Interview with Shubho Sarkar, CEO of Bates CHI & Partners SE Asia


Zareen Akbany did an internship with Shubho Sarkar about two years ago and from that experience, she says ‘I must say he is one of the most inspiring characters I have come across. It was an absolute pleasure to interview you – thank you so much for taking out the time!’

  1. Can you give us a little background about yourself? (I.e. which part of India do you come from, educational background, when did you move to Jakarta?)
    I’m from Delhi and that is where I moved to Jakarta from. My parents are Bengali (from Bengal, which is in the eastern part of India), but I was born and brought up in Delhi, so that is my hometown. All my schooling and college was done in Delhi – in fact, I was in the same school from classes 1 to 12!
    I went to college in Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi University and then did my Masters at The Delhi School of Economics. It is a subject that still fascinates me and for a long time, academia was where I wanted to be, given that my mother is a professor as was my maternal grandfather. My uncle (from my father’s side also was a professor) and my father is a journalist like his father…so I do come from an education-related family, and it was really no surprise that I wished to find my calling there too…but then, that was before advertising became a passion for me.We moved to Indonesia in 2006, between March and May. My wife, Vaishali, moved here with Ogilvy in March, the kids moved to be with her in April and I came in May when I got a job with JWT.
  2. Tell us about your career in advertising. How did you break into the advertising industry, and how did you advance to where you are today?
    Since reading and writing were always such an integral part of the atmosphere at home, I guess we kids learnt to internalise it as a reality of our lives. I used to participate in a lot of essay competitions and try to write like the authors I had read. Apart from getting me excused from attending classes in school (I’m yet to meet many students who love to attend classes!), it gave me (along with sports, which I was and still am crazy about) a great way to keep myself occupied during the long summer months of Delhi. Writing then became something I thought I was not too bad at…and hence one of the two career options (along with academia) that I considered when I finished my Masters. I did work as a journalist for a year while in college and then decided to give copy-writing a try.

    I was introduced to a gentleman at Ogilvy by my maternal uncle’s friend and badgered them to allow me to sit for what was called a ‘copy test’. I got through and became a junior copywriter at Ogilvy Delhi. I loved the place, the atmosphere; and the seniors were particularly nice about having us youngsters around. The next 16 years passed in a joyous blur – I enjoyed every moment of working at McCann, HTA and TBWA, on new assignments everyday, learning new ways to write and express brand benefits based on consumer insights and just lapping up the buzz around advertising. I have to admit that I didn’t always understand (or agree with) everything I was doing, but it was always an adrenaline rush. I never said “no” to anything and the juggernaut just rolled on with me in tow.I dabbled in films, strategies, events, CRM, pitches…anything I could lay my hands on. That’s when the so-called ‘digital obsession’ was beginning to take root, through email and sms.

    My feeling was that technology would eventually define the advertising space too and creativity would move from being critical for the actual ad, to being the strategy itself. I was at TBWA and got involved with Disruption, which I enjoyed thoroughly. So when I was looking for jobs in Jakarta from Delhi, I applied as a Strategic Planner. JWT here was brave enough to give me a try and I took it. Those were another wonderful three and a half years. We won businesses, won awards, traveled and had a happy atmosphere in office. Work didn’t feel like work at all. So when we needed someone to step in and lead the Account Management function for Unilever, Nokia and Ford, I did it as a stop-gap…then just stayed on doing it. Soon Account Management and Planning were functions that were reporting in to me.That is when Bates was looking for a head to lead their outfit in Jakarta. I was approached and for a lark, I agreed to interview. I got the job and took it. Life changed and it was a whole new experience being a CEO. Business planning, strategic planning, creative were all functions I had done before. But to do it all together and be accountable for everything all at the same time was unnerving at first, but became a thrill too.Bates then got structured into three clusters and I was given the role to head up Southeast Asia – six countries with vastly different business environments and social makeups. The challenges were amazing and 24/7 was the way the adrenaline flowed…So yes, it has been a heady ride and I guess I got to enjoy it thoroughly because I just never said no.

  3. What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your job?
    I think from seeing my ad in print or on TV, to awards shows, to just enjoying the thrill of cracking a new strategy or reveling in the off-beatness of the solution, it continues to be a journey of feeling rewarded for the profession I joined. I have enjoyed every moment of it and still do…well, most of the time at least!I think the challenge today is of managing people and expectations. The quality of marketing decisions at many levels is less thorough – and I blame the limited time that people spend in a position or job, for it. We don’t train as well and we have lower thresholds of acceptability of quality. That is the way the world is. When replacement replaces longevity as a materialistic culture, this is bound to happen. Nothing wrong or judgmental about it – just that I still try and bring alive the thrill of quality consciousness and serendipity amongst people. That is the biggest and most enjoyable challenge.
  4. Who has served as the biggest inspirations for your career?
    I have to say my family – parents, brother, wife, my kids…so much to learn from being a parent myself.And life itself. It is so fascinating in all its myriad hues…
  5. What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?
    Personally, I think the first thing is to try and see how well I can bring up the kids – education, values, life skills…Travel a lot more.Professionally, I’d love new challenges…external and internal…if I don’t get them, I’ll cook up some of my own in the form of goals and go after them. Never a dull moment!
  6. What advice can you offer to prospective students thinking about an education and career in advertising and marketing?
    Always find out enough to have a point of view. The problem with the world today is the tendency to make uneducated judgments.Have a point of view, but be a good listener. Remember, education is about the ability to hold more than one perspective at a time in your head.Listen because you cannot know everything by yourself.You can’t find out everything by yourself, but be rabidly curious. Apart from keeping you fascinated by the beauty of knowledge, which will make you an interesting person, it will keep you occupied productively and gainfully.Be rabidly curious and teach yourself to observe. Observation (without judgment) is fascinating, especially people-watching. Be interested, for you will be amazed at how much it teaches you about your own self.Teach yourself to observe and try to answer the questions that arise in your mind. Any observation will always raise questions in an intelligent mind, which it must try and answer. Always ask why, especially to understand human behavior.Answer the questions that arise in your mind and always find out enough to have a point of view… then you can go back to the top of this list!

    But most of all, ask yourself, “am I here with the solution or am I a part of the problem?” And you will find that you are both interesting and interested.

Zareen AkbanyBy Zareen Akbany