Venkata Bhonagiri Crosses Seven Seas to Join Adland
"Reinventions" profiles people who've made big pivots. Venkata Bhonagiri, probably best known as senior partner and group director at Mindshare, took the long road to advertising. Here, he talks about leaving a cush consulting career in India, heading back to grad school in a new country, and what it took to make his dream a reality.
What were you before?
I was working for a business management consulting firm, Genpact, India. I was supporting their CPG consulting vertical, analyzing retail point-of-sale data. I always felt there was something much more interesting that I needed to be part of. I was comfortable but not really content and happy.
What triggered your reinvention(s)?
I was always fascinated by advertising. It is one such field that has room for both art and science. The creative and persuasive aspects of advertising makes it an art form, while the increasing importance of data and science makes it even more compelling and informed. I was just not sure where to begin.
It took me months to quit my job and move countries. I was sure I needed to pivot my career, but moving countries was a tough call. It’s time-consuming and a cumbersome process. I still persisted to do it, despite the odds. Moved to the U.S. (crossing seven seas from India) to study marketing as a science.
What did the first steps look like?
Stepping into graduate school, after working for five years, sounds reasonable in theory. The reality was much harder, especially in a new country. The Master of Science in Marketing Research at the University of Texas attracted diverse talent from across the globe. I attended a couple of classes. They were a lot tougher than I imagined, but they were interesting, and I was intrigued.
I was certainly not the smartest person in the room, but I told myself, "I think I am in the right room." I was later referred to as the "inquisitive brown guy," the one with all the questions for professors. After my first semester, I was asked to visit the Dean's office, to find out that the department offered to help me pursue my PhD with full funding!
While I was very happy, my objective was clear: To pursue a career in media and advertising. I humbly rejected the offer.
What was one hard obstacle to overcome?
Fear! After moving to the U.S. to pursue my passion, while not leaving a ton of responsibilities back home, there was this constant fear of whether I made the right choice or not.
I significantly downsized my economic mobility at least for a couple of years, to pursue my career in advertising. Hours of part-time jobs, a constant hunt for scholarships to support my education, plans to tackle financial liability and supporting family back home, all added up to a great amount of fear and sleepless nights. Overcoming this required a huge amount of self-discipline, courage, patience and most importantly clearly seeing and reminding myself of the end goal—a career in media and advertising.
What was easier than you thought?
Networking! Meeting new people and networking was way easier than I thought. This was much warranted here in the United States. Oftentimes, I heard people saying "It's not what you know, it's who you know that matters." I believed this was important most of the time, if not all the time. Participating in forums, like the American Marketing Association and other collegiate chapters across the United States, helped.
What's something you learned along the way that other people, hoping to do something similar, should know?
Seek clarity! Pick a channel and a source to achieve that—a mentor, extensive research, networking, etc.
The field of media and advertising is vast. It offers a variety of opportunities and it's important to gain clarity in what you truly want to pursue. It is hard to decipher but, with the right mentors and extensive research, we can crack it. We just need to invest the right amount of time and look for advisors at every stage of our journey.
What really worked for me was running my thoughts by someone who has been there, done that. When we are open to receiving feedback, that helps us course-correct and gain clarity in what we are trying to accomplish.
Did anyone or anything inspire you along the way?
There are several people that inspired and supported me along the way, most importantly my parents. Always top of mind to this day: Bob Rogers, Kamini Murgaboopathy, Walter Koehler, Kathi Stevens, Paulomi Patel and Shardul Wartikar. I have also been vastly inspired by watching several former and current managers, co-workers, direct reports and clients, as well as friends.
What has this fundamentally changed for you?
My perception about three things has fundamentally changed:
How advertising works. My education, and over a decade of working in this field, provided enough opportunities to carefully study the granular nuances of media advertising. I have far more insight and understanding into how it works.
Finding your passion is something I truly believe one should invest in. It's magical, and it works. Working towards it, despite all the odds, takes time. But it all works out in the end.
Finally, my outlook on life has completely transformed. Invest in what you care for; true happiness always follows.
Do you think you could go back/do you want to?
No way! It was a long way, the hard way, the right way to be here.
Tell us your reinvention song.
"Dream On" by Aerosmith. It's about looking at the past to see how far you've come in the present, and motivating you to work to achieve what you want for the future.
How would you define yourself now?
I am a senior partner and group director at Mindshare, leading one of the business practices within strategy and analytics. I use data to identify growth and data-driven advertising to harness it for businesses. I am a strong believer in energy, empathy and impact, core values of my organization.