Anil Kapoor's true legacy was his vision to enable a ‘Virtuous Cycle’
Guest Column: Marketing Consultant Kinjal Medh said that Kapoor’s vision for an agency was to be a true strategic partner to clients & growing with their business growth
My first meeting with Anil was in a smoke-filled room with the AC going full blast. A friendly “Hi, come take a seat” and I was off on my 23-year journey. In a meeting lasting nearly 2 hours, I got around 15 minutes at the beginning and after that Anil took over. Anil shared his views, his vision and plans for the agency and why he was looking for a certain profile of people. He managed to convince me to give up a much better offer (from a then bigger agency) to join Ulka, an agency which I was repeatedly warned was on its last legs.
He had the vision; he had a plan, and it was only after a few years of working in Ulka that I realised he made sure Ulka walked every syllable of the talk he had given me that day.
It was a simple vision; he would share this often not just within the agency but also with clients and other industry colleagues.
Anil’s vision for an agency, was to be a true strategic partner to clients, growing with the client’s business growth, rather than living from campaign to campaign.
Anil would have been the first to accept that he could not achieve his vision single-handedly. He needed a team of believers, a team with the credentials to match up to their clients and provide genuine value additions and strategic insights. It was no accident that the entire top leadership team came with not just advertising creds but with prior stints in sales and marketing as well. A team that could talk the client language and understand their challenges and pain points, empathise with them and give them confidence. A team that had the passion for creative solutions that went beyond a script or a layout.
It would not be enough to limit this to the top leadership team alone. This belief and commitment had to reach right across. He encouraged his team to build partnerships down the line. This ideology of “partnership with clients, partnership with employees and partnership with associates” was not hung on any wall but roamed the corridors every day.
And over the years, the outcome of this ideology became gradually visible.
Ulka started winning accounts, built successful brands and set up successful businesses to emerge as amongst the top 5 agencies in India. It was a huge deal for an agency that was written off just a decade or so earlier.
Ulka was one of the last of the large Indian agencies to get into an international tie-up. Not many people know that FCB was put onto Ulka by one of our client’s competitors. One of the most trusted brands in India worked with FCB in the US. It was planning to launch its global soap brand in India. The Indian MD having heard about Ulka, its team and its work, suggested that FCB tie up with Ulka.
Another example of recognition by competition came a few years later. Having seen FCB Ulka’s handling of a new car launch, a competitor got in touch with Anil to handle his most ambitious foray into passenger automobiles. And we ended up handling the largest Indian automobile brands, one in FCB Ulka and one in FCB Interface.
This speaks volumes about the sense of respect and regard that Anil and FCB Ulka had, not just from their clients but also their competitors. Secondly, it is a testimony to the professional ethics and value system instilled into FCB Ulka which led both companies to believe that their interests would never be compromised, and both could co-exist in the same agency group.
In many, many cases from lubes to foods, FCB Ulka started with a small share of the client’s business, sometimes the smallest. However, invariably over time, the bulk of the business moved to FCB Ulka, making it the lead agency for shared clients.
Similarly, in several cases, even when a brand was sold off to another company, FCB Ulka continued to be the agency, often playing the role of the brand custodians during the transition to induct the new teams on the brands!
The strategy of building and nurturing a team of believers paid out handsomely as FCB-Ulka built one successful business after another. Rather than recruit from outside for specialised functions, FCB-Ulka trusted talent from within. Talent that pursued client success with the same commitment and passion, be it for Lodestar Media, FCB-Ulka Direct, FCB-Ulka Digital or FCB-Ulka Healthcare. A strong belief in strategy planning and consulting-led to the formation of Cogito Consulting. An independent Marketing, Brand and Competitive strategy business which also did projects for a lot of non-clients of FCB-Ulka, in fact, some direct competitors as well.
Many large agencies had started second agencies and except for one, most others had not taken off. FCB Interface is a great example of how a second agency can succeed, provided its foundational ideology and business is based on strong principles and not as a tactical response to managing business conflict.
It was a matter of great pride for all of us when a little more than a decade after the tie-up, FCB Ulka was awarded as the best-managed agency in the FCB Worldwide Network and Anil became the first Indian to be invited to be on the board of an International Agency Network.
Some years later, he was invited to speak at an Asia-Pac industry conference. I had the privilege and good fortune to have a ring-side view of Anil’s thinking as we worked through many pitches, presentations, and brand reviews. So, putting together the speech was a fairly simple task.
In his opening remarks Anil acknowledged that times were tough, CEO and CMO tenures were shrinking around the world and the pressure on clients to deliver was immense. This pressure was being passed on to agencies and the agencies were succumbing to the pressure.
Anil believed that Agencies were hugely short selling themselves and had become merely suppliers of creativity. Anil urged agencies to not see their roles narrowly defined by a creative campaign or a film but a broader, more imaginative role as a provider of solutions.
Anil believed that the industry had to pull itself out of this vicious cycle of narrowing roles, lower fees, less value addition, and poorer talent. Agencies should be value-adding to the client’s business and helping them grow.
His favourite story was about the San Francisco Orange Growers Association. Faced with a glut and falling prices, the association approached FCB for a campaign to get people to consume more oranges. The agency did not see that as the only solution, went ahead and hired an inventor and presented the client with a prototype of the world’s first orange juicer. After all, a person can eat only one orange at a time but would need 3-4 to make a tall glass of juice. The agency then went onto creating a landmark campaign around it.
At the Asia-Pac conference, Anil proudly shared what he called the ‘Made in India’ model for the Asian advertising fraternity. A vision to enable a ‘Virtuous Cycle’ led by becoming Strategic Partners to our clients, value-adding continuously, providing truly creative solutions, helping them grow their business, gaining their respect, expect to be remunerated fairly, all this to help invest in good people who would then be solution providers and strategic partners to their clients.
Anil was no preacher, nor a theorist. He just spoke about what he believed in strongly and what he had practised and delivered. It was a working model, a proven model, with which he and his team had revived FCB Ulka to make it one of the most respected agencies in India.
In many ways, this is contrarian thinking and there will be many sceptics. But Anil has more than demonstrated that his vision could succeed, that there is an alternative strategy for the Advertising industry to adopt. To take on the role of becoming strategic partners to clients rather than assume a narrowly defined role as a ‘creative agency’. Anil strongly believed that the strategy to aspire for a ‘Virtuous Cycle’ could be a win-win for all stakeholders.
This perhaps is Anil’s legacy; a very successful agency is just the by-product.
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