From tradition to transformation: The evolving role of women CFOs in Indian advertising

The 1970s saw the appointment of Ravan Sengupta by Clarion Advertising for its finance position, which adjudged him as the first CFO of Indian advertising. Later on, veteran advertising women like Tara Sinha (of Clarion) and Nargis Wadia (of Interpub) were an all-women army. Despite 40 percent of CFO roles filled in by women in different sectors, Indian advertising has a long way to go.

By  Kashmeera SambamurthyMay 6, 2024 12:46 PM
From tradition to transformation: The evolving role of women CFOs in Indian advertising
Rediffusion’s Executive Director Tanya Goyal is optimistic about their future. Citing them to be very good homemakers, who hold the treasury of the house, it adds to their competence of running a business also. When topped by qualification and experience, they make better CFOs. “We are talking of competence here, and not competition,” she stated. (From left to right: Nidhi Mehta, Asha Suvarna and Anjali Gupte)

On March 8, which marked the celebration of International Women’s Day, executive search firm LONGHOUSE Consulting, released a survey report titled, “The State of Women Leadership Hiring in India”. According to the survey, 40 percent of chief financial officer positions were filled by women in different sectors.

A year ago, as highlighted by WalkWater Talent Advisors, an executive search firm, 96 percent of Indian had men CFOs, and only four percent were women. In February 2024, as data highlighted by Primeinfobase, there were 45 women holding the position of CFO or director-finance.

As compared to 2023, the number of women holding such designations stood at 31, and in 2019, it was 24.

Some of the notable women CFOs are Preeti Gupta Mohanty, Vice President - Finance, Schneider Electric (since Feb 2024); Suman Hegde, Executive Vice President and CFO Jubilant Foodworks (since March 2024); and Aparna Iyer, CFO, Wipro (since Sept 2023). Now, let us examine where women CFOs stand in the field of advertising. At the global advertising level, since 2007, Claudia Valderrama has been the global CFO. And from 2022, Radhika Radhakrishnan has been the global CFO at Wavemaker.

In Indian advertising, Asha Suvarna, who had been the Finance Director at GroupM Media from 2000 until 2019, had joined Dentsu Aegis Network as a CFO in the same year.

In 2021, Havas India had appointed Anjali Gupte as the group CFO, and her stint lasted till 2023. At present, she is an Independent Director at John Cockerill.

Nidhi Mehta, Finance Director, Gozoop Group, continues to be a part of the independent agency network. Since 2023, Amita Karia has been the CFO at FCB Group India.

Vanita Shetty has been the General Manager - Finance at Draft FCB Ulka Advertising since 2005 and Hufrish Birdy has been the CFO at Ogilvy & Mather, India since 1994.

In a conversation with Storyboard18, Tanya Goyal, Executive Director, Rediffusion stated, “Incidentally, our Senior Finance Manager is also a woman named Suranjana Modak. In advertising, though there are more women at the top, it is just that in finance, we don’t see too many women heading this department in ad agencies.”

History of CFOs in Indian advertising

Veteran adman Sujit Sanyal had started his career with Clarion Advertising in 1976. At that time, the positions of CFO, CEO and CIO were non-existent.

The finance department then functioned more like an accounts department. For most of the ad agencies then, 85 percent to 90 percent of their revenues came through commissions, out of which, 15 percent came from media.

The other 10-15 percent of the revenue came from creative consultants, who offered expertise on how the brand could be improved and how marketing functions could be carried out.

“For example, newspapers had a rate card and they charged ad agencies for ad space. And in turn, they got a 15 percent commission. That has been the tradition way back since 1842. So, advertising agencies were basically traders,” he said.

In 1976 or 1977, Clarion Advertising had hired a professional named Ravan Sengupta for their finance position. With his entry, he brought in a multinational conglomerate kind of a discipline into the finance system at the agency. He would make sure that all the collections from clients were done on time, which could enable the staff to receive their pay on time.

And to Sanyal’s mind, Sengupta was the first CFO in Indian advertising history.

During that period, there were fewer women in the advertising business, and the glass ceiling had not yet been broken. Renowned professionals during the 1960s were (late) Gerson daCunha (former head, Lintas, now MullenLowe Lintas Group), (late) Frank Simoes (Founder, Frank Simoes Advertising), (late) Bal Mundkur (founder, Ulka Advertising (now Draftfcb Ulka) among others.

