S. V. Sista, popularly known as Bobby Sista, was honoured with AAAI Lifetime Achievement Award 2015 for his outstanding contributions to the advertising industry. The award was a testimony for leading an agency that created some of the most remembered campaigns of its time, for his stellar contribution to the growth and development of various Industry bodies in India and for his professional integrity and devotion to ethical business practices in advertising.
Below is the full text of his acceptance speech:
I am greatly honoured to receive this prestigious award and am privileged to receive it in the presence of such a distinguished audience.
All of you know it all, have done it all. There is nothing that I have done which you are not already deeply immersed into – neither the learning nor the experiences. I left advertising more than 15 years ago. You are still very much a part of today’s scenario and are aware of what the future looks like.
So I crave your indulgence, I will confine myself to my personal experiences and hope I don’t bore you too much.
At the outset, let me say that I have been very lucky, both in my personal life and my professional career. I was very lucky to have wonderful parents, lucky to have doting siblings and above all extremely lucky with a fantastic wife but for whom I would not have been able to accomplish a lot of what I have done and she presented me with two lovely children, a son and a daughter. I am also lucky to have a large number of friends and acquaintances and no enemies – rather no one who had a reason to dislike me. And am I singularly blessed or what? To have over 40 of my ex-sista’s colleagues present here- they have come from Chennai, Bangalore, and Ravi Prasad has specially flown in from Dubai this morning and is returning tomorrow. Obviously there has been a Guardian Angel watching over me.
I have happy memories of my school and college days. And on the whole, my professional career has been happy and satisfying. I was lucky to have the opportunity of working in four different areas and levels of Advertising and Marketing viz As an apprentice in Sista’s under my father straight after college, Marketing of a consumer product – Tinopal which I launched while in Sista’s, Marketing of a magazine – Reader’s Digest. And finally, taking over Sista’s as Managing Director in 1970.
In 1951 I had the good fortune of going to London to attend an International Advertising Conference as a Youth Delegate. And to stay on for two years to do a course in Advertising and work in an Advertising Agency. Soon after returning from London, I joined Sista’s as an Account Executive and was looking forward eagerly to applying to my job, the knowledge and experience gained in London. While I handled many clients covering consumer products and services, the account that gave me most pleasure and satisfaction was a product (an optical whitener) called TINOPAL (later became Ranipal). I was lucky enough to launch Tinopal. I was even luckier with the client, (a dream client) who gave me complete freedom to write my own creative brief, for the choice of media and determining the budget. For a budget of Rs13 lakhs (a big sum in those days) I was able to virtually saturate the media in all the main languages. The most notable feature of this account was that advertising drove distribution and not the other way round. Suhrid-Geigy, the client was mainly a Dyestuffs and Chemicals company and TINOPAL was a single consumer product. Their distributors had no experience of consumer product marketing. The demand created by the advertising forced them to appoint stockists who in turn serviced the retailers. Before the launch of Tinopal, there were a couple of brands – Amarwhite and a Sandoz product, called Sandowhite. Within 3 years Tinopal had 90% market share. The client was so happy that they offered me a job as Marketing Manager – again – for a single product. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai took a keen interest in the marketing of Tinopal. It gave me the opportunity of going on a Bharat Darshan for three months.
I would like to mention two proud moments – one while still in Sista’s and one during my five year stint with Suhrid-Geigy. A very talented artist in Sista’s had created a series of ads for a Textile Journal. The Chairman of Geigy in Switzerland wrote to Mr. Uebersax, my boss at Suhrid-Geigy that these were the best advertisements for Tinopal of all the countries Tinopal operated in.
The other was Dr. Vikram Sarabhai telling me that Mr. Prakash Tandon, then Chairman of Hindustan Lever praising our distribution. He couldn’t understand how Tinopal (by then it was marketed in 1 gm sachets) was available at every panwala where even Hindustan Lever products could not be found. This was because, as I said earlier, the advertising drove distribution.
The six and half years I spent in Sista’s before joining Suhrid-Geigy, were quite eventful and brought to the fore my enthusiasm and skills in organizing extra-curricular activities in my personal life and professional career.
The Advertising Club, Bombay (then known as the Advertising Luncheon Club) was launched in August 1954. I along with Mr Soli Talyarkhan was one of the Founders and served as Honorary Secretary for four years. Distinguished people from all walks of life accepted our invitation to speak at the monthly Lunch meetings. During these four years, it was my good fortune to meet several CEOs and senior people in advertising agencies and corporates. These contacts stood me in good stead throughout my career. We also instituted the Annual Advertising Arts Ball. This became the most looked forward to event in the Advertising Calendar.
In March 1965, I joined Reader’s Digest as the First Marketing Manager for India. Spent two months in the London Office being inducted into the nuances and intricacies of Direct Marketing of a Magazine.
It was quite fascinating. As you all know, unlike conventional advertising this medium gets the results of its mailing within a few days and you know whether a campaign has succeeded or failed.
