Henri Matisse once said, “Creative people are curious, flexible, and independent with a tremendous spirit and a love of play.” These words perfectly describe Sita, a lateral thinking advertising and marketing professional whose sparkling career is dotted with success stories and association with some big names in the media industry including JWT, Zee Entertainment and Bindaas. Woman At Work talks to Sita Narayanswamy about her creative pursuits, her never-say-die spirit and her love (read: obsession) for books.
Tell us about your growing years and your education.
At school, I was a studious child with an immense love for reading. You would always find me with my head in a book and till date my passion for reading continues. While most would casually remark that they love books, I, on the other hand, consider them my best friends. Today, I have a home that is filled from shelf to shelf with books.
After completing my schooling, I did my BA from the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics in Pune. The experience at Gokhale institute taught me a lot. While most of my friends were out partying during the graduation years, I was put through a grinder. However, it was those years in the Gokhale institute and later at Jamnalal Bajaj that shaped my life and career. I then went on to pursue my MBA in Marketing from the prestigious Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies in Mumbai. Till date, I remain connected with my institute as a guest faculty and speaker.
In 2001, I got a scholarship and completed my Fellowship in Leadership & Globalization from London School of Economics. I was recognized by the London School of Economics & the British High Commission, as one of the 10 best-emerging professionals in India in the year 2001
A career dotted with so many success stories. Tell us about the journey.
After completing my MBA in Marketing, I joined JWT India in 1988 and went on to work there for twenty years. There I successfully handled many prestigious clients including Pepsi, Nestle, Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd, Cotton Gold Alliance, Pond’s Dreamflower range (Talcum Powder, Body Lotion, Soap), Denim Men’s Toiletries range, Close Up, Ceat Tyres, etc. During this time, I also delivered award-winning campaigns which achieved results across diverse accounts.
In 2003, after completion of my course from the London School of Economics, I was placed in a bigger role and was made Director in Charge, for the Unilever brands – Lux & ‘Looks Great’ laundry in the Asia Pacific region and was responsible for teams across the Asia Pacific region on these brands, & garnered contribution from functions such as creative, media, direct marketing & PR. I was looking at key accounts across 16 countries with a focus on Central Asia, China, South East Asia including Thailand & Indonesia & North East Asia.
I then went on to work in several different industries notable among which were my roles as the Sr. Vice President, Head of Network Marketing at Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd, as the Marketing Head of Bindaas Channels, and as the Chief Marketing Officer at Kidzania Imagination & Entertainment.
What were some key learning experiences in your career
As the head of the regional business of Unilever, things were more than a bit hectic. I was living out of a suitcase at that time, from meetings in London to Paris and South East Asia. I would come to Mumbai literally to do only my laundry. However, this was also the most exciting time in my career and at that time it was quite a pioneering thing. Not many regional account heads were women. You needed to be highly competent so that people would not only listen to you but also respect you. Of course, with time I have learnt things.
For example, I learnt that the Thai culture is very different as compared to a Chinese culture which is again vastly different from the culture in Singapore. So generally, we club them together as South East Asia. However, the cultural codes were very different and understanding them was crucial to the success of the project. So when a Korean says “agree, agree”, they are possibly being polite and not really agreeing with you.
I also learnt to listen because as Indians we tend to talk more about ourselves and listen less. Also, I learnt how to conduct myself and read facial expressions and body language. This was, however, just one part of it. Since the top bosses were either Americans or British, it was my responsibility as a regional head to represent Asia as well. So you really had to learn to handle both ends with ease and panache. These experiences enriched by life and helped me really be broad minded. Sitting in India, you would never be able to see and experience such things. It helped me see the globe with new eyes.
Advertising is often referred to as a “Man’s World”. How difficult was it for you?
Yes, it’s a man’s world. However, in my career where I worked with people across nationalities, I did not face a single instance of discrimination. In fact, some of my very good bosses were men who supported me in my career. It is just about convincing the other person about your objectives.
And it’s not just about man versus women. When you step out, you realize that there are many other biases and discriminations globally that you have to deal with. As you go along, you start empathizing with people more and understanding this.
One achievement that is unforgettable…
The most pioneering thing for me is to bring Women’s day to India. The story behind it is that I was given a brief by the Pond’s client is to do one major event, which cannot be a beauty or fashion show. So we racked our brains and I decided that we need to go back to our history and pull something out from it. This was when one of my team members mentioned March 8 as the Suffragette movement. The idea clicked and we went to a client with the presentation about how we should rename the day as Women’s Day. Funnily enough, the idea was rejected initially but I persisted and finally, they accepted and it became a huge hit.
I won the Silver Pea for the conception & development of Pond’s Woman’s Day and The J. Walter Thompson international award for a brand that demonstrates having innovatively used media to further its cause with the consumer. I also won the Subhas Ghosal ‘Ad Works’ trophy for one of the best advertising case histories in the country.
What do you believe makes women good professionals?
Women, I believe, have an advantage. We are more perceptive, we have an understanding of the other person’s point of view and ego does not always come in between. These innate skills as a woman can be of an immense help in the professional space.
Unfortunately, most women, as Sheryl Sandberg says, still tend to sit around the fringes rather than joining in at the “big table”. When I was a junior account executive, handling the HPCL account, one of my male bosses told me, always sit next to or address the guy in the meeting who matters. This is because in many situations the private chats where he can voice his reservations and you can lay to rest his doubts can help you win key accounts. This helped me immensely in my dealing with clients.
Women need to be there, sit in front and raise their voices if they have to be heard. They do not necessarily need to be pleasant. They need to be professional. In their bid to be gracious, they lose out on things. Most women that I have met in my career have been hesitant to express their opinions when there is a male boss. As opposed to this, when a male boss finds a woman who has the conviction to voice her thoughts, he is more willing to cherish that. Obviously, the reasoning has to be there.
Also, I believe that more women need to mentor. I have always made a point to reach out and help women whether they are working or have taken a break and plan to resume working. This is because there are certain things that women in higher management and mid-management would know more than a junior and it is something that cannot be taught in books.
Working women should also leave their sensitivities behind when they go to work. Writing off people who are abrasive and sharp or who do not cushion their words is a common pitfall that they need to avoid.