Viveat Susan Pinto & Niraj Bhatt in conversation with Nirvik Singh, chairman and CEO, Grey Group.
Adversity and the desire to excel needn't be strange bedfellows. On many occasions, they go hand-in-hand.
Ask Nirvik Singh, chairman and CEO of Grey Group, Asia Pacific, Africa and Middle East.
The advertising and marketing communications professional has dealt with the two for a good part of his life.
"I'm lucky to have come up trumps. I got the right brands, met the right people and had good friends," the 53-year-old executive says over lunch at the Golden Dragon restaurant at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai.
Singh's sucess is an inspiring tale of how he remained unstoppable despite losing his parents, both business people based in Kolkata, in his teens.
In the three-and-a-half decades since that life-changing episode -- he went from chauffeur-driven cars to taking public transport as he balanced work and study simultaneously -- life has come full circle.
From heading the Kolkata office of what was earlier Trikaya Grey, the Ravi Gupta-led creative agency of the 1980s and 1990s, to becoming the India head of Grey in the late 1990s and then Grey's Asia Pacific head in 2009, Singh's rise has been meteoric.
Chauffeur-driven cars are part of Singh's life now. But the high-flier, who is a doting brother (to a younger sister, now settled in Kolkata), father (of two boys) and husband, hardly allows success to get in his way when dealing with people. He remains down to earth, friendly and fun to speak to.
Africa and Middle East are recent additions to his portfolio, so there is no denying the larger role Singh plays within the Grey Group, among the top four advertising agency networks of WPP, the world's largest advertising and marketing communications company. Other top WPP agencies include Ogilvy & Mather, J Walter Thompson and Y&R.
Singh is aware of what he is up against in his new role -- emerging but challenging markets in their own right.
Our assorted steamed dimsums and mushroom soup with red dates and snow fungus are served.
"Year 2017 will be critical. What Donald Trump will do with US policy will impact all of us," he says as he dabs a hint of chilli sauce on a vegetable and Chinese cabbage dimsum.
Singh's concerns are not off the mark here.
The world is still coming to terms with US President Trump's January 27 executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Some of the world's best-known technology companies, including Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft, are currently fighting this directive in court even as a US federal judge blocked the ban temporarily on February 3.
The news hardly bodes well for Singh, who is worried about the rising tide of protectionism and what it can do to world business. Advertising, after all, flourishes when barriers come down, not when they come up.
He also has the tough task of managing the ever-increasing expectations of his bosses -- both immediate superior Grey Global Group Chairman and CEO Jim Heekin, and WPP CEO and super boss Martin Sorrell.
Most in the advertising world are familiar with Sorrell's indefatigable energy.
Singh recounts a recent episode with the man and how a humble exchange between the two acted as a timely reminder for him of what lay ahead in the future.
"I sent a new year greeting to Martin, wishing him a great 2017," says Singh as the table is cleared for the main course, which includes rice and noodles accompanied with chicken in chilli oyster sauce and asparagus, broccoli and water chestnut in chilli mustard sauce.
"I got a reply within five minutes from Martin saying: 'And to you and your family. We need to push in the Middle East quickly'.
"I replied saying: 'Yes, will do.'
"Pat came the reply: 'Push hard'."
A sports enthusiast -- he played tennis, cricket and football and pursued horse-riding during his school days -- Singh is adept at handling pressure.
These days he goes back to playing golf whenever time permits, which is normally over the weekends, when he flies back home to Singapore, his current base, from his road trips across the regions he manages.
"Playing golf is a great way to unwind," he says. "But sports in general also teaches you about life."
"Are you a team player or an individual player? Are you able to play under stress? Can you take both success and failure in your stride," he asks rhetorically.
Singh will need to tap into all his life's experiences as he charts the way forward for Grey in Asia Pacific, Africa and Middle East. Besides a concerted push in the Middle East, Singh says he will look at South Africa and East Africa (which includes markets such as Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) closely since those are the places where the big advertising opportunities lie.
"This year is a landmark one for Grey," Singh says, as he dips into the chicken in chilli oyster sauce. "The agency celebrates 100 years of its existence. It is a great time to remember the past, but also look into the future," he says.
Singh knows that the regions he controls will determine the future of advertising in the years ahead.
"Martin has spelt out his vision clearly: 30-40 per cent of WPP revenue should come from developing markets and should come from new media," he says.
Singh has been quietly at work on Sorrell's game plan, consolidating operations across markets he is in charge of and devoting time to new media, especially mobile marketing and advertising, an evolving area in countries such as India, the world's second-largest telecom market by subscribers after China.
"Advertising is one area that has consistently seen disruption in the last decade or so," Singh says.
"But the good thing is that the consumer is at the centre of everything. He is driving the change and businesses, including advertising, have to respond to this," he says as he nears completion of his meal even as we struggle halfway through the main course.
"The advertising money will be where mobile is. But we (advertising industry) are still not there as yet because (advertising) people do not know how to monetise mobile. People have cracked it in parts, but not fully," he adds.
The conversation shifts to Singh's love for Mumbai as he waits patiently for us to finish our meal.
In his three decades of professional life, Singh has worked in a number of places -- starting with Kolkata, then New Delhi and Mumbai, before moving to Singapore. Mumbai, he says, holds a special place in his heart.
"I love this place. I have friends here. We moved as a family here, when my younger son was born. My older son was in Class IV when we came to Mumbai. His friends are here. My wife is Bengali, but she has never lived in Kolkata. She is from Mumbai, and this place is home to her," he says as we finish our meal.
As a frequent visitor to Mumbai, Singh feels passionately about the city, which is bursting at the seams.
"Why don't you auction the name of every street as a form of collecting money," he asks. "That will give you the necessary funds to fix Mumbai."
A nice idea, but is anybody listening?