Google is like a curious child, it keeps trying new things: Sanjay Gupta

Topics Google India | Google | YouTube

Illustration: Binay Sinha
Any long chat with Sanjay Gupta is tricky. On consumer products, telecom, media, technology, and the linkages therein, the 53-year-old head of Google India holds forth rather well. He has a lot to draw on since he’s been with Hindustan Unilever (HUL), Bharti Airtel and Star India. The moment the conversation turns to non-work areas Gupta becomes a shy schoolboy.

But a pleasant surprise awaits me one Saturday evening in November when I log into Google Meet: A relaxed and surprisingly talkative Gupta. We remember our last meeting (at Star) and rue that we aren’t meeting over a drink. That is when Gupta reveals that he enjoys Japanese single malts. Maybe because he is home in Mumbai, maybe it is the Google effect — he’s just finished a year at the firm. Whatever the reason, this version of Gupta is chatty. I relax and take a sip of my black tea. He’s having coffee.

At just under Rs 9,500 crore (about $1.3 billion) in revenue, Google’s India operations are a tiny part of its $162-billion parent Alphabet in 2019. But like in all media, tech and consumer products industries, India plays a different role. There are 662 million Indians online; almost all of them use Google for search. Going by Comscore data, over 388 million of them are watching YouTube, making it the largest OTT in India. Not surprisingly, Google walked away with roughly half of the Rs 22,100-crore that advertisers spent on digital in 2019.

India is Google’s largest market by users, bringing in a nice chunk of the estimated 4 billion people that use its products. It is also a hub for the research and the tinkering that Googlers love to do. “Google is like a curious child; it keeps trying new things,” says Gupta. He talks excitedly about the work being done in Bengaluru and Hyderabad with alphanumeric codes. “Google is fundamentally a tech company. What fascinates me are its engineering and tech capabilities,” he says, picking up his coffee.

In many ways then life has come full circle. It was his interest in engineering and design that led this middle-class boy to the Delhi Technological University (formerly Delhi College of Engineering) and then Larsen & Toubro in Mumbai. “I did designing work on the Hazira Petro Project — on boilers, heat exchanges. But it was to make existing designs safer. It was not very inspirational work. That is when I decided on management,” he says. 

In 1991, after passing out of Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, Gupta joined (then) Hindustan Lever in what turned out to be life-changing 16 years. “Who I am today is because of my experience at HUL,” he says.

That is why the move to Airtel in 2007 was difficult. “Airtel was the beginning of the shift from structured/thoughtful decision making to embracing change,” he remembers. One of the first things he discussed with Sanjay Kapoor, his boss at Airtel, was the ramping up of sales and marketing from 400-450 people to 600-650. “I had put down my thoughts on 8-10 handwritten pages. But he just said fine, go ahead and hire. It was unbelievable.” 

The whole setup was entrepreneurial simply because telecom was growing at breakneck speed. “Sanjay’s thinking was if there is an opportunity, don’t waste time on strategy. Those two years and eight quarters were like eight years for me (in terms of learning).”

Somewhere around 2008, the then Star CEO Uday Shankar reached out, wanting him to join. They talked about it for a year. “I didn’t know what I would do (at Star). Airtel, at least, had some connection with engineering, but Star was about content and stories.” When he finally made the move in April 2009, he says more than Star he was joining Shankar.

When Shankar took over as CEO in 2007, Star was a Rs 1,600-crore floundering broadcaster. Gupta was one of his first few hires. Their partnership turned out to be among the best. Over the 11 years he was there, Gupta brought in the operational chops, while Shankar handled the outside world of government and big-picture dynamics. Together, they built Star into an Rs 18,000-crore behemoth with a leading share in broadcasting, one of the largest OTT brands (Disney+Hotstar), a film studio and with sports properties like the Pro-Kabaddi League and Indian Premier League.

“Unlike in other companies, my role at Star didn’t change. The relation between the two of us remained constant; it was fascinating because so much got achieved,” says Gupta.

My tea is long over. A cup of hot water gives me company as Gupta starts on his second cup of coffee.

Why did he leave Star? In 2018, Disney’s move to buy out Fox (and therefore Star) precipitated the “what-next” question for Gupta. “The tech industry intrigued me, especially with our experience in Hotstar.” That’s when Google reached out. Just when the merger was being operationalised, in November 2019, he quit.

From consumer products to telecom to media and now a tech-media firm, aren’t all the dots connecting furiously? “Many. Consumer (goods), technology, content, each impacts consumers and society in a meaningful way. Where I connect is India and technology,” says Gupta.

He reckons that the power of technology has only been harnessed partially so far. There are immense possibilities with languages and better internet penetration. “Imagine a world where you upload a video on education in, say, Malayalam. Currently, it would be useful only for Malayalam-speakers; but what if the same can be used for learning in real time.” 

A “database of intentions” — that’s how author John Battelle had described Google. People use it to search for jobs, news, videos or to figure out how to make rotis, among a million other things. But isn’t it all about eyeballs ultimately? Is the grammar of business different from, say, media or consumer products? “Google as a company is purely driven by data; data is god. At Star, the only data we looked at was rating. Plus, there was intuition.”

Since almost everything you do can be captured in digital, the use of technology in decision making makes it potentially easier. That is the good part. “The bad part is you need to have a good idea of the problems you want to solve; otherwise it is garbage in and garbage out.”

That is where a no-nonsense, no-small talk boss comes in handy, I think, as we bid adieu.

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