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I would like to retire from my hands-on role at DNA: Venkat Vardhan, founder, DNA Networks

It is difficult to even attempt to put together a three decade journey of an entrepreneur who is also a pioneer in a then sun-rise industry called 'event management' into an article of few words. And yet when the opportunity to meet and interact with the game-changer who has always been low-profile and let his work speak for him and his team presented itself- we lapped it up with happiness. Ahead we present a small window into the life, struggles and achievements of Venkat Vardhan and his team at DNA Networks.

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If you are ever in Bangalore, Palace Grounds is a venue that cannot escape your eyes. A venue which has hosted some of the best artists and events across decades. You are driven to an instinctive tribute for this place that has witnessed such greatness. Such a venue right across the road of an abode of legacies, dressed as a white building from outside already hints at the event management capability of Venkat Vardhan, Founder & MD of DNA Networks.  

As you move up the stairs into the building you come across memorabilia to leave any rock music lover breathless. A badge which was an entry to the Rolling Stones concert of 2003, walls covered with endless photographs of legends like Dire Straits, Yanni, Rolling Stones, Kenny G, and of crowds who had their best nights ever lost in the music produced by these great artists- live, before their very eyes. There are shelves full of souveniers carefully preserved such as guitars autographed by the musicians themselves, as a token of love and respect addressed to a man, who made all this come true for millions of fans and hundreds of artists across three decades, who savoured the love of the Indian fan and vowed to come back again. Amidst all this legacy sits the man in the familiar blue T-shirt with the DNA logo. A brand he wears proudly on his sleeve like most of his colleagues, many of who were introduced to events and have stayed with DNA Networks from anywhere between twelve to eighteen years. Those who have moved on still acknowledge their growth as entrepreneurs thanks to his mentorship.

The story of Venkat Vardhan, the Founder & Managing Director of Diversified New Activity Entertainment Networks, popularly known as DNA, is one of luck, struggles and triumphs. It is the story of a game-changer in a fledgling industry which was not even known to exist by most, forget being opted as a career choice. Venkat’s journey provides rich insights into the early years of the event management industry in India. 

The Early Years….embarking on an epic journey 

Vardhan’s grandfather, Kengal Hanumanthaiah, was the second Chief Minister of Karnataka (then, Mysore State) from 30 March 1952 to 19 August 1956. He is best remembered for his vision and contribution to the construction of Vidhana Soudha, the seat of the state legislature. Venkat’s father- T. Thimmaiah was a former Agricultural Secretary and established the Golden Valley Institute of Engineering which was later renamed as T Thimmaiah Institute of Technology as a mark of respect for his huge contribution to the field of education. When we asked Venkat whether it was difficult to choose advertising and later Event management over an educational or political career in line with the family legacy, he mentioned he was able to do it “only because of the support and encouragement I received from my family”.

Venkat Vardhan qualified as a Mechanical Engineer. But engineering did not hold too much promise for him. He was more inclined towards creative pursuits like advertising. He began with advertising assignments for the United Breweries group which was then being taken care of by Vittal Mallya. As luck would have it, he once bumped into the young Vijay Mallya and multiple conversations on how MTV was changing the music scene abroad led him to work on the idea of networking with the international artist managers and getting this music to Indian audiences.  He obtained the exclusive rights for MTV Top 20 Countdown in 1986 for a period of two years. Then the sole television channel that ran across all the television sets in the nation was Doordarshan. Hence, this did not do too well. However, looking back positively –Venkat reminisces that though that kind of music on a platform like National TV got a lukewarm response, the relationship, trust and network he built with many senior talent scouts internationally who understood his vision, helped him bring to India leading international artists who had a fan base here.

Vardhan’s very first big show with ‘Europe’ in 1988 at Mumbai became a platform for all his other shows in the country. While describing the pre-event preparations, he said, “We opened an abandoned sports complex in Andheri and dug through the 8ft of grass on it”. Vardhan’s travels abroad and study of bigger concerts across the world had helped him get a fair idea of the details that go into a concert set-up. “Once done with that event, it caught the eyes of the big acts. Those days, channel V and MTV were the only two channels in the music domain. They were in an un-cluttered market space. While today we have many choices which play music of all sorts, there is no following for a particular genre. But in those days, with their support, we were able to reach out to the target audience who wanted to attend such concerts”.

When asked how the Indian audience took it, he mentioned that while cultural norms existed and while some sections of society perceived this as ‘western culture’, he said an upbringing in a city like Bangalore where a whole generation loved and followed Rock, goaded him to stay focused on what he was attempting.  “I still remember when we first did the Deep Purple show.  We had about 35000 people here at Palace Grounds and that went beyond our expectations. During the Roger Waters show, people tried to come in without tickets and those days, we actually made plastic cards as tickets which people, even now, have as souvenirs. And for that show people came from all around the country. So the acceptance and liking was there. We just had to do it right and present it the way people did these shows abroad without compromising on quality. People kept coming back to us after this. They came back to us and said that though they attended such shows in Dubai or Singapore, they enjoyed it more here because it was their own country, their own people and their own environment with an international setting.”

During this time Pepsi had also made its entry into the Indian market and being a global brand they were aware of the happenings everywhere else in the world. They saw the vision that Venkat had for the Indian live events industry and saw merit in it. They signed an MoU with DNA which is still going strong after 25 years.

Making Elbow Room

Has the journey been all moonlight and roses? Were there any big moments of self- introspection, especially after hardships or even failures? “The struggle was how to make ends meet.We could not depend entirely on the gate money. So we decided to make this 60:40. 60% came from sponsors and 40% came from the gate. Being a promoter, you’re only as good as your last show. So we had to prove ourselves every time”, says Vardhan. “Bringing the artists was never an issue. Once a big artist came to India they would talk among themselves about their experience here and that’s what helped us in bringing more and more artists”, he adds.

