August 04, 2020
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How I Struck A Deal With Rupert Murdoch

India's media mogul Ronnie Screwvala on what it takes to do business with the world's media mogul.

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How I Struck A Deal With Rupert Murdoch
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How I Struck A Deal With Rupert Murdoch
Dream With Your Eyes Open
By Ronnie Screwvala
Rupa | PAGES: 185 | RS. 500

That's how many words the average human speaks a day. This means, this week more words will flow out of your mouth than fill the book you're holding in your hands. Whether it's crafting a marketing or product pitch, presenting a five-year plan, sharing research and development findings, delivering a pitch for investor capital, or engaging in due diligence discussions about potential ventures, you're always 'auditioning'. Every word counts. Every sentence makes a statement. 

Authenticity is at the heart of effective communication, though few entrepreneurs communicate as well as they should. One person who made a lasting impression on me in those early days was News Corp's Rupert Murdoch. After buying Star TV in the early 1990s, Murdoch visited India, and came down to UTV. For him and Star, the two key markets were India and China. So Murdoch, through his visit to Mumbai and to UTV, planned to understand India, local content and more. 

We had a frugal basement office, a small audiovisual room and no meeting room. My office, no more than eighty square feet, doubled up as the meeting room when necessary. We were a tight-knit team, keeping things small and comfortable, with plenty of room for people to work without the ostentatious trappings. When you lead by example, you transform the culture of the entire office. A lively office culture doesn't always come from big spaces. In fact, the opposite is very often true. Offices of a certain size breed communication. The concept of the top-floor corner office is archaic and reeks of an isolated top management team. 

Every day, I'd talk with every person in the office—in the pantry, in the hallway, while walking to the loo. That proximity didn't force us to communicate with one another; it presented us with opportunities for lively dialogue and the ready exchange of ideas. And because everyone in the office knew we were hosting an important meeting, every eye was on the staircase when Murdoch eased down the steps into the basement. 

Interestingly and much to my relief, neither his body language nor his gestures betrayed the least surprise or disappointment. What the hell have I gotten myself into? I've never been in such a small office! And in a basement! Nothing like that at all. Instead, his reaction was completely normal. I think that's the first-generation entrepreneur in him. He must have descended into quite a few basement newsrooms in Australia; clearly he hadn't forgotten the 'can-do' culture of entrepreneurships. 

He was here to do business, and that's what we did. The meeting lasted two hours, including a ten-minute video on UTV titled 'The Whole Is Bigger than the Sum of Its Parts'. No coffee or tea, just straight talk. 

Murdoch struck me as a direct and insightful communicator, speaking his mind with fierce honesty and thumping the table to drive a point home. 'You know I'm here to make big bets.' Thump. 'So let's talk about the big things Star can do in India.' Thump. But after he had said his piece and someone else started talking, he was in full listening mode. That ability to switch effortlessly back-and-forth from talking to listening reflected a high degree of genuine curiosity that struck a chord with all of us. In the past, I've found that Westerners often come to India with the assumption that the culture, mindsets and attitudes of their home country are universal. Then they're surprised when confronted with acute cultural differences and the inevitable failure that comes from not understanding who consumes a product or offering. 

Murdoch valued words. He was a communicator who knew when to speak and when to listen, to make the most of his time and maximize his chances of success. Despite his gruff exterior, he had an innate ability to relate to others and the uncommon willingness, given his stature, to open himself up to people at a personal level. 


Disruptive ideas sometimes come from the most unlikely of places and people. You never know when you're going to discover an interesting product, a path-breaking concept or even a brilliant error that could revolutionize an entire sector. Consider some examples from history. 

Post-it notes? The result of a botched experiment in developing new adhesives. Plastic? Well, the guy who invented it was looking for a replacement for shellac; he only succeeded in making a mess that didn't have any apparent application, until someone decided it could transform our everyday lives in a million different ways. 

