A woman who has helped raise countless ideas – from concept to campaign – while raising the bar for Sri Lankan advertising, Selonica Perumal, the CEO of Shift Integrated, takes us through her personal and professional journey.
Hailing from a diverse middle-class family, Selonica says she looked up to her parents and admired their determination. “My parents who loved me with all their hearts worked hard and made every decision in life to ensure that my sister and I had the best possible chance of success in life,” Selonica said. Being the eldest, she was quite inspired to succeed. “I have a strong work ethic that was instilled in me by my hardworking parents,” says Selonica and reminisces about her past as she is now a working mum herself, “I am the proud mother of a teenage son, Kian. So proud to see him turning out to be an amazing human.” She is a past student of Muslim Ladies College Colombo who went on to pursue CIMA after her A/Ls, with the aim of building a career in finance. Selonica stepped into the field of marketing after serving a few years in the banking industry, before she added an MBA from the University of Edith Cowen in Australia to her educational qualifications.
“Advertising was not one of my ambitions growing up. I stumbled upon it after my banking stint. Once I got into it, I fell in love with advertising. I love it to this day, 18 years later.” Thinking back to the early years of her career, she believes that joining Leo Burnett in Sri Lanka in 2004 was a key milestone. “I started as a Brand Executive and climbed up the ladder to become Executive Director before I left in 2020,” Selonica says.
Selonica joined Shift as the COO in 2021, and was then elevated to the position of CEO in April. “I would like to thank Sujeewa Samarasekera (Chairman) & Chrishani Kotalawela (MD) at SHIFT Group for believing in my abilities & giving me the opportunity to lead the agency that the two of them had built. I am also indebted to Prasanga Jayatunga, Director of Third Shift Media, for his mentorship and unstinting support from the day I joined SHIFT.”
Her vast experience in this field, spanning nearly two decades, has honed her skills in marketing across various industries. “Throughout my 18-year journey, I have been a brand builder, leveraging my marcom experience to help create a positive impact for the brands I have handled, across industries as diverse as retail, banking, aviation, and FMCG, to name a few. During this journey, I have been recognized globally & locally.” In the year 2017, Selonica’s leadership was recognized, with her being named to the prestigious “Top 40 Women to Watch” in Asia list. “In 2017, Campaign Asia, the authority on media, marketing, and advertising in the Asia Pacific region, selected me as one of its “Top 40 Women to Watch” for spearheading bold, culturally-relevant advertising. I joined a powerful line-up of women who were recognized for their ability to see the bigger picture and their determination to improve the world they live in. This has been a prestigious accolade for me,” Selonica stated, reminiscing about a proud moment in her life. Two years down the line, she was also feted for “Leadership Excellence in the Field of Advertising” at the Top 50 Professional and Career Women Awards, organized by Women in Management.
As a leader in the corporate world, Selonica strives to be an example for women who are in the process of building their careers, “I’m committed to championing and empowering women in the marketing communications industry and serve as a mentor to young women who are trying to establish a career in the industry.”
Shift Integrated prides itself on hosting a multitalented range of team players who bring their unique skillsets to make the team outcome a success, “We have on board a diverse mix of key industry leaders to drive this forward. Sandun Lakmal (Group VP & Chief Creative Officer), Ikram Mohideen (Chief Strategy Officer), and Charitha Waidyaratne (COO – Digital) are key pillars of our success.” This team has transformed Shift Integrated from a traditional marketing agency to an agency that is strategically and digitally driven. “You can’t do anything on your own. People can happily help you, or they can silently hurt you. As long as you’re good to people, they’ll be good to you. I’ve always believed that it’s important to lead with both heart and mind,” she said.
Driven by a commitment to effectiveness, Selonica states that Shift Integrated lives by its motto of ‘Making Work That Works’. She explains, “Over the last decade, the communications industry, and marketing practice broadly, has become obsessed with efficiency – making things lean and neat – with an unhealthy focus on shiny new tech – while ignoring the fundamental reason clients turn to us, which is to help them sell their products and services!”. Expounding on this philosophy, Selonica believes that ‘Making Work That Works’ recalibrates the entire client servicing, strategic, and creative process with the aim of producing work (i.e. ads) that positively impacts the brand’s bottom line.
“From bringing the latest research findings to turning to global and local best practices, this could also mean going against traditionally held assumptions on how to create and execute advertisements. And this means it is a continuous learning process for all departments – including our client business partners who will have to change the way they approach marketing communications.”
As the CEO of a company facing turbulent economic conditions, Selonica and her team face challenges on a daily basis, which Selonica navigates successfully with the new approaches that she has put in place. “We are taking a two-pronged approach. In the long term, we are looking at portfolio expansion with a clear new business plan to acquire clients who need effective and smarter solutions. In the short term, we are looking at driving immediate business results for brands and maintaining sales amidst increasing prices.” As companies tend to cut marketing budgets first, when faced with an economic crisis like this one, Selonica states that they are making sure that there are internal measures taken to boost team morale and give recognition where it is due. “As we navigate through the worst economic crisis Sri Lanka has ever faced, as leaders we must provide direction, guidance, and reassurance while acknowledging that the path ahead is not clear. Balancing this tension requires leaders to lead with humanity,” she said.
Selonica had some words of wisdom that she wishes to share with anyone planning to enter the advertising industry, “I would add a piece of advice I received from my first boss in advertising: “you work hard and you play harder”.