In December 2012, Malli Coimbatore was appointed CEO of Starcom India, one of the world’s leading media agencies. It was the pinnacle of what already had been an accomplished career. But a few months later, Coimbatore found himself awash in crisis.
Starcom, owned by French advertising group Publicis, lost a major client, Samsung, and several other key accounts followed them out the door. As Starcom bled most of its revenue, Coimbatore set about rebuilding trust in the company.
His emphasis on transparency helped the company recover, and three years later Coimbatore moved on to become executive vice president at Star India, a media conglomerate owned by Disney, based in Mumbai. But the lessons from that turbulent time endured, and made him a better leader, he believes. “People often attribute success to their individual agency, and blame failures on external market forces,” he says. “But you must acknowledge your mistakes and ask, ‘What can I do better’?”
Now finishing his studies in the MSx program at Stanford GSB, Coimbatore has focused on upgrading his knowledge of data and analytics as technology transforms marketing and advertising. “I would like to tackle the big media industry issues such as marketing measurement and data monetization, which will be of critical importance over the next several years,” he says.
You were the hot new CEO at Starcom — then you were in the hot seat. What lessons on leadership can you share?
First, honesty. When you’re in a crisis, you have to look at the problem with a certain amount of naked honesty and convey what you really think to your employees. Second, courage. People will respect you. Of course, some people won’t want you to be there, and others will leave. But even if you have a motley crew, you can achieve big things if you have an appetite for the fight. Third, humility.
You got Starcom’s mojo back. So why leave to join Disney?
It was a great run, but I was looking for my next challenge. I was on cruise control at that point. And there was a big shift happening towards digital media consumption, which raised the challenge of how to measure the success of advertising when consumer attention is fragmenting across different screens. And Disney was putting together a crack team from various functions to take a shot at this very problem. That’s why I made the shift.
While you were there, the company won the streaming rights to Indian Premier League cricket. How did you capitalize on that opportunity?
One problem we faced was how to demonstrate the value of advertising. Indian cricket commands high rates and vast audiences, but the measurement system does not do it justice. I worked on a project using computer vision technology, which tracks the movements of the eye, to offer insight into precisely what a viewer is focusing on during a cricket match. We set up an opt-in consumer panel with our partner TVision. A webcam and eye-tracking software was bolted onto their TV so we could see what part of the screen viewers focused on, whether the volume was muted and if they looked at other devices. The data showed that cricket got significantly more real attention compared to other kinds of programming. This became a very important narrative for us to sell advertising slots at a premium in the market.
You’ve made media your life’s work. Where does that passion come from?
I was fascinated with advertising when I was in college. I used to like writing copy; I wanted to work in a creative job, but I was studying statistics. One day, [media agency] Leo Burnett came to my campus for a recruitment drive. I told them I wanted to be a copywriter, but they said I was more qualified to work on the quantitative side and offered me a shot at that. Once there, I really started to like the media business. It’s a very dynamic field, you have to hustle to make things happen, manage client relationships, and douse fires, with a very eclectic set of people. I really enjoyed being in that kind of stimulating crowd.
How do you see the industry changing?
One major shift underway is the rise of privacy concerns. If you look at what Google and Apple are doing to create a “cookie-less” world [ending the support of third-party cookies on their Chrome and Safari browsers, respectively], how we measure the effectiveness of digital advertising is going to have to change in a fairly big way. If you go totally kosher about consumer privacy, then you compromise your understanding of the consumer. The granularity of the consumer’s digital exhaust will decline for advertisers. This has ramifications on both ad targeting and attribution. I think we are going to see some new, more transparent models emerge. Consider the Brave Browser. It basically gives consumers a share of the ad revenue earned from their data. There will be more modeling expertise required as attribution methods will change. Advertisers need to fasten their seatbelts and get ready for more of this stuff.
Given the advance of digital automation, is there still a role for human flair and creativity in marketing?
I think we need to get comfortable with being both Mad Men and Math Men. There are still limitations to what algorithms can do. And the human element is critical, since it’s people who are setting the objective, which also means machines are subject to human bias. And in marketing, decision making will be a combination of both algorithmic math models and expert mental models.
After a hugely successful career, and an MBA, why come to Stanford GSB?
I realized that to future-proof my career, I had to upgrade my own operating system. I studied statistics a long time back, but the field is changing rapidly because the quantity of data has increased exponentially, and the metrics to extract meaning from the data have changed, along with the application of these new tools and algorithms. The world is changing, and I knew that if I wanted to be a leader fit for the future, I needed to be able to connect the dots between business, analytics and technology.
You will be graduating soon. What were the key takeaways?
I got to experience and absorb the business dynamics of the entrepreneurship ecosystem in the Bay Area and gained a wide perspective on the application of data science to marketing. I also built up a solid grounding on issues surrounding privacy, ethics and policymaking with respect to data. The eclectic atmosphere of Stanford has greatly aided me here. I have done courses in analytics, history, and symbolic systems besides what I am doing at GSB. This has been deeply stimulating.
What do you do for fun?
I am deeply interested in the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. In 1993, while in my final year in college, I got the opportunity to work for two months at a bookstore in my hometown. By sheer luck, I stumbled on Crime and Punishment. That began a lifelong pursuit. I have looked at his books from multiple perspectives, have read and reread them a few times and keep collecting movies based on Dostoevsky’s works. I am also an avid tennis fan. I was late to the ball and started learning the sport at 38. However, I am quite crazy about it. Roger Federer is my favorite player.
And speaking of fun, your surname is the same as that of your hometown.
I have had hilarious incidents because of this — especially while taking flights to my hometown where the ticket would read Coimbatore going to Coimbatore!
Photos by Tricia Seibold