Advertising was not always the career which Sony Nichani (pictured) had dreamed of – or rather – studied for.
She found herself in the ad world following a series of events, which consisted a bad turn in the financial market in the late 1990s, a chance summer internship at an advertising agency and an interview with Ulka (now FCB Ulka India). A firm believer in serendipity, Nichani shared that even then she was not the first choice for the job, but only got the management trainee position because the person selected had wanted to join another firm. That being said, that interview was the only she had ever sat for and has since counted over two decades in the industry.
Joining Ulka in India in the strategic planning function, she spent a rigorous six years understanding consumer behaviour and communication strategy, which she believes is the best training ground.
While working on the prestigious TATA corporate assignment, she got poached by the client to work on the launch of their telecom business. From strategic rigour to “this was due yesterday”, she crossed over to the client side and was part of the Tata Indicom team which launched the service in 25,000 towns and had over 25 million customers when she left in 2008. The five-year client stint gave her the ability to manage scale and take quick decisions, an experience which holds her in good stead in her current role.
Having worked with FCB as her agency partner during her client days, it was not unexpected to return home to them when she moved to Jakarta to start the strategic planning function in April 2008. Shifting from planning, she took over leading the business and working on mix of global, regional and local clients in a demanding market such as Indonesia, which has given her an invaluable experience in the past 10 years.
She was offered the CEO position just as she was about to take a sabbatical for motherhood, which convinces her that sometimes you don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.
How do you describe your management style?
Hands on, I love being in the trenches with the team during the planning and development process. But once we have the direction and clarity, I step back for the team to see it through. I believe that my role is to set the pace for the team and place the bar on the kind of work we need to be doing, and keep the team focused on it.
Who was the mentor who influenced you the most and how?
Fortunately quite a few to thank and credit my success to in every role I played, but I think the most significant influence would have been my parents. As kids they saw the partition and moved as refugees to India. They grew up with very few opportunities but which they made the most of for their families. They have always been the wind beneath my wings.
What has been the proudest moment in your career?
A few months back, my digital partner Chetan managed to virtually single-handedly lead and win one of the largest and competitive digital pitches in Indonesia. Another team recently followed it up with a significant win of an auto business where we had no prior experience. Moments like this where I had no role to play in, is something I am really proud of.
When you realise that you are a part of an empowering culture and where everyone in the team has a shared sense of purpose and ambition – that is something to really be proud of.
What (who) inspires you the most?
A bit corny but it would have to be Roger Federer. His comeback journey is absolutely remarkable because for a champion who digs in so deep to find the will to just go on is just inspiring.
What’s the toughest part of your job?
I strongly believe that the team is only as strong as its weakest link. Given the changes in advertising and digital, we have spent a lot of time retraining and sort of re-purposing ourselves in the past years to be relevant. Constantly challenging people to never stop learning and trying, is tough but very important part of my job.
What has been the harshest thing said to you?
Harsh things said for sake of being harsh I would not care to remember, but one that I took constructively was “don’t be happy being the tallest midget” (no offence).
Sometimes due to lack of resources or lack of passion for a project, we tend to be happy with work which is just average, which really does not work in the long run.
So I keep those words in my mind whenever I react to anything we are working on so we don’t fall in that trap.
What do you do in your free time?
Being a mother to a three-year old, most of our free time is spent in play zones, birthday parties or watching re-runs of Frozen. Weekends are dedicated to catching up with her and creating memories for her. When I get me time, I binge on Netflix or catch up on my reading.
How do you ensure a proper work life balance?
I don’t. And I don’t worry too much about not being able to do so.
Working with clients and network partners in different time zones and having their own challenges makes it difficult to switch off. But at work we are particular about weekends for family time, so that helps restore some sense of balance. I am also lucky to have an extremely supportive husband who is very involved in the care of our child.
What is your favourite vacation spot?
Would have to be UK – both London and Scotland are just amazing.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone just starting out?
Opportunities do not happen, you have to create them.
Destiny may have got you the job, but you have to steer towards the destination. So don’t wait to be called up or wait to be assigned. Sign up for the tough clients, intense pitches because it can really accelerate your learning. Like my dear friend, Rob Sherlock always says diamonds are only created under pressure.
What issue would you like to see the industry change in 2018?
It’s a bit worrisome on how much conversation is happening around digital metrics and efficiencies versus creativity and brand building. There seems to be short term mindset to look for quick wins rather than building campaigns for long-term effects. It’s time to focus on measuring success by what advertising was supposed to be doing creating behaviour and working towards selling “Never finished” ideas which create deep equity and outlive clients and even agencies.