The uber marketer

Eshan Ponnadurai is on a wild ride with a career that has taken him around the globe, from YouTube to Uber.

By Andrew Murfett

Alexander Theatre
Eshan Ponnadurai’s career took a sudden turn when he joined Uber’s executive ranks.

Growing up in Melbourne, Eshan Ponnadurai was presented with several career options by his parents.

“They told me I could be either a doctor, lawyer, accountant or engineer,” Ponnadurai says, drolly. “Marketing was not really an option.” Today, the 35-year-old Sri Lankan-born, Melbourne-bred, Singapore-based Monash graduate is one of Asia’s most influential digital marketers,  serving as Uber’s Asia-Pacific Marketing Director. The path to becoming a key figure in the nascent share‑riding revolution began as an undergraduate student at Monash, when he eventually explained to his parents, Christopher and Caroline, he wished to embark on a marketing career. “My dad  had to learn what marketing was,” he says. “He definitely didn’t plan on raising a marketer.”

When the Ponnadurai family arrived in Melbourne from Sri Lanka, Eshan was just four, and his brother, Andrew, was one. “Sri Lanka was in the midst of civil war and unrest when my family left,” Ponnadurai explains. “We lost everything in a racial riot, including our house.” The  family would eventually settle in Vermont East and Ponnadurai graduated high school during the late-1990s tech boom. He joined Monash as an IT/business systems undergraduate student.

Midway through his IT degree, he landed a summer internship with Ford, which led to the offer of a full-time IT job. He was pleasantly surprised to learn that he could attain some flexibility around his degree’s graduation date and juggle his full-time job with the completion of his undergraduate studies.  The idea of completing a degree is to help the student attain a desirable job. As he had accomplished this crucial step himself, Monash was willing to offer some flexibility to ensure he completed his degree.

Ponnadurai sheepishly concedes that up until this point he was hardly an exemplary student. Still, the impact of Monash’s show of faith was prompt. “I went from being a pass to a distinction student,” he says. “What I was learning became so much more practical, seeing it applied at  work.”

Meanwhile, in his spare time, Ponnadurai was writing and directing live theatre at Monash. It was the guerilla marketing campaigns he designed in promoting his plays that ultimately sated his marketing ambitions. Soon after, he decided to go all in and apply for a graduate marketing position at Proctor &  Gamble.

There was one minor complication: the role was based in Singapore. “I hadn’t even lived out of home,” he says. “I was naive, but I wanted to try something different. It was good for me to grow up and move away. If this didn’t happen 12 years ago, I wouldn’t be where  I am today.” He spent seven years in Asia at P&G, rising swiftly through its Southeast Asian marketing operation. P&G was also where he met his wife, Jacqueline. “As colleagues we argued almost every day,” he says. “But we travelled in the same group. I was leading global  marketing and she was leading Korean marketing. We learned to be amicable together, and then we learned to be friends. I left P&G and we began dating.”

The two married in Bali in September 2014. By then, Ponnadurai was two years into a career-defining stint at Google’s YouTube group, which began with the Head of Marketing Southeast Asia role and escalated to a Manhattan-based gig as YouTube’s Global Head of Music Marketing. “When I  arrived, YouTube didn’t do marketing,” he says. “They had zero budget. I was used to spending on television and billboards; with YouTube I really had to re-learn the entrepreneurship around marketing.”

This was both instructive and rewarding — Ponnadurai’s work won several awards at the Cannes Lions, the Oscars for marketers. “I had always dreamed of going to Cannes and (Google) let me go and really enjoy it,” he says. His New York role was centred on music, a lifelong passion for  him.

Monash was willing to offer some flexibility to ensure he completed his degree.

“When I arrived, I was just happy to be in NYC and working in music,” he says. “But I soon realised I had to start again in some ways. So I built a music team at YouTube and brought the hustle I learned in Southeast Asia.” Ponnadurai’s success at Google led to a conversation with  Uber that eventually resulted in him accepting a position in September. “It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made leaving music and leaving New York,” he says.

The catalyst for the decision was a desire to genuinely build a brand from the ground up. “I’m going from working at Google, who have 75,000 employees, to Uber who have 4000,” he says. “I’ve worked really only at huge companies, so I wanted to see what it would be like. I  can now also build a team from scratch, structure a regional team, all things I’ve watched and helped other people do.”

The challenge will be, he says, to develop Uber into a brand the public admires. “The big thing will be evolving from some brand perception issues,” he says. “Asia is incredibly competitive in the ride-sharing space. We want to develop a business model away from the incentive base, and  be a brand people love.”

Ponnadurai’s and Jacqueline’s first child, Zion, is not yet a year old and the move back to Singapore from New York will ensure family support is much closer at hand. “Home is a moving target,” he says. “There’s always been a pull for us in Asia (work-wise). Also, both  of us didn’t grow up with grandparents, so we think about that for Zion.” Ponnadurai has become increasingly involved in Monash alumni activities internationally, most notably funding and hosting the Monash Global Discovery Program, which welcomed eight Monash students to Manhattan last summer.

What advice does he offer the students he meets with today? “If you want something, be shameless about it and just ask,” he says. “Most of the time people will say yes.”