Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Media Mavens: More accountability expected from business partners today, says EssenceMediacom's Sonali Malaviya

Sonali Malaviya, chief strategy and transformation officer, EssenceMediacom, talks on gender gap and the changing media agency business

Published: Feb 13, 2023 05:31:06 PM IST
Updated: Feb 14, 2023 10:22:04 AM IST

Media Mavens: More accountability expected from business partners today, says EssenceMediacom's Sonali Malaviya"My style of leadership is extremely adaptive. I believe in situational leadership, adapt to the situation, to people, to teams and to the need of the hour." - Sonali Malaviya, chief strategy and transformation officer, EssenceMediacom

Note to readers: Media agencies have seen a 360-degree change when it comes to measurement metrics, strategies and services offered to the clients. What has also changed drastically is the gender gap. Thanks to the women leaders in the space who are showing the way for more and more media experts to aim for top leadership roles at these agencies. Storyboard18’s special series brings to you an exclusive behind-the-scenes view of the media agencies led by women.

The discourse on gender needs to become irrelevant, says Sonali Malaviya, chief strategy and transformation officer, EssenceMediacom. She explains, “We need to bring it to a common playing field with individual needs. The needs of a man and a woman may be different and that’s okay. We need to normalize that." In a conversation with Storyboard18, Malaviya talks about addressing the gender gap in the industry, work-life integration, the slowdown effect on businesses and marketing budget and more.

Edited excerpts.

Q.You took on a new role as the managing director of Essence in the midst of the pandemic. Tell us about the journey and tell us about the changes that you introduced in the system?
I joined Essence in 2018. I was leading the agency’s Google business in India and Southeast Asia as senior vice president, client services. It was mid 2021 when I took on the role of managing director at Essence. It was an extremely tough time to take on this role and that too remotely because people didn't come back to office until almost five to six months after that. This was at a time when people had gone through a lot of loss and a lot of unhappiness. We had to think about how to connect and engage with people and boost their morale.

It started from building a lot more communication at all levels. We started company meetings, talking about the good work that was happening across offices, sharing work and started to build transparency and an open collaborative culture again. Seeing a lot of people talk to each other and creating as much synergy and as much visual presence as we could in the absence of being in person was actually the next best thing that we could do. Strengthening communication at all levels helped us in giving people a sense of relief and assurance that things were starting to look up.

Then there was a lot more enablement and accountability which allowed for decentralization and easing of roadblocks to let people run at their own pace and be the best versions of themselves. The next thing we did was clearing up structures and that's one of the big things that really helped us move forward with a greater pace. Nobody was fending for themselves because they could actually tap into the experience of the larger organization and yet, do what they did best and then bring the two together seamlessly.

The third thing in the same series was continuous skill building and the last thing that I would focus on was the renewed commitment to our culture which has been what has set us apart and been our cornerstone. We brought back our focus on what is really precious to us, which is diversity, equity and inclusion and mentorship. So all of these things together renewed our sense of purpose and helped us build the successes that we've had in the last 18 to 20 months.

Also read: Kainaz Karmakar: Bringing the change through stories

Q. As a leader how do you strike that work life balance for yourself and also for the team?
I am a believer in work life integration. We are what we are but one person and there will be times that life is demanding and demands from one dimension will seep into the other. There are times that you will have to over index on work and there are times that your home needs your attention. In my head, it has to be seamless, it has to be integrated. This applies to both men and women. Our line of work has late nights, early mornings and working weekends sometimes. If that is okay, then why is it not okay if it’s the other way round.

I have always tried to say that there will be times that your family needs you. We're not in the business of saving lives that we have to be present at every moment and therefore I believe in that synergy and that integration. That is where the culture of accountability comes in, where you know what you have to do so do it at your own pace.

Q. What are your leadership mantras?
For me leadership is about setting the tone and culture of the organization. It is about embodying what you want others to do. It's about walking the talk. This attitude has really paid really, really dividends for us. My style of leadership is extremely adaptive. I believe in situational leadership, adapt to the situation, to people, to teams and to the need of the hour. It could be anywhere from delegation, to being participative and sometimes even telling people what to do. What's key to me is to be flexible, and adjust to the requirements of the team in the moment that we are. It's impossible in a dynamic world like ours today to actually be a kind of rigid leader. It doesn't work for people. It doesn't work for our clients and it doesn't work for the organization at large.

Also read: Digital Marketing Mavericks: Publicis Groupe's Digitas India looks at marketing from a fresh lens

Q. As someone who has been in the ad business for so long, how do you think that the industry can fix the gender gap especially at senior leadership levels?
At this moment, I think gender gaps are probably less of a problem than then the tone and voice around how genders show up. The most important thing we need to do is to manage unconscious biases. That to me is the most important challenge that we need to fix if we want women and men and actually everyone to play to their strengths and be the best versions of themselves.

The discourse on gender needs to become irrelevant. We need to bring it to a common playing field with individual needs. The needs of a man and a woman may be different and that’s okay. We need to normalize that.

We need flexibility. If it’s normal for a man to come late to work and leave late in the evening because that’s what he needs, it’s also okay for women wanting to leave on time because she has family responsibilities. Like I said that discourse doesn't have to be about the hours, it should be about accountability and what you have to do.

The second thing I think we need to do is to change the narrative. If a man is being assertive or aggressive, it's seen as okay, it is seen as a positive. If the woman is doing the same, she's viewed negatively. And there is a lot when your eyebrows are raised. We have a lot of gender stereotypes in our heads and we need to get rid of them.

