‘For almost 25 years I have been associated with the advertising industry, in intimate and distant capacities. This earned me a fortune in stories and experiences, certain to interest many from both then and now. While it will unveil the tale of an avoidable betrayal, this episodic opinion is designed to be happy and not dire. So that a profitable future can deservedly emerge.’
Chapter 1- Bombay Central
‘Do these shoes take polish?’ The baritone was dramatically interrogative, while in curious contrast the beard was caringly cultured. We were a group of management trainees being welcomed by M Raghunath, the Director of Enterprise Nexus, on the first day of June 1997. I was instantly admonished for insufficiency in leather clarity, the first of many life-altering lessons under his tough but loving tutelage.
For many from just the second full-time batch of MICA, Enterprise Nexus was an uneasy but life-saving association. We had been shunned by the dream agencies in campus placement with our messianic self-images sorely threatened. Advertising suddenly resembled the Lucknow Daulat Ki Chaat, with an almost mirage-like shelf life, and not the abundant lifelong portion of T-Bone steak that it promised to be. Although thankfully, Sane Guruji Marg turned out to be a fabulous initiation to this delicious yet temperamental profession.
Raghu fiercely drove home the power of point of view and detailing, in his incisive boot camp format. Andy Halve was the eternal romantic, luring the intellect with unfettered imagination, a love for HBR-led constructs permanently instilled. Mohammed Khan most definitely the precise conductor of this beatific orchestra, a fiery statesman and brilliant mind appearing as an inspirational Babushka. This was indeed the promised land, the merged newbie unifying the finest of the present, truthfully, and the brightest of the future, wishfully.
My marquee client was suitably elevating, the World One consortium of telecom operators preparing for an Iridium-led future. The finest marketers in the land were roped in for this life-altering innovation, licensed to act like cowboys in the Wild West. I remember particularly Ranjit Barthakur of ITC vintage, a super sharp mind delighted to caress the queries of an inquisitive MT. Rather out-of-turn in those protocol-driven times, my spunky boss Anjana Devraj insisted that I be part of the boardroom conversations. Quite like quintessential advertising, they invariably were dramatic, romantic and evangelistic — imagination and not prudence the desired stock-in-trade.
Bombay at that time was central to the advertising business and it was easy to figure out why. Craft was both monarch and destination — every department existing and uniting to deliver the most perfect print, TV, retail or OOH. As a result, the esprit de corps was remarkably and selflessly self-motivated, my first exposure to this cult of unconditional belief. ‘Credit’ or the culture of individual acknowledgement was thus an under-prioritised ambition — duly earned when time was ripe, out-of-turn greed shunned sharply. We all felt part of a noble machinery, ours to do and deliver with unabashed sincerity. The industry enjoyed a collective missionary culture, thoughtfully leasing such values to each worthy company.
A memorable aspect of every weekend was the batch get-together — hosted at home by kind seniors such as Kunal Jeswani, the YMCA establishment in Colaba or Café Mondegar. Many stories were exchanged of this bold new world — on how the impressions formed at MICA were evaporating or flowering. A faithful funnel was the direct first boss — figures of unquestioned locus standi who became de facto spiritual guardians and not just mentors. In analogue days as such, bosses spent enormous hours with their wards, both Stockholm and Lima syndromes appearing with spontaneous frequency. The first signs of wear and tear usually emerged from conflicts on client collections — surely the chosen ones were not destined for such ungainly acts. Thus, seeding a dangerous long-term pattern — the bean counters viewed to be totally separate from the power thinkers — unlike every other industry where the two necessarily converged.
At that time, unlike current perceptual extremes, the client was neither a sworn adversary nor a preening collaborator. Instead she was a symbol of decisive leadership — benevolent and scathing in accurate measure as per merit of intent and action. The agency was not a partner in shallow nomenclature but instead an ‘outsider insider’— one of us who happens to be one of them. Thus, deep attachments were formed with the brands and categories even ahead of the people who managed them — a quirky but truthful contradiction driven by the nature of human relationships then prevalent. Where the cause being served (read brand) could never be superseded by the people who served them, by decree of both schooled and intuitive integrity.
My career with Enterprise Nexus lasted all of six months, including a Titanic-like all-nighter, induced by floods, the day Lady Diana died. I was fortunate to have caught a substantial whiff of the Bombay School of Advertising — a compelling culture of the collective driven by traditional mores of authority. My next innings would be in Calcutta, driven by a chance opportunity and debilitating laziness, lifestyle over career as I was direly warned. Bondel Road however proved to be a crucible in many special ways — an enchanting ensemble of thespian talent that MGM would be proud of.
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