Exclusive Extract: The wonder years

Veteran ad person Sunil Gupta’s much-awaited book, ‘Living on ‘Adge’ in Jhandewalan Thompson’, is set to be published by Roli Books on Thursday, December 10, 2009. Continuing with exclusive extracts from the book, in today’s extract, Gupta reminisces about ‘the wonder years’.

e4m by Sunil Gupta
Updated: Dec 8, 2009 7:27 AM
Exclusive Extract:  The wonder years

Veteran ad person Sunil Gupta’s much-awaited book, ‘Living on ‘Adge’ in Jhandewalan Thompson’, is set to be published by Roli Books later this week. Starting December 7, 2009 till the launch in New Delhi on Thursday, December 10, exchange4media brings you exclusive extracts from the book.


Most, if not all, of my other clients during ‘The Wonder Years’ were as different from HMM as Horlicks is from beer. Although Escorts and Niky Tasha came much later into my life (around 1983) than HMM, perhaps no other client provided so much learning and experience at the opposite end of the professional spectrum. In many ways, this held me in good stead for my later dealings with the Hero Group and Monte Carlo, and that’s why they are next on my list. Indeed, the Horlicks vs beer analogy is entirely apposite, as one of the major rites we performed, indeed had to perform to stay alive, on our way back from the Escorts offices in Faridabad, was to tank up on beer from the shops that lined the highway.

As I have mentioned earlier, in the initial years, Escorts as a client was as remote for us guys on the Amber side of the office as Pluto, and as mysterious. In any event, most of Escorts’ businesses were in areas that in a truly competitive sense were limited: industrial equipment, tractors, etc., and the closest they came to real consumer marketing was with their Rajdoot motorcycles. However, even the motorcycle market was gripped by the license-quota regime, so much of the advertising, if you could call it that, was basic and informational.

Why then do I rank them so highly in terms of my own personal journey? I think one of the foremost reasons is that they represented the first real crossover for the Amber wing, and in doing that they opened up to me a whole new world that had hitherto been secreted away in a dark corner. ‘New world’ in the sense of an entirely different set of people with completely different mindsets, and replete with their idiosyncrasies, a ‘feudal’ milieu, the consumer durables market, and the very real experience of ‘getting’ business and generating billings and payments from clients to whom advertising was next in importance only to the setting up of workers’ lunchrooms.

This last was perhaps the most instructive for someone like myself, who was used to HMM’s systematic and planned ways of operating, with the comfort of annual budgets and timely payments. Escorts came therefore as a real shake-up, letting me know in no uncertain terms that life was not all milkshakes and biscuits.

My first real introduction to Escorts was when Punter and Manoj took over MSD (Motorcycle & Scooter Division) from Deepak, and I was able to see at close hand what they went through. In hindsight, there was no better duo to do this, as both of them were bikers (Manoj could out-Harley Davidson), and both had a completely wacky sense of humour. This last was, as I was to discover, the most essential prerequisite if one was to retain one’s sanity.

There were two legendary characters in MSD, as we were told around the metaphorical campfires of late-night agency work: the first was P.T. Thomas, the marketing head, but definitely the foremost was Amitabh Bhattacharya, the marketing executive, who dealt with us on a day to day basis. He was the type of person who combed his hair way across from one side of his head to hide his bald patch, and pronounced ‘orgy’ with a hard ‘g’, as in ‘eggy’.

PT, as he was known in our parlance, was a firebrand Malayali, who consistently out-thought, outfoxed, and out-manoeuvred his own team, with the result that we were constantly on the hop. What Amitabh approved, PT slammed, and what PT approved, Amitabh, with the cunning born of long hours of practice as well as taking advantage of the loops-within-loops approval procedures, delayed and procrastinated till he got his way.

In those days, and in those companies, people like Amitabh were actually the powers behind the thrones, because they thoroughly understood the politics of the company. He knew that above PT were two-old timers who were H.P. Nanda’s confidantes, S.D.S. Mongia and B.S. Chauhan, who could be brought into play if required. These two worthies saw advertising as an amusing diversion, to be had as dessert after the executive lunch, and who sat in intimidating offices the size of the Titanic.

