The Lighthouse. RIP George: A tribute by Navroze D Dhondy
Dhondy, Founder & MD of Creatigies Communications, had the pleasure of working closely with George John as CEO of Anthem & TBWA Anthem. He shares his memories of the “big man”
Published - 02-July-2019
It was a warm Saturday afternoon during the summer of 1983. The Lintas Delhi office had a few weekend-stragglers who were getting ready to leave, as a cub-writer from the Hindustan Times Evening News walked in. He wanted to meet and interview the Branch Manager (Atul Sharma), who obviously wasn’t in on a Saturday. Casually he walked around the office, kept chatting with me and all of a sudden left.
The next week, the Hindustan Times Evening News carries an article on Delhi’s advertising scenario. Hosting the interviews of Ram Saigal, Manager, Hindustan Thompson; Jaideep Samarth, Manager Ogilvy
(at that time OBM), George John, Manager ULKA; and yours truly
(not even a ‘confirmed’ Account Executive). Everyone at Lintas was quite shocked, bemused and some very angry, as to how a rookie advertising trainee like me managed to get featured in the HT article with stalwarts of the industry.
Post the article, I received two calls: One from Alyque Padamsee, the Lintas CEO from Bombay who told me very very clearly in his typical Alyque drawl “Navroze, NOOOOO ONE at Lintas speaks to the media…not even me!”
The other call was from George John who called me out of the blue on the Lintas landline (there were no mobiles in those days) to compliment me on some of the things that were attributed to me in the article, and asked me to come and see him at ULKA. On the phone itself, in typical George style, he offered me a double-promotion. It took me more than 11 years after that to meet George, finally catching up for a drink at the Taj Palace in 1994, where he offered me the job of joining as the CEO of Anthem.
The Head Hunter, Rajeev, who had had been egging me to meet George, said that the meeting would last about 30 minutes. It ended up being 3 hours or more.
George and I had a common love (and some angst from him) when it came to Lintas. He told me how he would resent wearing a tie to work. But he also praised Lintas for its ability to attract top talent from management schools, and a wide variety of creative souls who made the agency what it was.
That’s where he joined the media department after being a teacher of Math and Stats at a school in Bombay.
The chats we had that evening went from his early days under Gerson at Lintas, to how he met ULKA’s founder Bal Mundkur, and how he took a punt at reimagining ULKA Delhi, one of the boldest moves that George or Bal took, and then the rest is history. ULKA Delhi became the agency to beat at a pitch. Something very difficult.
George was a fierce competitor when we met at client’s offices for agency pitches, and had a sense of grandeur about hm. He was the true epitome of “LIVE LIFE KINGSIZE” and sometimes joked with me that he was more “Punju” than “ Mallu” in his lifestyle, both at work and home.
It took me quite a few months to take the plunge and dive into a new role as the CEO of Anthem. Leaving the No. 1 and No. 2 agencies , HTA and Lintas, large offices with 200-300 people, and joining Anthem was like starting a whole new business. His entrepreneurial style possibly suited mine and we managed to create some magic with a lot of help from Krishnan, Kurien, Benny, Amal, Abhijit, UT Ramprasad, Pamit, and many others.
For the first 6 weeks I had a table placed in George’s room and shared his office, while my room was getting fixed. This gave me the opportunity to know the man from close quarters, and how we played the good cop – bad cop when it came to client management. We both decided that the agency was to undergo a transformation, and the biggest change would be the roster of clients and brands. In the first 18 months at Anthem, George, Kurien, Benny and I went into overdrive. We pitched for the biggest brands, and came away winners with Kelvinator, Electrolux, Nivea, Holiday Inn, Finolex, Hallmark, Holiday Inn, Samsonite, ESPN Star Sports, and many others.
The big man had big plans for the agency and one fine day we started to look at international partnerships. TBWA became the preferred partner and it was a marriage of a lot of likeminded souls.
But George the man was even bigger than George the advertising agency head.
His New Year’s eve parties were legendary. I have met so many who recall how sozzled they got, how many forgot their way home, and how many just slept over on George’s terrace when the party came to a halt as the sun came up the next morning. His ability to make people from any walk of life very comfortable was his hallmark.
George was always open to some fun and had a wicked sense of humour. At one of the Anthem workshops held at Khajuraho, we all had laid a plan and a trap for the new joinees. It was to show George as the ruthless owner of Anthem beating the hell out of Benny, kicking him in the gut and making him roll down the slopes of the hotel lawns. George was very sporting and played to the gallery. Dummy punches, and kicks, and great acting of a much in pain Benny all made it look so real that some young trainees ran to refrain George from his violent kicks and brawls. Just then George smiled and gave it away as a joke!
George loved food. And he did not mind showing it. My first ever meeting at a client’s office was an eyeopener. The office boy placed the tea and a plateful of biscuits. Suddenly George tapped his fingers closer and closer to the plate, then grabbed four biscuits in a swoop, and devoured them. When I looked at him with a bit of surprise
(remember it was my first such experience) he grinned and said,
“Never disrespect food”.
Post his leaving Anthem and TBWA, George moved to settle down in Cochin, built a beautiful chalet along the backwaters, and had the most “open-house” for any friend or colleague. Once I dropped in to surprise him. Within a few minutes of settling down, he made me walk across to his favourite toy, the speed-boat. In a flash we were off. As soon as we reached somewhere in the middle of the water, there was a loud bang and a cloud of smoke rose from the rear end of the boat. It was ON FIRE…. Rarely have seen George panic. But then with some deft moves and a little help from his friends, we managed to douse the fire on the boat.
But the fire in him continued to rage to constantly create and make a difference to people’s lives.
His passion to create did not diminish. First came Ragamay, a beautiful resort and spa, to which he invited me many times but somehow I could not join him there. And then Graceland, a beautiful senior citizens’ community.
The most impactful thing about George was the way he treated people…. For many years after his retirement he would host these mega parties at his Cochin dream home, inviting even the Anthem office boys Vijay and Rajveer all the way to Cochin for the Jamboree, tickets paid for, accommodation provided, and made to feel part of the family. They would be beaming from ear to ear with a simple “Thank you George Sir.”
Actually summing up the feelings and thoughts of all those lives that George touched.
“Thank you George”. Farewell dear friend. You were in many ways the lighthouse!
Navroze D Dhondy is Founder & Managing Director of Creatigies Communications. He had the pleasure of working closely with George John as the CEO of Anthem and TBWA Anthem.
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