As Madhukar Kamath, Group CEO & MD, DDB Mudra Group prepares to hang up his boots, he talks about his four-decade long career and expectations from his two young successors, Vineet Gupta and Aditya Kanthy
By Neeta Nair
Within a few hours of the announcement of his retirement, I meet a visibly relieved and cheerful Madhukar Kamath in his Warli art-splashed cabin at the DDB Mudra office, sharing a laugh with his young successors, Vineet Gupta, Group CEO (Designate) and Aditya Kanthy, Group Managing Director (Designate). It marks the end of an era for a company that has a history of being led by only two individuals in the past 37 years— AG Krishnamurthy, better known as the architect of Mudra, and Kamath who has been the CEO and Managing Director since 2003.
For Kamath, who has spent 25 years with the company, out of which five years were after Mudra was acquired by the Omnicom Group, retirement surely means parting with his baby, but he has no qualms about it. “Do you see any anxiety on my face? I finished my innings. The next team should take over and they are here,” he says. The buzz about his retirement had been there since 2014, around the time of then COO Pratap Bose’s resignation, when Kamath had got a four-year extension. Then, DDB Mudra APAC head John Zeigler had apparently said he would not like Kamath to step down until he was at least 77 years old!
Kamath says, “At that point, I shook my head and said ‘No more, John’. So, he asked me if I could stay on till I am 65. For me, age is not an issue. But I want to set a goal and start working towards it, in this case my retirement. I started reporting to Chuck Brymer, CEO of DDB Mudra Worldwide, in 2015 and the first issue we discussed was my succession. I remember coming back and announcing to my entire senior management that I want 2016 to be the best year for DDB Mudra because 2017 will be the year of transition.”
THE CHANGE OF GUARD
So when the day of reckoning arrived, how did his team react? “I wish there was a stronger reaction,” Kamath says. “There was a lot of applause; but I don’t know if it was because they were happy about me not being around beyond December or because Vineet and Aditya were coming in.” Also, does Kamath have any regrets, especially on the creative front, considering that till date, DDB Mudra has not been able to better its 2011 tally of eight Cannes Lions? He is quick to reply: “Well, it bothers me to no end. We hate losing, and we hate not winning. We have scored very well on the people front, perception front, on new business pitches, performance, everywhere… but we have not had our successes at Cannes and DDB focuses only on the Cannes agenda. Five years has been too long a break and thus Sonal Dabral (Chairman and Chief Creative Officer) has initiated discussions for us to start it afresh now.”
Having said that, Kamath believes he couldn’t have chosen a more apt time for the change of guard, “2016 has been the best year ever in DDB Mudra’s history, in terms of productivity, topline growth, bottomline growth, growth across all the seven agencies, the turnaround stories within the companies, organic growth for clients, and the overall growth in the width of the product.” The company has grown by 20% over the past year and has won more than 60% of the 200 pitches it has participated in. It also launched Karma, an agency which offers solutions for start-ups and SMEs.
THE TWO NEW LEADERS
Kamath goes on to speak about the two men who will henceforth lead the company. Replying to the question ‘Did you pick them yourself?’ he laughs and says, “You will have to wait for my book to know that. Vineet and Aditya as a combination are outstanding; they bring complementary strengths to the table. I always believed in empowering youngsters, Aditya has just turned 37 and Vineet 38. I entered the business 41 years ago when they were not even born. About 80% of our 945 employees are in their 30s or under 30. Whenever we put them on projects, they deliver exceedingly well. Both Vineet and Aditya have climbed up the ladder, delivering on whatever they stepped into. They have a very strong entrepreneurial streak in them and are very client-focused. But I would hesitate to say that any one of them is like me. I have requested the two of them to do the job I was doing all these years. And we picked a combination of two because what the future holds is significantly more than what we have achieved till now.”
Talking about the job cut out for them, Vineet Gupta who has founded 22feet, a digital marketing firm which was later acquired by the DDB Mudra Group, says, “Five years ago, I never thought I would be here, but we had a great coach in Madhukar Kamath. But his are very big shoes to fill.” Elaborating on whether a digital push for the Group would be a part of his leadership strategy, he says, “DDB Mudra already has a strong digital background. All over the world, people are talking about putting digital at the heart of an agency. We would like to look at it slightly differently. For us, it’s not about force-feeding digital in everything we do, but about defining how this organization needs to behave in a world that is becoming digital.”
Meanwhile, Aditya Kanthy, the new Group MD who incidentally is as old as the Mudra Group and has spent a decade-and-a-half with the company, says, “I’d be lying if I say I am not nervous. Madhukar has run the agency for many years, and has been a source of great confidence to clients; and stability for a lot of people who invested their time and built their careers in the agency. That’s a big responsibility which we have to take up. Madhukar is an incredible leader, and in all honesty, he is one of the reasons why I invested this much time in the company. He has given young people like me a lot of opportunities ahead of our years. And that’s what keeps some of us going.”
KAMATH’S PARTING SHOT
Now that his journey with the DDB Mudra Group is coming to an end, is Kamath satisfied with the way things are at the agency he is leaving behind? “I keep telling myself what you did last year is not enough. My colleagues say I am tough to please. I am never happy. Yes, I am satisfied with some of the milestones that I have achieved. But am I going without any regrets? Certainly not, because I wish for everything… after all, I am human. But for now, I am waiting for the Test Match to begin… and I am confident that Aditya and Vineet are going to do a great job,” the veteran declares.