BE­ING PRAVEEN KENNETH

The story of the man who re­tired from agency life at 47.

The Brand Reporter - - FRONT PAGE - By Ash­wini Gan­gal

When this story went to press, Praveen Kenneth, 47, was com­pletely off the grid, in the hilly hin­ter­lands of Bhutan, on a three week-long, 300 km solo walk, with four mules and a lo­cal guide for com­pany. That’s Kenneth’s ver­sion of walk­ing into the sun­set af­ter wrap­ping things up on the busi­ness front.

About two weeks ago Kenneth an­nounced his re­tire­ment from L&K Saatchi & Saatchi af­ter he sold his share to the agency’s par­ent net­work Publi­cis Groupe for `380 crore (as re­ported in The Eco­nomic Times), in what he calls “one of the best deals pos­si­ble...” at some point dur­ing the course of this in­ter­view with me.

Ask him about his next move and he says, “I’ve fin­ished one part of my life. I’ll come back with a new blue­print.” In a 2014 in­ter­view with me, Kenneth vowed never to start another agency; “it’s an ex­haust­ing busi­ness” he had said back then.

Over sev­eral cups of tea and gig­gles – (all traces of the an­gry young man, who built L&K over the last 12 years, gone) – at his Mum­bai of­fice, I asked Kenneth about his life, the mile­stones that led up to this sale and the lessons he picked up along the way. “Many peo­ple have tried their best to ask me all this, but I’ve avoided this con­ver­sa­tion. I think it’s best for peo­ple to know me for what I do and less for who I am,” he says. That’s about to change, I cau­tion, be­fore launch­ing into the in­ter­view. Not many know that he loves ad­ven­ture sports like sky div­ing, trekking and raft­ing, by the way.

EARLY DAYS

Kenneth comes not from a busi­ness fam­ily, but from a fam­ily of ed­u­ca­tion­ists. “I was a pretty av­er­age, happy kid in school (St. Joseph’s, Ban­ga­lore). I was pretty smart, not very in­tel­li­gent. The most pow­er­ful thing I had was com­mon sense. In many ways, what I be­came in col­lege (Christ Col­lege, Ban­ga­lore, where he stud­ied Sci­ence) made me the per­son I am to­day. In col­lege, all my bud­dies were my se­niors. Be­cause I joined school a year ear­lier than nor­mal, was 15 and a half when I joined Class 11. All the older guys were big bul­lies – I had a choice be­tween mak­ing them my best friends and be­ing scared of them,” says Kenneth.

Around the age of 20, he worked at agen­cies like MAA Bozell and Ogilvy in Ban­ga­lore – “I had a very ‘ex­pen­sive’ girl­friend to man­age and the only place I could find a job was in advertising” – and sub­se­quently moved to Mu­dra. “When I was at Ogilvy I asked my­self – ‘Why can’t I be a CEO? Why should I wait till I’m 48?’

At 25, Sorab Mistry hired him at McCann Erick­son. Kenneth was an ac­count di­rec­tor look­ing af­ter South East and West Asia; he han­dled

“Make ‘first class’ mis­takes. Make epic mis­takes. Don’t make small mis­takes.”

the Coke busi­ness. “I was a young ac­count di­rec­tor work­ing with a bunch of 40-year-olds in the re­gion. Peo­ple said I wouldn’t be able to man­age. I al­ways took on jobs much larger than who I was. Look­ing back, I don’t think I did it con­sciously. It was just am­bi­tion,” says Kenneth. Speak­ing of which, the ques­tion he asked him­self about be­ing CEO is the voice of an am­bi­tious cor­po­rate climber. But the Kenneth I sit be­fore to­day is every bit the fer­vent en­tre­pre­neur. When did that switch take place in his mind?

