Sandeep Joseph first dipped his toes into the adland as a management trainee in South Mumbai which was home to Chaitra Leo Burnett. He told A+M that he ate the famous apples at the reception and made some lifelong friends there.

Joseph (pictured), who is currently CEO and co-founder of Ampersand Advisory, said he would have to walk, then catch a bus, then take the famous packed Mumbai train and walk for another 15 minutes past bakeries to reach the office. "Everything was new and exciting: the job, the city, the people," he added.

Later, he became an account executive and handled a portfolio of nine small brands and sleeping giants such as FIAT. "I also spent a significant amount of time in beautiful gothic south Mumbai chasing collections from clients who had stopped advertising with the agency for years. I discovered what Ogilvy wrote eloquently about: no one can describe exactly what an account executive does, and yet it’s the department that keeps everyone ticking," he explained.

Throughout his career, Joseph has worked in several renowned agencies including Ogilvy, Zenith and XM Malaysia. In 2017, he partnered with ad veteran Vincent Lee and Trapper Media Group to launch Ampersand Advisory, a digital-centred consultancy that provides clients with business solutions in data, media and content. Since then, the team has grown and Ampersand Advisory has also expanded its offerings. But how did Joseph's journey lead to this path?

A+M: What was your first impression of advertising?

Joseph: I thought advertising was fun, glamorous and much ado about nothing. Simple things became complex, and complex things became simple. A simple print ad could have layers of production behind it, and lots of people were involved in getting it out. I had always been creatively inclined, editing the college opinion paper, writing plays and stories, acting and so on, but it was good to see the nuts and bolts of commercial communications.

My other key observation was that once you reached the age of 40, you had to either be running the agency or you had to start your own. Because opinions and egos get solidified, and the pyramid gets narrow. I consider myself blessed that I managed to start my own agency, aged 42, backed by Vincent Lee.

A+M: Who was the mentor who influenced you the most and how?

Joseph: They say you never forget your first boss: mine was a smooth operator, an account supervisor named Shahvez. He was cuddly, loveable, friendly yet focused and seemed to glide effortlessly through the system and produce results without showing any strain or tension. He kicked my butt similarly smoothly and effortlessly a couple of times with some casual motivational talks on the pavement outside the office.

The other folks that gave me an education were my business partners Hemant Soreng and the late Prasanth Mohanachandran. We started a company in our 20s, literally out of a Bandra garage and took motorcycles to meetings with rented laptops because we couldn’t afford to own them. After two years of a thrilling, nerve-wracking ride in the fin de siècle dotcom bust, we sold our little digital ad company to Ogilvy in India. I learned immensely about life and entrepreneurship in those two years from those two gentlemen.

I have also learned heaps from Lee. In fact, I keep telling him he should write a book. He welcomes problems and challenges, and it’s a great mindset to take everywhere.

A+M: What's the harshest criticism you've received and how did you cope with it?

Joseph: Honestly I don’t remember any harsh criticism. The best-backhanded compliment I received was from my Orange/Vodafone client, and also from a later Ogilvy boss, Renuka Jaypal. She said: “Joseph listens to everything and then does what he wants.” I had not thought of it like that, but it must have some truth to it. Maybe I was always a rebel with some justifiable cause?

A+M: Describe your own management style now as a leader.

Joseph: I prefer to paint the big picture, drive the broad strategy and then get out of the way and not micro-manage. We hire people who are committed and hard-working and smart: give them the freedom to blossom. But you need to be there when the going gets tough and to help solve problems.

sandeep joseph team

The advertising industry is going through tremendous pressure and change. Our role is to shepherd our flock through it all, and emerge profitably and happy. Leaders are not “bosses” in some mafia movie; the good ones are attentive “servants” of the people. Whether the people see it or not, your job is to keep serving. I am blessed that the key leadership of Ampersand Advisory is even more focused on this than I am, and even more dedicated. They inspire me to do better. Lee Tse Yoon, Janice Kiew, Mandy Chan: you guys make us what we are.

A+M: What's one thing you wished employees understood about being a leader?

Joseph: Leaders have a different passion for the company. It’s not a job anymore; it’s a statement of one’s being, one’s beliefs, and one’s efforts to achieve and maintain high standards and superior quality. So if a leader wants more from the people, it comes from those places. It’s not just about money; we are not investment bankers or venture capitalists. We are creative and analytical people who want to excel. If we produce the quality and the work, the money and the fame will follow naturally.

sandeep joseph team 2

A+M: What do you do during your free time?

Joseph: An entrepreneur always has a to-do list pending: it comes with the territory. But in my spare time, I watch films, think of writing more films (I wrote and directed a thriller in Nepal), follow the fortunes of Manchester United and listen to the Rolling Stones as much as I can. I have also become a foodie since I came to Malaysia 17 years ago. And my golf always needs improvement. So the weekends disappear quickly.

A+M: Where do you find your inspiration?

Joseph: Inspiration is everywhere and constant. I have been to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam twice and cried both times. His work is so moving and determined, as he battled his own demons. The pulsating novels of Jo Nesbo, the kinetic energy of Tarantino, the majesty and balance of Cartier Bresson, the classical wasteland of Eliot and the urban landscape of Bob Dylan: there is something to adrenalise the imagination everywhere, and we have no excuse for being jaded.

A+M: If not in advertising where would you be?

Joseph: I would probably be a writer. I might yet be one.

A+M: What advice do you have for someone looking to start a career in the industry?

Joseph: Advertising is the best boot camp for a corporate life, or even a career as an entrepreneur. Be a suit, get into the trenches of daily account management, what you learn will always do you good. Whether you stay in advertising after that depends on your tolerance for unstructured situations, chaos, pain and your passion for communication.

A+M: What issue would you like to see the industry change in 2022

Joseph: I think the industry urgently needs to attract talent. Advertising is not a sunrise sector, and we don’t pay as well as other industries like tech or consulting or banking. We need to highlight the magic of communications, and be a lighthouse for those people who want a creative yet logic-driven work experience. We must re-position ourselves for the changing times. New, relevant and technologically advanced ways of thinking ideas, planning media, strategising data and driving expression will always be needed by brands: we need to be the industry that’s vibrantly providing it.

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