I first met Mani Ayer in 1973. I was 21; he, not quite 38. I was a summer trainee, and he’d just relocated from Australia to take charge as Managing Director of a company in dire straits.
When I graduated from XLRI the following summer, OBM (Ogilvy, Benson & Mather) wasn’t hiring. Subroto Sen Gupta hired me to work with him, and I started my career at Clarion-McCann. Life went on. I naturally used to see, hear and read of Mani here and there.
Cut to 1985. Mani called me to his home and over several whiskies we spoke “… of shoes, and ships, and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings”. (In his typical fashion, he let me know that he knew I’d been a summer trainee at OBM.) Not a word was spoken about working at the agency. That most enjoyable evening ended with the promise, to my delight, to do it again, which we did. Three evenings and a dozen whiskies later we segued into discussing a job. And 12 years from that 1973 meeting, I joined OBM.
He was a glutton for knowledge, with an elephantine memory to match. He simply had to know. Everything! And never forgot it. (He once explained to me the economics of an STD booth, which he learnt by chatting up the guy who ran the one outside the MICA campus in Ahmedabad.) When one bright-eyed young manager remarked admiringly how much Mani knew, he said, “When you fellows go to cocktail parties, I stay at home and read.” Quite early, I learnt never to argue with him on facts, because he couldn’t bear to be wrong and wouldn’t back down; on the other hand, he always respected a cogently argued opinion, even if he differed with it.
Mani gave me the most important management lesson I’ve ever learnt, and one which I hope I’ve practiced.
In 1989, while sending me to off to Bangalore to head the Southern region for Ogilvy, he asked me to discuss with him my objectives. I defined three Key Result Areas: Profits, Product and People, in that order. He made only one change. (Or suggested, rather; that was Mani.) He said I’d got the order wrong.
“It should be Product, People, and then Profits. You have to fix the product first. That is your most urgent priority, and that is what an agency is always known by. Then you have to get your team together so that the product can be sustained. If you have a good product and take care of your people, the profits will take care of themselves.” He went on to tell me he didn’t spend more than 10 per cent of his time on financials. “Your financial performance is only an outcome of what you do. Spend your time doing that. Get yourself a good commercial guy and let him do his job.”
That came, by the way, from someone who not only ran perhaps the most profitable company in the industry, but had brought it back from the brink of bankruptcy.
Always gentle and utterly human, Mani never presumed to tell you what you should do. He only gave you his opinion, and left you – genuinely – to do as you thought fit. And if you misfired, he was there to support you, with never an I-told-you-so.
I last saw Mani in his hospital bed, about 48 hours before he passed away. He was so gratifyingly himself. His old friends and admirers will recognise him when I say that, in that critical state, no sooner had he seen me than he pointed at my shirt and said, through the oxygen mask covering his nose and mouth, “Batik from Solo.”
Thank you, Mani, for your friendship, guidance and support and for all those wonderful, idyllic Ogilvy years.
(Chintamani Rao is Vice Chairman at Times Global Broadcasting Company Ltd.)