(Late) Tara Sinha, who was called the Margaret Thatcher of the Indian advertising industry, had started her career with DJ Keymer in Kolkata, the Indian subsidiary of SH Benson (now Ogilvy & Mather).

In 1955, after the Kolkata office downed its shutters, Sinha along with others established Clarion Advertising. Sinha, who also worked at Coca-Cola in 1973, and oversaw its marketing operations, followed by heading the Atlanta office, in 1984, went on to head Clarion.

Over a period, apart from establishing Tara Sinha Associates, its subsidiaries, Admar, a market research agency, and Result, a below-the-line and direct marketing agency were established too, stated a media report.

Automotive manufacturer Mahindra & Mahindra established an in-house agency, named the Press Syndicate, in Mumbai, sometime in the late 1940s. Sinha took over Press Syndicate and split the agency into two. The agency ran until the late 1990s, revealed veteran ad man Chitto Ghosh.

“Like, anybody who would run her own business, she was the CEO, the CFO and was an all-in-one-person who looked after various other designations,” Sanyal said.

The other example is of Nargis Wadia who was an all-women army during her time. She set up Interpub as a design studio, which, as per news articles, went on to evolve into an agency. It is regarded as the first agency in Indian advertising to be run by a woman.

“So, we never really had a CFO in agencies. But, things started changing in the 90s when liberalisation happened and foreign brands began coming in. Thus, new concepts and designations started to be introduced, which the country was very new to,” he said.

2000s till present: How different is the scenario?

In the early 2000s, Sandeep Goyal, Managing Director, Rediffusion Brand Solutions, had partnered with Japanese international advertising and public relations company, Dentsu to form a joint venture.

When Goyal was the Chairman, Tanya had a 50 percent stake in Dentsu. During her stint, she looked after functions such as finance, legal compliance and corporate compliance. And, Sandeep looked after the strategy and the marketing aspects of the business.

In 2011, Sandeep sold his stake in Dentsu India for Rs 250 crore, and went on to set up Mogae Media. Since then, Tanya has been looking after its finance and legal compliance functions.

In 2021, Sandeep took over Rediffusion, and since then has been the Managing Director and Chairperson. Tanya is also the 50 percent owner and Executive Director of Rediffusion. As per her duties, she oversees the finance and legal compliance functions of Rediffusion.

This scenario presents similarities to the scenario during late Sinha's time.

After Mehta completed her three-year articleship as a chartered accountant, she developed awareness about the growth of digital marketing and how thousands of new business entrepreneurs push boundaries and drive impact. That is how her paths crossed with the Gozoop Group in 2016, and since then, she has been a part of the network.

She explained, “In this new emerging era, where there is a wave of entrepreneurship, brand building and marketing, it plays the most pivotal role for any new business start-up. The CFO's role is extending beyond traditional finance boundaries and an increasing number of finance leaders view it as a pathway to the CEO position.”

As Sanyal explained, in the early days of advertising, if anybody went up the hierarchy from the ranks to become the CEO, Managing Director, or General Manager etc, they were mostly people from the servicing category, who handled business, and who interacted with the clients. But, the first person from the first creative side who went on to head Lintas was Alyque Padamsee.

According to him, the designation of a CFO, which is close to non-existent in an ad agency, and there are not really many male CFOs either.

In 2023, Suvarna was replaced by Sujit Vaidya at Dentsu, who had stepped down to pursue other opportunities. Priteish Bhatnagar, CFO and deputy group CFO at Havas Group, India, stepped into Gupte’s position. Sumit Agarwal heads the finance section at Cheil India and Rajeev Newar heads RK Swamy Hansa Group as the group CFO.

Since 2023, Hemang Doshi has been CFO for Leo Burnett India, BBH India, Publicis Groupe Sri Lanka, and Loris Nold has been heading Publicis Groupe as global CFO.

Utpal Sharma has been the Finance Director at Wieden + Kennedy Delhi since 2021. Vikrant Keer heads The Womb Communications as Finance Manager, and since 2022, Girish Joshi has been the CFO at L&K Saatchi & Saatchi. Rajul Vora headed JWT (now VML) as CFO from 1990 till 2020.

How to enhance the role of a CFO?