Also read: India's Self-Made Women 2022: Making of the list

The discourse should be more about what the work situation needs and gender shouldn’t have a role to play in that. The other thing that is important for me is flexibility. I think individuals play multiple roles. We are caregivers, we are professionals and we do so many other things. There shouldn’t be any stereotyping in that. If we haven't learned this during the two years of COVID we never will.

Q. Compared to creative agencies, media agencies have more women leaders. Why do you think that's the case?
Firstly, I am glad that the gender equation in creative agencies is changing. With Devika Bulchandani’s appointment as the global chief executive officer of Ogilvy, WPP has made a definitive statement of meritocracy being the way forward. To me, this is so powerful. Even in India, not just media agencies but creative agencies are being run by very capable and competent women leaders, which in my mind is starting to make the question on gender representation more important. Closer home media agencies for the longest time have been about meritocracy and been led by stalwarts who happen to be women. They've raised the aspirations of the next generation to follow their path. I am the product of that inspiration. So regardless of it all, I will re-emphasize that media agencies having women leaders is completely based on merit and capability. The fact that they're women is just happenstance.

Q. How have the skills required to do the job well changed over the years? What are the key skills required now - at entry and mid-levels?
The role of media agencies in the client ecosystem is evolving very rapidly. I think increasingly the expectation is for agencies to play the role of partners and trusted advisors. This is starting to reflect on the kinds of skills required to do the job. The goal post today is very firmly about driving business outcomes. If you're partnering with clients, then you have to be equally accountable for their business requirements and be catalysts in their success. Now on one hand there is super specialization in areas of functional expertise and on the other hand is what I like to call the conductor of the symphony-someone who strings the proposition together in the service of driving business KPIs, so it is about width, and it is about driving depth.

Also read: Navigating the perfect marketing storm in 2023

So what we look for is specialists in their domains and also people with a business mindset. People who are wired to solve for the business. So you have the best of both worlds specialists who are true to the craft and marketers who are true to solving for the business. That is what is guiding how we look for people. Having said that, the composition of today's world is as much of soft skills as it is of hard skills. For us capability without the potential for a cultural fit is a no go. So we look for team players, we look for collaborators, we look for people who have an attitude of succeeding together when we look for our next generation of leaders. Finally, what underpins all of this is the mindset, an innate sense of curiosity, an innate need to make an impact and being excited about the work. So in a nutshell skills are important, but they're not the be all and end all for us.

The cultural fit is as important as is the mindset where the person actually loves what they do. I use this hashtag extensively, which is love where you work, love what you do and love who you work with. So some of these things capture my philosophy towards the next generation of our leaders and the kind of organization we want to build.

Q. Talking of changing business needs, how much are the clients ready to push boundaries both in terms of budget and in terms of innovations?
Now that’s where being experts at our craft really plays up. I'll take a slightly contrarian stance here and look at it from an audience lens rather than a platform lens. Today's reality is driven by consumers and the choices they make. It's no longer enough to just be on any platform and hope that we will succeed. So consumers when they are converted to audiences in media parlance, don't make their choices depending on a platform or a medium, they make it on the basis of the content they want to consume. So ultimately, brands and depending on what their objectives are, need to follow them and communicate meaningfully with them.

Also read: Why every business needs a digital marketing agenda

As brand marketing starts to take center stage again, shifting the lens firmly towards consumers will ensure much more sustainable and effective outcomes. When we talk to clients we do not talk about the language of one platform versus the other. It is about the outcomes and if we're going to be equal partners in their success, then making sure that we do justice is not just a responsibility, but it's something they've entrusted us with. So in my head, it's a little bit more about us playing the role of experts that we are and explaining how we need to be a lot more audience centric, and therefore go after whatever touch points or activities that we need to do to get to the ultimate outcome. Our accountability is driving that.

Q. A lot of leaders across industries have been sharing their experiences of acquiring new skills in the two years of lockdown. Have you had similar experiences?
Change has only ever been the true constant for me. It's the only thing that keeps me interested, excited. I've been lucky that I've had opportunities to constantly reinvent myself every couple of years. I started off as a traditional planner then a communication strategist followed by being a researcher, marketer, business leader and a catalyst for transformation and across the journey I’ve constantly picked up new skills every day. right. It is really important to be able to move forward with the times and be able to constantly reinvent yourself. It's a journey I embarked on very early in my career, and it's something that keeps me excited, I guess my firm belief towards life in general and work in particular, is reflected in this beautiful quote by HG Wells that says, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature's inexorable imperative”.

Q. Given the current global economic climate, how do you think brands’ media and marketing budget for 2023 will be affected or?
Now more than ever there is the need for the media and business world to come together to completely transform itself to drive business outcomes. A lot more accountability is expected from business partners, a lot more tightening of what we do and what makes an impact is the need of the hour. What we see today is a cascade effect and it was something that was predicted from the middle of last year and the drumroll has become even louder as we got to the end of last year. At GroupM and WPP we’ve been really tightening ourselves to actually become more and more accountable every single day. Driving synergies across functional expertise towards a larger goal is what we believe is the need of the hour.

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Deploying audience data towards maximizing outreach effectiveness and building seamless technology stacks to enable efficiency, supercharged by advanced analytics continually optimizing our efforts is what the media ecosystem can effectively support and enable for clients. We work with a lot of D2C clients, technology clients, startups and FMCG majors and today the resounding cry is to get as effective and as efficient in everything we do. Accountability has never been a greater task as it is today.