‘I Strive for Gold or Nothing’

Bharat Thakrar
Bharat Thakrar. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Bharat Thakrar has Feng Shui’d his office. Eight gold fish and one black one twirl in a big aquarium before his desk. It calms and centres him because after all Bharat captains a behemoth ship, WPP-Scangroup, and that comes with its share of mind bending.

It has been a long sail since 1982 when he founded Scanad then steered it until 2006 when it was listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange. A dyed-in-the-wool advertising man, he is also the former chairman of the Advertising and Practitioners Association and holds a Diploma in Advertising and Marketing from the Communications and Marketing Foundation in the UK.

Slight and silver-moped, reflective and intense, he sits with JACKSON BIKO to talk about how it has been since he raised his sail to catch the big advertising wind.


In an interview with Forbes two years ago, you mentioned that, if you had an undergraduate degree, you would have accomplished more. Do you still hold that thought?


Yes. I do. I think if I had an undergraduate degree, or MBA as a foundation, I would have been a lot more dynamic even though I picked up much later in life. I think the wisdom would have come much faster with those academic qualifications.

What is more important in running a business like this, is it your academic qualifications or it is instincts, experience, age, networks …?

I look at it as three things: You need the academic foundation so that you’re sharp enough to figure out things, and be more analytical. You can evaluate business problems much better. When you go to university, you learn. There was a leader who gave a speech and said, “One thing I will thank Harvard University is it taught me how to think.”

The other thing is the ambition — tireless ambition. Everything requires hard work. You need to break a sweat for success to happen. Most people don’t want to run the extra mile. I have a very simple analogy, there are no runners-up in FIFA World Cup Football. Nobody remembers the runners-up; their people at home do not cheer them because nobody pays you to be second best.

So in my book, it is gold or nothing. The gold means that you didn’t stop at the hardest point, you went through to the last mile where a lot of people give up. Many people have PhDs but they are not successful in life because they aren’t ambitious enough, they are lazy, and don’t want to make the extra mile.

The third bit is people skills. Your ability to be decent, humility, and respect for people you work with.

To constantly run for gold and only gold must come with a level of disappointment because we don’t always get the gold all the time.

Look, success of a great leader is how quickly he picks up the pieces when he falls and runs again. I think we just complain too much. We just don’t get on with it.

How do you reinforce this thinking?

Ambition. If your ambition is strong, you’re focused 100 percent and your body supports you. Everything is in the head, if you start thinking you are not strong enough, or ‘oh, I’m never lucky’, you create all these nonsense in your own head and you won’t be successful.

In my book, everybody can be successful. But the problem is only 10 out of a 100 go for the last mile. Everybody else is happy with mediocrity.

Why is it that everybody is not rich? It’s not because those people are not letting the others become rich. It is people who are not working hard enough to be in that rich bracket. We blame our parents, they didn’t send us to good schools. bla bla bla. I didn’t go to school. I did up to A-levels.

In your journey of success what percentage of it would you attribute it to luck?

You are responsible for bringing either good or bad luck to yourself, depending on your thought patterns. If you’re doing positive things the laws of nature support you. That’s my belief.

How lucky have you been?

I have been as lucky as you have been or anybody else has been. Because you see, at the end of the day, it’s the toiling, the hard work, the vision, consistency and focus. I started with a one-man agency. One day I said I wanted to be big. I had a hit list of the clients I wanted to have one day. Eventually, all of them are my clients. I never gave up. I never told myself ‘oh no I can’t get this client.’ At that time, all the big advertising agencies were run by mzungus. I made no excuses.

Is there a chance that somebody can work really hard and be very ambitious and not make it?

If he gives up when he falls down.

If somebody would have told you in 1982, when you were starting this gig, that you’d be here today. Would you have believed them?

(Sighs). Would I have seen this in my vision? What I saw in my vision was me owning my own agency. (Pause) It’s a bit like thinking, I want to go to Mombasa. I don’t know what Mombasa looks like but I want to go to Mombasa because I know that’s where all is happening.

So, until I get to Mombasa, I don’t know how it actually looks like. But I know one way or the other that I will get to Mombasa.

It’s a good analogy. Now that you are in Mombasa, where do you want to go next?

