The Future Maker – Neela Marikkar, reinventing advertising in Sri Lanka

Neela Marikkar – Chairperson of Dentsu Grant Group

“Think big; the only person who limits you, is yourself”: Neela Marikkar on being a female business leader in Sri Lanka and driving change in her industry. 

In 2017, the Advertising industry was shaken up by the huge merger between the country’s oldest and largest integrated communications agency, the Grant Group, and one of the largest global advertising powerhouses, Dentsu Aegis Network. This marked a seismic shift and the reinvigoration of an industry that had seen little change, and who led the charge? None other than Neela Marikkar. 

Neela is a creative head, an outspoken activist, a driven businesswoman and an industry leader. She has spoken at leading institutions, including Harvard University, the European Commission in Brussels, the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC, The Table of Free Voices in Berlin and the Hague. She embodies a true Sri Lankan spirit and strives to put her country first in everything she does. She is a great role model, for both men and women.  

“I’m often asked how I manage being a boss, a mother and a wife. Is it difficult having and managing it all? Simply put, no, I do not view it like that. Having it all is such a cliché, reserved for women in business, and women in business alone,” stated Neela. “You would never see a man being asked this question, but even in this day and age, it tends to be the sole responsibility of the woman to manage the home, the children and in the instance she works, her job too. But I think that is what sets women apart in business, we are the ultimate multi-taskers; we make it all work, and we make it look effortless. Women tend to be empathetic, caring and natural peace makers.  Imagine if women ran the world, what a great world it would be.”

“Neela ‘at work’ and Neela ‘outside work’ are basically the same; I apply the same principles and ethics to everything I do, and I think my family would attest to that. Being passionate about my work and home has made me the person I am today, it’s one of the many lessons that I have learnt, both while raising a family and building a successful business, that has helped me to be a more empathetic and driven leader in my place of work. I always strive for perfection in everything I do, and am of the firm belief that you should never settle for anything less. At times people accept mediocracy just to get the job done, but I fight this mentality as often as I can, because if we settle for it, we lower the bar for ourselves and the organization.  Integrity and inclusivity in our business operations is a culture that I hold fundamental to the company, and it’s important to lead by example. I always work alongside my team, even if it means being at the end of a phone up at 2 am to show them that I am as committed and passionate as they are to see the work through. I believe strongly in empowering your teams so they can develop and lead themselves.” 

“However, in Sri Lanka, I find that the management style is more autocratic, and staff expect to be led as they are fearful of being held accountable, especially if things go wrong. I believe this is a culture that we need to change. It is only through empowering your people that you can identify talent and grow your leaders, as it is critical to build your next level of leadership so that they can continue to build on your legacy. In my personal life, I am driven and goal orientated; pushing myself as hard as I can. I am my own personal motivator. Outside of work, I have a number of cause-related projects that I focus on and find myself heavily invested in; even emotionally. My faith is a great guide in how I approach life and helps me seek answers when I have faced challenging situations (and there have been quite a few!). It is deeply rooted in who I am. I start my day in gratitude to God for the many blessings in my life.”

Neela is the daughter of the Godfather of Advertising, the late Reggie Candappa, whom she describes as one of her greatest role models. “From my early childhood we were very close. I loved being in his office where I would spend hours. He took me everywhere, from printing presses to newspaper offices. I learnt advertising by watching him work. He was an exceptional boss and I learnt much from him when I served under him as the CEO for 10 years. I observed how he dealt with people, and how he cared for them; from the office peon to the Chairman of a top company, he always had time for everyone. He always reiterated to me, the importance of hiring people better than yourself if you wanted to build a great company.”

