Selling Multiculturalism


Multicultural Australia means many things to many people. To Sheba N it was a business opportunity. Many years ago, she saw that companies were unable to connect with a large part of their market due to lack of communication with the ethnic media. That is the gap that she has worked to fill in over the years and here she talks about that and other factors that made her the successful businesswoman she is today.

Tell us a bit about your current role. How you got into it and what it involves.

I am a marketing and advertising professional. Our advertising and communications agencies, Market Connexions and Multicultural Connexions, offer integrated marketing and advertising services. These services include strategy, research, advertising, interactive, media, PR and events. We have a team of around 15 consultants who work in this business. I have a business partner Maki who heads operations, while I concentrate on strategy.

We help leading marketers including banks, telecom, automobile, health and others build brand relationships with the diverse Australian audience including mainstream markets.

We also work closely with various Australian and Asian companies and assist them with their Asian business strategies and cross cultural consultancy. Our main markets presently are India and China. We do have assignments involving the Philippines and Japan too.

How did you get into this industry?

Well, having completed by MBA with specialisation in Marketing, I started my career with the McCann Erikson (then known as Clarion McCann) in India. I had the privilege of working with some pretty well known industry stalwarts. The opportunity to launch some brands, which are household names today, gave my career a big boost. Some successful new product launches were Dettol Soap, Harpic and Boroplus Antiseptic Cream by the Emami/Himani group. Boroplus took Boroline, the market leader head on, to achieve spectacular success.

Can you share any other interesting campaigns created by you?

Yes. While I was heading Interpublicity, the India Tourism campaign did rather well. This campaign was unique because we positioned India as One Nation, Many Destinations!’ while showcasing this platform at the World Travel Market in London and at the ITB in Berlin. Over a few years, we met with some pretty pleasing results. A unique DM piece was created to showcase the many splendours of India, this became very popular and was used by the then Tourism Minister as his VIP gift when he travelled overseas.

You are now an authority on multicultural marketing. How did you find this niche?

When I came to Australia around 10 years ago, I was already heading a mainstream agency and decided to use this opportunity to look for a newer and more challenging discipline of marketing. I met Joseph Assaf considered a pioneer in multicultural marketing within weeks of my arrival. (In 1977 Joseph Assaf, who immigrated from Lebanon in 1967, established Ethnic Communications (ETCOM) which was the first agency to specialise in multicultural marketing.) At my very first meeting, Joseph offered me a position in his agency. Thereafter I had the privilege of finally leading his agency as the Managing Director. I was with them for seven years.

I decided to start my own agency around three years back and have never looked back since. Joseph supported me in this decision and we continue to work together on many. I must add that a lot of what I know today and subsequently built upon, I can trace back to my time with Joseph.

Neville Roach too had a deep influence on me, when I first met him he was a member of the Multicultural Council and I had several opportunities to interact with him. (Neville Roach, who migrated to Australia in 1961, is an eminent businessman and prominent member of the community in Sydney. He is the first Australian to receive the Indian government’s prestigious Pravasi Bharatiya Samman award.)

Am I an authority? Well I do have some idea of how, who, why and what make these diverse audiences tick. Aligning this information with our clients’ marketing vision and DNA, we have been achieving some pretty good results. I prefer not to call myself an authority, as this has a sense of finality about it. This is a fascinating, dynamic and ever evolving field. To be successful one has to be constantly in touch with the marketplace.

You were recently been nominated to join the NSW Asia Business Council as well as the Board of International Advertising Association (IAA) Australian Chapter. That is quite an achievement for a woman professional and in such a short time in this country.

That’s right, I have been inducted into the Asian Business Council which is an advisory body set up to advice NSW Government to strengthen and increase the business relationship and trade between NSW and other Asian countries.
The IAA Board position gives me the opportunity to be involved in a thought leadership role in terms of policies and trends in the advertising industry. It also keeps me connected to global resources and trends.

