Media All Star: Baba Shetty

When Baba Shetty describes his career progression as “interesting,” he understates the case by more than a little. He didn’t study media or marketing in school and counted among his formative jobs a post at BMW’s US headquarters… in product development, where he worked on tweaking an early iteration of the next-generation 3 Series for the North American market. So how did Shetty, now chief strategy and media officer at DigitasLBi, become one of online and offline media’s go-to guys, not to mention one of its most eloquent voices?

To hear Shetty tell it, it was in large part because he asked lots of questions. He couldn’t help himself, really. After impressing the then-CMO of BMW with his curiosity and intellect, he was installed as media director.

“I hadn’t worked in media before and it was all new to me, but I actually loved it,” he says. From his first moment in the job onwards, he learned by doing. “A big part of it was just throwing ideas around. What made for a great media plan? Why Rolling Stone and Esquire instead of Spin and GQ? Why ESPN instead of ABC?”

Shetty did what he calls his “post-graduate work in new media” at his next job, as a principal analyst at Forrester Research. There, he made it his mission to examine client situations and attempt to discern where consumer behavior vis-à-vis media was headed. “I tried to understand how companies could benefit from the changes that were happening, or at least not get left behind,” he recalls. Two agency stints, as digital lead at Fallon Worldwide and as chief media officer and chief strategy officer at Hill Holliday, followed.

And then Shetty once again zigged where others might have zagged. He left Hill Holiday for a stint as CEO of Newsweek/The Daily Beast, a post in which he oversaw the relaunch of the magazine’s borderline archaic web site. That relaunch came about in the wake of the company’s decision to eliminate its venerable print edition (it has since come back from the dead). Though Shetty only stayed with Newsweek/Beast for nine months, he says the experience proved invaluable, especially in learning more about how the proverbial other half lives.

“Every buy-side person should spend time on the sale-side,” he says. “It should be mandatory, frankly.”

Shetty’s Newsweek/Beast tenure also helped him further hone his storytelling chops, a muscle he exercises just about every day at DigitasLBi. It’s precisely that slightly uncommon approach to media — one which views media as both a creative and scientific endeavor — that distinguishes Shetty’s, and thus DigitasLBi’s, work in a pedantic business. He describes it like this: “There are two things you have to think about today to do great media work. You have to think about foundational media — reach, continuity, efficiency — and you have to think about designed media — creativity, impact, media as expression of a brand.”

A string of recent DigitasLBi successes shows the potential benefits of that two-pronged approach. As part of a program supporting Motorola’s launch of its Moto X smart phone, the agency found a way to engineer a print ad in such a manner as to reflect the product’s central selling point, its more than 2,000 possible color configurations. “That was the core idea of the entire campaign: that technology helps shape young peoples’ identity. The primary competition offered very little choice in a device that has become a personal expression of the user,” Shetty explains.

The Moto X ad, which ran in the January 2014 issue of Wired, allowed readers to customize a phone on the page. Not surprisingly, the ad — if not the first true interactive print ad, then certainly the most technically sophisticated — enjoyed life beyond the printed page. “Wired was really the only publication for this particular execution. The audience talked about it in social media; they shared the delight it gave them,” Shetty says proudly.

Programs like this, ones that are clever, diverting and on-message in equal parts, are what excite Shetty and the “world-class data scientists, developers and creative technologists” he’s happy to call teammates. While he frets over external perception — “I feel like media at Digitas is kind of a well-kept secret in the industry” — there’s little doubt internally that the firm believes its media arm can match anything the competition has to offer.

“There’s zero complacency here,” Shetty says. “There could be a little sense of, ‘Oh, we’re well-regarded for digital in an era where digital is more important than ever,’ but everybody comes to work hungry. We’re still pushing.”

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