Divya Khanna: The Company We Keep

Based in Bangalore, Divya Khanna is an advertising professional who has worked in senior positions with some of the biggest names in the business, including Lowe Lintas and JWT. Divya, who has studied management at IIM Bangalore, is also an author and her first book, The Company We Keep: Insights Into Indian Corporate Culture, is releasing on 16 January. We talk to her about her work in advertising, the corporate culture prevalent in India, her own book, and some of her favourite books and authors.

After studying at IIM Bangalore, you went to work in advertising and worked with some of the biggest names in the business. What was it, back then, that attracted you towards the advertising business? What were some of the most interesting things about working for companies like Lowe Lintas and J. Walter Thompson?

I was extremely shy and introverted as a child and very immersed in books, TV, music, basically any media I could find to avoid interacting with people. At the time of only one Doordarshan channel, we were starved for entertainment and advertising was also seen as a novelty – I was a fan of the Amul hoardings on the roads and watched all the TV ads with the same fascination that I watched the programmes.

I wanted to become a writer but did not have a clear vision of how to do it. My father pushed me towards a corporate career because that was what he knew and like all parents of his generation, he wanted me to pursue a career with some financial security. I gravitated towards advertising because it gave me a mix of the creativity I was attracted to and still had the commercial reassurance for my father. Since I was a management graduate, I was not a great candidate for the creative departments but interacting with them and seeing how they worked to bring their ideas to life and helping them craft and sell them was a big attraction for me.

At both agencies, I got to work with the creative people at all levels, including the top talent and it made me more aware and conscious of my own creative skills and how much I needed to work on them. An unexpected bonus for me was how much I enjoyed meeting consumers and hearing their stories. They were the direct inspiration for my own work on writing creative briefs and working on brand strategy. I found I enjoyed the mix of creativity and strategy, which indulged my curiosity about people’s lives and behaviour.

You’ve been in advertising for about two decades. What are your thoughts on the corporate culture prevalent in advertising companies in India, both in general as well as in the specific companies that you worked with? Has this corporate culture changed and evolved in significant ways in the last 20 years?

This is a sore point with me. I am speaking, of course, from outside the perspective of the senior people who actually run the business and know its details, but my own sense is that the business model for creative agencies is breaking down. From the very beginning, clients have struggled to value and evaluate the creative inputs that agencies bring and most negotiations on remuneration are now led by supply chain and finance people who are looking for concrete measures that don’t apply very seamlessly to the creative process. As a result, creative agencies are getting squeezed on revenues and are passing on this cost-cutting mentality to their employees. I have seen training programmes get cut and eventually disappear, people are thrust into a high-pressure environment with little support and guidance and very little remuneration.

Through my friends and batchmates, I have visibility into other industries and companies and I see those environments as more nurturing and motivating towards talent. The attrition rate is so high in advertising that almost as soon as a person figures out their work, they often move on to something more attractive. I see most of the issues that my book brings up as more extreme in the advertising industry. In the wake of Covid-19, the ad industry is struggling even more for its survival. It must be extraordinarily difficult to invest in people and keep their interests a priority in this scenario.

Please tell us more about your book, The Company We Keep. What was it that inspired you to write the book? As a first-time author, what were some of the biggest challenges for you in the research and writing process for this book? 

I took a break from my career at the start of 2018 because I was feeling burnt out. As I started my rest and recovery process, I felt I had more questions than answers. I felt I wanted to do something different but I wasn’t very confident of starting from scratch. I decided to pursue my childhood dream of writing but also use the part of my job skills that I enjoyed the most – consumer research. I wasn’t sure if anyone else would be interested, so I set a personal benchmark – I was going to approach Indian corporate culture as a planner, studying it from the outside to hopefully find some answers or guidance for myself. To set aside my own assumptions and invest in exploratory qualitative research, the kind of research I enjoy the most.

I had two big challenges. The first was articulating my vision for the book – since it was research-based, I didn’t know exactly what it would be until the research project was completed and I actually started writing it. And the second challenge was finding a publisher as a new, unknown writer. I was fortunate to find a lot of help and support along the way.

In the context of the people – working professionals – whom you met and spoke to regarding the book, how did most people respond? Also, did you come across any significant gender biases in Indian corporate culture?

Every one of the respondents was interested and forthcoming about their experiences and learning as they were assured of anonymity. This is a conversation most people would like to have but they need to feel comfortable and safe to share honestly and openly. Even when bosses and colleagues are friendly and approachable, there is wariness about sharing too much, as I have mentioned in the book. The research was a good forum for the respondents to share, vent and reflect, as well as to feel heard.

There were a lot of memorable moments during the research. I particularly remember a young man in Bombay, who was barely a year into his first job. He had the confidence of someone with much more experience and when he talked about how he had learned to say ‘no’ in his job to protect his energy and how it was serving him in his career, I actually felt stupid. With all my years of experience, I still wasn’t that assertive and realised that it was because I was subconsciously proud of how much work I took on and didn’t want to say no.

Significant gender biases exist in Indian culture as a whole and that’s why so many companies have initiatives to make work opportunities more accessible to women. I found that while there are obvious biases that seem to favour men, there are also some that make them feel excluded or resentful. Gender stereotyping hurts people of all genders and there seems to be a significant challenge in addressing these needs sensitively and fairly. While women are becoming more vocal in demanding equal opportunity and pay, equal flexibility seems to be an unvoiced need area for men.  

In an ideal world, what kind of changes would you like to see in Indian corporate culture?

There is no ideal world – we are all works in progress. I think we need to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ mentality and allow space for individual reflection, choices and experiences. In India, we have a tendency to keep our work performance, status and rewards as the sole arbitrator of our success. Kalyani Capoor, a mental health professional and cognitive therapist, is one of the experts who contributed to my book and she has written a chapter where she shares how we could arrive at a more holistic and healthy definition of success for individuals and leaders. The other experts offer their guidance from a leadership, human resources and workspace design perspective.

Do you read a fair bit? What kind of books do you personally enjoy reading? Favourite genre? Any favourite authors?

Yes, I love to read and I like to read all kind of books, depending on my mood. My favourite genre is humour or any genre, which incorporates humour. I love re-reading books by P. G. Wodehouse and in contemporary writers, I follow Jonas Jonasson, M. C. Beaton, Sophie Kishella, Kevin Kwan, Manu Joseph, Moni Mohsin and H. Y. Hanna. I also enjoy narrative non-fiction – Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg, India Calling by Anand Giridharadas and All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister were very inspiring for my work as a planner and also for the way I approached this book. George Orwell and Alain de Botton are two writers who I admire for their way of looking at things and how well they express them.

What are two or three most memorable books that you’ve read in recent years? Any books that you’re particularly looking forward to reading in 2023?

It’s hard to only mention only two or three! Top of my mind: Death on Diagonal Lane by Pashupati Chatterji, The Last Englishmen by Deborah Baker, The 10 New Life-Changing Skills by Rajesh Srivastava, My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and The Vedas and Upanishads for Children by Roopa Pai. The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa and Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl are my all-time favourites.

I have a long list of books still waiting for me, like most readers do. Amongst them are Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, Afterness by Ashok S. Ganguly and Becoming Young Men in a New India by Shannon Philip. I’m sure I’ll be adding to this as more books are released.

The Company We Keep: Insights Into Indian Corporate Culture is available on Amazon

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One response to “Divya Khanna: The Company We Keep”

  1. Excellent. I think you should put your thoughts on corporate work culture vs work. Culture in our defence forces especially in the light of challenges and opportunities now available to women. While corporate world faces the problem of attrition, defence services do not have that threat which helps in continuity and return on investment.


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