Tributes pour in after Webchutney founder Sidharth Rao dies aged 43
India's marketing industry has lost one of its most celebrated digital evangelists, Sidharth Rao. Here close associates share their fond memories of the maverick adman.
Final goodbye to Sidharth Rao
The weekend brought the sad news that Sidharth Rao, pioneer of India's digital advertising industry and founder of Webchutney, had died aged 43. Rao passed away at his farmhouse in Karjat, near Mumbai, after suffering a cardiac arrest on 21 April, as shared in an official statement from Punt Partners, a marketing tech startup that he had co-founded in 2022.
As the visionary behind Webchutney, Rao will be remembered as one of the forefathers of India's digital agency landscape. Founded in 1999, it was one of India's earliest digital agencies and went on to become its most preeminent, a status that led to it being bought by Japanese media network Dentsu Aegis Network in 2013, one of the most high-profile acquisitions in the Indian advertising industry at that time. Under Rao's leadership, Webchutney's strong form continued post-acquisition, earning Dentsu clients such as Flipkart, Swiggy, Google, Uber, Ikea, and Airtel and a steady stream of awards accolades, the crowning glory being a Grand Prix at last year's Cannes Lions festival.
Post buyout, Rao remained as chief executive of the company and in 2020, became the chairman of dentsu’s creative agency Happy mcgarrybowen (HMB) India and Dentsu Webchutney. In addition, he was also made the group c hief exec of the dentsuMB Group in June 2021.
Rao was both an ambassador for the creative world and India's place within it. In an interview with this journalist in 2019 for The Economic Times-Brand Equity, he said: “Future-proofing Indian creativity, first and foremost, will come with respect for other forms of creativity and media. It will come with people at the top becoming uncomfortable with the changing world and sharing responsibility for building the future.”
Here senior leaders from the industry who knew Sidharth Rao well share their memories of what made him so special. Many of those close to Rao politely requested to be allowed more time as they were not ready to share their thoughts just yet after the devastating news.
Amit Wadhwa, chief executive officer, Dentsu Creative India
I know Sid through work but I remember him about everything but work. His insistence that we meet whenever I was in Bombay, sharing ambitious plans where I have zero role to play but still he would share, him calling me up at odd hours and those random forwards. Everything about him was grand, yet simple and heartfelt.
I once remember a couple of years back he sent Alphonso mangoes to me during summer. I called him and thanked him for making the effort and being so thoughtful. I told him they were the tastiest mangoes I have ever had. He was so happy and yet upset that all the others to whom he sent the mangoes to, informed him that they had gone bad by the time they got it. In his own sweet childish way he was super happy and I am glad even till today he does not know that the ones I got had gone bad too, but it wasn’t about the mangoes anyway!!! My Mumbai trips will never be the same again.
Lohith Ramachandra, director – marketing, Mobile Premier League
(Formerly general manager of marketing at Swiggy)
It’s a really unfortunate news. Siddharth has always been this person who was up for taking risks and doing new things. Always backing his team to achieve big things and as a result of it his team brought us at Swiggy our first award at the Cannes which was a dream come true for all of us. The industry has lost a visionary, a believer and a really modest man.
Rohit Ohri, chairman and CEO, FCB Group India
(Former executive chairman of Dentsu India)
I never imagined that one day I will be writing an obituary for Sid. I met Sid in late 2012. After the acquisition of Taproot, I was looking out for a digital acquisition during my tenure at Dentsu. Webchutney was the biggest digital company at that time and a friend connected me to Sid. I’ve spent many evenings with him at Tito’s (a famous pub located in suburban Mumbai) discussing the future of the communication business. Sid had such an easy, disarming manner. One could shoot the breeze with him for hours.
He was a pioneer in digital marketing in India and his entrepreneurial spirit led him to start Webchutney in the early 2000s when the internet was just taking off in India. He was an early adopter of digital technology and saw its potential for marketing and advertising. He founded Webchutney with just two employees and a vision to create an innovative digital agency that would help businesses achieve their online goals.
Over the years, Sid built Webchutney into one of India's leading digital agencies, known for its creativity, innovation, and strategic thinking. He was passionate about his work and obsessed with delivering excellence to his clients. Under his leadership, Webchutney won numerous awards and accolades, including the coveted Agency of the Year award at the prestigious Cannes Lions Festival.
He was not just a successful entrepreneur but also a mentor, leader, and inspiration to many in the industry. He was known for his focus on people and his ability to bring out the best in his team. He was a champion of creativity and encouraged his team to experiment and take risks.
News of Sid’s passing has left many in the industry deeply saddened. His passing is a loss not only for his family and friends but also for the entire digital marketing community in India. Sidharth Rao will be remembered as an icon, a visionary, and a trailblazer who changed the face of digital marketing in India.
Rubeena Singh, country manager India & MENA – AnyMind
(Formerly CEO of iProspect, a Dentsu agency)
“Rubeena, we have to meet up at Toto’s!” was Sid’s often repeated invitation when it came to meeting up in Bandra (suburban Mumbai) over a drink. I first met Sid in 2013, when I was at Network18 and he as founder of WebChutney, was also associated with the Network 18 group. From then to 2016-2021, when as fellow colleagues at Dentsu India we interacted a lot, I always remember Sid as the same person, always full of bright ideas, a refreshing honesty, full of humility, a self-deprecating sense of humour and generous to the core, all of which made him an extremely likeable and trust worthy friend and colleague. In 2021, I moved out of Dentsu but we remained in touch, catching up in person and over the phone often.
When Sid decided to return to his entrepreneurial roots and co-founded Punt Partners, he was just so excited about it. One could easily notice the new found excitement in him, as he explained what he was trying to build. The other thing he was very excited about was the farmhouse his wife Shweta and him had set up in Karjat, on the outskirts of Mumbai. Plans were made to visit Sid and Shweta at the farm – and little did I know that my maiden visit to his farm would be at his passing away.
As a human being, he always saw the good side in people. Always more than ready to give the credit to his team, his colleagues, he shied away from taking the spotlight, even when he truly and richly deserved to bask in it. His visionary leadership put #WebChutney and #DentsuIndia on the creative worlds map, winning India’s first ‘Agency of the year’ award at Cannes. With Sid gone, India has lost one of its original internet startup entrepreneurs.
With him gone, I have lost a friend and a confidant who was inspiring in the way he handled adversity. His passing away has really shaken me to the core, it has yet to sink in to be honest.
Haresh Nayak, chief executive officer & founder, Connect Network
(Former COO of Dentsu Media Brands)
As it slowly sinks in, I still can’t believe he is not with us. I knew him for last 12 years and we were more friends than colleagues. Working closely together we won many businesses and worked on great projects, I always found him very earthy and practical.
I still remember my first meeting with Sid in our office, the Dentsu CEO Ashish Bhasin had asked us to connect and see how we could collaborate on the business and work together. He had come to my office, first thing he said to me that really touched me was “Haresh I am a creative guy and can ensure your clients will be happy working with Webchutney”. We worked on a plan of 3 clients and we were able to win those business, in 6 months we had closed almost 14 accounts. One thing I knew, if he was part of my team we will always win.
Abhinay Bhasin, head of product marketing, ProfitWheel
(Former APAC vice president of Dentsu International)
Sid was one of those guys who epitomised the fact that nice guys finished first. From countless nights in Bandra, Karjat and Lonavala - the one thing you would hear him often speak about was the immense pride he had for his team he built at his baby named Webchutney. He was a man who spread immense love. He just had so much of it to give - for his clients, his family, his mentors, his ‘kids’ and his friends like family. Going to miss his bone crushing hugs.