LOCUS OF CONTROL

By: K.G. SREENIVAS              Dated: January 27, 2015

“Got to be internal”, says Avi Bhojani, head of the Dubai-based BPG Group. “It has got to be internal, so that we don’t keep blaming the system... Your destiny is yours alone. Eschew the “I can’t help it” line.” In an interview with CREATIVE BRANDS, Avi distils his philosophy of work and talks about what drives big enterprise on an everyday basis. “Most often, insights come from the most obvious logical thinking. That’s one way of being different in today’s data, jargon, and models-cluttered thinking! That’s a smarter way of approaching any problem/challenge/brief you encounter every day. Just think of the most obvious solution, and chances are you have cracked the challenge.”

Avishesha Bhojani, Avi for short, has more or less seen it all. In a career of nearly 35 years, Avi has run the gamut of marketing, media, education, private equity, and government. Voted in 2012 as the 27th most powerful Indian businessman in the Arabian Business Indian Power List, at BPG, Avi drives the Group’s interests across the spectrum — advertising, public relations, public advocacy, activation, media-asset management, design, and digital verticals in the Middle East and North Africa.

Avi has helped in the conceptualisation and execution of a number of admirable strategic initiatives in Dubai, such as the Dubai Shopping Festival, and has also served the Government of Dubai while helping with the development of knowledge economy hubs in the Emirate.

One of the most influential expats in the GCC, Avi has been honoured by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum for his contributions to the Emirate. He is an alumnus of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore.

Avi, you often talk about “a different and smarter way of doing things, every day...” Could you elaborate?

The second book I read when I started in May 1980 in OBM Mumbai, after IIM Bangalore, was Obvious Adams, a book that spoke about common sense and capturing the obvious. (No marks for the first book in Ogilvy, of course, Confessions of an Ad Man, a book that got me into the industry!) This book has, since, left a lasting mark on my mind. Not everyone thinks of the most obvious thing, direction or solution. And most often, insights come from the most obvious logical thinking. That’s one way of being different in today’s data, jargon, and models-cluttered thinking! That’s a smarter way of approaching any problem/challenge/brief you encounter every day. Just think of the most obvious solution, and chances are you have cracked the challenge. Another example I can give is to use the projection technique and reflect on what the recipient of your message or action or solution would do or react. Chances are you have a solution staring you in your face. A third example would be to see the situation from a ‘glass half full’ perspective rather than ‘half empty’ — with positive energy and a ‘can-do’ perspective. These are three examples of doing the same things a trifle more smartly, or looking for lateral solutions to linear problems. After all, thinking linearly and expecting lateral solutions could also be defined as moronic thinking, whereby you expect different results with the same set of actions.

In an interview you say you have always been an “ideas man”. Could you tell us with an example how do you seek and apply this lateral dimension to execution?

Let me take my first start-up (Interface Communications way back in 1985 when I was a cub in the Indian Ad Industry). Interface came up as a second agency to Ulka only because we saw Ulka being the target of many other ‘second agencies’ then recently started in New Delhi like Contract or Tara Sinha (a breakaway from Clarion) now McCann. The belief was simple. Offence is the best means of defence. That was the essence of the idea. Some other ideas that were, at that time, as obvious, were the idea of celebrating meta materialism (Dubai Shopping Festival in 1995) or the world’s first physical community for all virtual businesses (Dubai Internet City in 1999) are all ideas that I have had the good fortune to have been involved with in my life. They are all ideas whose time had come, and I was simply fortunate to have been part of the team that made them happen.

Nearly a quarter century on, how do you evaluate Brand Dubai — especially after you helped conceptualise, visualise, and brought to fruition Dubai Shopping Festival and Dubai Summer Surprises. Today, globally, how does Brand Dubai compete with the best in class or the best in trade?

In less than 25 years Dubai has moved from a city of ‘last price’ to a city offering ‘the world’s best merchandise at an acceptable price’, from a destination best described by Bollywood films of yesteryears to a globally aspirational city!

A quick supplementary: What is Dubai?

Dubai is a modern day manifestation of the belief that with enterprise, virtually nothing is impossible!

How did you conceive of Dubai Shopping Festival and Dubai Summer Surprises? What was that moment of provocation that led to seeding the two ideas? Did you draw on any models?

I would like to set the record straight... I did not single-handedly conceive these ideas. I was fortunate enough to have been a key member of the team led by HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, and his lieutenants Mohamed AlAbbar and Mohammed AlGergawi.

