"In this dynamic landscape, reputation is a key focus for those who are keen on sustained success": Sunil Lulla

"In this dynamic landscape, reputation is a key focus for those who are keen on sustained success": Sunil Lulla

Our expertise lies in enlightening clients on threats they face in the digital realm

Sunil Lulla

Mumbai: Sunil Lulla is a one man master class when it comes to Media, be it Print, Broadcast, measurement and much more.  Now he Heads Astrum as its Chairman. I have had the pleasure of interacting with him many times, this conversation is all about Risk & Reputation of brands and organisations. Lulla is known for successfully growing businesses, building enduring brands, and shaping organizational cultures. In a career spanning close to four decades, he has delivered business profitability, built market leadership and driven high employee engagement. These include blue chip organizations such as MTV, SONY, Entertainment Television, The Times Television Network, Indya.com, HMV, Diageo, Balaji Telefilms, JWT, GREY Group and BARC. He is the Chief Evangelist of The Linus Adventures, an advisory service focused on growing businesses, building brands and enabling cultures.

Brands benefit from Lulla’s deep insights into Indian consumers and Board of Directors, C Suite executives and Start-Up Founders benefit from his rich experience in building very successful high-performance organizations. Sunil is an Institute of Directors (IOD) certified board member and currently serves on several boards. Sunil is an active sports-oriented person fond of running, swimming and working out in the gym. While at rest, it’s music, movies, and books, with a good hand at mixology.

Indiantelevision.com on a one-on-one chat with Astrum chairman Lulla, on his new role, the launch of the Astrum report and much more….

Edited excerpts

On your journey and now as Chairman Astrum

My commitment has always been about continuous learning and growth, aligning with the people I collaborate with and contributing positively to their success. This is my driving force, and when it no longer motivates me, I'll step back—that's my simple philosophy. My journey in media began with TV and even involved distributing physical copies of the Mumbai Mirror during its launch. I've navigated through the internet, explored the OTT space, and realized the significance of media in the sociological fabric of human life. Despite diverse opinions, the consumption of media continues to rise, deeply intertwined with commerce, digitalization, and automation.

My focus is on enhancing business performance. The report we've shared emphasizes the need for businesses to acknowledge the importance of their brand scores, often neglected in boardrooms where profit and loss take precedence. In recent times, corporate entities have grappled with credibility and reputation issues, underlining the necessity for investments in understanding and refining these aspects within regulatory frameworks, utilizing both digital and non-digital technology.

Today, a looming factor is the complexity of risks and how to navigate them. Rather than perceiving this as a threat, our perspective is that it presents an opportunity for positive transformation. Our submission isn't solely for our benefit but for the entire industry to recognize this opportunity. We encourage collaboration and discussion, understanding that diverse viewpoints can augment and enrich our understanding. The message is clear – the industry must embrace change, leverage technology, and collectively strive for improvement.

On this journey of TV to print, back to TV then BARC and now PR

Companies are fundamentally about people and the pursuit of specific goals. Throughout my career, I've had the privilege of both setting and inheriting goals, and more often than not, I've managed to exceed expectations. When asked about the company I enjoyed working with the most, my response has always been that it's about the people.

From my very first job as a salesman in a liquor company, a Tata company at the time, I've maintained connections with some of the people I worked with. Despite the passage of time, I still cherish those relationships. While some companies I've been associated with have disappeared, others have thrived and transformed into something new. For me, the essence lies in the relationships forged.

Reflecting on my career, I've found joy in these connections, wishing success for all the companies I've been a part of. Life has brought various experiences, and while some opportunities have vanished, new ones have emerged. Looking back 40 years, I see the landscape differently, recognizing the abundance of opportunities today.

Entering the workforce, I, like many others, once believed in a retirement age of 55. However, witnessing my father-in-law celebrating his 100th birthday made me question that mindset. If he can continue to thrive, why can't I? The realization dawned that staying healthy and keeping the mind active is key. Adapting, adopting, and staying relevant is crucial. As the saying goes, it's all about mileage, as shared by Dharmendra in a memorable movie.