The idea of live entertainment as a marketing tool grew in all the brainstorming sessions with the Pepsi team. During a World cup tournament where Pepsi was not a sponsor, they came up the very catchy tag line “Nothing official about it”. DNA was entrusted with the task of spinning promotional events around it. So they organised events across the country where people enjoyed music and also enjoyed sipping on their Pepsi. It built brand re-call. “That’s when I realised that if we are able to go to a sponsor for whatever product, and package it in a manner that added value to that particular brand through the on-ground promotional event, there could be a definite probability of drawing sponsorship”, says Vardhan with a sense of pride.

The International Roster

Many artists who came to India on Venkat’s invitation in the early years, established DNA as an event management company that ruled the live events space. Bryan Adams seemed to have opened the floodgates by performing eight shows within a span of two or three years. People simply loved watching him perform and he always went back soaked in the affection of the Indian people.

During the World Cup, Venga boys broke out in a huge way. With the help of Pepsi’s sponsorship, DNA brought them here and organised over a dozen shows. Given their chartbusting popularity – each show was a phenomenal hit. The team at DNA was setting new benchmarks in the Live Events space and with international artists to boot.

Some of the other international acts that Venkat fondly remembers were Ricky Martin and Yanni. Yanni at the TajMahal, during March 30 and 31 in 1997 set new standards in the space given the sheer scale and the exquisite venue. Venkat remembers “That was a very challenging project and took us almost six months to put together. It was a big hit and became the most spoken of event for many many years. I think that was a proud moment.”

Another major breakthrough was getting The Rolling Stones to India. “It would be any event professional’s dream” says Venkat. Bringing Mark Knopfler and Sting to India are other feathers he proudly wears in his hat.

DNA also worked with various female international acts who had fan following in India. Shakira, Beyonce and Black eyed peas were some of them. DNA also brought in artistes like Shaggy who had a fan base in younger audiences.

An event is a live medium. The bigger the event, the risks can also be equally challenging. While you would like everything to go smoothly and seamlessly, sometimes there are setbacks. One such event was the Metallica concert in Delhi. Speaking of this issue, Venkat says “The media spoke a lot about the Metallica concert being cancelled due to various reasons. But you did not see our company speaking anything about it. We had to deliver a show here in Bangalore and we had to ensure that this happened. It was the very next day and that is exactly what we did. By this, we were not only able to salvage our reputation but also show that we were not at fault. And we were not ready to do something which would bring more media attention in a negative way. So we let it be and went on doing what we normally do. That’s how we were able to overcome that crisis.”

A Perspective on the Event Industry 

A regular question thrown at most event entrepreneurs is their favourite cities for music. According to Vardhan “Bangalore, Bombay (Mumbai) for sure. Delhi for some yes, for many, surprisingly no. I think Bangalore by far, not just because I’m from here but mostly because of the bilingual ability of the city.”

When asked to comment on the event management industry as a whole and its current avatar, he says “I wouldn’t say I’m not happy. I’m just a little disappointed to see that newer people are not doing enough to build the industry. You go to any other country, there will be at least ten people in this industry like me. But here, if you look at the past thirty years, I think 97% of the international acts are done by us. It’s not that we are monopolistic. I think others are not trying harder. “

Vardhan was called upon by the IPL in 2008 to bring his expertise of music to sports, post which he has continued to stay associated with IPL to this day. This opportunity has led him to being associated with several newer sports leagues such as hockey, badminton, kabbadi, soccer and the polo league recently. Since Vardhan was a state champion in his college days, and given his intrinsic passion for music, it was easy for him to understand the overlap and the synergy between the mediums. Media was getting fragmented. A lot of sponsors were shifting from music to sports because it gave them more eyeballs. Adapting to the trend DNA started focusing on both sports and music events with equal rigour.

Speaking on the growth and impact of aspects like digitization of many facets of the events industry like ticketing – he says “We launched Ticket Genie in the year 2006-07, for the very same reason. Whatever digital platform that we’ve built, we built it to service our own business. And now, that has been extended to IPL and others.”  

Venkat is also all praise for many of his peers. The initiatives of the Event & Entertainment Management Association of India (EEMA) are commendable according to him, “I think they are doing quite a good job. Tackling things like the IPRS and single window clearance for events are very good initiatives and will pave the way for the newer crop of planners. And having chapters across the various regions is also good thinking to ensure diversity and inclusivity. So a body like that has helped but, at the end of it, agencies themselves have to set bigger becnchmarks for themselves. There is enough room to grow in this space.”

A Wishlist, Simple and Sweet

There are many undone things on Venkat’s bucketlist. While it was unbelievable for us when he said, ”There are many leaders on my team capable of taking the mantle forward, I would like to retire from my operational and hands-on role at DNA”; the event soul within him still glowed in his eyes when he said DNA is planning to do something big in December. Vardhan may always be an events person at heart but given his legacy and also a desire to do much for the cause of education, he wishes to focus on building educational institutions that create more rounded individuals. “I would like to continue what my father had started and give back to the society”, he added when asked about his retirement plans.   

For us, his parting remarks of bringing an international brand to tie up on courses to do with event education in India established that fact that an events person will always stay one- whether hands-on, whether in education, whether behind the scenes or whether in the eye of a storm.

It seems, much like the Palace Grounds and the DNA office, events are always across the road and across the heart.

This article was originally published in the April- May edition of BW Applause


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