was worth several times over. It was beyond imagination in those days and it just shook things up,” he states.
After that, Karthik felt he should try his hand at something different and contribute to media in a bigger way. Eventually, he was approached by Rajesh Kamat to be a part of the launch team of Viacom18’s new Hindi GEC Colors as head of business planning and strategy.
“I met Rajesh Kamat who said, ‘You are in a very cushy job at this point of time. You have spent eight years at Madison, you are doing well, and I don’t think you would want to join a start-up and take up this challenge’. I remember telling him that I was waiting for a challenge. So he threw this challenge of Colors to me and made my role an all-encompassing one. He also added that I could be without a job in a few months if the channel didn’t take off. I said, ‘Let’s try and see where we end up.'” (Yet another lemonade moment.)
The results are there for all to see today. Colors had a successful launch and became the No. 1 channel in six months, and remained there for two years.
“I had no experience in running a channel. But this is where you use your common sense and experience. What we did was get the basics right. We ensured that everything that we do would be something that could be taken forward over time. There were Viacom and TV18, so there was enough learning with regard to how a TV channel should work, what was right and what was not,” he states.
However, the journey wasn’t all that easy. Nothing was in order. So everything had to be done from scratch—right from getting the broadcast licence to hiring the right people to setting up telecast operations and more.
“The fun and thrill of a start-up is that you get the experience of doing everything as an entrepreneur without the risk associated with it. We worked so diligently that everything was properly done and documented as if we were running forever. Audit reports of the first year was testimony to this,” he said.
Remembering his first day, Karthik says that he reached office at 10 am and had a meeting with Kamat in the conference room. There Kamat asked him to write down on the board the media strategy for Colors.
“So on my first day, first hour, I was writing the media strategy for Colors. I told him that I wasn’t there to write their media strategy. But he felt I had enough media experience, so I should write it down. I spent the first half of that day just designing the media strategy. We agreed on it and it was sealed there. The channel launched almost around 4–5 months from that day but that media strategy held.”
Working on the channel was one crazy ride for Karthik. He remembers the time they decided to launch Colors in Bangkok. They had just one week and three people to work out details of flying out 80 journalists, arranging their stay, transport and the press conference.
Akshay Kumar was the brand endorser for the lead show on Colors, ‘Khatron Ke Khiladi’. He was in Bangkok and would be unable to make it for the launch in Mumbai, thus leaving the team in a lurch.
Karthik explains, “We thought if he couldn’t come here, we should take everyone there. So we actually flew about 80 media journalists to Bangkok, organised a press conference there, put them up, and brought them back. Collecting passports from people, organising tickets, hotels, etc. were handled by a team of three people. It was crazy but we laughed at the end of it and we joke about it even today.”
Two years after the launch of the channel, Karthik left Colors.
The next year was one of the most challenging for Karthik since he started his upward trend. He joined Sahara for a brief three-month stint. He was handling marketing of the channel for the US and UK and was looking after a number of other things within India.
He then went on to join FremantleMedia India for another brief stint of six months, which gave him a good exposure to the functioning of a production company.
Getting to know how to make a successful TV show and why a production company insists on certain things was a revelation for him and that experience stands him in good stead even today.
“When I joined, they had already decided what they were going to do. Thus, if I had a point of view, I had to convince them and undo everything that they had done, in order to redo it,” he says with a smile.
It was a crazy affair again, a place where there was no office. They had rented a room, and nobody had a fixed table and chair. Everyone would sit in one large room with lots of tables, and everyone would shout and work. There was no structure or cabins, except for a few meeting rooms.
One of the things that Karthik did was rope in Madhuri Dixit as the channel’s celebrity ambassador.
“Sanjeev Kapoor was the food part of the channel, but since it was a food and lifestyle channel, we needed someone for that part as well. At that time, Madhuri had come down from the US after starting her family and she was the perfect match for us. The channel kicked off well, and in the first week itself, we hit 12 GRPs, while our closest competitor was at 2 GRPs. Considering our small budgets, it was a great thing,” he states.
After a year at the channel, Karthik got a call from one of the people he respects the most in the industry, Punitha Arumugam, who asked him to come back to Madison.
“That was when I realised I had learned enough and that it was time I returned home,” Karthik says.
On coming back to Madison, he initially handled the ITC business for a year and shuttled between Kolkata and Bangalore every Monday to Friday, flying in and out and coming back to Mumbai for the weekends.
After a year, he took up the Godrej AoR, which he is presently handling, and subsequently also the Asian Paints business.
“Now I don’t know how to write software,” Karthik quips.
Karthik reveals that one thing he is proud of today is that most of his clients and colleagues are still his good friends and well-wishers.
Karthik is now settled in Mumbai and has ample time to pursue his hobby, which is playing badminton for at least an hour every day. He also walks nearly 50 km per week. He lives with his wife and daughter.
A day in the life of Karthik Lakshminarayan is well structured. It starts at 5 am and so does his work. From that moment until he retires for the night, he is constantly thinking of how he can improve the media product of Madison for the clients and the lives of the people he touches every day.