I am happy to share with you that the AFA (Advertising Federation of Australia) has recently set up a Multicultural Committee which I chair to reflect the importance of communicating with the rapidly growing diverse population in Australia. This is an excellent development for the advertising industry.

You have graduated from IIM-Lucknow, a prestigious institute in India. How did you get into marketing?
I love meeting new people, travelling to different places, experiencing new cultures and I guess I am naturally inquisitive about all that I see. With a personality, marketing communications was a natural choice. My MBA degree gave me the edge to become accountable ensuring that every campaign undertaken had ROI measurements in place, which is much appreciated by the clients.

As a woman, you would have been in a minority in such an institute. How did you negotiate that space or did you find that it was easy to fit in?

When I did my MBA, we went through a tough entrance test. A couple of thousand candidates and the final selection was down to a group of 100 candidates which included 3 women. All three of us were pretty conscientious in our studies, having realised that there were many out there who were desperate for our places. Surrounded by boys all the time you tend to become quite familiar with their thinking and patterns of behaviour. Hence, I would say this was a wonderful preparation for our work life, where one would find fewer women and more men in the corner offices. The boys were quite protective and took care never to make us feel uncomfortable!

Where did you grow up in India? Has that shaped your view of the world? How so?

You have come to my favourite question. I owe a lot of all that I have achieved to my parents. My father was in the government service which meant frequent transfers and deputations. My mother was a housewife and always remained closely involved in all our activities. I must have been through at least 6 schools. The constant transfers and movement only made us siblings (brother and 2 sisters) grow stronger. We learned flexibility and how to adapt to new circumstances and emerged stronger for this.

I am a very positive, as well as a naturally contented person. I owe this to my parents. Both of them taught us to be always appreciative of all that we have. They would ask us to look at folks who did not have much and appreciate – as to what we had. Material acquisitions mean nothing to me and. I am a fairly modest and down to earth person.

What made you decide to move to Australia? When did you do so? What were your first impressions?

I first came to Australia on a holiday with Sanjeev, my husband and my 7 year-old son, Sanchay. Sanjeev was then the heading the new Walt Disney venture in India. Sanjeev loved the place and applied for a residency, which was surprisingly granted within 15 days.

Immediately Sanjeev moved to American Express as Head of Marketing Channels & Sales, for the Sub-continent, so it was a difficult decision to move without any guarantee of comparable jobs for either of us. This was the kind of decision that many professionals who moved here at the time had to make.

However we felt that for the sake of our son’s future, it would be a good move.

I must say I have never regretted it. I have received so much from this country. Australia has been a great country in every possible way and we have made some great friends here who are almost like family. I have found Australians to be a very good-natured and friendly lot.

My personal impression in the professional scenario is that merit gets recognised and rewarded. Overall I would say it is definitely meritocracy rather than aristocracy, focussed in Australia.

What are your views on how the new (second) generation in fitting into the multicultural Australian society?
I think the second generation is fitting in quite well, in fact seamlessly.

As most Indians are professional migrants, well read and qualified with good command over English, they tend to fit in well too.

Do you find that they (second generation) are connected to the ethnic media or is it becoming irrelevant?

I find that Indians like many other multicultural audiences, especially Asian audiences are deeply rooted in their culture and their community activities.

Just look at the Bollywood parties that are flourishing! The youngsters are flocking to such events.

Ethnic media can only grow. This audience will continue to access their own community publications that provide entertainment, news and information directly sourced from their countries of origin. They can never access this from Sydney Morning Herald or other mainstream publications.

This is one channel by which one remains both nostalgically and emotionally connected to the country of one’s birth. I, for one, love reading the community Indian publications by choice and not because my profession warrants it!

Any advice for the readers?

Life is the best gift your parents have given you. Make the most of every day, every minute as Time waits for none!
Sheba Nandkeolyar is fond of mentoring young people wanting to enter the advertising industry. For You can contact her on

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