When Anupriya Acharya joined advertising as a rookie at Ogilvy & Mather in 1994, the industry was undergoing massive churn. Media executives used to dealing with print for decades were grappling with the rise of television as a new medium. Advertisers were no longer willing to pay fat commissions and big advertising companies were simply breaking up.
It was a valuable learning experience for Acharya that’s probably coming in handy now: Today, she’s the head of the India division of French advertising giant Publicis Groupe at a time when the digital medium is again fundamentally changing the business. Acharya is undaunted by the change. The 48-year-old CEO of Publicis Media India, which has gross billings of over $1 billion, says digital offers a challenge and an opportunity which makes her job exciting. She feels the phenomenon of India becoming a mobile-first country and easy access to data will further tilt the scales in favour of the digital medium, in which Publicis enjoys an advantage. “My job is the most interesting thing I am doing today and I can’t think of doing anything else even if I had an option to choose,” she says.
It’s been a big year for Acharya. Last year, Publicis Media India was among the best-performing countries in the Asian region for the parent, posting strong revenue growth in four straight quarters. And in the past two years, the agency has added a string of high-profile new clients including Nestlé India, Mars Wrigley, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota, Airbnb, and Dabur India. That’s why Acharya, the only woman to lead one of the country’s top five advertising companies, debuts on Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women in business list this year. She joined Publicis Groupe in 2013 as the group CEO of ZenithOptimedia, the media buying arm of the parent company. In 2016, a global restructuring within the Paris headquartered €9.7 billion advertising and public relations company Publicis saw her rise to become the CEO of the entire India operation.
Acharya’s rise in the industry has been steady. After completing her postgraduate degree in chemistry, she got married before she took up a job. Four years after finishing college, she took on a trainee role in Ogilvy & Mather before moving to global ad agency network McCann (then McCann Erickson), where she became the head of the media buying group. After four years at McCann, Acharya moved quickly and changed jobs seven times over the next two decades. After her stint in McCann, she quickly stepped into management roles. She also moved easily across global firms such as Dentsu and GroupM, two top agencies, before she joined ZenithOptimedia in September 2013.
Acharya’s push for digital growth makes her an important change agent in the industry. Like its big rivals, GroupM/WPP group and IPG Mediabrands, Publicis buys inventory from media firms like newspapers and television channels and provides advertisers optimal strategies to reach their target audience. In India, increasingly, media companies are also building up capabilities for digital advertising, a new and growing revenue stream. Publicis is small, with a market share of 10% compared to GroupM (50%) and IPG Mediabrands (18%), but it is looking at growing into a big player.
About the time when Acharya first joined ZenithOptimedia, another Publicis arm, Performics, which specialised in digital and search-related advertising, acquired two companies in India. Among Acharya’s early jobs was to integrate the new buys—Resultrix and Convonix— and grow the business. Today, the digital arms contribute over 50% of the company’s revenues, making them the second biggest digital agency in the country, according to their own estimates. (There are no published sources of digital revenues of individual companies.) “Today digital is small just like when television advertising was in the late-1990s but digital is going to be the future as I see it,” says Acharya.
She should know. When Acharya joined advertising, she chose to be a media planner who analysed and suggested where advertisers should put their advertisements—in newspapers, magazines, and television slots. Since, in those days, there was only limited availability of data on readership and viewership, the media planning exercise was largely done around the time periodic surveys were released. In the print media, it happened annually with the National Readership Survey, and rating agency TAM’s reports were also not so frequent. Their roles increased when private television channels came in and the complexity to place advertisements in television grew but even that work became routine over time. To that extent, media planners and media buying companies were only considered a cog-in-the-wheel and most of the credit went to the creative heads and account planners in the agency. “Though media planners provided strategic planning inputs to advertisers, they never got their due,” says Acharya.
What may well be changing with digital, feel professionals like Bharat Gaddam, national digital head of DDB Mudra. Gaddam says since the digital universe is new to clients as much as agencies, they want media companies to pro- pose solutions rather than execute a strategy. So, in many ways, media planning companies are finally able to realise their true role of being the most important link between advertisers and the media. “Somewhere, media planners and their firms got to be known as media buying firms but with the growing importance of the digital medium, digital planners will play the most important role in any advertising strategy,” says Gaddam. In the next few years, Acharya expects digital revenues to jump as newer avenues of digital advertising open up. Today, Google and Facebook are the major destinations, accounting for 75-80% of digital advertising spends. It could be through search engine-related spends or banner advertisements or promotions leading to page views and engagement on homepages. But, slowly e-commerce sites such as Amazon and Flipkart, and travel sites like MakeMyTrip are seeing a lot of Internet visitors—making them a destination for advertisements. “India is going to see strong consumer consumption growth in the next decade which only ensures strong prospects for our business,” says Acharya. But it won’t be easy. Unlike elsewhere in the world, the Indian market is unique in many ways. In the West and most other economies, print advertising saw a terminal decline, while the shift to digital revenue streams for subscription and advertising has been quicker. In India, the story is different.
According to consulting firm KPMG’s latest annual India Media and Entertainment report, the authors predict nearly 6% growth in print revenues as newspapers tap hitherto untapped readers. Similarly, only 64% of Indians are exposed to television and the government’s free satellite subscription makes it far more affordable than other available paid plans.
With 20% of viewership coming from news channels, the potential for television has also not waned in the country. Says Girish Menon, KPMG’s partner and head of the media and entertainment practice: “No one can write off print and television yet in India.”
On the other hand, digital advertising is expected to grow at over 30% over the next five years, with revenues touching ₹43,490 crore by 2023, according to KPMG estimates. When that happens, digital advertising spends will be half those of television and a shade over overall print advertising in five years. So, despite digital’s quick growth, Acharya will have to continue to invest in traditional media outlets.
Last year, Publicis Media India was among the units in the Asian region that did very well for the parent
This may well be her company’s Achilles heel in India. Also, the competition is tough: Its near-est competitor, GroupM, is four times its size. Unlike other media firms, GroupM has built a large business with medium-sized companies which it expects to be future giants. For that, GroupM invested in and created several smaller agencies within it to target clients like Havells and Kalyan Jewellers, which are now large ad-vertisers for the company. Acharya’s biggest task would be to invest her available capital among the surfeit of opportunities: She not only has to invest to grow the business in the digital space but also in print and television and out-of-home advertising. She would also have to convince her bosses to give her a free hand to do that. Says Acharya: “Investment in business is dictated by what a client in a country wants and how we adapt our expertise to that.”
Acharya and her digital team have to keep learning quickly enough to surprise their customers as advertisers become more digitally savvy by the day. Just like in the past, when FMCG companies did their own market research to find out consumer behaviour, companies like Hindustan Unilever run several mobile phone apps like Lakmé Salon and Humarashop which provide data on consumer choices to help them craft their digital strategies.
Having been brought up by a single mother who always prodded her daughters to be independent and build their own careers, Acharya is geared up for the challenges that lie ahead.
Looking back, Acharya made the right moves taking risky calls along the way to ensure that her skills stayed relevant in the fast-changing industry.
The story was originally published in the Oct-Dec special issue of the magazine.