Amitabh was also a master of procedural paperwork. The ad agency, being one of the many ‘suppliers’ to Escorts, with suppliers of ‘advertising’ probably listed between suppliers of ‘acids’ and ‘alkalis’, had to undergo the same complex paperwork they did, and so the approval of our estimates and quotations was his baby. Boy, did he love this baby! We would sometimes devote a full day to extort approvals of estimates from him before we went and paid our respects to the accounts manager from whom our cheques came. Though media estimates were usually easy to get through, production estimates for printing, etc., were discussed with the same relish as a cordon bleu menu. This was because printing and production were the only areas where there was room for manoeuvre and a bit of fiddle-faddle. The bureaucratic layers at clients’ offices used to treat this as a sort of Queen’s Birthday List, favours to be granted to so-and-so printer or supplier (we being one too), depending on various intimate considerations. The ones we usually got were those that had tight deadlines so that we could be the whipping boys. Printers were among Amitabh’s best friends, along with media reps and item fabricators. However, as ‘generating billings’ was the war-cry in the agency, we had to try our level best to break into this cosy circle, never mind what it took. So the cut and thrust of printing estimate approval was a huge education.

The joust usually began with Amitabh taking the attack to the opposition, i.e., us. That’s right, the opposition. Though at the top, especially at the boardroom level, there was much respect and affection for persons like Ram, they were too far removed from the sweaty wrestling in the bull rings of the Marketing and Purchase depts. I certainly often felt that we were there, if not exactly on sufferance, but certainly not as partners. More than anything, it was this attitude that was disturbing, but that was life and it had to be lived.

Amitabh (he’d begin, with a somewhat sarcastic, leery grin, as if we were presenting porn: ‘So, ha, more estimates, I do not have the time just now.’

Manoj: ‘Oh come on Amitabh, that’s what you said last time.’

Amitabh (bristling): ‘So whaat? Anyway, I can’t find them.’

Manoj (with the cunning born of long experience): ‘I’ve brought copies,’ (and gives his famous manic giggle).

Amitabh (temporarily stopped in his tracks): ‘Ho. (Thinks quickly.) But I have to go and meet SDSM.’

Manoj: ‘I just checked; he’s out of town.’ (Gives him the famous Manoj manic glare).

Amitabh: ‘Then I will meet BSC. Eet ees very importaant.’

Manoj (shifting the focus): ‘I won’t be able to start the work in the office if the estimates aren’t approved.’

Amitabh (recognizing a hoary chestnut when he sees one): ‘Sunil can get the work started.’

Self (pushing the matter upstairs): ‘Amitabh, I did it last time, but Ram/ Nikhil has put his foot down and said nothing doing from now on till estimates are approved. So please help me.’ (Never fails to work, this appeal for help. Gives them the impression that they are playing God.)

Amitabh: ‘Hokay, eef you eenseest.’ (Sits down.)

Manoj produces the estimates I don’t know what it is about artwork and printing estimates, but they always seem to give a rise to most clients. Amitabh considers it his saintly duty to bury and embalm them.

Amitabh: ‘Rs 8,000 for the leaflet artwork? Last time I paid only Rs 4,000.’

Manoj: ‘Yes, but this time it’s in multiple languages and we need to shoot the bike again.’

Amitabh: ‘Why?’

Manoj: ‘Arre, last time you said we need another angle since the old shot is too boring now.’

Amitabh (grumbling): ‘Why photography is so expensive?’

And so on till the art estimates are approved.

Amitabh: ‘One rupee fifty paise per leaflet? I got it done for one rupee last time.’

Manoj: ‘Yes, but you got 10,000 printed; this time it’s only 1,000 of each language, so the processing cost will be higher.’

Amitabh (moaning): ‘Baat eet ees too maach, Monoj. PT will keel me.’

Manoj (with a naughty glint): ‘Good!’

Self: ‘OK, one rupee forty.’

Amitabh: ‘One rupee tharty,’

We settle for one rupee thirty-five. No real loss as we’d come prepared to bargain.

Amitabh: ‘Now lait us go for laanch.’

Manoj: ‘Just one more,’ (shoving it across the table).

Amitabh, hungry, signs, and so off we go, all satisfied that we’d all been true to our respective causes.

Tomorrow: The king in his castle: the ‘ECM’ muddles

Extracted with permission of the writer and the publisher
Living on the ‘Adge’ in Jhandewalan Thompson
By Sunil Gupta
Publisher: Roli Books
Pages: 480, Price (paperback): Rs 395

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