Neil George: Comics and creme
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Neil George, the man I am having breakfast with, is in his early 40s, clean-shaven and presentable in the way only consumer product marketers usually are, and is wearing a light brown linen summer suit and a checked shirt. This is his second day as managing director of Nivea India, although he has worked for Beiersdorf, the global multinational that owns the Indian subsidiary, for almost five years.
A Kochi boy who studied hotel management in Mumbai, George has two MBAs (one from Mumbai’s SP Jain Institute of Management and Research and another from the London Business School). Over his 21-year career, he’s worked in New Delhi, Mumbai, Jeddah, Dubai, London and Amsterdam, and is now back in Mumbai, running the Indian operation of the low-profile, family-owned German multinational. His last role was as vice-president, in charge of marketing for emerging markets, at the same company.
I am meeting George because he knows a colleague—they worked together at Reckitt Benckiser’s London office—who insisted that I meet him. I was going to say no—I usually do—when the colleague added that George wanted to talk about his book, a comic on brand management.
I was intrigued.
I went to college with a lot of people who went on to sell soap. By that, I mean that they went on to work for consumer product companies, usually multinationals, and did very well for themselves. Even my current workplace is full of such people as, indeed, are most Indian organizations. The people I went to college with (who went on to sell soap), all did interesting things in college. They quizzed. They acted in plays. They played the guitar. They were well read. And then, they started working and became, almost without exception, single-minded drones in large marketing machines. I spoke about this to the graduating batch of one of India’s best business schools once. “You can sell soap and still be a philosopher,” I remember telling them. I don’t think the message was received well. The school hasn’t called me back to speak to students since.
George, by that measure, is uber-cool. I find out during our meeting that he is also an oenophile (he and his wife like to holiday in “wine regions”, he says). And he is a life-long Arsenal fan. “We are doing badly,” he rues.
Long-time readers of Lounge will know that I am interested in comics (and graphic novels). For many years, I used to write a weekly column on graphic novels for Lounge, Cult Fiction. I still read and collect them, but in all the years of reading and collecting, well over two decades, I have never come across a comic book on brand management.
And so, we meet, at the Taj Palace hotel in New Delhi’s diplomatic area, right next to ITC Maurya where George once used to work (it was his first job). We load our plates up (at least, I do) and after some small talk about his new role and the company’s performance in India—Beiersdorf is notoriously close-mouthed, and I am, after all, a business journalist—we start talking about Building The Perfect Beast.
The title is a doff of the hat to Eagles drummer Don Henley; it is the name of his second studio album. George is an Eagles fan, a drummer himself, and also a one-time member of a rock band. He still listens to music, mostly 1960s and 1970s classic rock, and he went out and bought himself a drum set a few years back. “I don’t get the time to play,” he says. “Maybe in this new role in India…”.
The title is also about what happens to both brands and brand managers, George says. Both start life as pure, naïve things, but end up as beasts.
George doesn’t strike me as the writing type (yes, if you must know, there is a writing type), and he admits as much. The idea of writing a book on brand management came to him in 2010, when he left Reckitt and went to work for a private equity firm, running a consumer products firm it had acquired. He had a cooling off period, many of his friends (and some of his friends’ children) were asking him about careers in brand management, and he thought a book would probably provide the answers—to them and to others considering a career in brand management.
“It took me a day to realize I couldn’t write,” says George, displaying the modesty that immediately marks him as not-a-writer.
George is an avid photographer, and his initial idea was to do a picture book. A visit to a book store convinced him that there were already too many of those, he adds.
He eventually settled on a comic.
George has read the comics most people of his (and my) generation have—Phantom, Mandrake, ACK, Commando, Mad—which is to say he hasn’t read much of the stuff I used to write about in Cult Fiction. His decision to do a comic, George says, was driven by the need to create something different from what was out there, and which would be read.
There was only one problem with doing a comic—he couldn’t draw.
That’s actually not much of a problem because many people who write best-selling comic books and graphic novels can’t draw. They write; somebody else takes care of the drawing and the inking; and somebody else usually does the colouring. There are, of course, some who do everything—writing, drawing, colouring.
George set out to trawl the Internet looking for an artist. As a marketing professional, he had been involved in creating several advertisements, and he knew the look he wanted, George says. “Dark Art.” I understand what he means at once. It’s a style popularized by comic books such as The Darkness. It didn’t take him long to find one—in Moldova. The artist he found used to publish vampire comics in Moldova, and agreed to illustrate (ink and colour) George’s book. And so they started—George would write, create a storyboard, worry about angles and looks, and send a detailed brief to his artist in Moldova who would, whenever he found the time, draw and send his output to George. Once George approved the look, the artist would ink it. The Moldovan didn’t do text bubbles, and George found an artist in Michigan who did.
Three years later, George had eight chapters of his book ready. It was about five young brand managers through whose experiences in a large shampoo company he wanted to speak about life (and work) in brand management. Then the Moldovan artist, whom George had never met, dropped off the map.
After trying in vain to seek him out, George found a company in Kolkata (Comic Book Artists) that offered an end-to-end solution for anyone looking to create a comic. For George’s book, given the kind of look he wanted, the company recommended two brothers who illustrate under the name XongBros. George doesn’t know their real names but suspects they live in India. Around the same time—this was 2013-14—George met an old school friend on a trip to Silicon Valley and showed him parts of the comic. The friend suggested that he spice it up a bit, add elements of fantasy, for instance, to increase the book’s appeal to younger audiences.
George did that, even adding a dream sequence (“I researched dreams for three months,” he says).
George self-published the book in April, on Easter Sunday. It is available in paperback and hardback, with the second coming in a cardboard sleeve. The book is available online, including on Amazon.in and Flipkart.com, and George says it is doing all right. A friend who runs a business school in Mumbai has decided to make it part of the course material for a brand management programme, he adds. George has also decided to market the book as he would any consumer product.
His company, he says with understandable pride, is chuffed about his book, and is sending a message to its 17,000 employees on George and his comic.
As I leave, he gives me a pre-publication copy of the hardback version. I flip through it on the way back to the office, and later read bits of it. I’ve never been a dark art fan and think the book could have done with a lighter, and more realistic visual style. George could have also done with the services of a good editor (as indeed, anyone can). But the story is engaging, and the lessons in brand management there for anyone who cares to look for them. That, and the novelty of the comic book format, should work for Building The Perfect Beast.
More than anything else, though, I am impressed by George’s passion. For seven years, he laboured to create a comic on brand management. Not too many people who take the trodden path can claim as much. Neil George has proven that you can sell soap for a living and still be a comic book creator.