“Running this business for the last 27 years, has had its many challenges,” she expressed. For Neela, one of her greatest professional challenges ran parallel with one of the greatest tragedies of her personal life. “My mother had been suffering from terminal cancer for several months, and I spent my days running between work, the hospital and being with her at a very sad time in my life. She passed away and her funeral was on the evening of the 23rd of July 2001. I was heartbroken, exhausted, emotionally drained and finally went to sleep after months of breaking rest only to be woken up by a frantic call a few hours later at 4am informing me that the Bandaranaike International Airport had been bombed by the LTTE and my biggest client at that time, Sri Lankan Airlines, had lost half its fleet. This was a devastating blow, not only to the country’s economy, tourism and the airline in particular, but also to the Grant Group at the time. We were reeling as Sri Lankan Airlines was a significant part of our business and revenue. The country’s economy plunged with tourism taking the biggest hit. This impacted us, not just as an agency, but as a nation and affected us all – it was beyond comprehension. The chance to mourn my mother’s death was ripped away from me, as within hours I had to get back to work to mitigate the dire situation that my client and my business were facing. We had invested in huge resources to service Sri Lankan Airlines, including expatriate staff. As their agency we worked day and night to help minimize the devastating effects of this act of terrorism. I also volunteered my time to the Tourist Board to help manage the international media fallout as it was a PR nightmare. Even though it was a dark time I was determined to bounce back.”

However, even the darkest cloud has a silver lining as Neela explained – “It was during this time that a group of business leaders including myself, whose businesses had been badly affected, came together to form a business initiative for peace, called ‘Sri Lanka First’. Becoming an activist for peace and reconciliation was something that I never imagined doing, but it was life changing. It gave me a whole different perspective in my approach to work and my life skills. For many years this became a personal passion over and above my day job. I saw great examples of countries like South Africa where businesses played a very proactive role in helping their country reconcile and reconstruct. A truly multiracial Sri Lankan with a mother who was Sinhalese, a father who was Colombo Chetty and a husband who is a Ceylon Moor, I believed that the time had come to put the country first. The future of our nation was at stake and we needed to rally everyone to find a solution.  It was during this period that I worked with some amazing people in peace building and conflict resolution. I learnt so much, including understanding the art of negotiating with your adversaries, which has stood me in good stead in business. I even had the opportunity to lead a business delegation to South Africa, to study the role of business in reconciliation and reconstruction, and spent time with Cyril Ramaphosa, the current President of South Africa, and Rolf Meyer, two key business leaders from both sides of the divide who buried their differences and played a vital role in their country’s peace process. This was just one example of the many obstacles that I have had to face professionally and personally; I have had to endure so many other challenges. These challenges have made me turn sour lemons into lemonade, taught me to be a better leader and most importantly, made me find positivity in adversity.”

Speaking of some of the other great personalities, aside from her father, who have inspired her on both a personal and professional level, Neela listed Monica McWilliams with whom she was a part of a network called ‘Women Waging Peace’, and also spoke at a forum at the prestigious Harvard University alongside, and former South African President, Nelson Mandela. Neela described Mandela as “Someone I was fascinated by during the time I was working in peace building. He was one of a kind.” Of McWilliams she said, “Monica co-founded the Northern Women’s Coalition, a political party that crossed the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland, and was based on inclusion, equality and human rights. She was elected by the people of Northern Ireland to serve at the peace negotiations and became a signatory of the Good Friday Agreement. Arriving at a final agreement was fraught with hostility and diverse views, especially with the men at the peace table. When the men left the negotiating table, Monica and her colleague (both women) stayed seated, seeking a solution throughout and refused to give up. They played a pivotal role in keeping everyone at the negotiating table. So inspiring! I think when it comes to women leaders, if we believe in something we will not give up.” 

 “There are so many impressive and stirring women across the world whom I have met and worked with. They have all impacted me in different ways”, she added. 

When asked to list some of her own inspiring leadership traits, Neela replied, “I think one of my key characteristics is the ability to adapt and embrace change. Advertising and marketing communications is one of the most dynamic industries in the world, and is also the one that is experiencing huge transformations with the rapid advent in technology and a new generation of digital natives. Every day, I see the future unfolding and while it is of course very exciting, it is also fraught with challenges. As a leader, I have recognized the signals for change, and jumped in with both feet to learn and advocate for it within my organization. It is critical that I do so in order to future proof the business, and ensure that we have the expertise and insider knowledge to guide our clients through their digital journeys. Another leadership quality that has held me in good stead is my resilience and fighting spirit. I simply won’t give up. This is a quality I learnt from my mother. She would stop at nothing till she achieved her goal. My ambition is yet another leadership trait. I think as a leader you need to have big dreams in order to grow yourself and your business. Only you can limit yourself. If I didn’t dream big, as an organization we would not be at the top of our game as we are today, and we would not be in partnership with Dentsu, a truly remarkable, and futuristic global company that is at the cutting edge of data and digital technology. However, the cornerstone in all of this is the importance of integrity, trust and ethical dealings whether it is with people or in business. As a leader, one must set the tone within your company so that it’s ingrained in the DNA of your organization and co-workers.”

