Quite accurately, my entire innings at Contract from 2010 to 2017 was marked by the Telecom ventures of the Tatas — with every high and low conceivable. The primary mandate upon admission was the Tata Teleservices business, the CDMA entourage manfully trying to combat the GSM gambit, a losing battle admittedly. Upon termination, the primary conversation was Tata Docomo, in its valiant quest to convert brand love to customer value.
Brand building and telecom were strange bedfellows as I discovered rather quickly, for the intersection was rather foggy. The licensing paraphernalia effectively ensured that unlike most FMCG or durables, the service was not available for every wishing customer. Importantly, this category suffered from a mammoth reflection-reality gap — the sophistication of communication not quite aligned to the commonness of the customer. Quite like IMFL, where the users of Blender’s Pride would be most unlikely to attend their signature fashion tour or luxury events. Airtel and Hutch in their quest to attract the HNI early adopter set a tonality benchmark that others would have been well-advised to abdicate. Equally, unlike other tech-driven services, it suffered from chronic delivery failure, a strangely-forgiven fallacy to date.
The Contract I joined in 2010 operated on old-worldly gentleman values, the Vijay Amritraj of the cut-throat ATP circuit. Where the accuracy of ethics was the stock-in trade — in tandem with a copybook finesse when developing advertising. Nurturing by self-example were Umesh Shrikhande and Ravi Deshpande — super-fine intellectuals with an abundance of lovable human goodness. Every action was designed to vibe with the values of Mr. Subhash Ghosal — the founder extraordinaire who drove ‘Un-HTA’ traits in the upbringing of his ward. The world outside was changing rather rapidly for the transactional, a bitter truth unfurled by none other than the line-and-length Tatas.
Our advertising on Tata Indicom was beautiful and efforts exceptional, the response from the market was deemed less than satisfactory. Leading the Marketing charge at Tata were two industry veterans, the astute Lloyd Mathias and the suave TV Thakore — both blessed with acute powers of judgement. Thus, much to the dismay of our fair-play equilibrium, a pitch was summoned, the empire soon divided sharply with arch foe FCB Ulka — we were thankfully assigned the new-age Photon. Some innovative work did follow, the pragmatic Shashank Pore now the supportive client, but very soon there was a change of guard in Contract and my life changed unimaginably.
In May 2013, I found myself in debonair Delhi, with a mandate to elevate the branch, currently beleaguered, to newer peaks. This faith was caringly vested by the new CEO, dashingly-dynamic Rana Barua, with an insatiable hunger for business acquisition that was both addictive and inspirational. A rebooted creative team was brought to play, their energy resonating with the pesky present and not necessarily the pretty past. Quite unlike Mumbai and Calcutta, Delhi turned out to be a fiery cauldron of intrigue — the culture of the city defining the culture of the industry. If the earlier world of Contract was Vijay Amritraj, this was certainly the era of John McEnroe, the winner takes it all.
It would be rather unschooled, although tempting, to call the culture of Corporate Delhi purely political, in spite of every prima facie anecdotal evidence. Instead I would define it as passionately protective — the tenacity and obstinacy to hold on to one’s turf often admirable. This, in turn, led to supreme levels of excellence — every player imaginatively a gladiator in a Roman theatre, the outcome could only be maidens or the lions. A certain do-or-die spirit came to life in every task, the ensuing friction usually worth the gregarious outcome. In all this, the deeply-regrettable collateral damage was the classical cadre of Contract
— accomplished and erudite seniors in the servicing and strategy cadre who were compelled to navigate a crisis of purpose.
What marked this Delhi stint, most exceptionally, was the revenge against FCB Ulka, the victorious foray to reclaim Tata Docomo. The pitch took place on January 27, 2014, a date I remember well as the office had to be opened on a statutory holiday. Most of us were deeply suspicious of the client’s intent, surely the award-winning incumbent network had earned their permanent posting. Our creative work was insanely brilliant, the deeply-analytical yet fearlessly-fair duo of Gurinder Sandhu and Ritesh Ghoshal choosing this insightful output over that of the over-confident other. Since most relevant actors are now elsewhere not much will be fabled, but this will remain one of the finest acquisition-cum-comebacks in Indian advertising history — amply enthused by the daring leadership of Rana.
There were a few other stunning notables that bolstered the reputation and revenues of this agency, led by the Swedish Truecaller — Kari Krishnamurthy, the feisty country head, seeing in us a heady mix of passion, skill and momentum. Never to forget the ambitious Domino’s Pizza — marshalled by visionary Ajay Kaul and super-sharp Harneet Singh. NIIT was pretty much the Father Time of the piece — the genteel founders trusting us like a blood child, guided by the elegant insights of the charismatic Syeda Imam, a pristine patron saint of Contract. The Aviva mandate, granted by the dynamic Anjali Malhotra and Orient Fans led to newer frontiers of work, enthusing both insider and outsider.
For a couple of years, this formula was truly magical, Contract emerging deservingly as a torch-bearer of not just WPP but the industry at large. What disrupted this momentum was once again the business uncertainty of Tata Docomo, the debilitating trait of the telecom industry to be insufficient as a business. As speculation was rife over possible divestments and scale-downs, the advertising ambitions shrunk and for nobody’s fault, so did our pizza. What disrupted this momentum even further, in my opinion, was the inexplicable attitude of primary parent JWT — the success of the minor sibling far too dramatic when compared to the relative status quo of the giant father. It did seem that we could not remain the bright shining diamond — quite like Hungary of 1956 or Czechoslovakia of 1968, the tanks were coming to restrain us.
By 2017, my wanderlust had assumed some tangible worth and I was ready to step out as a knowledge entrepreneur. The next four chapters will talk about many more learnings while revealing necessary evidences of the silent betrayal. Also, on how a few worthies, even today, are well poised to turn the tide.
Read all the chapters here:
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