The Western media landscape has adeptly embraced change, particularly in the evolution of journalists from traditional roles in high-intensity television to becoming versatile content producers, capable of shooting and creating their own stories. Reflecting on this adaptability within our industry to incorporate technology, it's noticeable that the process may require significant capital or human resources. Despite this, it's perplexing to observe a slow integration of these advancements into the curricula of media schools.

When examining our circumstances, we can either accept the status quo and react, or we can proactively seek ways to instigate change. Personally, I lean towards the latter approach—asking, "How can I change?" Throughout my life, I've embraced a philosophy akin to being a coffee bean, focusing on transformation and adaptability.

On joining Astrum

My association with Ashwani spans over 25 years, during which we've collaborated across various business ventures. Given that this is a subject close to my heart, exploring the authenticity of public perceptions is a key focus. The question arises: Can you shape these perceptions, or are they inherent truths? Managing reputation and risk involves a strategic interplay of data sciences, research, and technology, all while operating within a defined framework.

In the current landscape, compliance is a pivotal aspect, particularly with the imperative need to adhere to GST regulations for business operations. The awareness of compliance extends beyond business circles to touch every individual today. It is essential to cultivate the ability to construct and fortify these pillars, and if I can contribute to facilitating the transformation of this industry, it would be immensely gratifying.

Acknowledging that we might have slipped from the central stage, the path to resurgence lies not just in size or superiority but in addressing pertinent issues. Redirecting the focus to critical subjects is the key to regaining prominence. This is precisely what I aim to accomplish by joining Astrum—contributing to shaping the future, refining strategies, developing products, nurturing client relationships, and supporting the team in this transformative journey

On the plethora of PR firms and Astrum being different from them

Initiating with the report, our current approach involves reaching out to as many of our existing clients as possible. They are already acquainted with our capabilities, having witnessed firsthand the value we bring. We maintain a deliberate discretion about our operations, disclosing specific information only to clients who require it. Each client, be it A or B, receives tailored information based on their unique business needs and services.

Our expertise lies in enlightening clients about the less obvious threats they face in the digital realm. From elucidating methods to safeguard copyright and intellectual property to guiding them through responses to potential cyber-attacks, we provide comprehensive support. Moreover, we assist clients in elevating their understanding at the board level, offering insights on engagement and crucial knowledge.

Observing the onboarding processes in companies, it's apparent that new CEOs or CXOs often lack a toolkit on handling media, reputation, and regulation. There's an untapped opportunity for companies to approach these aspects with greater seriousness. This, we believe, could significantly benefit the industry.

Our presence and contribution to this forum aim to convey a message to the industry. We possess the capability to fortify our foundation and capabilities. The emphasis should be on collective improvement rather than engaging in competitive rhetoric. While comparisons and boasts might be part of the industry culture, our primary focus remains on strategic initiatives that bring lasting value to our clients.

On targeting this report to other people in general except you clients

I believe companies with listed boards must stay informed about industry developments. However, the current methods of communication may not be as effective as a comprehensive toolkit. Unlike learning to drive, where a structured training program is necessary, companies need ongoing practice in their communication strategies. CEOs often appear on CNBC, a bellwether channel for stocks, to convey the company's face and soul. This practice is likely to persist due to quarterly and yearly reporting requirements.

The evolution of communication strategies is evident, considering the shift from presenting ads to the board before airing to the current trend of creating numerous versions. However, there is a risk of the communication process becoming less strategic. While marketers have become more competitive and astute, the board's agenda should consistently focus on customer engagement.

In my view, companies must actively engage media personalities with strong reputations, such as yourself, to understand what resonates with the audience. It's not just about showcasing content; it's about influencing opinions and encouraging a shift in perspective. The goal is to prompt critical thinking about the business. This engagement with influential figures in media is an essential aspect of the journey towards effective communication strategy.

How do big tech companies, going to look at this, as you said, reputation, risk and research are important.

