In November 1997 when I joined Hindustan Thompson Associates, the endless gin and tonic lunch at Olympia was an infrequent but unerring reality. In 2004 when I left J Walter Thompson, the era of free lunches was truly history, packaged biryani the loftiest pro bono indulgence. The holding company was ruling the band by then, excess of indulgence devoured by caution of restraint.
30 Bondel Road in the 90s was nothing short of Disneyland — a theme park of advertising with incredibly talented characters. Srirup Guha Thakurta, the lovingly-mercurial Creative Head, an infinitely tender heart encircled by a fiery batter. His brother Nirup Guha Thakurta, the doyen of print production, whose nurturing of the annual ITC yearbooks would effortlessly qualify for parenting awards. Most fascinatingly Shambhu-Da’s darkroom inherited painstakingly by apprentice Shumon, where rigorous photography earned its deserving daylight. The studio, brilliantly manual and then grudgingly digital, where exhibition-grade artists performed day jobs with extravagant finesse.
Then there were the physical spaces, where the finest ideas sprung to bromide and celluloid. None more legendary than the full-service terrace — home to cricket, briefings, beer and many a legendary courtship. Also, the venue for the legendary Bada Khana, a Boxwallah tradition, where every stakeholder from client to vendor welcomed the New Year with Biryani from Bijoligrill. The canteen led by stoic Sujit, who carefully preserved two pieces of fried rohu for finicky me, before immersing the rest in the Gangetic gravy.
Most defining was the grand wooden staircase, like the Savoy in Mussoorie, every step resonating with a signature thump, bearing the echoes of the ages. In all this madness, I was ably harnessed and groomed by Suman Varma, Major-General par excellence, commanding her troops with gleeful self-assurance. Roles performed in this building transcended the moment, alumni who never met acting like long lost brothers during ad hoc reunions. Quite like the city of Calcutta, it was an eclectic assortment of curiosities, the leadership constantly frazzled to ensure orderly regimentation.
I soon realised that the culture of HTA Calcutta was defined decisively by ITC, client par excellence and mentor sans compare. ITC managers were conditioned to believe that the agency was a muse on call — every possible creative temptation delivered with pleasing panache. Unlike the freezing professionalism of the Bombay School, this relationship was fundamentally emotional — a curious blend of the armed forces and the film industry. Atul Chand taught me the power of precision drilled further by the Corporate Communications duo of Aditi Syam and Arup Ghosh, the annual report a proofreader’s Le Mans. The acumen of S M Ahmad’s writing craft could surpass an Oxbridge scholar, while the limited boardroom encounters were lessons in corporate eminence. ITC was no lesser than the IAS, impacting Indians in every corner of the land, ably enabled by the omnipotent advertising agency.
ITC was also a sincere paymaster, rewarding the agency as a deserving equal and not a distant derivative. Commissions were protected with much integrity and the transition to the fee regime handled with sensitive continuity. While modern day marketers may ascribe this positivity to bulging bottom-lines, the truth I suspect was pleasingly different. A certain undefinable old-world code of allegiance, drawn loosely from the credo of fair play that defined the colonial corporates. We helped them build their stories, as an organisation and as individuals, and they were taught to appreciate this not-quite-infallible truth. As a result, trust was the persuasive stock-in-trade — monetary reciprocity a necessary but modest element in the dealings. Relationships developed by the doyens at both ends were crucially responsible, a nurturing narrative extending beyond the timely transaction.
A defining element of advertising then was the statutory training ritual, the lengthier the duration the more potent the perception. Entrez Vous was our very own, my session in ITC Rajputana Jaipur lasting for 10 days and nights, no less. Quite like the Delhi Durbar, the finest from the empire were summoned to educate, none more imposing than CEO Mike Khanna. A suave visionary of exquisite stature handpicked by the legendary Subhash Ghoshal to catapult the Thompson story. We were served a thoughtful mix of the lofty and the grounded, cajoled to become missionaries with a purpose, the delight of both client and civilisation squarely ascribed to the felicity of our craft. Upon graduation, the message was clear — to belong we must believe, and the twain must never tear.
The first signs of dismay occurred when we stepped out of this timeless honeymoon with ITC — to persuade others in business to sign up with us. Quite incredibly the world outside seemed a different place, operating on an unfamiliar barrage of rules. Respect was truthfully abundant but its translation to the monthly retainer undulating and uncertain. Incredibly, there seemed to be others who did what we did, at fares that were not first-class but unreserved sleeper. Clients seemed to be comfortable, even delighted, clearly willing to forgo an association as noble as ours. Our cherished equilibrium of ecstasy was under threat and we knew not why and how.
During the closing chapters of my JWT association, two fundamental shifts shook our world like never before. The emergence of the conservative behemoth WPP, legendary for its ability to eagerly extract and not liberally infuse. The distressing separation between the media and the creative worlds, leading to a setback in the worth of the creative agency that it never quite recovered from.
In my next chapter, I will momentarily interrupt the chronological narrative to dwell on these two dramatic developments. More specifically, on how they collectively converted an industry of persistent stature to perpetual status quo.
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