Six months ago, Vikram Sakhuja’s phone rang. It was the newly appointed Group M global president, Dominic Proctor, calling with a tempting proposal: would he be interested in taking on the global chief executive role for Group M’s youngest media network, Maxus?
The position had become free since Kelly Clark was to take on the role of chief executive, Group M North America after Rob Norman was, in turn, promoted to become the chief digital officer for Group M. The appointment would mark the first time that a global chief executive of a media network would be based in Asia. Despite the significance, Sakhuja is keen to downplay its importance, suggesting instead that it is a natural step in a globalised world, where technology blurs geographical boundaries.
Sakhuja reveals that the conversation around where he would be based was brief: "He [Proctor] just asked where I would prefer to be based. I said that, right now, I am in Mumbai, so is that an option? He said ‘why not?’ That was all it took."
He admits there will be some curiosity within the industry about the decision, suggesting that if it results in the implementation of more relevant structures and models, it may spur others to follow suit. But he adds that his location may well shift if business priorities change and it becomes difficult to continue to operate out of Mumbai. "I think one has to be open to that," he says.
The promotion was a significant step for Sakhuja, who has only worked in media for just over ten years, having spent the majority of his professional life on the client side. He started his career at Procter & Gamble, where he is credited with appointing India’s first media agency of record – something he is again characteristically self-effacing about. "It was just one of those things," he says. "Nobody had really challenged the status quo and this was something that was happening [elsewhere globally], so I just seized the opportunity and took it forward."
After eight years at P&G, more than four years at Coca-Cola and a brief stint at Star TV, Sakhuja moved over to the media agency side, climbing the ranks within WPP to take on the role of chief executive, South Asia, for Group M.
In his role as the global chief of Maxus, he will now oversee many more markets – a move that will undoubtedly bring fresh challenges. As Neil Stewart, the chief executive of Maxus Asia-Pacific, pointed out, Sakhuja will now need to get his "head around the world, rather than the world of India".
Sakhuja admits his experience is highly India-centric. "I’m clearly pushing my comfort zone when it comes to understanding how the rest of the markets are working, but I am very excited about it because I view it as a learning opportunity."
Sakhuja says he is driven by a search for business initiatives that have the potential to be transformational, but adds that he is also mindful of a piece of advice from a colleague at P&G: treat your company’s money like your own. "It makes sure there is an entrepreneurial streak in you," he says. "You could be running the biggest company in the world, but if you can manage it like it’s your own money, that is good business practice."
It’s likely Sakhuja’s appointment will mark a change in leadership style for Maxus. He describes his predecessor Clark as "one of the best charmers I’ve seen", before admitting that "charm" is not a word he would use to describe his own style. "I’m doing the smart thing and, right now, just trying to understand all the good stuff that he has done… and then trying to put in some of my own plans," he says. "What has been great is that I’m walking into something that has great momentum behind it."
Certainly, Maxus has enjoyed significant growth in recent years – Recma lists a 22.4 per cent increase in billings in the Asia-Pacific region between 2010 and 2011 – and Sakhuja is tasked with continuing this trajectory. As such, he says new business will very much be the mantra going forward, pointing to room for growth across the globe, given the lack of client conflict.
Maxus revenues are "pretty evenly distributed" between the US, Asia-Pacific and Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Sakhuja says. He expects all three regions to continue to be growth engines for the network. Given this, how does he view the challenge of delivering growth, given market conditions in Europe and the US?
"It’s a challenge and it turns me on," he says. "I believe in the saying that growth comes to those who know where to look for it. I’m an eternal optimist. I always believe there is room for growth, however mature a market you have. You just have to find the opportunity."
He says 2013 will be a time for businesses to innovate, improve products and "cut the flab" – something he says Maxus, incidentally, does not have a lot of. "I think this is the time when we have to really build a strategy and make some very decisive choices on the areas we would like to strengthen our capability and show our difference."