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AAAI Lifetime Achievement recipient Madhukar Kamath tells what not to do as you grow in your career

The Chairman Emeritus of DDB Mudra, who was honoured with AAAI’s Lifetime Achievement Award 2019, shares his magnificent time in the advertising industry and his learnings in this journey

The Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) honoured adman Madhukar Kamath with this year’s AAAI Lifetime Achievement Award on August 6 in the presence of the who’s who of the advertising industry at an event in Mumbai. This is the highest honour given to individuals in India for outstanding contribution to the advertising industry and is presented annually.

The award recognised Kamath’s outstanding contribution to the growth and development of the advertising industry in India. He played a vital role in transforming a traditional advertising agency into one of India’s most successful and diversified communication companies. Kamath played a key role in Omnicom’s acquisition of the Mudra Group and the integration with the Global DDB Network. Subsequently, he facilitated the entry of Interbrand, a leading Global Brand Consultancy into India, and was its Chairman.

In his speech, Kamath talked about his long journey in advertising and shared his three major learnings about what not to do as you grow in your career:

  1. Never bury your head in the sand like an ostrich. Do not wish away problems or the pangs of growth, face the realities.
  2. Learn to ‘let go’ as you go up the organisation. Don’t hang on.
  3. Never be in a situation where you need to walk and have to constantly watch your back. Look ahead.

According to Kamath, an advertising professional should make way for new and fresh thinking. “Leave at the right time. Build succession plans. Have backups. Plan B if need be. Trust youngsters,” he said.

Kamath took forward the legacy of A G Krishnamurthy in building MICA and establishing it as a business School for Strategic Marketing and Communication Management. He was the chairman of Mudra Foundation from 2003 to 2017.

“AG Krishnamurthy was the wind beneath my wings for well over a decade. I grew both personally and professionally in Mudra. From the legendary Keith Reinhard, the Chairman Emeritus of DDB Worldwide, I learnt that building on a legacy is as important as looking to create one. Over my career of four decades, as the industry changed, as market forces changed, the very construct of operations changed, the remuneration structures changed and so on. I learnt the importance of constantly reinventing and staying relevant. I treated it like a long distance run where it was necessary to stay the course and not look at it as a sprint," Kamath said.

Speaking on his lifetime achievements, Kamath said, “I put to practice what I have always preached. All my milestones and achievements and the award today is entirely due to the dictum of ‘surround yourself with talent better than you’ I faithfully followed. I was fortunate. Yes, that’s the right word. I only wish I could name each and every one of them here. I dedicate this award to all those who worked alongside me, be it in Mudra, MICA, the advertising industry, the media fraternity, fellow organisers of Ad Asia in Delhi, the talented leaders at the Advertising Standards Council of India, the INS or Indian Newspapers Society, the IBF or the Indian Broadcasting Federation, the Audit Bureau of Circulations and finally the NGO Plan India, which has allowed me to be a part of the mission to touch the lives of 10 million children and take forward the gender equality agenda.”

“Along the way, I’ve learnt to take the road that is not predictable. My personal life also illustrates this. In 1988, I decided to join a little known, much-derided home-grown Indian agency called Mudra. I chose it over a well-polished, much applauded and decorated multinational organisation that offered me instant fame and, yes, more money. I liked the entrepreneurial spirit, the native wisdom and the never-say-die spirit. Epitomised in the Walt Disney line, which AGK adopted for Mudra, ‘if you can dream it, you can do it’,” Kamath said.

Another turning point for Kamath was two decades later, in 1999, when he was offered an assignment by the Cordiant Group (subsequently acquired by WPP) to either set up Bates India as a start-up with two key network clients or acquire a fast sinking Clarion and build Bates Clarion.

“It was a proud moment when in just 100 days we achieved the following: Went into a very hostile environment, negotiated with a board that wanted to wash their hands of the troubled agency; tactfully took the union along, shockingly discovered the fact that the agency was on the verge of bankruptcy and liquidation and worked out an acquisition strategy on the back of an envelope in a bar with the then CFO, Ujjal Gupta; sold the strategy to Bates in London with the support of Avi Bhojani, now a very successful entrepreneur and businessman in Dubai; talked to banks, the accreditation agencies and executed a downsizing of over 60% of the agency; and established a 100%-owned Bates India. What gave me immense happiness was the fact that we ensured that all the employee dues were paid, the fact that we executed perhaps the largest voluntary retirement in the history of Indian advertising, that we paid back all dues to INS, PF authorities, etc. And all this quietly and efficiently under the radar of any media focus or bad blood.”

“The lesson learnt over the four decades underscored the importance of constantly reinventing and staying relevant. Decade after decade as the industry changed. As market forces changed, the very construct of operations changed, remuneration structures changed and so on. I treated it like a long distance run where it was necessary to stay the course and not look at it as a sprint,” he said.

Ashish Bhasin, President of AAAI, said, “Heartiest congratulations to Madhukar Kamath on being conferred AAAI’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his vision and passion in transforming a traditional advertising agency into one of India’s most successful and diversified communication companies and his commitment to the cause of education and building talent for the marketing communications and services industry in India. He also played a vital role in bringing together the various constituents of the advertising industry to work with unity.”

This award was instituted in 1988 by AAAI and some of the past winners include Subhas Ghosal, Alyque Padamsee, Mike Khanna, Piyush Pandey, Sam Balsara, Prem Mehta, Ram Sehgal, among others.

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