For them, it's an opportunity to take this over. As I said, this is a great idea, let me figure out how I can take my services to so many more clients, for themselves to engage with this. Everybody cannot be ready for everything all the time, and they cannot offer all the services and today, there is a great amount of specialization that happens. So, if I'm not mistaken, in Estonia, children in class one start learning to code. In India, they teach you much later in life.  So why do they do that? Because they push hard on the digital frontier, they want kids to understand technology, you don't have to go to IIT to be a technologist. I think that's what's very important and now it is part of our life

On this reputation building being important for the company

There is a widespread belief among both the older and newer generations that if a product bears the Tata name, it is bound to be of high quality. This perception is rooted in the trust that has been built over time. Just as the Constitution evolves, companies also transform with the times. Those who are mindful of their values, products, and messaging understand the significance of their reputation.

Much like a banyan tree growing from an acorn, companies should be focused on their roots and where they are headed. The period between 2019 and 2022 witnessed the rise and fall of numerous businesses. Some, despite facing setbacks, managed to recover due to their established reputation. In the private equity space, there are instances where a company revamped its brand imagery without changing its core partners. The message conveyed was that while the system was effective, the public perception needed adjustment.

Companies are recognizing the need to adapt and evolve. Some have rebranded to address issues, emphasizing that their fundamental operations remain intact. Others have rejected unsuccessful strategies, understanding the importance of aligning with what works. In this dynamic landscape, reputation is a key focus for those who are keen on sustained success.

Reflecting on the past decade, many companies emphasized the importance of purpose in 2010. Today, scrutiny revolves around whether they have delivered on that purpose. Authenticity is the benchmark, and companies point to their long-standing contributions as evidence of their commitment. The landscape is vast, and while the journey may be in its early stages, the focus remains on continuous evolution and aligning with a changing sense of purpose.

On educating your clients and then the rest of the industry on the risk factors of the technology

Engaging with our existing clients is already a priority for us, and platforms like the one we're addressing today serve as an additional means to reinforce our message. Unlike adopting a broad and indiscriminate approach, we distance ourselves from the shotgun strategy; our approach is tailored and deliberate. Astrum prides itself on being a highly customized company, a characteristic that sets us apart.

A core strength of Astrum lies in its tranquillity; we only undertake projects that align with our capacity to deliver. If a client expresses a specific need, such as a desire to maintain a constant presence on Instagram, we are open to collaboration. However, our focus remains on creating a framework and providing the necessary support for the task to be carried out by a trusted partner. We don't invest our time in areas where we cannot contribute meaningfully.

In essence, we see ourselves as the trusted counsel at the table. Our role involves establishing partnerships, fostering trust, and instilling faith in the endeavours we undertake. This is the essence of what we do.

On the risk factor, and the jargon around AI will take over all our jobs

In the realm of risk, the absence of learning is a notable concern. Take, for instance, the introduction of Direct-to-Home (DTH) technology; initially, there was a learning curve, with individuals grappling to navigate a remote control. Today, even the most traditional TV shows find their audience on apps, a testament to society's adaptability. Learning, in my perspective, transcends the confines of engineering expertise. While being an engineer is commendable, the emphasis should be on leveraging engineering talent to reshape India innovatively.

In our industry, a pivotal understanding of technology is imperative. One can adopt a defensive stance by barring entry, or opt for an inclusive "KNOCK KNOCK" policy, allowing exploration into uncharted territories. Our preference aligns with the latter, embodying the bespoke company ethos where value creation takes precedence. Many of our enduring client relationships attest to the success of this approach.

Regarding the report's timing, credit is due to Ashwani and the team, as the initiative predates my involvement. Acknowledging the transformative impact of technology, the decision to bring this to light stems from a realization that boards often neglect these discussions. As India sees an increase in listed companies with more open and transparent boards, providing insights can aid companies in their growth journey. While not advocating for a strict scorecard, fostering discussions around this subject is vital. CEOs and chairmen should possess awareness and a standpoint, contributing to informed perspectives within the industry.