Published in Nov-Dec 2021
Benish Irshad, the COO of Starcom and the CEO of Publicis Media, somewhat reminds me of Rory Gilmore from The Gilmore Girls – because she seems to be one of those effortlessly clever people who are hardworking (straight-A student who would be horrified if she got anything below an A+) and zealous. However, unlike Rory, Irshad is sociable, extroverted and owns up to her flaws – whether it is about making mistakes or not having enough self-discipline. I find this refreshingly down-to-earth for a COO.
After having finally cornered the ever-busy Irshad, we are sitting at Starcom in a meeting room. She sits across me with a friendly smile on her face, but in a sufficiently authoritative way to tell me I need to get on with my questions.
Her career spans about 15 years across multiple organisations, the common factor being media buying and planning. After doing her MBA, she worked as a media planner for a media organisation, moved to P&G as Country Head Media and Direct Marketing, and later Head of Media and Digital. She then took up the position of Head of Marketing at Lotte Kolson.
What attracts her to media? The dynamism of it, she says. While some people liberally use the word ‘passionate’ to describe themselves, she displays her enthusiasm for media planning and advertising; by the way, her demeanour changes when she talks about it – slightly furrowed brows, sitting upright and in the expressions she uses.
“I love how the way we now expose consumers to the right messaging and the right medium has changed. Previously, people ‘made dates’ with content (when the 9 o’clock news was on, the roads would be relatively empty). Next, satellite channels launched and now, we are witnessing an omnichannel phenomenon – TVs smartphones, iPads. So, the way we plan and buy media has evolved. KPIs are now based on delivering performance and unit sales rather than basic metrics.”
She emphasises the importance of performance because no matter how much time is spent on strategy, if audiences fail to respond to the execution, the effort is wasted – be it on TV or in a store. In her opinion, executing ideas properly requires that operational discipline be part of a company’s DNA.
“The way you operate, the kind of discipline you have, how you monitor performance... it is all integral to a basic execution. You also need people who are passionate about the client and the company they work for. I watch ads and monitor the feedback; we do this, not because it is a part of our job, but because we care about our brands.”
Considering her career trajectory, I ask her about her most memorable project so far. She responds immediately with “Nestlé... because recency effect!” (By which I surmise she means it is the most recent for her).
Elaborating, she talks about how she and her “young team” recently won Nestlé’s $19 million media business, following which Publicis Media entered the market to avoid any conflict of interest. “I was blown away by the team’s tenacity, especially since we did not have a single director working with us on the pitch. We started by asking ourselves ‘what are the objectives of this campaign? Do we want to drive the trial? Is it about brand love and equity?’”
The Nestlé win has made Benish Irshad the youngest leader of a major affiliate agency.
In the context of memorable projects, she also mentions two she worked on at P&G and which “had actual consumer impact”. They were the Always School Programme (speaking to school-going girls about their periods) and the Pampers Mobile Clinic (educating mothers in rural and semi-urban areas regarding child health and hygiene).
Speaking about these projects, she acknowledges P&G’s contribution to her growth, especially the exposure to the different ways consumers shop and use P&G products. It is in this regard that she speaks about making and learning from mistakes. “They were quite memorable mistakes, but I learned from them because they are what make you. We are trying to inculcate the same culture at Starcom – as in avoiding making mistakes that cost us a lot of money (she laughs), but know that there is no ‘right’ way until you find it.”
After leaving P&G, she took a break and invested in a café, because she wanted to “test out being an entrepreneur.” Although the cafe is still running, she is no longer a major stakeholder in it. It was during this time that she had her second son – now a three-year-old.
As a mom and COO of a major media group, she admits that finding the right work-life balance is difficult, although family support makes things easier. She mentions her mother who dutifully picks up her 12-year old from school, her late father who always supported her endeavours (encouraging her to go to business school, driving her to internships at Lakson Tobacco and JWT), and her husband, whom she considers to have been “instrumental” to her career trajectory; especially since he works in the same field and therefore understands the problems and challenges she faces. She candidly admits that she would not be the person she is today were it not for the support of her family.
Speaking about her husband she says they have two marital ‘contracts’. Never talk about work at home and travel (which they both love to do). Although they attended the same university, they officially met at a work-related meeting and discovered they had many mutual friends. After two years’ dating, they realised they “wanted to annoy each other” for the rest of their lives and got married (a “hardcore love marriage”).
They are, she says, complete opposites. She is a zero percent morning person (she wakes up at six in the morning to prepare breakfast and lunch for her elder son and takes a short nap afterward) and has difficulty understanding how her husband can wake up early and be so cheery. She also admits to having little self-discipline in her personal life, although I have no doubts that she has it in spades when it comes to her professional one.
I finally ask her the mandatory question. What it is like to be the first female COO of a major media group. She replies that as a working mom there are always lines that need to be drawn at work when prioritising family and “you have to be shameless about them.” She tells me that until quite recently, people still used to ask her: “who is your boss?” (“I am the boss”, was the reply).
She believes every woman should be financially independent and “at the rate at which inflation is happening, you need two incomes. You also need a strong support system, not only at home but at work as well; recognise the people who can carry the baton – if, for example, you are taking four weeks’ maternity leave.”
The best way to sum up Benish Irshad is by describing her as fiery yet calm. She is driven to do things differently and displays the right amount of authority to get her message across.
When not breaking barriers at work or spending time with the family, she takes her Kindle (the best gift from her husband so far) to enjoy a good break from reality. Her all-time favourite book is The Hobbit and loves the works of Sophie Kinsella, Elif Shafak and Chetan Bhagat.