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Monday, Nov 27, 2006

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A worthwhile act of philanthropy

S. Ramachander

Advertising professionals generally convey an image of people who trivialise the serious and exaggerate the banal. They are associated with glib sound bytes and superficial modernity. In truth, however, this stereotype has many honourable exceptions, of men and women of much wisdom, foresight and compassionate action.

One such leading light was Subhas Ghosal of JWT. A foundation set up in his memory held a weekend event recently at a new business school at Neral on the Mumbai-Pune road, which itself is the brainchild of Walter Saldhana a contemporary of Ghosal at JWT. He founded Chaitra, a fully Indian agency that, like many others during the post-liberalisation decade, was finally absorbed into an international agency, in this case, Leo Burnett. He had always wanted managers and entrepreneurs to make a real contribution to our developing society, instead of sitting on the sidelines and complaining about the falling standards and growing cynical disregard for values.

An unusual project

His optimism and belief has borne fruit in an unusual school, the Asian Institute of Communications and Advertising (AICAR). Now in his mid seventies, Walter has chosen to invest his lifetime capital gains, so to speak, in a different kind of wealth-creation and legacy for the country. A good part of his earnings from selling his stake in the business have gone into this project, aimed at developing advertising and communications professionals.

The four-year-old 33-acre campus is set at the foothills of the Western Ghats, just six km from the Matheran hillresort; it is a beautifully green, wooded area with fresh air and a lovely view of the hills. There are many other things equally remarkable about the way the place has been developed.

The impressive campus is wi-fi connected, up to date technologically but manages to remain tastefully understated, spacious and functional rather than ostentatious. Mr Ivan Arthur, former national creative chief at JWT, is the vice-chairman of the board, who is deeply involved in the day-to-day running of the place, also teaches creative communications, at which he is an acknowledged master. The emphasis is on learning by doing, he says, pointing out that the students have practically an in-house agency of their own and have developed and run advertising campaigns — one of them for a start-up project for fragrances for an Italian client and another in educational technology.

The students have been selected for all-round personality and not mere academic records; they come across as exceptionally well-groomed, cultured, and articulate. Some of them interviewed the visitors on camera with a competent and professional air, fully mingling at ease with the good and the great of the advertising and communications world, most of them decades older and normally difficult to reach.

The subject of the discussion was rather unusual — the role of advertising in times of adversity for brands and businesses — for which the students had painstakingly prepared case studies. The Institute deliberately fosters scholar-managers as teachers, a combination that is inadequately appreciated in India. One thus came away from a refreshing weekend of discussions and a good deal of writing, enough for a book to come out of it — happy to have done something to encourage a worthwhile institution.

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