The group chairman and CEO of FCB India looks back on how a surprising stint in television and early work on Pepsi helped him cultivate his leadership style
In November 2020, the World Researching and Research Corporation named FCB’s Rohit Ohri as India’s most inspirational leader in advertising. With a career spanning three decades and leadership roles in JWT and Dentsu India, the now group chairman and CEO of FCB India has garnered a wealth of experience over the years.
Here, he reflects on participating in a leadership training service organisation in his youth and what this and starring in a television series have taught him about heading up large organisations.
What was your first experience of leadership?
It was way back in school. Growing up, I was a very shy and very reticent kid. I was generally about average in class. I never even tried to be a leader and I was happy just following somebody else - until I joined this organisation in school which is called leadership training service. It gave opportunities to the kids to create projects in school, lead those projects and drive change in society.
We did a large exercise to clean up an area of Calcutta, which I was in charge of. It was interesting and sparked off this new interest in how I organise myself, how do I get people to follow me, how do I give instructions which are clear and that everybody can assimilate and work to a schedule - it was fun. With that, slowly I discovered that I had a voice, and people would listen to me.
How did you figure out what kind of leader you wanted to be – or what kind of leader you didn’t want to be?
In a creative profession the thing is that what you have to do is you have to establish an environment in which creativity can flourish. It's like the soil. How can you create soil, in which you can grow the best ideas? That soil is the culture of an organisation.
A lot of it comes from leadership, because fear is inversely proportionate to creativity; if you create an environment of fear, people don't want to be creative. They take the safe way out because they don't want to rock the boat, they don't want to take the fear of being punished or the fear of failure. So, the idea is that if you create a sense of empowerment, a sense of enabling people to be their best without any fear of punishment. I've seen in many organisations oftentimes leaders prefer to create a sense of fear and panic, and there's a sense of driving the people. I don't believe in that at all, actually it's not my style I'm on the other side absolutely of this. Often people say that's a weak style of leadership because you have to take a hard black and white stance, saying this is right and this is wrong. I don't believe in that.
I believe in grey, because I don't believe that in the creative business as a leader you can create a separation between black and white. The world in between, the grey, is the uncertainty, it's all about a little ambiguous ambivalent space. So, the idea is that you have to figure that way out and you have to go with the flow. If you try to push too hard and push too much into one direction you always land up in the obvious place with an obvious solution.
What experience or moment gave you your biggest lesson in leadership?
In many ways, I think my first piece in leadership was really on the Pepsi business where it was a very large business in JWT. It was the flagship account and everybody was waiting for the next Pepsi ad, it's a lot different than advertising now. In that phase, I think leading the team and building Pepsi to new heights and new strengths was one of the most exciting leadership challenges that that I've had in my life.
Pepsi was a young brand, so we used to always have very young writers and very young creative people. They used to call me Papa but I wasn't old! It was more the sentiment, than the actual word in itself. It was the difference as they felt that I'd always be there for them, in a way that I'd support them, and help them to do better work and fight for them.
Did you know you always wanted to take on a leadership role? If so how did you work towards it and if not, when did you start realising that you had it in you?
Over my career a lot of people have followed me who are really talented. Very good people want to work with me, and they've actually followed me to different organisations, so that's always been a motivation because they always have a choice. Swati Bhattacharya, our CCO
, I worked with for over 15 years in JWT. And then she came to Dentsu when I was chairman of Dentsu. And then when I moved to FCB she came to FCB as well, now she is one of the most influential creative people in India, and she is one who anyone would give their right arm to hire. Any agency would say she's the kind of creative leader we would like, but she chose to be with FCB because she wanted to continue to work with me; she felt there was a partnership that supported her creativity, and she was able to perform to her best ability.
That I think is fundamentally what I enable. To draw the best out of people and then as a result create the best product in the marketplace and then as a result, lead success in the agency. The thing is if you look at it the other way around focusing on profitability and revenue first, you lose sight of what drives that profitability and revenue. It's your people who actually drive that. If you motivate people, you have people who are fully engaged, talented and want to do the best for the organisation, that's the time you get the best results.
When it comes to 'leadership' as a skill, how much do you think is a natural part of personality, how much can be taught and learned?
Going back to my time at leadership training service, I did a lot of cultural activities and theatre was something that was a critical part of that. By coincidence, a day before the final show, the lead in the play fell ill and I was the understudy and got to play the part. I had never really acted before on stage and when I actually performed that night I remember everybody came to me and said, ‘my God where were you hiding all this time? Where did you get this from?’.
After that I went on to do a lot of theatre and I started my own theatre company when I left college. Then I did a television series which at that time when there was just one channel where everybody watched, so I had a series which ran for one and a half years. I played the lead in that, which was quite an amazing experience. I think it sparked off an ability to project my personality, which as a leader is one of the most important qualities. In many ways when you're on stage you're connecting with an audience, you're getting them to believe something that you're a character, and believe a story that you're telling them so you take them on a journey.
I think that was something that really helped me in my journey as a leader. I always like to put myself in the shoes of the person I'm speaking with and that was one of my biggest leadership styles is really to understand the person
What are the aspects of leadership that you find most personally challenging? And how do you work through them?
As a leader my biggest issues have always been, and I'm very conscious of it, that you have to take everybody with you. So, there are people who are really bright and there are people who are the workers. The fact is that intellectually I gravitate towards the intellectually stimulating people, the people I enjoy working with interacting with. An organisation like the agency that I run now, runs with a whole spectrum of talent and different people serve the client needs in different ways.
