A sweeping view of south Mumbai is the only feature that distinguishes R. Balakrishnan’s office from an average airport lounge.
The office is compact—150 sq. ft—and ruthlessly spare, populated only by a centrally placed, glass-topped oval table, a pack of ordinary black task chairs and an unobtrusive flat-screen TV. A stand-alone desk and pedestal are consigned to a corner, serving as de facto baggage stands. Like airport lounges the world over, it appears transitional in nature, composed only of the bare essentials of seat and table—curiously unlike a space one would associate with the chairman of Lowe Lintas, one of India’s largest advertising agencies.
Balakrishnan, known universally as Balki, has occupied the corner office since 2003, when the entire workspace, situated on the 15th floor of Express Towers at Nariman Point, was last refurbished. He was national creative director at the time. After his elevation to the top spot in 2008, he decided against moving into his predecessor’s generous suite, which now accommodates 25 people in an open-plan layout.
“I’ll never move, I’ll feel lonely in more space,” says Balakrishnan, professing that a quiet, clean office with “a bare minimum sense of aesthetics” is all that he needs to get on with his job. “An office needn’t be zany because that’s not the nature of advertising people, it’s not the nature of advertising,” he says, a statement that grossly understates the millions of dollars that go into creating larger-than-life workplaces for creative agencies, whether in Mumbai or San Francisco or elsewhere.In fact, at Lowe London, visitors are greeted by a bar and café, placed right next to the front desk, instead of conventional meeting rooms.
Creative sans chaos
Balakrishnan’s office appears to be underpinned by a radical notion: his apparent belief that creativity and efficiency can co-exist. He jettisons the outer frills to which advertising professionals often feel entitled. “I like nothing to see, nothing to look at when I’m working, I even put the blinds down,” he says, adding, “I don’t even need a sheet of paper. Most of the time now, you say the idea.” His colleagues corroborate his approach to work. One co-worker describes him as “a force of energy”, almost chameleon-like in his ability to adapt to a given environment.
The stark emphasis on functionality also correlates with Balakrishnan’s increasingly “portfolio life” as full-time chairman and active film-maker. The term “portfolio life” can be attributed to Charles Handy, a leading management thinker. In Rethinking the Future, a collection of prescient essays by management heavyweights such as Michael Porter and C.K. Prahalad, Handy predicted, in 1998, that “life will be a collection of different activities, like a share portfolio”.
No frills: (left) R. Balakrishnan, or Balki as he is known, prefers a clutter-free workspace; and instead of having a dedicated computer, he often uses the PC in his assistant’s cabin. Photos: Kedar Bhatt and Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Handy believed individuals would come to balance their working hours between activities that would nourish stomach and soul, i.e., earn a living and provide personal fulfilment. He rightly envisaged a scenario where half the developed world’s workforce “will be working ‘outside’ the organisation” as temporary, part-time and contract workers.
Balakrishnan is one of the most visible examples of a thriving Indian portfolio life. Lowe Lintas continues to rank in the top five creative agencies in India. Over the last three years, he has written and directed two commercially successful feature films, Cheeni Kum and Paa. A film production house with spouse Gauri is in the offing. This dual existence requires discipline and focus on first-time-right ideas. Balakrishnan says he manages by “carefully sifting through the faff”—streamlining his day to concentrate on productive projects rather than having to rework ideas, entertain clients or attend motivation therapy workshops.
Physical demarcation of spaces helps. Films are written on weekends and evenings, from home, in a room with a treadmill and a cat, and usually edited at night. When directing, he takes time off from the advertising business to travel to shoots. In a “regular advertising month”, he says he spends half his working hours in the office—“We can sell scripts over the phone, which is fabulous”—rather than squandering time in traffic between meetings. He transcends modern computing, eschewing a laptop, parking himself at his assistant’s computer when necessary.
Wielding his mobile, gliding from studio to film set to home office and office, Balakrishnan is not tethered to any one physical space—this too explains his under-dressed cabin.
One rule for all
The deeper question is whether this system is replicable for others at Lowe Lintas. Lynda Gratton, professor of management practice at the London Business School, contends that such roles work well for organizations too, explaining that most portfolio careerists “have interesting networks and introduce new ideas into companies”.
Balakrishnan says he encourages Lowe Lintas employees to seriously pursue other interests outside work, as long as “they can balance both lives”. Several employees are aspiring painters, installation artists and screenplay writers.
In some ways, though, Lowe Lintas is traditional. It remains anchored in Express Towers, one of India’s first skyscrapers and a bastion of the Indian corporate establishment, while many others have emigrated northwards. Yet, if it continues to grant its foot soldiers more flexibility, it will set itself apart as an employer of choice—and perhaps save a bit on office spending too.
Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and their working styles.
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