Neela’s key contributions to Dentsu Grant include, spearheading the agency’s partnership with Dentsu Aegis Network (who acquired the controlling stake in 2017), one of the leading advertising agency networks in the world, headquartered in Tokyo and London, with 355 offices in 143 countries and 60,000 co-workers. Today, Dentsu is the largest buyer of Google and Facebook in the world. With an estimated global turnover of USD 55 Billion, Dentsu spends over 60% on digital media. Barely 12 months back Neela launched Dentsu’s full service digital agency brand, Isobar, in Sri Lanka. Today, it has become the fastest growing digital agency in the country and recently received the prestigious Silver Campaign Asia Digital Agency of the Year award for South Asia. Five months back she also launched Amnet, the only one of its kind, digital trading platform that gives high value return on digital spends for Dentsu’s clients; “I have a great team working with me”, said Neela. “That enables me to push the boundaries.” More recently, she personally championed the Dentsu Grant office move into a world class facility, modeled on the open hot desk concepts seen around the world, with high-end tech facilities, collaborative spaces and modern work environments designed by the top architect/interior design company, DesignGroup5.” 

“Grant Advertising was a legacy brand with a 62-year history of building some of the greatest brands in the country. It has always been the veritable university of advertising in the country, having pioneered the industry as the first international advertising agency in Sri Lanka. Having taken over the company with the dual role of both Chairperson and CEO in 2004, I grew the company by expanding the integrated marketing communications services, which we recognized our clients needed”, stated Neela.  

Expressing her views on what the next decade may have in store for the Marketing and Advertising industry, Neela stated, “The core of our business is creative story-telling and that will always remain at the heart of what we do. What is rapidly changing is the consumer. Today, we see that consumers are way ahead of brands. They are creating their own content and platforms that have gained huge followings as they live the digital life. I think the challenge here is that most Sri Lankan brands have not fully understood how to tap into this huge opportunity; how to market to consumers in a relevant manner, tapping into the right moments that engage them through authentic and interesting content. Thanks to technology, consumers get to dictate what they want and how they want it. They are curious, knowledgeable and socially conscious. One-way communications no longer have the same traction. Consumers also look for engagement, they want to be seen and heard. They want to share everything they do online, their virtual life and their strong selfie culture validates this. They make and follow trends, and influencers who align with their views. They care about issues; they care about sustainability, and how products are sourced and manufactured as well as their carbon footprint. Creative story telling in these contexts will be challenging, but one that we are constantly innovating every day. Today, a consumer will watch your message online for a maximum of 5 seconds and if they don’t like it, they’re gone just like that. However, if the content is engaging and relevant, they will watch the whole piece. I believe this is going to be a huge challenge for our industry. To tell creative brand stories in an engaging and relevant manner, and serve it up to the consumer only when they are ready to consume it. This is where data driven digital media solutions will become increasingly important. Sadly, most Sri Lankan marketing companies have been slow adopters compared to many other markets in the region who have progressed much further in these areas. This is of concern to me given that our country has one of the highest penetrations of mobile phones in the world, and we should have been ahead of the curve given that we are already testing 5G technology in this market. I feel brands and agencies have not explored the huge opportunity that is there. Rather it has been more a token presence that lacks real conviction in the medium. Sri Lanka today, has 7 million Facebook users and most of them access it through their smart phones. The opportunity to engage is ripe and ready for the taking. Our global expertise has shown that consumers are less likely to believe branded content on line, rather they believe third party endorsements. They look for authentic content and buy brands that stand for the values they cherish. Even news today is consumed primarily online and that too people follow news channels that reflect their personal views rather than mainstream media. E-commerce will also change the way we purchase goods and services. Take Uber and Pickme, the number of people who use these taxi apps are significant. When it comes to food, take Uber Eats, currently they make over 80,000 deliveries a day mainly in Colombo and the suburbs alone. However, when it comes to banking online or purchasing goods and services, there is a reluctance to do so, because of a general lack of trust in vendors and e-commerce sites, especially when it comes to disclosing their credit card details. Companies who want to operate in the e-commerce space will have to look at how they can localize the mindset of the Sri Lankan consumer and help navigate this better. Finally, consumers want convenience, a fair price and ultimately a personalized experience. With the wealth of data that marketing companies have, I believe that together with competent data driven digital agency partners they can provide this for their target audiences, because Sri Lankans are essentially digital natives. All this being said, I believe going forward, the biggest challenge to the industry will be talent. Today, advertising is struggling to attract good talent as the industry has been slow to evolve. This will make it more difficult for agencies to meet their staff requirements. Many young people are moving into the Tech industry as they don’t see agencies transforming into the digital age fast enough. At Dentsu Grant, we are fortunate as with the new partnership it has helped us to propel our business into the digital arena very quickly, attracting some of the brightest young digital talent in the country.”