As per Gozoop’s Mehta, agencies must enhance better communication between CFOs and other departmental heads. There must be regular meetings between them to negotiate and discuss expenses and budgets that are aligned to the company's goals.

A CFO should be made an integral part of all important decision-making of the agency as finance and marketers think and behave very differently.

A combination of their brainstorming where marketers are driven by creativity and finance is driven by numbers and budgets could lead to some favorable outcomes for both the client and the agency, she added.

Rediffusion’s Tanya strongly puts down that any business and its operations are inefficient without the presence of a CFO. “A CFO is a person who lubricates the health of the company by ensuring liquidity. If you have no liquidity, you can't run any business,” she stated.

As per Sanyal, in the words of late Ahmed Ibrahim, former chairman, CEO and MD, Everest Advertising (now Everest Brand Solutions), “If an advertising company has a very weak financial system, they are doomed.”

MCM (Mass Communication and Marketing), which was set up by Kersy Katrak in 1965, was renowned for producing the best creative work that saw the whole of the Indian advertising industry applaud. However, in a span of 10 years, the agency was declared bankrupt, and as veteran ad man Prabhakur Mundkur put it in a LinkedIn post, it was due to clients defaulting on media payments.

Another example was J. Walter Thompson (JWT), which shut down due to a similar reason in 1974. However, it was revived by (late) veteran adman Subhas Ghoshal, and was rechristened as Hindustan Thompson Associates. And, eventually, as per Mundkur, they got back all their lost clients which they had lost when the shutters of the agency were pulled down.

Everest Advertising and Mudra Communications, now DDB Mudra Group are a few examples of Indian advertising agencies whose financial discipline still continues to be very strong.

Women CFOs at ad agencies: Where does the future lie?

Rediffusion’s Executive Director is optimistic about their future. Citing them to be very good homemakers, who hold the treasury of the house, it adds to their competence of running a business also. When topped by qualification and experience, they make better CFOs. “We are talking of competence here, and not competition,” she stated.

Gozoop’s Mehta, who highlighted that the finance division at the agency is led by women, ruled out the presence of gender disparity in a digital ad agency, and cited passion, talent and will as ingredients to succeed and go a long way.

She highlighted, “A CFO's and a finance team's role in an ad agency is viewed as the most challenging role as they oversee the company's financial activities. This includes being responsible for the finance and accounting professionals who perform operational functions and services in a strategic advisory role to the CEO and the rest of the C-suite peers.”

Tanya, who agrees with Mehta and denies the presence of a glass ceiling in the finance section, cites the examples of Arundhati Bhattacharya (former chairperson, State Bank of India), Renuka Ramnath (former MD and CEO, ICICI Ventures), Shikha Sharma (former CEO, Axis Bank), Chanda Kochhar (former CEO, ICICI Bank), etc who busted the myth though their successful journey in finance.

First Published on May 6, 2024 11:59 AM

More from Storyboard18

Agency News

Havas launches new groupwide Operating System, commits 400 million euro to data, tech, AI

Havas launches new groupwide Operating System, commits 400 million euro to data, tech, AI

Agency News

Cheil X hires Anurag Tandon as Chief Growth Officer

Cheil X hires Anurag Tandon as Chief Growth Officer

Interviews

Clients want us to navigate the entire consumer journey for the brand: Dheeraj Sinha, CEO, FCB Group

Clients want us to navigate the entire consumer journey for the brand: Dheeraj Sinha, CEO, FCB Group

Agency News

What WPP hopes to achieve with global communications agency - Burson

What WPP hopes to achieve with global communications agency - Burson

Agency News

PIB cracks down on 12 YouTube channels for spreading fake news

PIB cracks down on 12 YouTube channels for spreading fake news

Advertising

Volkswagen's marathon global media review ends; Omnicom holds on to business

Volkswagen's marathon global media review ends; Omnicom holds on to business

Agency News

'Illegal' IPL streaming case: ED conducts searches at Fairplay app offices, seizes assets worth Rs 8 cr

'Illegal' IPL streaming case: ED conducts searches at Fairplay app offices, seizes assets worth Rs 8 cr

Brand Marketing

Tonic Worldwide bags digital mandate for Badshah Masala

Tonic Worldwide bags digital mandate for Badshah Masala