Both these 'failures' were exploited by entrepreneurs who understood that good ideas were everywhere

That's why I try to reply to the bulk of over 300 emails that flood my inbox daily. I reply not because I'm running to become the prime minister of India. I do so for three reasons: to lead from the front and establish an organizational culture that believes in reverts and courtesy; to stay aware, current and ahead of the competition; and to maintain constant contact with what's happening out there. You never know when a valuable idea will strike like lightning out of a clear sky. Keep yourself open to the thousand opportunities that present themselves to you daily. 

You're the person who takes the call and responds to the email. You're the leader who seeks nascent ideas you can tap into for your next onslaught or innovation. Collapse distances, internally and externally, through effective communication. 


When running a mid-size or large organization, you can't be all things to all people. Great leaders will never be the most popular people in the office. But you need to be inclusive and set a culture of openness in communication from day one. The more deeply embedded this culture is, the larger and stronger the company grows; the larger the company grows, the more embedded this habit becomes. It's a positive, self-perpetuating cycle. 

What should your daily communication goals be? 
To begin with, befriend, get close to, earn respect from and inspire. But the true heartbeat of communication comes down to a word often used but seldom understood: charm. Most people think of the charmer as an outrageous flirt, a dashing character who could give Shah Rukh Khan a run for his money, or the cool lad with a great sense of humour. (By the way, Shah Rukh, besides being a charmer, is one of the smartest people I know and a true entrepreneur.) 

Charm for me is the ability to persuade with your tone, your willingness to be inclusive in your engagement with everyone in the room or on the call, and your knack for being clear and articulate with your message. Disarm your audience by always listening keenly to everyone's views and sprinkling some humour into even the most serious situations. 

But I don't have the gift of the gab, you lament. Does that mean the entrepreneurial or professional life is off-limits for me? Of course not. Maybe you're not a natural orator. Or perhaps your confidence level isn't as high as you want it to be. My advice then is to hold on to those subjects about which you feel confident. 

If you're assured in your knowledge, that's half the battle won. Now all you need is a communicative vehicle to deliver that knowledge, maybe a razor-sharp, well-crafted email. The point is, you don't need to enrol in an elocution class or become a world-class communicator. Rather, you need to utilize the mode of communication that allows you to showcase your strongest skill set. For me, this has always been straight talk, eye contact and brief, punchy sentences. If you can't get to the point in short order, chances are no one will stick around long enough to get your point, no matter how important or relevant it is. 


Of all the roles in theatre I have ever immersed myself in, the lead in Mark Medoff 's Children of a Lesser God was the most challenging and taught me lessons in communication that I draw on every day. The play is a demanding two-and-a-half hour soliloquy during which the teacher, James Leeds, and the hearing- and speech-impaired student with whom he has a romantic relationship, Sarah Norman, communicate through sign language. Leeds speaks to his student and then translates her responses from sign language to English for the audience. If I sat down with a hearing- or speech-impaired person today, I'd still be able to communicate with her. 

Since I 'read' Sarah's responses for the audience, I had to say her lines in one tone of voice and then my lines in another. Except for a couple of other characters who popped in and out, the two of us were alone on the stage, exposed. My job was to take the audience on an emotional roller-coaster ride using nothing more than words—the purest act of communication. 

Children of a Lesser God taught me sensitivity in communication at a point in my life when it was important and necessary for me to understand how to connect with people. It also taught me focus. To prepare for my most difficult role, I used to sit quietly for an hour backstage before going on, knowing the part demanded and deserved a level of preparation remarkable even for theatre. 

Great memories, indeed. I think back on all my roles warmly, with some nostalgia. My mom and dad watched me perform often, and I always appreciated their support. Even now, forty years later, Mom admits that she has only one regret for me. 'Now that you've done all this, why don't you go back to theatre?' she asks. 'I wish you had never left.' She is wistful in tone and speech, the way only mothers can be. She's proud of what I've accomplished, but she remembers my early days as fondly as I do. 