Approaching the topic of feminism and women’s rights, Neela explained, “The definition of feminism has been interpreted in different ways over the years. For me, it is more than just an ideology or a popular movement, it is ensuring that women have equal rights as men whether it is access to education, jobs, equal pay and equal opportunity, also when it comes to representation on bodies both in government and in the private sector. Finally, it is not about special treatment, but about equal treatment. This is a critical factor that often gets lost in translation. If the above definition defines it, then yes, I am a feminist.”

“I would like to see more women in the workforce, as we need them to participate actively. They are the backbone of the country’s economy, whichever sector, in the blue-collar sector – the migrant workers, the plantation workers, the garment workers, these are all dominated by a female workforce. Sadly, this is not so in the white-collar segment, especially in senior management. Few women make it to sit on boards, which is still predominantly a male domain. It’s one area that I have been advocating for. A quick search of the top 25 public listed companies will validate this, and puts us nowhere in the gender balance equation. Most often it’s a token representation to show that they have ticked the gender box, and not because they believe that women are as capable and can bring a different dimension to their thinking. However, women too should strive to build their own careers with the ultimate goal of moving up the corporate ladder and being financially independent. Often times capable women stop working, as invariably the responsibility falls on her to give up her career in the interest of family. I think this is a mistake. Today, raising families should be a shared role, and women should be encouraged to manage their family and their career simultaneously. If nothing else she can become a mini entrepreneur working from home. I feel strongly that women must have their own source of income and be financially independent. That is very empowering to her self-worth. One country that has really got it right is Rwanda. Their gender policy is ground breaking and one that is a shining example to the rest of the world. Today, in parliament they have over 55% women MPs, while in Sri Lanka we have a dismal 4%. I think that says it all”, said Neela on some of the challenges that working women are forced to face. 

The Chairperson went on to add that, “At the Dentsu Grant Group we have a good balance of women in leadership roles. We have always been an equal opportunity employer. Being a female boss, I have always believed in equal pay and equal opportunity, and we have a healthy balance across the divisions of men to women, which has always been the way even in the late 50’s. We have always believed in people’s performance as the only criteria for their progression.”

As a professional in a highly competitive and demanding industry, Neela believes that the “woman vs woman” concept in the workplace is a mere stereotypical thought based on the belief that women cannot get along with each other. “I think the same can be said of men too. In my view when it comes to peer groups there is strong camaraderie among themselves. It’s down to the individual, their personality and beliefs, and how they handle their insecurities, and whether or not they can rise above it and be a true professional. I think it’s important for women, especially those in leadership, to have confidence in their ability and not let themselves be emotionally swayed. It’s good to stay clear of office politics and avoid small talk. Never undervalue who you are. Just focus on your work and rise above it all. Your professionalism will ultimately be recognized and you will make it to the top.”

