TARUN RAI – Chief Executive Officer

The J Walter Thompson Company exists to create pioneering solutions that build enduring brands and business for our clients.

What is the big idea behind your business?
A. We build brands. The distinction between a product and a brand is something every marketer and marketing student understands. And about ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ assets. As the founder of Revlon, Charles Revson said: “In the factory we make cosmetics. In the store we sell hope”. In a dynamic world where technological superiority is transitory and product parity increasingly the norm, the role of a ‘brand’ becomes even more important. And we build brands by understanding consumers better than anyone else.

It’s often said that leaders these days must operate in an environment of extreme volatility. Do you agree? How does that affect the way you lead?
Yes, we live in a VUCA world. VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. And I can add: Dynamic. As I say to my team, “in today’s environment you can’t drive ahead looking at the rear-view mirror”. What’s worked earlier will not work today. One can’t bank on ‘experience’. This dynamic world requires dynamic leadership. It requires a leader who can set a vision for the organisation – a vision that may not be what the organisation has had for the last decade or longer. But a vision that takes into account the new environment, the new reality, the new opportunities. Today’s leader then requires the courage and the energy to steer the company through this VUCA world towards that vision. And he must do it with a fantastic team. And forming and nurturing this team is the most important job of today’s leader. I have maintained for a while now that in our business we had leaders who were used to navigating in calm waters on the high seas. They did an excellent job. But today’s leaders need the skill to navigate in rather choppy seas where every new wave is a challenge. I believe I am from the latter camp.

A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all. What is your prime focus for retaining customers?
We are partners to our clients. Together we ensure that the brand and business becomes stronger. And in any partnership the biggest danger is when the partners start taking each other for granted. When complacency creeps in. I believe the best way to retain clients is to keep striving to achieve business goals. To do it every day. Have a huge amount of energy. Treat every day as if it is the first day of the relationship, even if the partnership is decades old.

Your Favorite Book or Quote of all time?
I have always been into sports. Football, squash and golf. One of my favourite sports quotes is of Gary Player. When asked how much role luck played in his golf he said, “the harder I practice, the luckier I get”.

What was your first paying job?
Asian Paints. With a starting salary of Rs. 3000/- a month. While the pay wasn’t much, I could not have hoped for a better training ground as a fresh business school graduate. Even today, after almost three decades I remember and use the lessons I learned in my three years at Asian Paints.

Do you have a formal mechanism for making sure you stay in touch with employees and customers on the organization’s front line?
I stay close to our employees and our clients. I do not have any formal mechanisms though. I believe the best way is to meet people, both employees and clients. And I do it as often as I can. The only formality that I do practice is that I meet my Leadership Team as a group every four months. I also meet our larger team of around a hundred senior people (out of the 2000 people we employ) once a year, typically at an offsite. But through the year I turn up at our many offices around the country and in a couple of neighbouring countries, do a town hall and spoil for drink in the evening. I very strongly believe that both our clients and our employees
should have ‘access’ to me always. I am always a phone call or e-mail away.

What is the best business advice you’ve ever heard?
I have learnt so much from my bosses and even more so from my clients. It is very difficult, therefore, to single out any one particular business advice. The two that I can mention are, courage and trust. A courage of one’s convictions and trust in the people you work with.

What has surprised you about being a leader?
What people don’t realise is that as a leader you must learn to delegate effectively. And it is critical to understand that you only delegate ‘authority’ and never the ‘responsibility’. It is a critical difference as the responsibly is still yours. But you must let go. You must trust your team to deliver. Even if they make some initial mistakes. As a leader, you are the team captain and as we know from sports, a captain is only as good as his/her team. The other thing that is very important is that the leader sets the culture of an organisation. Culture is established from the top and is cascaded down. The surprising thing is how quickly the culture can get transmitted and adopted if the leader communicates well and emphatically.

What strategies do you use in terms of planning your personal career progression?
No strategies. I enjoy what I do. I am curious. I am forever learning. I love being with and learning from people.


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