(Pause) There’s the change around us. The whole industry is taking a structural change. Technology is disrupting everything. We invested in a technology company and we were happy we did that because that is our fastest growing business right now. At least I don’t feel threatened. I don’t need to feel desperate. I know exactly what to do and I know exactly where the industry is heading which then gives me a second life to say, ‘Ok, now I need to change and mould my company to go into that next town after Mombasa.’

Our clients need our help. They need someone to connect the dots. Because they are as confused as we are. Look at what happened with Thomas Cook. They didn’t even think it.

How many hours do you sleep?

I sleep like I normally do; seven hours. I don’t lose sleep over it if that’s what you are referring to because I think you lose sleep when you don’t know what to do. We are now hiring data scientists and developers.

We are hiring a different set of skill-sets because change is the only constant and success or failure of any CEO is how he manages change. If you reach Mombasa and get too comfortable there — like Blackberry did — you will perish because the whole world is changing.

So you get to Mombasa, and you’ve always wanted to get to Mombasa and you’ve worked hard and all these qualities that you’ve mentioned, and you want to celebrate Mombasa. How then do you know that, OK, this is the right time to keep moving?

You watch what’s happening around you. You cannot remain in isolation. So, don’t unpack your bags in Mombasa guys because this is not it. We still have a long way to go. And you get back and you start driving again, get a new direction and you keep going.

So you will be the guy who lives off a suitcase?

So be it. It’s a race. It’s a relay race. Develop people. You can pack yourself in Mombasa. Give the baton of leadership to somebody else who is younger or smarter, who can take it to Dar es Salaam and further South, East, West, North, wherever you go.

Do you have a mentor?

No. I don’t have any individual as a mentor, not when there’s so much available information today for me. I spend a lot of time reading.

Most CEOs admit to have sacrificed a few things to get to where they are. Mostly, time with family. What did you sacrifice?

I think I managed to find time for family. My priority was family and then work.

What’s your extravagance?

I like clothes.

You’re a dandy?

Yeah! I dress well. I spend a lot of money on clothes. If there is one thing I love doing is shopping for myself … shoes, clothes. I’m trying to stay in tune with what people are wearing.

You mentioned ambition a few times, and ambition comes from somewhere, poverty, an experience in childhood, where did yours come from?

I don’t know. I’ve always had it. I had a happy childhood. When I was growing up, Kenya was still a segregated country. We had Asian, British and African schools. I went to school with Asians. My only engagement with Africans at that time was the staff that worked at home. I had no engagements with Europeans.

You couldn’t go to the Sarova Stanley Hotel. You couldn’t go to the Fairmont The Norfolk. It was a white only place. I was probably inspired when I was young. My father was in advertising. (Pause). I’m not sure.

In movies, do you always root for the villain or the heroes?

(Pause). The hero. The nice guy. I don’t like the ugly guys.

What’s the value of money?

For me, wealth is not something you hold on to. But it is good to have money so you can buy stuff you want and have a comfortable life.

When I did an IPO {initial public offering} it was six and a half times oversubscribed. All the shareholders who bought the shares sold them like a month later and they all made money.

I wasn’t feeling very selfish when I took my cheque home because I was not the only one who made money. All my senior managers, under a scheme that we set up called ‘Gold and Anchor Scheme' which allowed them to own shares after working for five years went home with as much as $3 million. I felt very good because these guys helped me get to where I had was.

I’m not just dwelling on making money because the value of money is to be shared to lift everybody. Look there’s a guy who used to carry my golf bag, Kamau. I paid for his daughter’s education from primary to university, she now works for us. I feel good about that.

I pay for people’s education, medical expenses … In Hinduism, there are four areas whenever you give money, you do really good; education, medicine, food and giving your daughter in marriage.

What have you ever failed terribly at?

There are many; hiring the wrong people or not looking after some as well as I should have.

What spirit animal are you?

(Pause). I’m probably as robust as an elephant. Solid underground, difficult to push. I won’t fall down that easily. Sometimes I like to sprint a little bit faster than I should.

How do you centre yourself?

Values. I think between right and wrong. I mean, I know what not to do. There is always a temptation to cross the line but I think you should just stay on the right side of the line and not the left.

When was the last time you were extremely sad?

(Pause). It is a good question. You know, we unfortunately have a culture here in Kenya when you have people who want to rubbish you just because you are successful. One of our competitors tried to rubbish me, and that for me was sad. If you want to fight me, fight me in the boardroom. Don’t try and haul mud at me with false accusations.