Fast Track: CV - A career in the life of Michael D'Souza, Entrepreneur

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The Independent Culture
Michael D'Souza, 40, "escaped" from high-powered marketing posts for clients including Polo Ralph Lauren and Coca-Cola to become the brains behind Mufti, a new line of home furnishings. He claims he has never had such complete creative freedom in the world of marketing.

I WENT to school in India where I spent more time learning sports than anything academic. In hindsight, however, I believe that held me in excellent stead for my career because sport is all about interaction and breaking down barriers - essentials in the marketing world. It was for the same reason that I chose to study psychology as well as economics for my BA. I think people often underestimate the "people" side of the business.

To my parents' horror, I quit my first graduate job in advertising - also in India - to backpack around the States for six months. It was great fun and taught me a lot about surviving in an unfamiliar culture. In fact, it was there that I did my MBA - a qualification that many people in marketing consider invaluable. I disagree. Whilst it might open doors for graduates, a great deal more can be learnt by spending a couple of years on the job.

My first major post was at Lowe and Partners, an advertising firm in New York. That was an amazing experience because the advertising industry is so disciplined in America. Clients expect you to be actively involved in all aspects of their business.

In 1991, I joined McCann's as vice president worldwide account director on Coca-Cola. Whilst there, the year I spent in Bangkok was one of the most insightful. It was meant to be a month-long project to change the management. But in Thailand, if one member of management gets "let go", the rest of the team tend to walk out with them. It evolves from a unique sense of loyalty among staff which I wouldn't have understood, or have been able to find solutions for, had I been doing the same work from the States. Indeed, it always amazes me how tunnel-visioned some companies can be when they enter a new market. You have to understand the culture you're entering rather than imposing your culture.

Shortly after returning, I was poached to become manager of brand marketing for Diet Coke worldwide based at its headquarters in Atlanta. There, I spearheaded the strategic shift that involved repositioning the $1.5bn Caffeine Free Diet Coke against the fast-growing 40-plus consumer - a first for Coca-Cola and the soft drink industry which had traditionally focused on the younger generation.

Four years later, the corporate world began to get me down. The stability and financial rewards are huge. But the amount of effort required to take an idea from start to finish is ridiculous because of the endless layers of managers - who each feel they have to justify their existence, so even if they have nothing constructive to contribute they feel compelled to say something. The result is that it usually waters down the concept and unnecessarily lengthens the process. Mind you, if the idea is a good one, it's amazing how many people start angling for credit. I found the higher you rise in the corporate world, the more time you spend dealing with company politics and the less time you spend on the issue at hand.

I thought I'd give it one more go, however, as senior vice president and director of marketing on Polo Ralph Lauren. I remember my first presentation which consisted of an analysis on the brand's weaknesses and competitive threats to help fuel growth. I soon found out that this was politically incorrect and it felt as though all the company really required was for me to say the "nice" things that would please "The Man" at the helm.

That was when I started work on Mufti. I took a year studying the market and realised there was a gap which I could fill. I went for casual sophistication to provide a sense of serenity in today's fast-paced world. And on the environmental side, since everything is created by hand using only natural materials, customers can take comfort in the fact that they are doing their part for the natural world. Two-and-a-half years later, it's still going from strength to strength.

I would always encourage anyone interested in having a true impact in marketing not to be snooty about working for small companies - or better still venture out on your own. Sure, you can learn a lot from the corporate world, and I'd advise any graduate who gets the opportunity to work in that environment to grab it with both hands because the training and discipline is invaluable. But in the long run, if you want real control, bigger is not necessarily better. Going out on a limb is the way to play this game.