Balki and I haven't yet even spoken about this venture: Joseph George

George on industry speculations on his future partnership with Balki, why no sane person should doubt the future of a 70-year-old institution in its prime form on the back of two resignations and more

e4m by Priyanka Mehra
Updated: Jul 19, 2017 7:53 AM

“My people. Just the way they are. The best. We are just blessed to attract and retain the Lintas type; and I can sniff out one from a mile,” says Joseph George (a.k.a Joe) Group Chairman and CEO, MullenLoweLintas Group, India and Regional President, MullenLowe Group South & Southeast Asia in a sombre tone , when we quiz him on what he will miss the most, as he ends his 26-year-long stint at the Group, leaving the advertising industry reeling under shock, despite what has been a week characterised by high profile announcements and musical chairs.  George, by his own admission, is overwhelmed and absolutely gutted by the reactions from within the agency. But he is also hugely surprised and humbled by reactions pouring in from the industry.

A lesser known fact is that this ‘Lintas Lifer’, nearly quit the agency in 1994, on the back of 10-hour work days, work weekends, commuting four hours a day with four modes of transport, all this fuelled by the fact that he barely saw his wife (Shubha George, Managing Director of Asia and CEO of India, Red Fuse Communications), fate intervened in the form of Fali Vakeel, transferring George to Bangalore and the rest is history.

George, who is known as one of the sharpest advertising minds among colleagues and clients, thrives on getting the right solution for a brand, having played varied roles at the Group in the past 26 years, including Growth, Brand management, Client management and Leadership roles locally, regionally and globally. 

People who have worked with him over the years  swear by the fact that George has never been the type of a servicing person who just schmoozes with clients, but is one of the few who actually talks ‘their business’.

In fact, George is usually the first to stand-up after a meeting has concluded, not one to indulge in small talk, and in a hurry to get to the next task at hand.  

Agency insiders and long standing clients also swear by George’s approach of finding the ‘right solution’ as opposed to just getting business for the agency by any means, whether it is a pitch or running the organisation as the many senior leaders at Lintas will tell you things always have to be done the ‘right way’.

It is no surprise then that the agency’s corridors have been gloomy since the news has been out on Monday, reportedly staffers have even broken down at the thought of their much loved and respected Joe moving on.

Edited excerpts from an exclusive chat with George on industry speculations on his future partnership with Balki, why no sane person should doubt the future of a 70-year-old institution in its prime form on the back of two resignations and more...

Why are you looking at having your own set up now, at this point after 26 years at Lintas?  Isn’t the lure of Global top job attractive enough after all you are a ‘Lintas Lifer’…

Hey! After 26 years, my Lintas Lifer status cannot be questioned!! Jokes apart, this decision is probably a combination of a sense of fulfilment of a job completed and the hunger to begin a new one. And I suspect the latter would not have been triggered if the former hadn’t happened. I was appointed the Lintas CEO in 2011; and basis an assessment of the industry, the competition and the agency then, Balki (Group Chairman MullenLowe Lintas Group who exited from his role in August last year) and me were clear what we wanted to achieve in five years. Which we did. We undertook a similar exercise last year but this time, I also had a strong leadership that had gotten developed over the past few years who were now ready to deliver on what we need to achieve by 2020. Delivering well on your current responsibility is the most potent motivation to take on a new one. And that is why I am all set to go in…head on!

There is talk that you and Balki will be partnering on the new venture, is this true? Given the great equation you both share it doesn’t seem so far- fetched.

No, it does not seem far-fetched considering I have known him for 23 years and worked with him for 22; the only hitch is that Balki and I haven’t even spoken about this venture yet!

You and Balki have exited in a span of a year, industry insiders question the future of Lintas, in terms of leadership. Your take?

Well for one, no sane person should doubt the future of a 70-year-old institution and that too in its prime form on the back of two resignations! Secondly, these insiders are being grossly ignorant about, and unfair to, the leadership team at MullenLowe Lintas Group. Neither of us would have left if we had even the slightest fear of leaving this agency exposed or vulnerable. This question is also reflective of the personality malaise that our industry suffers from. As an organisation we have always believed in having a strong leadership team across functions. That is what makes an agency an organisation and not a small or large mom&pop shop!

In this 26-year-journey were there any points where you nearly quit the agency? What made you stay back?

Yes once…in 1994. I used to work 10 hours a day, work weekends, commute four hours a day taking four modes of transport. Hardly saw my wife. Fali Vakeel (Mullen Lowe Lintas Group Vice Chairman who exited in Group in January 2016) heard of my plight, offered me a transfer to our Bangalore office, an apartment three times the size and located just a 10-minute walk from office. I stayed back at Lintas. Also, our daughter was born a year later! (Smiles) So yes, the last time I wrote out a resume was more than 20 years ago. How sad!

What can we expect from your new venture and when are you launching it?

Hopefully by next April, I should be in a position to discuss substantively on it.

People who have worked with you say that your biggest high is still is to enjoy the advertising solutions that you are able to create/play a part in creating- any anecdotes on this?

Yes, I have loved every day of my 26 years here and still raring to go, only because I love everything around and about brands. I have also always believed in the primacy of the creative product. That is our only transact-able ware and so, the creative product and the creative function needs to be bang at the centre of any creative agency. All systems, processes and structures need to be designed such, so as only to enhance the quality of the creative product or the efficiency of the creative process. I spend even today at least two hours a day every day with either planners or the creative folk on the product. I have been openly biased towards hands on practitioners across functions - it is an open secret in the company.

The last time your Global CEO, Alex Leikikh was in town, he was in all praise about the India operations, you think he will be a worried man now?

Yes, Alex and I got along extremely well from Day 1. For someone whom I have known for under 24 months, we have a brilliant professional and personal relationship. We just get each other effortlessly. By the way, he is a practitioner too; so maybe that explains part of our chemistry. India and US are critical operations for him, and his favourites too! He was here last year and was hugely appreciative of our work and our talent. He was particularly impressed with our leadership team (all of whom, who are now in the India ManCom). So I don’t think he will be worried.

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