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Sashi Shankar, Chief Marketing Officer, Idea Cellular

March 30, 2012
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Sashi Shankar, chief marketing officer, Idea Cellular, wants the company to build on its high brand visibility while taking on its biggest challenge – to keep raising the bar…

As chief marketing officer, Idea Cellular, Sashi Shankar believes that the challenge for his company – the third largest mobile operator in the country in terms of revenue and a company with a high brand recall – is to keep “raising the bar” to stay ahead as the whole sector grows.

This is the policy which he believes has resulted in an improved revenue market share for Idea. The quarter ended December 2011 showed a gain of nearly 1 per cent which, in a highly complex and competitive environment, is a testament, he says, to the excellent team that drives the company.

The operator currently has over 110 million subscribers and a throughput of over a billion minutes per day.

“As 3G services proliferate, this base is likely to enter the internet world through their handsets, creating the finest wave of the mobile broadband revolution that will sweep the country,” he says.

A chemical engineer from Anna University, with an MMS in management from the S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research, Shankar says his school and college days were thoroughly enjoyable. He was involved in a number of extra-curricular activities and he enjoyed playing various sports as well.

Shankar has over 10 years’ experience in the telecom sector, having joined Idea Cellular in 2001. During his long innings at Idea, he has handled operations in diverse geographies, starting with Gujarat, then Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and finally launching operations in Mumbai in 2008 before taking over as chief marketing officer last year.

Prior to Idea, Shankar was in the consumer durables business, working with Mattel, Inc. as vice-president, sales during 1998-2001, and Blow Plast Limited, among other companies.

From the trends he has seen in the telecom sector, Shankar says that mobile internet will change “the way we work and play”. Over time and across geographies, there has been a movement from the analogous to the digital lifestyle. The mobile internet, he believes, will open multiple business opportunities such as e-commerce, B2B transactions, mobile advertising and e-governance.

“Mobile internet presents the opportunity to manufacturers and marketers to display, book orders and fulfil the offer in the quickest possible way. This significantly reduces the cost and go-to-market time. So mobile internet is expected to open new vistas in trading and commerce,” he says.

Worldwide, smartphones are witnessing rapid uptake due to their multi-tasking capabilities and vast range of applications. While data uptake has witnessed steady growth since 3G services were launched in India, he thinks that the progress and proliferation will be spurred by the availability of affordable 3G devices.

He elaborates: “Globally, the exponential growth in internet usage is being driven by 3G smartphones and out of 2 billion internet users, 1.5 billion access the internet from their smart devices. India is expected to follow a similar trend where existing 2G phones will finally be replaced with affordable, yet many times more powerful 3G smartphones. The adoption process will initially be a trickle, but will finally turn into a tsunami once the devices become affordable for the mass market and the relevance of internet access through these computing powerhouses is understood by the masses. The onus of spreading the power of ‘online’ to offline consumers rests on the early adopters – the existing digitally savvy consumers.”

Idea won 1 million 3G users within the first month of service launch. The brand became a household name with its popular catch-phrase, “What an Idea sirjee”, which Shankar is pleased to say has become a part of street conversations. The brand is backed by a focused sales and distribution network comprising over 94,000 base stations, both 2G and 3G, and over 60,000 km of fibre network covering more than 260,000 villages.

Idea was one of the early investors in the telecom sector, having entered the fray in 1995. Promoted by the Aditya Birla Group, the company has a turnover of Rs 160 billion from its telecom operations and more than 7,000 employees on its rolls. It is listed on the National Stock Exchange and the Bombay Stock Exchange.

Idea is the third largest telecom licence fee payer to the government. Its strong growth in the Indian telephony market comes from its deep penetration in non-urban and rural markets. “We have the highest share of rural subscribers as a percentage of total subscribers, amongst other GSM players,” Shankar says.

Penetration into rural India is something that took him to Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh at a time when the challenge was to expand the network into the most remote parts of the country and simultaneously develop a sales and marketing footprint that could deal with this expansion.

“The width of the two states encompassing the heart of the subcontinent threw up several challenges, which were exceptional learnings in diligently growing the business,” he says. “From the rural expanse of Chhattisgarh to Mumbai, the highly competitive financial capital of the country, was a wonderful transition. Building and leading a team, and making the brand the most respected was a hard fought battle, which I am glad to say I won.”

It is this solid foundation in sales, marketing and distribution across both rural and urban markets that he believes has equipped him to deal with the challenges that lie ahead. “I believe I have learnt to negotiate the nuances of the sector via a hands-on approach.”

In November 2011, he was delighted when the company won the Best Brand Campaign Award at the World Communication Awards 2011, held in London, beating four leading telecom brands from across the globe.

Idea received recognition for two of its most popular and successful communication campaigns – “Break the Language Barrier” and “No Idea, Get Idea”.

“We believe in pushing for the best, whether it is advertising or maintaining the highest standards of corporate governance by ensuring compliance with all applicable laws or demonstrating a high level of accountability or maintaining high standards of transparency,” says Shankar.

The company recently launched its 3G Android smartphones to attract its existing 2G users to 3G services. It has tied up with Chinese firm, Huawei, to source 2.8-inch screen smartphones to be sold at Rs 5,850, and with another Chinese company, ZTE, to source its 3.5-inch screen Blade smartphones to be sold at Rs 7,992.

Idea also recently tied up with Opera Software to launch a customised Opera Mini mobile web browser for subscribers. Customers will be able to download this co-branded version of Opera software on their devices by end-March 2012.

Commenting on the launch, Shankar says, “In emerging markets such as India, the mobile phone will soon become the primary way of accessing the internet. We are arming ourselves with the best-in-class solutions for catering to this data-hungry population.” He adds, “By providing an enhanced superior Opera Mini browser, we are confident that our customers will enjoy an even more fulfilling, faster and feature-rich internet experience on their mobile handsets.”

Another important launch was that of the ringback tone service, introduced in collaboration with US-based digital entertainment services RealNetworks. The deal will allow RealNetworks to power dialler tones across 10 circles: Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh West, Uttar Pradesh East, Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal, Kolkata, Assam and the Northeast.

According to Shankar, dialler tones have matured as a product and growth has stagnated. So, he adds, there is a need to invest in innovation and think out of the box. “We hope to partly address this through our partnership with RealNetworks. After a rigorous evaluation process, RealNetworks emerged as the best fit for the job at hand. We hope to leverage its global expertise in music, technology and licensing.”

At present, Shankar is responsible for the entire gamut of marketing activities stretching from product management to pricing, advertising and promotion, VAS and mobile broadband.

“The issues are localised, and yet it is the development of a common strategy that helps to continue the push that Idea Cellular is committed to make to expand services in the highly competitive hinterland of the country,” he says.

On his management style, Shankar says he believes in delegating work and providing adequate freedom for people to perform. When required, though, he switches to a hands-on approach.

A typical day involves meetings with colleagues, teams and external partners, periodic reviews; planning meetings; and going through reports on performance and the key performance indicators of the company’s business.

Shankar’s hobbies are music, movies, books, travel and the internet. His spare time is spent with his family. He admits that while his family doesn’t approve of his long working hours, they have got used to it by now.

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