CEO at GroupM MENA
With 35+ years of experience in MarCom and media management, Ravi Rao is on a mission to lead multicultural and diverse teams and execute growth strategies. A talent nurturer, he has developed and mentored top-notch talents across WPP.
Rao started his marketing career in India and moved to the Middle East in 1992, where he became a master at media management and business development with an elite portfolio experience of top international brands such as Unilever, P&G, Mars, PepsiCo, and Dubai Holding. He was Mindshare’s CCO and CEO before assuming the GroupM MENA CEO role in 2019.
Rao is a Board Member of the TAM KSA, a member of the Cross Media Planning Committee of the ABG Dubai, and the former Chairman of MRUC (Media Research Users Council) in India.
How would you define leadership today?
Empathy. Leadership today is guiding the team towards the vision with empathy, despite all the challenges in this most unpredictable world.
What’s the most important decision you have taken as a leader?
Salary cuts. During the pandemic, I convinced the exco to implement a voluntary salary sacrifice only to our leadership team in MENA. Nobody [else], from director level and below, got any cut. It was important to support the team as they are the ones who run the organization and grow our clients, while suffering the most both financially and emotionally.
What’s the one decision you wish you hadn’t made as a leader?
No to remote working. I came to the office every single day for the past 24 months, forgoing work-life balance. I wish I was like everyone else. Now, I realize it is just a mindset and flex working does really improve mental health without losing work focus.
In your opinion, who’s the most powerful leader globally today?
Sundar Pichai of Alphabet & Google, for his business acumen and humility. He continues to touch almost everyone’s life on this planet in a positive way. He is always behind the scenes and pushes his team to the limelight.
To lead, grow big and famous, yet not forget one’s roots is a valuable trait in a leader. To be devoid of arrogance or flamboyance but full of empathy makes him a successful leader.
Who’s your role model and why?
It was always Jim Stengel, Global Marketing Officer of P&G until 2008, whose talk I listened to in Cannes. Stengel is currently the President and CEO of The Jim Stengel Company, where he advocates for ideals-driven business and brands.
He changed the way P&G was perceived internally and externally. He took the position at a time when P&G was struggling – earnings were down, about half of its brands were losing market share, and Ad Age had the headline “Does P&G still matter?” Jim made the company listen to its consumers, brought about self-belief and confidence, and rebuilt marketing, creating change inside and out.
His quote I like the most is: “Maximum growth and high ideals are not incompatible. They’re inseparable.” He truly lives up to his philosophy of giving back, in every spirit of his word.
What’s the most important quality that every leader should possess?
Show empathy as well as strength. Assertiveness and kindness go hand in hand with top leaders. You will know that every decision can turn positively or adversely, and you must act accordingly; but to be indecisive is the worst trait.
What is the one mistake that leaders most commonly make?
Not communicating effectively. Effective communication occurs when everyone in the team and organization is aware of the goals, and knows what you and they are working toward.
Optimism and enthusiasm in the plan are equally critical. If you show positivity when you communicate, you can rally all towards the organization’s goal. Of course, it is a dialogue and not one-way communication, so listening is also an integral part of effective communication.
What’s the most critical threat that every leader in the industry should pay attention to today?
A financial decision outshining client-centricity in our service industry. Growing pressures on margins can make us lose sight of adding value to our clients. As competition intensifies, we must keep walking a tight rope.
Keep doors open, so you can get clients to see reason. At the same time, be prepared to say no when it keeps affecting team morale.
What’s the most important risk you took?
Market exit. Not shutting down one of our offices despite all the financial and operational pressures. It is back in business, far from the good times we have had in the past, but I am sure the country will bounce back, if not now, soon. The risk of re-entry is the toughest that I have seen from other market experiences, and the opportunity cost is even more than just the country P&L.
What resources would you recommend to someone looking to become a better leader?
Get yourself a mentor, if not mentors.
A mentor really helps you to ask questions, however stupid they could be, and doesn’t judge, simply guiding you by acting as a bouncing board. Especially if you are a startup entrepreneur, you will surely need someone who can help you resolve a conflict or challenge, lead you to opportunities, and give you clarity.
Within work, tag along with someone who you really aspire to [become], and that person can act as a guide for you. Get another mentor who is the diametrical opposite of what you are, so you will see opportunities ahead differently. They say that you get lonely at the top, so mentors fill the occasional loneliness.
What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow as a leader?
Unlearn & learn. I keep in touch with my mentors, learn from my peers and colleagues, continue to read the old-fashioned way, and never am afraid to ask questions about things I don’t know. Be aware of your own limitations and surround yourself with people capable of bridging the gap in your knowledge or experience.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever received?
Own up & keep moving. One of my bosses, after promoting me to a leadership position, said, “Read, analyze, discuss, and question. In the end, take a decision and see it through with your actions.
You may have hit the jackpot, or you may have lost it. Take corrective action if you lost it and make yourself accountable. You can’t be Nostradamus all the time!” This is the only way you learn and keep getting better!
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve ever given?
Horses for courses. A dirt-track-trained horse cannot always win a turf-track race. It takes a lot of grit and determination getting to be a good winner despite challenging situations.
I urge you all to read on situational theory of leadership, which suggests that no single leadership style is best and that you need to adapt your style to the situation. The right style of leadership greatly depends on the maturity level (i.e., the level of knowledge and competence) of the individuals or group.
You can see the full ranking and methodology here.