New Delhi: Veteran adman R. Balakrishnan has stepped down from his position as group chairman of Mullen Lowe Lintas, part of the global advertising conglomerate Interpublic Group (IPG).
With this, Balakrishnan, popularly know as Balki, has also bid adieu to his 30-year career in advertising and decided to become a full-time filmmaker.
“While I had lot of fun during my advertising stint, I’m moving responsibly, leaving the agency in the able hands of Amer Jaleel, Arun Iyer and Joseph George,” Balki said over the phone from Mumbai.
He said he is currently working on a film script.
Born and brought up in Bengaluru, Balki received a Bachelor of Science degree from Bangalore University, but his interest—and passion—lay in filmmaking. After college, he applied to the Madras Film Institute to do a course in direction, but didn’t join because he didn’t like the way the interview panel spoke to him. He then applied for a Masters in Computer Application but had to drop out because of poor attendance.
At this point, he decided to try his luck in advertising and applied for a job in Mudra. He joined the agency as a trainee copywriter in 1987.
Adman D. Ramakrishna, or Ramki as he is known in the industry, founder of Cartwheel, a Mumbai-based independent creative consultancy, recalls their early advertising days.
“In 1987, Balki and I came to Ahmedabad on the same train from Chennai. We didn’t know each other then, but were introduced to each other when we reached the flat which six people were to share. We were the first batch of copy trainees that had been hired by Mudra as part of an experiment that eventually went on to become MICA (earlier known as Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad),” he said.
The six people including Balki and Ramki were recruited by professor Nagananda Kumar. The six-month programme was essentially an experiment that involved watching countless films and reading books, expeditions into the city and observing people.
It also involved writing fictitious ads and attending workshops by guest lecturers.
“Balki and I went on to become “ki” brothers because of our names. But he was always the crazy one. His nickname was MetaPhysix (everyone had a nickname that ended in x—inspired by Asterix) because we couldn’t understand what he was saying!” said Ramki.
But it was clear that Balki was obsessed with films even before he arrived in Ahmedabad. He would go up to the terrace, sit on the landing and work away on his scripts in the hot Ahmedabad sun, Ramki recalled.
After working in Mudra, Balki moved to Lintas’s Bengaluru office in 1994. He spent more than two decades in the agency in different roles. As national creative director, he ideated memorable campaigns such as Surf Excel’s Daag Achche Hain, Tata Tea’s Jaago Re and Idea’s ‘Walk When You Talk’ TV commercials and went on to become the agency’s chairman and chief creative officer in December 2007.
“Balki’s attitude towards work was—Let’s show them!,” recalled Ramanujam Sridhar, founder and chief executive officer, brand-comm, a brand consulting company. Sridhar was Balki’s first boss at the Bangalore office of Mudra.
Not only did Balki nurture client relationships by delivering immersive creative solutions but also ensured that Lowe became a fertile ground for young talent and fresh ideas. Many in the fraternity vouch for the culture he created in the agency.
The biggest testimony to this is the careful planning behind his exit; he honed two of his creative leaders, Amer Jaleel and Arun Iyer, to head two newly created agency structures—Mullen Lintas and Lowe Lintas, respectively. These agencies were created as a part of Lowe Lintas + Partners being rebranded as MullenLowe Lintas Group, following the merger of IPG agencies Mullen and Lowe Lintas + Partners (to form MullenLowe Group).
“He prepped us all very well for this day. He could have gone two years back but he must have probably felt that we were not ready to let him go,” said Jaleel, chief creative officer, Mullen Lintas, who owes his understanding of brand building and consumer connect to Balki.
As MullenLowe Lintas prepares itself to chart a new course without its mentor, the ad fraternity fondly recalled the qualities that make Balki not just a creative leader but also a friend and confidant.
Prathap Suthan, managing partner and chief creative officer at the agency Bang in the Middle, said that while he and Balki had never worked together, they joined advertising around the same time in Mudra.
“Sometime in the late ’80s when my brother was ill and hospitalized in Bengaluru, I called up Balki and asked him if he could wish my brother on his birthday. The next thing I know, Balki went all the way to the hospital with a cake, wished him, and spent time with him! It just underlines the kind of person he is,” said Suthan.
Balki’s friend K.V. Sridhar, chief creative officer, SapientNitro India, an integrated marketing and technology agency, remembers the time they took a 6am flight to Bengaluru just for the fun of watching a Tamil film, first day, first show. “We ate breakfast, saw the movie and flew back,” he said. On another occasion, he kept clients waiting while he watched a Chinese film, Sridhar recalled.
A cinephile and Amitabh Bachchan fan, Balki made his directorial debut with the film Cheeni Kum, featuring Bachchan and Tabu, in 2007. He followed it up with the National Award-winning film Paa, which also starred Bachchan, in 2009. He turned producer with the movie English Vinglish, which was directed by his wife Gauri Shinde. His latest release, Ki and Ka, starred Kareena Kapoor and Arjun Kapoor.
Prasoon Joshi, chairman, Asia-Pacific, CEO and chief creative officer, India, McCann Worldgroup, said Balki is “an absolutely authentic, self-made person who sticks to his beliefs”.
“He’s left an indelible mark on the psyche of the company and the industry. So, while things will go on, Lowe will never be the same again. The impact will resonate,” he said.