New Manager

Growing their own stars

Updated on: Dec 11, 2011






Ad agency Draftfcb+Ulka's flagship HR programme thrives in a ‘non-political meritocracy'.  

Fairfax Cone — the C in FCB — once famously said, “The inventory goes down the elevator every night.” The statement underlined that in the people-centric industry that is advertising, they are the only asset of an agency. At Draftfcb+Ulka, born in India as Ulka in 1961, Cone's statement still guides people management.

Savita Mathai, Senior Vice-President, HR, joined the agency in 1990 straight out of B-school (Narsee Monjee). She was one of five people hired on campus that year. After years in the client servicing function, she made the transition to HR in 2005. Until then, Shashi Sinha, an IIT (Kanpur) and IIM (Bangalore) pass out and now Executive Director and CEO of the group's media specialist Lodestar Universal, ran the HR function. He started off at Ulka in Account Planning and recently celebrated 25 years with the company.

Befitting then that the agency's flagship HR programme puts new recruits through the rigours of every function — including a month's sales stint with a corporate, preferably FMCG — before they are assigned a role. The HR programme that was launched without a name 22 years ago was soon christened Star One.

Rigour in recruitment

The group comprises creative agencies Draftfcb+Ulka and Interface, media specialist Lodestar Universal and consulting arm Cogito. At the end of 2010, the headcount across functions and units was around 700; the number today is 800. Of these, around 50 are in senior management. Notably, seven of them came through the Star One programme and the average experience of those in the top management at the agency is ‘15 to 18 years'.

The rare departure at the top is witnessed once in two to three years, claims Mathai. A variable pay component of up to 25 per cent at the senior levels is also in place.

Another 100 to 120 bring up the middle management, though Mathai is quick to point out that this is a ‘hugely fluctuating population'. At the middle management level and below, the attrition is 16 to 18 per cent, she claims. She would like to believe that it is lower than the industry average.

Every year, 30 recruits come in through Star One. The total intake is much higher than that. While most of the Star One recruits are from B-schools, there are also graduate trainees at the entry level, inducted with a shorter orientation of a week to 10 days. Besides, there are focused programmes such as Digicom, through which the agency hits campuses to build its pool of digital talent.

Even while the Star One recruits are expected to fare better, there is a conscious effort to ensure fair play and transparency in performance management across the board. They usually come with a specialisation or post-graduation, be it from B-schools, art schools or other creative talent.

“There's a certain rigour in the recruitment process and the training they are put through in the first two months. Once they are in the system, we look for patterns in performance (across the board). The idea is to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity,” explains Mathai.

M. G. Parameswaran, an IIT (Madras) and IIM (Calcutta) pass out, joined the agency in 1989 and is now Executive Director and CEO at Draftfcb+Ulka Mumbai. He notes that the Star One recruits form the ‘base' of the organisation with good reason. All three business groups at the Mumbai office are run by Star One recruits.

He adds, “We find them to be a cut above similar people (on experience) from outside. For 15 years after he launched the programme (with explicit support from Chairman Emeritus Anil Kapoor), Shashi (Sinha) personally conducted the final interview of every single management trainee hired. In the last eight years, every trainee's final interview has been with Savita (Mathai).”

A non-political meritocracy

Besides nurturing talent from within in line with Star One's ‘Grow your own' philosophy, the programme helps build a ‘people culture', says Parameswaran.

Mathai came back after a break for personal reasons — with flexi-hours — before she moved into the full-time HR role. Another agency veteran, Nitin Karkare, joined as a management trainee after B-school in 1986, but moved on soon after to another agency. He returned in 1993, and is today COO, Draftfcb+Ulka Mumbai.

“The people culture we have tried to create is wholesome, non-political and meritocracy-driven. What we strive to do is give everyone a fair chance to learn, grow and succeed,” says Parameswaran.

An organisation health survey, EmPOVer, has been conducted every two years since 2003. Work on the 2011 survey is just getting started. Some of the findings have helped fine-tune the HR practices and internal communication, explains Mathai.

“We found, for instance, that what we were doing in certain situations was different from what we were seen to be doing by employees. The findings helped modify our approach to areas such as training and development,” she says.

The multi-functional group environment during the incubation stage of Star One facilitates team work as recruits mature within the system. It's also served the agency well on other counts.

After many years at the agency, Imran Surve, who came in to the system with Mathai as a management trainee, moved on to a senior marketing role at the client end at Zodiac.

There are many others, Mathai points out, groomed in the work culture, also through Star One, who are now with client organisations or in network roles abroad. Among them is Star One recruit Soni Nichani, currently heading planning at DraftFCB Indonesia.

Advantage Star One, on campus

Admittedly, advertising is not an industry that can lure talent from the IIMs anymore. Parameswaran recalls that the agency did recruit from the IIMs — till about 10 years ago. “The kind of remuneration expected and what we can afford to pay don't match. But we're getting very good talent from the likes of Somaiya, Welingkar, NIMIMS, MICA and other institutes,” he adds.

Star One has become a benchmark at campuses, claims the HR head, for people interested in an advertising career. While going on campus is not unique, Star One has helped the agency because of its consistency. What has also helped is ongoing initiatives besides the flagship programme.

Comstrat, a live case study contest for communication strategy, has been running for 18 years. It saw participation from 30 to 35 institutes this year. Despite ongoing efforts to get on campus on Day One, it is a tough ask given that some B-schools offer Day One slots on the basis of the salary offered.

“We still manage to recruit from some of them (example KJ Somaiya and Welingkar) because we've built equity as a work place within advertising — people who want to come in to advertising wait for us to get on campus. The competition for talent is not with other agencies in our case — it is with industries that pay more at the start,” explains Mathai.

The current pay is in the region of Rs 4 lakh per annum for management trainees coming through Star One. Among the campuses visited for placements are PSG (Coimbatore), LIBA (Chennai), Symbiosis (SIMC, SIMS, Pune) and Fore (Delhi) — a national spread. Besides B-schools, the agency is also a sponsor for some art school initiatives to build its employee branding.

An attempt to create the equivalent of a Star One for mid-level employees didn't come through. A clutch of 10 management graduates with a few years' experience, who were keen to shift to advertising, were roped in sometime in 2008, recalls Mathai.

“Somehow it didn't work — either people left when there were other opportunities or when they realised this was not for them. One of the things that works for Star One is that it's a set of people wanting to start out afresh, interested in advertising, and willing to be oriented with a great deal of rigour. There is no baggage,” Mathai notes.

Does the top management at Draftfcb+Ulka miss their alma mater — the IIMs? Parameswaran notes that there are several staffers who are from the IIMs. It's just that the agency can't afford to get on campus anymore.

Satish Pai, an IIM (L) pass out, has moved to Cogito, the group's consulting practice, after stints in organisations such as Nielsen. Vidyadar Wabgaonkar, who heads the planning function, passed out of IIM (C).

“That's the job on hand — profiling advertising as a profession,” surmises Parameswaran.


Published on December 11, 2011

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