By Priya Tuli
There’s more to life than a high-powered career and raising a family. “Do what you enjoy doing, then you do it well,” says Shalini Gopalan-Menon.
Self-assured and vibrant, Shalini Gopalan-Menon, President Director of Interact Carison Marketing Group, arrived in Indonesia over 16 years ago and hasn’t looked back since. Brought up in a sheltered, conservative environment in South India, she studied Fine Arts, surprising herself and her family when she was ranked third at the university she was attending. “It’s not like I was hard-working or clever,” she says with a disanning smile, “I just got lucky and knew all the right answers!”
In the days when young women got married right after university—if not earlier—she joined the advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson, against her father’s wishes. Advertising was still considered a somewhat ‘dubious’ profession, and he had wanted her to take up an ‘honorable’ calling, like teaching.
Five years into her advertising career, she got married and moved to Indonesia. “I was 24, knew nothing about anything and neither of us had jobs, as my husband who had been here since 1983 was just setting up his own business. So here I was, a young bride, in a new country, wiTh a new husband, and a new household to run. And no support system to fall back on, no family or friends. But we loved the place and we were happy.” She soon got a job with Matari, the largest advertising agency in Jakarta at the time. “I learnt a lot in one year. That you’ve got to know the language, that these are great people to work with and get to know. I believe in building long-term relationships. Some of the people I worked with 16 years ago are still with me even today,” says Shalini.
In 1991 she left Bates, the ad agency where she headed a group, to set up a new business: Impact Advertising. But not alone. Ten colleagues, with whom she had worked for nearly a dozen years, joined her in her bold move. Impact’s core business was the Sempati airline account. She also produced the controversial ‘Forestry’ campaign, which went on to win several national and international awards, including Best Ad in the first ever readers’ poll conducted by TEMPO magazine! In 1996 she started Interact and recently went into a joint venture with the US-based Carlson Marketing Group, world leaders in Relationship Marketing.
“Professionally, working in Indonesia is very challenging, completely different from working with multinationals, where global systems are in place. Here, we work a lot with local brands, and need to develop branding and positioning of international standards, that works in a local context. Yes it is very different from the advertising industry in India, that’s why I’m here, I enjoy the difference.”
But there’s life beyond creating brands, she says. She volunteers her professional expertise for social development programs whenever she can. “People have been helping me all my life. In my own small way, I’d like to do my bit to help others too. Which is why I was involved in the “Back to School”
Program after the crisis, and in communication programs for Yayasan (foundations) that look after orphans and destitute women.”
Building brands to boost a client’s business is one thing. But now she’s using her advertising and marketing skills to give prisoners a new lease on life. We all need something feel-good to do in our lives, something that really makes a difference. For Shalini right now, it’s about breaking new ground with “Island Jewels”, a new line in exclusive, beautifully packaged home accessories, a brand that grew out of a high-security prison rehabilitation effort. Prisoners are trained to select, cut and polish stunning volcanic crystals, which are then used as colorful decorative accents either on their own, or combined with other materials to make an exclusive range of products, from napkin rings to fashion jewelry.
“What I like about this program is that the prisoners are afforded a chance to learn a skill they can use when they go free, providing them with a means of livelihood. Twenty-five percent of what they are paid to produce the crystals goes into savings for them, so that they have some seed money when they are released, giving them a chance at a new life.” The fledgling brand, barely a few months old, has certainly taken wing; stocks are already sold out, and new product lines are in the offing.
So who or what has had the greatest impact on her? “The three men who have influenced me the most, are my father, for always impressing upon us the need to rely on our own judgment. He taught us by example, and I am grateful to him for the values I grew up with. My husband, Tiku Menon, for believing in me— right from the time I couldn’t even operate my own bank account. He would help me with direction and just say, ‘You can do it’, no matter what it was. He is my role model. The third is Bob Hasan. I know that public opinion on him is divided, but I know him personally, not through the media, which does tend to exaggerate short-comings. He used to tell me, ‘The key to success is to enjoy whatever you’re doing and make the most of any opportunity presented to you’.”
“I live an ordinary life”, Shalini asserts. “I was just fortunate to have had more than my fair share of work opportunities with senior Indonesians such as ministers and business leaders.” The list is long and impressive, to be sure. The shy young bride who couldn’t handle her own bank account has metamorphosed into a high-flyer indeed!