M.G. Parameswaran.
M.G. Parameswaran.

A leader must show commitment, ability to be humble: M.G. Parameswaran

For young leaders, in any business, the key mantra is to never stop learning, says M.G. Parameswaran

New Delhi: M.G. Parameswaran, or Ambi as he is popularly known in the advertising fraternity, has published his ninth book ‘Sponge - leadership lessons I learnt from my clients’ where he talks of trade as well as life lessons learnt from his clients such as Amul, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Zee, Tata Motors, and Cadbury, among others. Of the 40 years in advertising, Parameswaran has spent more than 25 years at Ulka, the agency he joined in 1989. Currently, he writes, teaches and coaches corporate leaders. In an interview, he talks about the definition of sponge, key mantras he learned from his clients and why active listening is crucial in life. Edited excerpts:

Who, according to you, is a sponge?

Unfortunately, sponge has a negative connotation of people who sponge off (or take favours from) people. I’m trying to give it a positive interpretation through this book. Sponge, in my mind, is a person who takes useful ideas and concepts from people and allows them to remove wrong ideas and concepts from their mind. This person is similar to a sea sponge which derives nutrients from surrounding water to survive. Each one of us can become better at what we are doing by learning from people around us.

Why is listening important? Do millennials listen?

In coaching fundamentals, we are taught to be active listeners and to absorb what is being said carefully unlike a passive listener who lets the words wash over him. Everyone is obsessed with multi-tasking currently as a result of which we may not be listening and learning as much as we can. As a marketer, if one can listen what the customer are telling you a lot more can be achieved in terms of business targets.

You mention conversations where you have disagreed with clients or vice-vera. Why is dissent important?

In order to show your dissent, you need to understand where the other person is coming from. You need to talk to each other and not talk at each other. The first step is to actively listen to the person who is disagreeing with you, understand where he/she is coming from then presenting your argument. When two parties talk to each other they end up trusting each other. A client of mine M. Damodaran, former chairman, Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI), UTI and IDBI once told me that ‘Disagree with each other but don’t be disagreeable’.

What are the three mantras from the book that apply to real life situations and not just advertising?

R.D. Aga, managing director of an engineering firm Thermax who also happens to be an Oxford English graduate and Harvard Business School alumnus, decided to write the body copy of the ad for his company. That was not his job but he offered to do it because of his interest in doing things to ensure the job is done well. Sometimes going beyond call of duty is a good idea if it helps the larger goal. Once Azim Premji asked me to take a flight back home from Bengaluru after a meeting instead of staying back. It is one lesson that stayed with me for a long time -- to finish meetings in a single day. It saves money for your company and the client.

The leader has to show commitment and an ability to be humble. It is applicable across all industries. Mr Mr Ratan Tata, for instance, came to personally check the colour of the car model (Indica Marina) on the venue just before the formal launch to make sure everything was in the right place.

Any mantas you want to share with young leaders in advertising and marketing?

For young leaders, in any business, the key mantra is to never stop learning. What we learn today will be redundant in the next ten years. One way of learning is through your customers or clients, from colleagues, bosses and mentors. Invariably, clients and customers make demand of you so you are always on a guard which needs to be changed it should be a learning relationship.