It takes just one person to believe in you to start believing in yourself. When everyone writes you off, you lose faith in yourself,” says Ashok Kurien, founder, in 1987, of Ambience Advertising, a creative powerhouse in the Indian media. In 1999, he sold the agency to the $5 billion Publicis Groupe, continuing as adviser for its Indian mergers and acquisitions.
In 1992, Kurien partnered Subhash Chandra in setting up Zee TV, India’s first private satellite channel, and is a director of the media house whose Zee Network now has more than 500 million viewers and 20 channels globally. But, for the first 40 years of his life—as Kurien tells a rapt, 200-strong audience of children and parents at JBCN-Pan Academy, Mumbai, at their annual day recently—he was considered a failure. Growing up in the 1960s, he was no good at reading, writing or math, and was mocked by all as a “duffer”. The young Kurien was regularly caned by his teachers and his mother, the English department head at Bombay University (he did not speak to her for 45 years, but today, they are close). He failed in classes VII and IX and became the “bad boy” of the school. But, the school kept him on because he excelled at sports; he was the boxing captain, a star gymnast, sprinter and rugby player.
After failing the first year of college, he ran away from home, and at 18, took up a job as a crop-sprayer across rural India. “At least in the villages, I did not need to read or write,” he says. Stashing away some of the money given to him to bribe local officials, he would return to Mumbai every few months, blowing up his funds on a night-out with friends.
Ashok Kurien with students of JBCN-Pan Academy in Mumbai. (Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
He would also scrap with policemen, cab and bus drivers, whom he perceived as “bullies”, in episodes that saw him twice in prison overnight. “It was frustration and lack of understanding that made me this way. Nobody ever hugged me or held me close,” he says.
Zirak Marker, director, JBCN-Pan Academy and a child psychiatrist and psychotherapist explains: “It’s not people or children who fail. It’s the educational system that fails us.”
At 21, realizing he had had enough, Kurien returned home, where he enrolled in morning college, doing odd jobs, sticking stamps in a government office and selling advertising space for Debonair magazine in 1973. Plain humiliation drove him to getting a degree, he says. Just when he was thinking of quitting, a miracle happened. As he took his last exam, which was Hindi, the invigilator took pity on him, and substituted his blank answer sheet. Kurien marvels, “The man did not know me personally, but he knew who I was, and had enjoyed my mother’s English classes at the university.”
That’s how, in 1977, after seven years of trying, Kurien became a graduate. Twenty-six years later, he ran into the same man, Arun Thomas, who by now was a priest in Australia. Thomas told him that he had never broken his principles before or since, but “an inner voice” had urged him to help the youngster out.
The degree helped Kurien get a job at Rediffusion Advertising, where he found that he couldn’t “talk jargon, spout figures or read a balance sheet”. So he moved to the creative side. The clients loved his work. One of them, Shilpa Shah of Garden Silks, then a leading textile producer, urged him to start his own agency, and became his first account. So, in 1987, with Rs5,000 in his pocket, a chronically ailing wife and a child with a life-threatening illness, Kurien set up Ambience Advertising, bringing in art director Elsie Nanji as partner. Their focus on creativity, working with only two clients a year, made the agency one of the most profitable “hot shops” in Indian advertising, breaking the hold of multinational giants such as JWT, Lintas and Ogilvy and Mather.
How did Kurien evolve from goonda to advertising guru? Thums Up and Bisleri promoter, Ramesh Chauhan says: “While formal education is important, people tend to remain in school long after they’ve left, and don’t work with reality. Ashok became the custodian of our trademark, overseeing all its aspects.” Nanji explains how Kurien co-created the brand’s “Taste the thunder” campaign which, 20 years later, still runs successfully.
Six “Taste the thunder of achievement” films depicted a series of self-confident young Indians. “One of them was a boxer, based on Ashok himself,” says Nanji. Kurien’s affinity for sports saw Thums Up sponsor the “Great Freedom Run” event in New Delhi for the campaign launch in 1987, with Rajiv Gandhi donning a T-shirt that carried the brand name.
Kurien reflects: “Meeting the Maharashtra Dyslexia Association finally made me understand my situation 50 years later! There is no such thing as a learning disability, only a learning difference. I learnt in the villages, in the streets of Mumbai, from my experiences. I can’t use big words, but I can still learn.” And he learnt that his true calling lay in converting his real-life observations into business ideas.
Seeing some Asian countries abandon traditional attire for Western wear, he persuaded Garden Silk to also make salwar kameez fabric, boosting its revenue. And as Subhash Chandra, promoter, Zee TV, recollects: “When we kick-started Zee, Ashok convinced me to give free advertising to a select group. From the fifth day onwards, we got a deluge of advertising revenue, when people perceived that established names were already with us.”
Recently, Kurien has reinvented mineral water Bisleri, its new, aqua green colour making it stand out from the blur of blue competitors such as Kinley and Aquafina. Sales have since rocketed. Kurien has also converted Flora2000.com, a small Mumbai online retail florist, into a leading brand in the US.
“As an angel investor, Ashok’s marketing genius put us on the map, with 150 same-day delivery destinations worldwide, and 3,000 products,” says Rehan yar Khan, co-founder. Suresh Thadani, Kurien’s friend and accountant, says: “Ashok retains talent and partners because he always thinks about their growth. He simply can’t forget his own days.”
Kurien now mentors young people and parents alike, reaching out to schools and holding seminars. As Belnera Fernandes, parent, JBCN-Pan Academy, says, “Kurien’s courage in sharing failures with us is a real inspiration.”
Back in his office, Kurien points to the posters of boxing champ Muhammad Ali and Olympian sprinter Carl Lewis. He says: “Everything I’ve learnt about life is right here. When you are going to fight, stand there and win. There are no draws in boxing.” He laughs: “When you know you are going to lose, learn how to run…real fast!”
And though he still struggles with spellings, it’s clear he’s learnt to run with the punches.
Name: Ashok Kurien
Title: Senior adviser, Publicis Groupe India; chairman, Publicis India; founder-promoter/director, Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd, Playwin, Dish TV India Ltd; co-founder, Flora2000.com, Remindo.com
Education: A “borrowed” BA, Bombay University, 1977
Pursuits: Serial entrepreneur; mentoring youngsters
(Personal Space runs every alternate Friday and looks at the pursuits beyond work of some of India’s corporate leaders. Write to Sangitaa Advani at firstname.lastname@example.org)