19 Jun 2017 17:23 IST

‘Young MBAs must read a book a week’

Ashish Bhasin, CEO South Asia, Dentsu Aegis Network, looks back on his MBA

When Ashish Bhasin , Chairman and CEO of South Asia, Dentsu Aegis Network took over the reins of the group, there were barely 45 employees in India. Today, after a spree of acquisitions, DAN has grown into a 23-company network with 3,400 people.

A historic moment was when it recently toppled Interpublic Group of Companies (IPG) from the Number 2 slot (it’s now only behind WPP) as the largest agency network in India.

The advertising and media veteran, Ashish is an out and out Bombay boy, who worked 20 years in Lintas and has nearly three decades of experience. He fondly looks back upon his MBA days.

Where did you get your basic degree from?

I did my schooling from Campion, and Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai. Then I went on to do BSc (Honours) in Zoology and Biochemistry from St Xavier’s, batch of 1986. After that, I decided to do my MBA in marketing from the Sydenham Institute of Management Studies.

That’s a strange twist — from biochemistry to marketing?

To be honest, in those days, we never planned our careers. I was a science student but MBA was a new trend, and a lot of my friends who were in commerce were applying for the course. I got through the entrance examination and decided to join Sydenham.

How has MBA helped you in your corporate life?

I got recruited by Lintas straight from campus, and joined as a management trainee in 1988. In those days, Unilever was Lintas’ biggest client and it so happened that a lot of Unilever executives would take guest lectures at Sydenham.

Among others, R Gopalakrishnan (the Unilever honcho who headed Brooke Bond Lipton India and went on to play a key role at Tata Sons) was also part of the guest faculty. So that was a great plus when working at Lintas.

What have been the key learnings from your MBA?

One of the things MBA does is that it widens your horizons. It helps you work in teams, as a lot of assignments are project-based. You get a thorough and fairly rigorous grounding in all the areas of business. You gain a lot through team interactions, doing projects, attending guest lectures — and we were lucky in this respect as Sydenham relied a lot on industry experts.

Although I was a day scholar, I was virtually living on the campus. Apart from academics, there were a lot of co-curricular activities, right from organising festivals to arranging symposiums with industry leaders. These were important, as students wanted to showcase their abilities during the placement season.

Are you in touch with all your batchmates?

Seventy per cent of our batch is connected over WhatsApp now. I am the founding chairman of SIMAA — the Sydenham Institute of Management Alumni Association. We started a tradition — that whichever batch celebrates its 10th anniversary, will meet at the institute. Recently, the library caught fire in an unfortunate incident, but the alumni got together and helped recreate a better library, which was very satisfying.

If you had to re-visit your MBA, what would you have liked to change?

There are some things that our educational system does not teach us — such as managing time and communication, particularly paper work.

The other thing is that while you are at B-school, you are imbued with a lot of idealism. After reading all these case studies, you have this vision that once you get out of college, you will be a turnaround specialist. But real life does not work that way — there is a lot of hardwork, a lot of rigour. So expectations have to be aligned with reality.

What have been the chief ingredients in your success?

I have a motto I have always stood by — ‘Devotion to duty determines your destiny’. Whatever you are doing at any point of time, you should be completely devoted to it. That level of devotion will determine your destiny.

What have been your best and worst moments?

Nothing can match the euphoria of getting a first job. So joining Lintas was a big high. It was also a historic moment, to beat an 80-year-old ranking when Dentsu Aegis crossed IPG to become the Number 2 agency group in India.

I think difficult moments come in business when you have to take hard decisions that are right for the company but tough on some people. Sometimes, you let go of people, you know the decision is right from the business perspective, but it is an awfully hard personal moment.

What would be your advice to young MBAs who are joining the corporate sector?

These are the best years of your life, so enjoy the process and cherish the friends you make, as they last through life. But MBA is a course where it is very easy to float — it is not difficult to pass. What you put in is what you gain, so be self-driven.

The other pointer I would like to give is to read a lot. I find that this generation doesn’t read as much as we used to. They are very knowledgeable about specifics and their domain areas, but are not aware about general stuff. A good manager has to have a wide repertoire, and a good idea of history, the world, literature, politics... So read a lot. Read anything and everything.

Are you happy with the way the MBA is structured / taught today?

It could do with more industry interaction. This will ensure that the course is well structured from a job prospect point of view. The education system has to keep pace with the changes at workplaces and workforce. So more interaction with practising managers is needed.

Have you been involved in guest lectures at any B-school?

At Lintas, when our then chairman Prem Mehta was setting up North Point Centre of Learning, I was intensely involved in designing the course. It was a post graduate programme on advertising and marketing communication — almost like a mini MBA.

We would teach subjects like sales management or rural marketing for 15 days and then send the students out on the field for 15 days. At Sydenham too, I have taken a few classes, though with less frequency recently, sharing industry perspective and setting expectations about jobs.

What would you advice young MBAs to read?

It does not matter what they read. But they should read a book a week. During their B-school years, they should aim to read at least a 100 books as it’s their last chance to get some serious reading done before they sign up for a job.