The following year I again spent two months in the London Office. My visit was timed to enable me to attend their Annual Review. It was a five day affair and was held in a Sea Side Resort, TORQUAY. This was another exhilarating experience for me. I felt I was listening to a high level discussion on the Art of Writing and the Science of persuasive and effective communication.
The Head of International Marketing was Tom Schreckar. Reader’s Digest, India was under his jurisdiction. He visited quite regularly and I learnt a lot from him. He and my boss, Param seemed to be quite pleased with my performance and I was told that I was being groomed to be number two to my boss in India. However, fate decided otherwise- the position of MD of Sista’s fell vacant in early 1970. I had to choose between remaining in the Digest to eventually become number one in India or taking over Sista’s immediately as MD.I had no hesitation in getting back to my first love-Advertising and that too the challenge of re-building an agency that had dropped to number 27. Within three years I took it to number 10.
Here again I was very lucky. My wife Sheila and Jean Durante had both left Chaitra. Sheila joined me as Director of Finance and she persuaded Jean to come on board. During Jean’s tenure in Sista’s she was easily one of the top creative Directors in the country. From the time I took over in 1970, 1 was clear in my mind that Sista’s would be known for and compete on the quality of our creative output. All the executives knew that creative would not be over ruled by the executives or even by the client.
I did not have an MBA Degree. I had neither training nor experience of running an agency. Common Sense was my only qualification and personality and people skills my assets. I was lucky with the team I was able to build up and the roster of clients we had acquired as we went along. We had four branches- Bangalore, Delhi, Madras and Calcutta. I was lucky with my branch Managers who were all competent, committed and successful. As a small agency we were competing with JWT, Bensons (now O&M) Lintas and other larger agencies. Where we scored was in the consistent quality of our creative output. We built many brands –NYCIL, Lakshmi Vishnu 100%, Terene Sarees ,S Kumars, VIP Luggage, HMT Watches, Aristocrat Luggage, HOT SHOT and many more . Nycil was handled by many agencies before the client came to us – some very weird work was done prior to their coming to us. We came up with just one ad – one idea – a woman with a bare back on which we put a bramble. This became such a powerful mnemonic that the client used this one picture on every piece of communication and merchandising. It eventually ended up on the pack. Johnson & Johnson were the market leaders with 70% market share. Within one year of our “bramble back” the market share was reversed with Nycil reaching a market share of 70%.
S.Kumars (distributors of Laxmi Vishnu products) was another brand we built up without the use of conventional advertising, but entirely through very innovative radio programmes and fashion shows in over 40 cities. The logistics involved in organizing these road shows were extremely tight, complicated and physically very tiring for the models and all the rest of us.
For VIP luggage, we not only made them No.1 brand in 3 years but also increased the size of the moulded luggage market by more than 300%. We ran a press campaign featuring foreign personalities from different countries extolling the virtues of VIP luggage. The campaign became a hit and was praised even by our peers in the profession. It went against the conventional short copy rule. It was entirely based on long text bringing out the features of VIP luggage, but laced with humour. One of the films had a Spanish lady dancing on a VIP suitcase.
We lost the VIP account and immediately gained the ARISTOCRAT luggage account. We produced a Magnum Opus of a film shot entirely in a palace in Jaipur which featured the first suitcase on wheels and highlighted this feature through different fun situations. Here again, within 3 years Aristocrat caught up with VIP (in market share).
Hot Shot, of course, gave us the scope for some very high profile advertising. The central theme Jean decided was – “There is now a smile behind the camera”. Prahlad Kakkar came up with the line “Just aim and Khatak” instead of “aim and shoot”. To my knowledge this was the first time an audio mnemonic was created. The campaign featured people who were earlier afraid of taking photographs and they were shown enjoying the ease of wielding a camera. One of the ads featured a typical middle class Maharashtrian woman with the camera and saying “Agdi Simple”. Please allow me to take a few minutes of your time to tell you what impact our campaign had on the sales of HOT SHOT cameras- we had planned the campaign in two phases- the first in April & May to take advantage of the holiday season. The second phase was after the monsoons, to take advantage of the festive season- Dussera, Diwali, X-mas. During the first phase itself they sold all the cameras they had planned to produce for both the phases. Thanks to the break in the monsoons, the client was able to quickly step up production.
For the size of agency we were, we collected quite a few Awards. Hot Shot broke all records for the number of awards won, and that too over two years. Sista’s had many firsts to their credit. We were the first agency in Bombay to create a three dimensional, lighted hoarding (the Chowpatty Bridge), the first, to the best of my knowledge, to organise a fashion show on a Swimming Pool, arguably the first to have the courage to launch Lakshmi Vishnu 100% Terene Sarees with four large ads on consecutive days featuring Persis Khambatta. I did not know then that Brendan Pereira had created a campaign for Laxmi Vishnu Sarees featuring Persis Khambatta. We were the first to create a complete office set outside NCPA-with all the necessary furniture for a Hyderabad Client, Regency Ceramics. They made ceramic tiles. I am still using two chairs from the set. Also a bedroom set by the sea and one more. Each set, cost Rs One Lakh – a huge sum in those days.