You also played a key role in building and fostering industry-focused business ecosystems or clustering. Your founding axiom led to the formation of the Dubai Internet City (2000) and the Dubai Media City (2001). Of course, the two were “bundled” into the TECOM brand. This showed the way to a number of other clusters within Dubai such as education, healthcare, maritime, and commodities. Today, Dubai is a formidable business hub in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region. In hindsight, Avi, what was your vision and from today’s vantage what to your mind would be the shape of things to come in 25 years from now?

Let me first put things in perspective. Dubai, my home for over a quarter century now, is simply blessed with exceptional positive energy due to its visionary leadership. I am well aware of the upsides of democracy and the potential downsides of monarchy or single-leader rule. I would, however, choose the latter to the former any day. I am reminded of the famous David Ogilvy maxim that ‘committees can never buy a great idea’. HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid is an extraordinary leader and a larger-than-life human being. Most credit of converting a sleepy fishing entreport in the Arabian Gulf into the world’s fastest-growing urban metropolis that boasts the world’s tallest man-made building (Burj Khalifa), the world’s longest man-made structure (Jebel Ali Port), the world’s largest retail shopping destination (The Dubai Mall) and soon, the world’s most used airport, goes to this man.

In the context of the above, I believe that in 25 years’ time, economic interests will out play political or religious interest groups. The power will be with commercial corporations and city states, and citizenship would be more of a travel enabler than a physical governance restrictor. However, even 25 years from now, the power of simple ideas dramatically executed would be all pervasive.

Your career straddles over 30 years across advertising, investments, publishing, private equity, and government. What is that valuable common thread that runs seamlessly through all of these?

I am passionate about trying to execute new ideas. Sometimes I say that I keep chasing my tail, knowing fully well that I do not have a tail. But it does not prevent me from looking for a tail all the same. But in the process a whirlpool like energy gets created. When it’s positive, new ideas happen, sometimes negativity sucks ideas into the ground! As it is said one needs talent to get to the top but character to stay there.

What is that single-most important trait or what are those top three defining articles of faith that you adhered to forge significant moral and material successes in these fields?

To me it’s about integrity of effort that is of paramount importance.

BPG Group has over 200 employees, representing 29 countries and has “specialist SBUs covering advertising, activation, public relations, branding and design, public advocacy, media asset management, healthcare marketing, and digital marketing”. How do you manage or, more importantly, don’t manage cultural integration and alignment of vision and perspectives in such diversity?

We have around 200 people from 32 nationalities currently. Cultural integration happens automatically when you create a level-playing field that celebrates ideas and success over emotional proximity — when there is oneness in vision alignment and diversity celebrated.

Avi, if you were to re-brand and re-design a city in India into an international hub such as Dubai, which city would that is and what would be your roadmap? What would you tell the new government in New Delhi?

I would probably choose Bangalore. Not just because its where I did my B-School, or because it’s the Infotech hub (and for some, by deductive logic, the innovation hub) of South Asia. But more because of the relative lack of erosion of the moral fabric of the residents of Bangalore, topped with great weather. I would single-mindedly focus on infrastructure through PPP (public private partnerships) mechanisms both in financing and in management.

Is economics strictly a function of politics?

It’s all about economic development to me!

If you were to go back to B-School what would you tell students, especially with reference to management, leadership, and asset building?

My starting point would be the locus of control. The locus of control has to be internal, so that we don’t keep blaming the system, that is, you have got to change the system. Your destiny is yours alone. Eschew the “I can’t help it” line. Far too many people have walked down that path.

The second point is integrity. At the core is the fact that there are no shortcuts. A lot of people rationalise their actions, but the idea of integrity is non-negotiable.

The third point is that there is no substitute for exceptional hard work. There is rarely ever the case where a person has got to where he is without hard work. In exceptional cases, you may not get what you wanted. However, in most cases, you will get what you wanted. We got to be real.

Lastly, it’s all a team game. You got to recognise that. You got to recognise the fact that you are part of a team. That said, what you should never give up under any circumstance is integrity.

BPG is one of the world’s leading marketing solutions companies. What did you learn about marketing that you did not learn in school? What is marketing anyway?

Marketing is simply making any product or service relevant and desirable by getting the most obvious attributes and benefits in front of the consumer in a persuasive manner.

One last: You have helped build one of the world’s most competitive brands — Dubai. What, according to you, are the top three tenets that brand builders need to know or understand before putting their heads together at the drawing board?

Simplicity of thinking. Single mindedness. Execution.

CB

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