Neela is a fervent advocate for a number of social reforms, including the rights of women. As such she has represented Sri Lanka at many international forums, and is well-versed when it comes to the legislation and regulations required in order to ensure a fair and secure world for all women, especially working women. “I think this is an area that needs careful study and policy planning. As I mentioned before, women are essential for the country’s workforce. Our GDP has the potential to double if we can get a majority of them working. There are an estimated 1.2 million mothers who are overseas at any given time over these past 3 decades, working predominantly as house maids. This has a significant impact on the home, mostly upon the children, as a mother is pivotal in any home as the main caregiver and guide, especially in the early years. It is unfortunate that our economy is still dependent on the blood, sweat and tears of the female migrant worker, who today contributes as the number one foreign exchange earner for the country. I think as business leaders we should be embarrassed. We are supposed to be the engine of growth and the champions of entrepreneurship. We need to supplement these foreign remittances from the private sector by attracting FDI, developing our export of goods and services, tourism etc., so that we can bring our mothers back and give them employment locally through job creation. Currently, there is a huge need for workers in tourism, healthcare, apparel, construction etc. This is one way to grow our economy and help rebuild our very fractured social fabric that has been severely affected as a result of the absence of our mothers in the home. Another key issue is equal pay. Women and men must be paid the same wages. These aspects must be regulated so women see the value of coming to work. There must also be safe and available transportation facilities, if women are to get access to work places. Without these basic facilities it will be difficult to attract female workers into the workforce.”

As a social reformist, Neela is an expert on the role of culture and society in the cultivation of inequality and bias. She believes that apathy towards inequality by women themselves plays a big part in perpetuating the very opinions that weigh against them. “Women are still considered as essentially being less worthy if they are career oriented. The belief that a woman’s place is in the home as the home maker is passed down through generations by women themselves. Some Sri Lankan mothers treat their own sons and daughters differently. This discrimination against the girl child starts at home. They believe that the son should be prioritized over the daughter. If there is a chance for better or higher education, then the first opportunity should be for the son before the daughter. This has to change. The decision must be based on merit irrespective of gender. Thankfully, with the newer generation this is changing. I understand in politics it’s worse, as women have not been given adequate representation by their own political parties. I also believe that over the years, politicians have played the race card poorly, which has created much needless division and fear among the people. This is a great pity as our competition does not lie with each other, but rather outside this country. Every time we allow instability and racial violence, we lose millions of dollars from tourists and foreign investors. It is the same in the case of FDI, we would have lost their interest too, and winning them all back will require so much effort and cost. Take the behavior of some men in this country. Today, a woman cannot walk on the street without being hooted at or having to listen to sick sexual comments. Female tourists comment on the way that they get pestered by beach boys and some of the local men. For a country that boasts of great cultural traditions and family values we have sunk to a low level in this area. Men feel they can say and do what they want with little fear of the consequences. Predatory behavior is not punished. In fact, Sri Lanka has one of the highest online search rates for porn sites in the world. I think this is symptomatic of a bigger problem, which must be addressed. On the other hand, there are some archaic laws coming down from the colonial rulers that are still in effect, and which discriminate against women. Some of these are being challenged in the judicial system and we await the outcome. A relook at the legal framework that protects women and gives them equal status in the context of the country’s development is much needed.”

“For me, my success has been both professional and personal. I love what I do, I think advertising is a very dynamic and challenging industry. What I love most is that I have the ability to work across many diverse sectors with a wide range of brands, from consumer goods, banking and technology to tourism and social causes, while at the same time being a part of the huge digital transformation that is changing consumer behavior and the media landscape. In addition to this, I continue to advocate for my special interest areas, working with my network of colleagues on social causes, which are important to me and I believe to the country, such as clean renewable energy so we can preserve our environment, oceans and forests. I have a very supportive family, my husband Zarook never held me back from pursuing my dreams, and my two daughters Leah and Tasha have been my strongest advocates. They have been my greatest blessing. They are both brilliant, capable and independent young women from whom I have learnt so much and continue to learn. They keep me young at heart and youthful in my thinking. Mothering them has definitely been one of my greatest achievements”, concluded Neela, inspiring hope in all women, that with a lot of passion, determination, adaptability and a strong support system, they can change the world.