YOUNGEST CEO TO EN­TRE­PRE­NEUR

“When I be­came CEO of Publi­cis In­dia at 29 (1999), I re­alised what was pos­si­ble. The av­er­age age was 52! I re­alised that if I ac­tu­ally put my fo­cus back on my­self I can build a mar­vel­lous or­gan­i­sa­tion. Also, I hated hav­ing bosses, I hated au­thor­ity. Another thing I re­alised when I be­came CEO was – till then it was all about Praveen Kenneth. It was all about me. I re­mem­ber meet­ing Mau­rice (Lévy, former CEO, Publi­cis Groupe) in Paris then; he said ‘Praveen you’re an amaz­ing ma­gi­cian’, but I wanted to build a bunch of ma­gi­cians...” he re­calls. At this point, when the con­ver­sa­tion moves to his psy­cho­log­i­cal tran­si­tion from ‘em­ployee’ to ‘en­tre­pre­neur’, Kenneth starts scrib­bling on the ta­ble in up­per case with a black marker to il­lus­trate his points. The scrib­bling con­tin­ues over the next hour.

“Chris­tian­ity was built by 12 dis­ci­ples,” Kenneth, a man of faith, who has a ded­i­cated cabin at the agency with burn­ing can­dles and re­li­gious books in­clud­ing the Bi­ble, Bhag­wad Gita, Qu­ran, among oth­ers, says, “You can change the world with just 12 dis­ci­ples. I was lucky to find four... many fol­lowed.” He is re­fer­ring to the early days of St. Luke’s, an agency that Bri­tish ad­man Andy Law launched in London in 1995 and that Kenneth brought to this part of the world in 2002. One of UK’s most recog­nised busi­ness thinkers and au­thors, Law be­gan his advertising ca­reer in 1978 and is best known for lead­ing the bold and well doc­u­mented buy-out of the London branch of an ad agency called Chiat/Day from its par­ent net­work Om­ni­com in 1995, and for the cre­ation of St. Luke’s - a firm that played a sig­nif­i­cant role in Kenneth’s pro­fes­sional jour­ney.

“Make ‘first class’ mis­takes. Make epic mis­takes. Don’t make small mis­takes. I have had epic screw-ups... I had a great job (CEO, Publi­cis In­dia), but it was my youth­ful ar­ro­gance that made me say ‘I’m go­ing to throw this all and do some­thing else...’ Peo­ple said, ‘That’s so stupid of this young kid’. Tech­ni­cally, it was the stu­pid­est thing to do. I quit and then strug­gled for the next six months won­der­ing what to do next,” Kenneth says about his post-Publi­cis days.

So, af­ter work­ing as CEO of the agency for about three years, Kenneth quit Publi­cis in Jan­uary 2002 and spent the next six months look­ing to start a new com­pany. But in­stead of start­ing his own agency the con­ven­tional way, Kenneth, then 32 years old, ac­tively sought a part­ner­ship with an in­ter­na­tional cre­ative hot­shop that didn’t have pres­ence in In­dia at the time. The trend back then was for global net­works to en­ter our mar­ket by buy­ing an ex­ist­ing agency, but a job­less Kenneth went pitch­ing for a part­ner­ship with a West­ern firm, solo.

“I ap­proached ev­ery­body from BBH, Wieden+Kennedy, St. Luke’s... I ap­proached them all. Only St. Luke’s came for­ward. I put my hand out and the only one who came for­ward and shook it was Andy Law,” says Kenneth. St. Luke’s and Kenneth had a 50:50 part­ner­ship. The task was to bring the agency brand to the Asia Pa­cific re­gion, with Mum­bai as the hub. De­scribed by Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view (Sept-Oct 2000 is­sue) as “the most fright­en­ing com­pany on earth”, St. Luke’s was fa­mous for its un­con­ven­tional work environment (the agency in­tro­duced the then alien con­cept of ‘hot­de­sk­ing’) and rad­i­cal busi­ness model (all the em­ploy­ees owned the en­tire firm). Un­for­tu­nately, a year or so down the line things be­tween Law and the man­age­ment of St. Luke’s got bit­ter and he was forced to leave. How­ever, the In­dia of­fice of St. Luke’s, that Kenneth was in charge of, was in­tact.

LAW & KENNETH: THE GE­N­E­SIS

How did Andy and Praveen, en­trepreneurs from dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents, turn their re­spec­tive last names into a global agency brand? The agency was born when Kenneth took over St. Luke’s by ac­quir­ing the com­pany’s share in APAC (the ‘other’ 50 per cent) and sub­se­quently launch­ing it as a new agency, Law & Kenneth, in 2005. But that’s the busi­ness bit. There’s an anec­dote to go with it. Oh, of course it in­volves a bar, two drunk ad­men and an epiphany, duh!