'I don't have time,' I tell her. And I suppose that's true. Maybe I don't make time would be more accurate. That's my decision, at least for now. I do know one thing. I'd never give up those experiences on stage or the lessons that theatre taught me. 


Effective communication is about getting things done under any circumstance. 

I look back on the first big deal of a mature nature I ever closed and think about my early training in theatre. A few weeks after Murdoch's first visit to India and to our office, I got a call from his team in London. 'We want to take our discussion forward,' one of his senior colleagues told me. 'If you're interested, let's meet at the BSkyB office any time next week.' 

Naïve, I flew there alone, expecting little more than to collect information on what News Corp had in mind. When I landed at 8.00 a.m. on the appointed day, I was met by a seven-person team that included the head of BSkyB, the strategy team, two lawyers and two investment bankers. I thought I was there to have a broad conversation. They were ready to propose a deal and close it that day.

'Where's your team?' one of them asked, offering me coffee. 'Your lawyer? Your banker?' And they began spelling out their proposal. Murdoch's group had shortlisted us as their content partner in India. They wanted a significant minority stake with no operational say in the business, had no concerns about us working with their potential competitors, and overall, wanted to look at this as a strong, arm's-length alliance—one they'd build on as their India strategy strengthened in the years to come. 

'I didn't bring anyone.' 

'Okay. What do you want to do?' They clearly didn't think much would happen, but they weren't opposed to talking. 

Three things flashed through my mind: 

  1. this was a strong quorum from their side and not likely to assemble again if I hemmed and hawed; 
  2. if we finished the day with no conclusions, they might feel free to explore other options; and 
  3. given their clarity and urgency, the team would have the mandate to report to Murdoch by the end of the day with a firm yes or no. 

The way I saw it, I had to proceed with what I felt comfortable doing. It made sense for me to move forward alone. 

'I'm good. Let's go,' I said. They were surprised that I was all in, but we negotiated through the day and hammered out a couple of details. By 4.00 p.m., their lawyers had punched out a Heads of Agreement on everything we discussed. Four hours later, I stepped out to make some phone calls back home to colleagues and my lawyer—whom I had put on standby during the day—while the News Corp team faxed the printout (mails were not so frequently used then) to Murdoch for his final approval. I was surprised that with everything going on with the company worldwide, Murdoch still wanted to read a document for a relatively small deal and alliance in India. Another mark of a true entrepreneur. 

I was parting with less than half the company. I had never had an investor or partner until then, and here I was at the end of a twelve-hour day hurtling towards a career- and life-changing decision. 

No doubt, the News Corp team was balanced and fair, but I was especially pleased that despite being unprepared, I was holding my own against a group of distinguished, experienced professionals. I knew I had to be comfortable with the terms—that was key. As for the negotiations, the process was akin to standing in an auditorium full of people with all eyes drilling into you. Being thrown alone into the pressure-cooker makes you confident and sharp overnight. 

When we were done in the conference room, I went back to my hotel and called Zarina (whom I later married). We congratulated one another. Never one for elaborate celebrations, I treated myself to a long walk instead. Walks are therapeutic for me. The longer the walk, undisturbed and without agenda or route, the more my mind flickers and sparks. 

It was a cold night in London. I strolled around Soho, its streets dotted with bright lights, reliving the day and feeling pretty good about things. A lot had happened. For the first time in my working life I was bringing in a partner—and a Goliath at that. Life would never be the same. 

Suddenly, I found myself face-to-face with two of the biggest blokes I'd ever seen. Before I knew I was being mugged, it was over. I never wear a watch or carry a wallet, so they took what little was in my pockets and vanished into the night. 

As soon as I got back to the hotel, irritated but unscathed, I called Zarina and told her my story. Once she knew I was okay, her answer was perfect: 'You got something today and you gave some back. Good karma.'

Great communicator, my Zarina.

Excerpted with Permission from Rupa

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