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Thursday, November 08, 2001

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In praise of two legends

Ramanujam Sridhar

Advertising has its fair share of legends. Some of them unfortunately turn out to be legends in their own lunchtime as they gulp down three martinis for lunch. And yet, we in India have been fortunate to have been blessed with two men who have become legends in their own lifetimes. I refer to the recent recognition of R.K. Swamy by the Madras Management Association and S.R. (Mani) Ayer by the Advertising Club, Madras. And the most gratifying thing for us, parochial though it may seem, is that these legends who dominated the Indian advertising scene for over three decades are from our own neck of the woods. I had the privilege of working for R.K. Swamy and knowing Ayer professionally. And I was richer professionally because of these people as I am sure were several others whose careers benefited because of these two fine gentlemen with brains as David Ogilvy would have described them.


It's not for me to compare the achievements of these two leaders who were enormously successful in their own fields -- one as a professional who went on to be a successful entrepreneur and the other who headed an organisation successfully and smoothly handed it over to someone else who is leading it to even greater heights. Whilst Ayer and Swamy were contemporaries, competitors even, I will remember them as two individuals who started ordinarily and reached commanding heights through their enormous professionalism, absolute dedication and total passion for this wonderful (and yet maligned) profession of advertising. And both of them were enviably well-read men with phenomenal memories.

So whats the problem?


My first serious meeting with Swamy happened in 1984. I was an account supervisor handling a large client in his agencys Bangalore office. The relationship was in trouble, my boss was abroad and the client (not surprisingly) wanted to meet Swamy. I picked him up from his hotel room and we started walking to the clients office, which was quite close by. I tried to keep pace with his giant strides and heard him chanting the Vishnu Sahasranamam. Being younger and also not so religious, I tried not to look embarrassed. But the moment we entered the clients reception area, there was an immediate transformation. He quickly asked me So whats the problem? and understood what I had to say in all of three minutes. He spent the next three hours with the client retrieving the relationship. A relationship which continued for at least another decade from then.

Swamy was an amazing communicator. His reputation as a speaker spread beyond advertising clubs to more august bodies such as the All India Management Association. He spoke with passion. But more significantly, he prepared. Not for him the off-the-cuff, impromptu, back-of-an-envelope speeches that several of us specialise in.

And he had courage. He would take clients head-on on issues that affected industry. Clearly Swamy believed what Bill Bernbach said, "If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you and nobody for you." People like Swamy looked beyond their agency. He was President of the Advertising Standards Council of India and the Audit Bureau of Circulation. The Advertising Club of Madras and Calcutta and the Advertising Agencies of India have recognised him for his life-long contribution to the industry in their respective awards. I went back to R.K. Swamy/BBDO in 1997 and never ceased to be amazed at Swamys interest in what was happening in my region. He was Chairman and not involved in day-to-day operations. And yet he would look at my new business prospect list and give me tips. He used to chafe at his inability to read for long stretches, but his memory was beyond compare. And I used to get really charged up after my interactions with him. His passion for the various good causes continues as he actively mobilises funds for them.

Swamys greatest strength was managing talented people who didnt often see eye to eye and perhaps he has not received enough credit for making a South-based agency a national force. If at his age people can be as passionate as he is, then they truly have the blessings of the Lord.

So you want to get into advertising?

I met Mani Ayer way back in 1982. I was a management graduate enamoured with David Ogilvys confessions and his magic lantern. My more distinguished namesake R. Sridhar, who was the branch manager of O&M at Bangalore at that time, had asked me to meet Ayer, who was speaking at the Ad Convention at Madras. I went with great trepidation to his room at the Connemara. As my luck would have it, someone was replacing a leaky cistern, the telephone was ringing, an art director was waiting anxiously with some layouts and Ayer was quizzing me on why I wanted to go into advertising. I ended up behaving like an unemployed youth desperate to get a job, any job, so enamoured was I with OBM. Ayer (I later discovered) had found me diffident. The rest as they say is history. For OBM! During the last 20 years, they have grown from strength to strength. In no small measure due to the young Matunga lad who took over as Managing Director at the age of 38 and who was recognised by David Ogilvy as the most outstanding individual in the Ogilvy network. I continued to meet him at one airport or the other. He was always courteous and nice to someone who in age, wisdom and designation was several notches below him. He also rescued me at an Ad Club convention at Chennai of which he was the Chairman when I ruffled a speakers feathers with my well- intentioned (and ill-directed) humour. I admire what he has done for Mudra Institute of Communication, Ahmedabad. People are known less for what they take than for what they give. He has given his time, skills and guidance to the institute. A leader must sell his industry and ideas to the next generation and the Indian advertising industry, as a whole, will be richer for Ayers efforts.Nice people dont have to finish last. I think theres an important lesson in management. You dont need to be a cigar-chomping, expletive-hurling toughie to be successful. You can be equally successful by being an individual with a cigarette in one hand, ashtray in the other (as someone described Ayer), who knows his clients business like his own. Or you can build an institution like R.K. Swamy did that embodies the values you stand for, which are ethics and transparency. And the sad reality is that these large shoes are going to be very difficult to fill for us ordinary mortals. And the recognition given to these two great leaders recently serves to reiterate this fact even more.

David Ogilvy used to ask for creative directors who were trumpeter swans, who combine personal genius with inspiring leadership. Clearly these two would fit the bill. Although they were far more important than creative directors could he ever be. (Interestingly, the R. K. Swamy logo has a hansa bird in it).

So how does one sum up the achievements of these talented individuals? Let me quote what T.S. Nagarajan (formerly of Brooke Bond) had to say about Mani Ayer, "In a world where hyperbole is king and larger-than-life images are sought after, he remains the quintessential Madrasi x and I mean it as a great compliment to a tribe cerebral, highly motivated, insightful and industrious, perfectly at home with either caviar or kadamba sadam." Strangely enough, he could have spoken about Swamy with the same words and not been way off the mark.

Yes, we have been fortunate to have two real giants in our midst. And as Bill Bernbach said, The real giants have always been poets, men who jumped from facts into the realm of imagination and ideas. Join me in wishing them health, happiness and prosperity.

PS: Several of you have known, worked with, been friends with and admired these two fine gentlemen with brains. Why dont you share your experiences? Well all be the richer for it. Do write into the Catalyst at bleditor@thehindu.co.in

(The author is CEO, brand.comm)

 
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