“Andy and I were sit­ting in a bar in London... we were com­pletely smashed. We said, ‘Let’s bring in an ‘East meets West’ global agency. Our best buddy in those days was Anita Rod­dick (founder of The Body Shop, an ac­count at St. Luke’s and Chiat/Day be­fore that), who, by then, had been a friend of mine for two years.” The late Rod­dick sold her com­pany to L’Oréal in 2006. “In our drunk­en­ness,” Kenneth nar­rates, “we called Anita and asked her for funds. She said, ‘No prob­lem boys, you’re drunk now, come over for break­fast at 8 o’ clock to­mor­row’.”

Morn­ing ar­rived, and all Rod­dick said to the now sober duo ask­ing her for money over cof­fee was: ‘I’ll only give you money if you put your names on the board.’ She wanted them to take full re­spon­si­bil­ity for the com­pany. That’s how Law & Kenneth was con­cep­tu­alised. The agency was launched in 2005 with of­fices across London, Mum­bai, Dubai, Stock­holm, Syd­ney and Paris. The In­dian part of the com­pany was Kenneth’s eq­uity. The bulk of the agency’s busi­ness came from the In­dia mar­ket; it was here that most of the key ac­counts were won and ser­viced. Rod­dick’s in­flu­ence brought in ad­vi­sory sup­port from Bill Dal­ton (former CEO, HSBC World­wide), Theodore Zeldin (pro­fes­sor) and Dave Ste­wart (mu­si­cian).

L&K Saatchi & Saatchi, from the be­gin­ning, had the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing ‘en­trepreneuri­ally run’. Presently, the agency’s clien­tele in­cludes names like Re­nault, Hero

L&K Saatchi & Saatchi, from the start, had the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing ‘en­trepreneuri­ally run’.

Mo­toCorp, Dabur, Kent, Mon­delez, Thomas Cook, Jockey, Pepperfry, Go­drej, ITC and P&G (Head & Shoul­ders, Olay, Pam­pers), among oth­ers. The agency’s gross an­nual billing is es­ti­mated to be around `400-450 crore.

Re­call­ing the scale the agency man­aged to reach soon af­ter it was launched, Kenneth says, “Within 12 months of its launch, Law & Kenneth made a bid to ac­quire a medium sized global net­work, which still has pres­ence in In­dia. We raised (lever­aged) the money – more than 300 mil­lion dol­lars – but couldn’t ser­vice the debt. That’s how au­da­cious we were. Peo­ple see be­ing au­da­cious as be­ing cocky and ar­ro­gant, but it’s not the same thing. The day I stop be­ing au­da­cious, I will die.”

LIFE LESSONS

Kenneth is more than just au­da­cious. He plans well ahead of time. “When I be­gan (L&K) I was very clear that one day I will sell. And I was also clear about how much money I wanted to make from the sale,” he says, adding, “I got much more than I thought I’d get.” In fact, six months af­ter set­ting up the agency, Kenneth went to meet Mau­rice Lévy to of­fer eq­uity and make him a part­ner. Lévy, how­ever, said it was too early and that Kenneth had bet­ter make it a vi­able busi­ness first.

About a decade down the line, in 2014, Publi­cis Groupe ac­quired 51 per cent of Law & Kenneth and in­te­grated it with Saatchi & Saatchi In­dia. At the time, Kenneth al­luded to walk­ing out of the sys­tem af­ter 1,000 days. And he stuck to it; about a fort­night back he sold his share in the agency to Publi­cis Groupe.

Presently, Saatchi & Saatchi has about 8,000 em­ploy­ees across 107 of­fices in 72 coun­tries. In In­dia, the agency has three of­fices and 392 em­ploy­ees.

Our chat was pep­pered with sev­eral lessons. Here’s a sum­mary of Kenneth’s ad­vice to young­sters: “Ask your­self – ‘Is it pos­si­ble to be who you want to be in life?’ It is. I was very clear I didn’t want to be de­nied in this life. The world doesn’t doubt and limit you. Peo­ple doubt and limit them­selves. You are your own en­emy. Be­come your own best friend, be bloody am­bi­tious, work ex­tremely hard... and your life will change.”

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