Everybody is not the spearhead, there is the rest of the spear as well. The idea is that you need to understand the whole spear and say this whole piece needs to work. You can't just throw the arrowhead at a target - you have to throw the whole spear. So that is very important to understand. What's the balance and how do you motivate a larger set of people, at times, who do different jobs? It’s important to recognise everybody in the jobs that they're doing and doing a great job. I get drawn into the spearhead, I need to consciously all the time pull back and say I need to look at it from a more holistic perspective and look at everybody in a way that you can balance it all.
Have you ever felt like you've failed while in charge? How did you address the issue and what did you learn from it?
Many, many times. We are in the business of advertising and you often times have an existing business going in for a pitch they lose or a pitch that you want to win. And one of the things that I always do is call everybody and say I don't care about the result, whichever way the result goes, you guys did a great job, and that's when I really feel we've done a fantastic job.
It's important for the leaders to make sure that the motivation stays high. People tend to be motivated after a particular pitch and that's why I like reaching out to people before the result so that they know as individuals they did their best. And being recognised by the agency leader as having done their best then that gives you a cushion.
In terms of leadership and openness, what’s your approach there? Do you think it’s important to be transparent as possible in the service of being authentic? Or is there a value in being careful and considered?
My leadership style has always been very open, very approachable, and I always believe that as a leader, you should always be there for your people. Everybody’s told me over the years that I've worked in different organisations, that they always see me as a safety net. There's never a price to pay for failure, there's always learning, and we move forward, as long as I know that people have genuinely tried to do the best. Maybe they failed or it was a misadventure because in a creative business we have to encourage people to take risks, and often these risks fail. It's never that if you don't take any risk, you'll never be able to create anything great. It is important to encourage and make people safe in taking risk. They know that they can take a risk and if they fail it's not the end of the world, we'll find another solution and we'll find another way to get through. We'll find something that perhaps is better than what we started off with.
In many ways, I think, the way I like to approach leadership is really about what an organisation’s objectives are. My overall leadership style is through motivation; I want to motivate people to do their best and when they do the best the organisation will do its best.
As you developed your leadership skills did you have a mentor, if so who were/are they and what have you learned? And on the flip side, do you mentor any aspiring leaders and how do you approach that relationship?
I've had a few mentors in my time, in my early years it was this gentleman called Ram Ray in Calcutta. He was in account management and he was an absolutely brilliant creative person and that was quite an inspiration for me. There was always the belief that there are suits and then there are creative people - and I never wanted to be ‘a suit’ because I was intrinsically always creative. Maybe I didn't write the lines or do the visuals, but I believe I have a good sense of understanding creative, and that's the reason why creative people really find me to be a great supporter and somebody who truly understands them.
Then later on one of the most inspirational people that I worked with was my client in Pepsi. She taught me a lot as well, these were the early days of Pepsi and she was the head of marketing and she actually had a wonderful style of working with the agency. I remember once she had only six people in marketing and I said, don't you think you need to expand your team and she said how many people do you have in the agency on the Pepsi business. I said we have about 40, so she said so we have 46 people in the team. That was enormously motivating and you truly understand what a client-agency partnership can be.
It's been a really challenging year - and that's an understatement. How do you cope with the responsibility of leading a team through such difficult waters?
During the lockdown a lot of our clients actually shut down their factories because of Covid-19. But in the advertising industry, our factories are open - we haven't shut our factories because our factories are in our heads. We're manufacturing ideas and that is something that we can do equally well from home. So, our factory is just instead of being in one place, dissipated and then we had many factories, all over multiple cities. While everybody checked on their manufacturing unit, our manufacturing unit kept going so we were able to service our clients, we were able to help them navigate through this tough crisis and that then became a great story to take forward saying that this is really about the people and that's why I'm saying I'm a people's leader.
Perhaps I think Covid has been the best thing for women in advertising, it could be the best thing for women at work. But especially looking at advertising, one of the things we always saw was women actually fell off the agency leadership track midway because when they became mums, they had to choose between work and family, because advertising is very time consuming and erratic. Interestingly, now we have, five or six new mums in the agency, and all of them are working from home. I think that's something that, quite honestly, we'd like to retain going forward.
This year has seen the industry confronted with its lack of action/progress on diversity and inclusion. As a leader how have you dealt with this?
We have female CCO. She was the first female CCO of a large multinational agency in India. That was a statement that we made. And in the Mumbai office in the one year, we have three females: the head of creative, head of business and the head of strategy and those three are from minority communities. One is a Sikh, one is a Christian and one is a Muslim.
We’ve talked about how important culture is to you - how have you managed to keep it alive with staff working remotely in 2020?
The culture of an organisation is not the walls of the organisation, it's not the office space, it's the people. So a lot of culture is created by the actions of the leaders in the organisation. The way they behave, the way they respond and people see that and understand what the culture of the organisation is. It's not something that you buy in a store and put on the walls of your office. It requires people to do you know act and believe in a particular way.
So, in a remote working environment, preserving culture is a really, really hard thing. The way I looked at it was, we had a fixed deposit of culture. So, when you build an organisation, over a period of time you build the culture, and that kind of becomes like a fixed deposit right so to at least for a large part of the organisation is drawing on a fixed deposit saying, this is the way we work this is the way, what we believe in and we were consistent with that, through the lockdown.