Raahil Chopra
Feb 2, 2021

Vishnu Mohan: From digging oil in the middle of the ocean to joining advertising

The outgoing chairman and CEO of Havas Group, Southeast Asia, India and North Asia, speaks with Campaign India about his advertising career, setting up the media unit at the agency, ageism and more.

Vishnu Mohan
Vishnu Mohan

Earlier this month, the Havas Group announced an organisational restructure, part of which sees Vishnu Mohan, chairman and CEO, Havas Group Southeast Asia, India and North Asia, exit the Havas brand. Mohan, who will be transitioning to a content role in June 2021 at a group level with Vivendi, had joined Havas in 1995 after a stint with Rediffusion in India.

In a conversation with Campaign India, he reminisces about the last 25 years, what lies ahead and all the learnings he’s gleaned by working at Havas. 

The early days

A petroleum engineer by discipline, Mohan joined Rediffusion in Mumbai in 1991 straight from IIM Ahmedabad. “I was digging oil in the middle of the ocean before I decided to shift careers and join advertising. I owe the shift to Ajit Balakrishnan (co-founder, Rediffusion) and for me, he is one of the most dynamic people with a true vision of what he wanted the shape of the industry to be. He impressed me so much when he came for campus placements, and wanted me to join the industry. I also saw advertising as a challenge; I thought of myself as an introvert and the advertising industry is an extroverted industry. I thought of it as a perfect place to join and change this,” said Mohan, about his early days in the industry.


30 years forward see Mohan all ready for a new role. He says that while there have been several changes in the industry, two things remain the most important pillars in advertising—talent and creativity.

“We have seen negatives like talent drain and there needs to be a serious effort to re-energise and bring it back. The value of the industry has seen some erosion, too. However, I still believe that the industry’s soul—creativity—is still alive. I will challenge anybody who tells me the industry is dead. Talented humans will always stay ahead of talented machines,” he explains, before sharing some of his learnings during his 30-year-career.

“The industry has seen integration to disintegration to reintegration. First, we were all together and worked as a singular governance. Then we disintegrated before the formation of the current village model. There were some positives in the disintegration phase: it allowed parts of the industry that weren’t getting their due in terms of focus. However, in that process we lost some brand- and consumer-centricity which we are now trying to get back,” says Mohan.

Adding to his learnings, he says, “I have seen the world before the internet phase. I have seen the

world of hardly any television. I’ve seen the media’s explosion and then its fragmentation, and if I look at the summary of what’s happened in the last few years, the concept of community has evolved. We are also seeing social, commerce and purpose become the big headline transformation that the industry has seen. And it will continue to see more and more of that. A lot of it has been fast-tracked because of the year that has been because of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Ageism and talent drain

A hot topic in the advertising world is ageism. Mark Read, the chief executive of WPP, was in the news last year when he said that the average age of employees should be below 30.

Mohan doesn’t agree. “I don’t agree age makes on redundant. You age only if you want to. It’s about you continuously evolving. When the internet started, everyone believed it was just for the youth. Today, it’s all changed and my mother-in-law and even her mother can use Facebook,” he says.

Adding to the bit about draining talent, Mohan says, “We were seen as an industry that charged itself as a function of what the client spent. I think it was the wrong approach that didn’t take into account the brainpower and time involved. We saw undercutting too, which led to further erosion. Thirdly, we saw the emergence of new industries and credit them with taking over our talent. We have learned a lot from them, too. I think, if advertising puts its mind to it to bring back the value game, we can get our way. The machine-led stuff will continue to be commoditised. However, the other part of the world will see true human value and that value will keep going up if we can put it back into the picture.”

A shift of power to Europe?

Mohan set up Havas’ media operations from scratch within Asia-Pacific. In fact, he led the group across South East Asia, North Asia and India in his last role. The company’s reorganisation sees part of Mohan’s erstwhile South East Asia mandate taken over by Alberto Canteli, CEO, Middle East and Eastern Europe, Havas Group. After this move, there have been murmurs about the South East Asian market—built by Mohan—seeing control shift to Europe. However, Mohan rubbishes those claims.

“I don’t think it’s a fair perception. There’s a lot of news you will hear in due course that comes from South East Asia that will truly demonstrate what we are focusing on. I have been a part of it. Over time, we have also built these countries to be individually strong and headed by powerful CEOs. Hence, I don’t see somebody on top of deterring their growth. The group is seeing this region as an important one and I don’t think there’s any reason to feel that it’s a negative,” he says.

Next role within Vivendi

Mohan exits Havas on 30 June, 2020, but continues to be with Vivendi. His role will see him looking after the agency’s content side. Having started the concept of Vivendi Committee over a year and a half ago, Vivendi comprises all its companies—Universal Music, Gameloft, StudioCanal, Vivendi Village and Havas, among others.

Explaining his new role Mohan says, “When we combine the aggregate power of the company, we want to create something that benefits the client. It could even be creating new content IPs that could partner brands and media companies. We did this with Gameloft and Zee5 in India, last year. We have also created something for TV that should release later this year or early next year. The idea is to see how we can facilitate our individual assets by cross-fertilisation and by creating new properties that can benefit all of them.”


Campaign India

Related Articles

Just Published

2 hours ago

Sexual harassment at Cannes: A 'difficult yet ...

People need to trust that employers, event organisers and others with a duty of care are looking out for them, says Digital Cinema Media's Karen Stacey.

2 hours ago

Amazon and GroupM partner to embed brands in live ...

E-commerce giant and media agency network have been engaged in an exclusive partnership for the past six months to create branded shoppable livestreams.

2 hours ago

Havas pushes integration with new ‘Converged’ ...

French agency group’s moves come ahead of possible stock market float.