Again the period 1970 to 1998 when I headed Sista’s was a happy period. Of course, there were worries- financial and otherwise, frustrations, many mistakes I made, but on the whole it provided a lot of satisfaction and sense of achievement. In 1998 I sold the advertising business to Saatchi & Saatchi. We had a staff strength of 370 between the Head Office and four branches. I quit because my heart was into social communications and I wanted to explore the opportunities in the development sector.
Prior to this I had setup a PR Division and tied up with a global consortium of PR Consultants named WORLDCOM PR. I named the division, Sista’s –Worldcom. They had a wonderful program called World Young Business Achiever. I ran the India Young Business Achiever Programme for seven years. The IYBA went abroad to compete with Achievers from nearly twenty countries. Three criteria had to be fulfilled- he or she had to be a first generation entrepreneur (as opposed to a family business), under the age 40 and a track record of three years in business. In the seventh year, our candidate, Manoj Tirodkar, won the finals.
I particularly took up this programme because I always held a strong belief that India was a country of Entrepreneurs in all fields of activity- from Farming to Manufacturing to Business. It is thanks to our Entrepreneural spirit and talent that India became the 10th Largest Industrialized Country in just twenty years since Independence.
Although the IYBA programme was doing well, I was still not happy as I had not yet got into Social Communication. I explored a gamut of issues and finally zeroed in on “Population”. That is how Population First came to be registered as a Trust in March 2002. I felt enough importance was not being given to it and my heart was set on doing what little I could. It was launched at a very high profile and largely attended Press Conference. Mr. Keshub Mahindra, Mr Ratan Tata, Mr Jamshed Irani, Mrs Rajashri Birla, Shekhar Gupta were present. These and other distinguished Business Leaders later formed our Board of Trustees.
Here again I am very lucky to have such a distinguished Board of Trustees. It reads like the who’s who of Indian business and Academia Dr. M S Swaminathan an internationally reputed scientist is one of our trustees. Another great piece of luck was to have found Dr. A L Sharada in 2003 and have her join Population First as CEO. It was thanks to Sharada that our activities gathered momentum. It was Sharada who conceived of and implemented the activities and programmes. It is entirely thanks to her commitment, expertise and dedication that Population First has reached where we are at.
One of the questions that Dr.Sharada asked me when she joined was if Population is an issue of numbers or quality of life. And why the numbers are bad, is it because of lack of awareness or because of mindsets which deny women their rights. I was shocked to know that 95 percent of people are aware of contraception but they are not able to use them because of gender inequalities and gender-based violence. The low social development indices – 500+ women out of 1lac pregnant women were dying in India at the turn of the millennium as compared to less than 5 women in the developed world and the shocking data of the falling sex ratio which was highlighted by the 2001 census was a strong indicator of the bias against the girl child. These redefined the objectives of Population First as addressing health and population issues from a gender and social development perspective. And our two projects were designed to take that objective forward.
Our AMCHI project brings in social and economic development to 100 villages in Shahapur block, Thane District through people’s participation, strengthening of local institutions as well as service providers and empowerment of youth and women. The focus is on community empowerment and not on doling out charity. My heart swells when I hear the success stories from the field, of villages getting digital schools, water connections and what have you by challenging the corrupt system by fighting for their rights and fulfilling their obligations as responsible citizens. That was Gandhi’s dream of Swaraj which we are able to actualize in our villages. I know very few of you are aware of this project.
The second Initiative is the Laadli campaign; the Laadli Media Awards are a part of it which you all are aware of. Let me tell you, it is not just an award event. With the motto of influencing the influencers to change the way India perceives and treats its women it is a year-long advocacy campaign. We are constantly in touch with the media and advertising fraternity at various levels, forging partnerships – one of our most fruitful partnerships was with IAA, developing gender guidelines and style guides for media and advertising, having consultations with media owners, senior editors, script writers and creative directors, media workshops for working and student journalists, media fellowships etc etc. We also have a major campaign in 30 colleges of Mumbai where we work with youth on gender issues through our Change Makers Clubs
I am happy to see a shift in the media – print, electronic and films as well as in advertising, with more positive portrayals of women and the gender equations. Each time my team shows me a gender sensitive ad I feel we have contributed to it in some small measure somewhere. The fact that Dr. Sharada’s gender scoring of ads in Campaign being accepted by the ad fraternity shows the openness of the industry to new ideas and perspectives. I feel proud to be a part of such a vibrant and live industry.
Before I bring my speech to an end, I wish to make one request to the who’s who of advertising and marketing leaders gathered here. Please institute an Abby for gender sensitivity in advertising. It has to be an Industry award. While I understand that gender sensitivity should be an integral part of any good communication including advertising, rewarding those who are using their creative space to redefine the gender roles and stereotypes would in the long run institutionalize it as a core value of the industry. Is that not what we want – An India where men and women have equal opportunities and rights and share a space that is free of discrimination and violence?