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Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

A life in advertising

There are stressful days. More so when you run your own agency. The pressures are enormous. But I look back and tell myself that it is all about the choices you make. Photo: Mint

I stumbled into advertising at the age of 20. A friend in college flung a copy test at me. I completed it and bingo, I was hired. By no less than Hindustan Thompson Associates (HTA), Calcutta: the temple of the T-Plan. I was to join on 1 April 1987. Ashish Mitra, the man credited for several bad decisions of mine, told me: “Fools must start on Fool’s Day."

Fate intervened. Rudely. I had a major motorcycle accident and was laid up in bed. I called HTA to tell them that I was unable to join on 1 April. Could I start on 1 May instead? They promptly agreed. And since I was in college from 6.30am to 9.30am, I also requested a start time of 10.15am. They were sweet to accept that as well.

I knew nothing about advertising. Some clients say I still don’t.

I never had a great command over the language. Had never read Wodehouse. I was intellectually innocent.

But HTA was exceedingly kind to me. I had Rangan Chakravarty as my boss. In Rangan’s eyes, I could do nothing wrong. Above Rangan was a gentleman who was the associate creative director. He had the most sensational collection of Bangla porn in his office drawers. I regretted not being able to read the language. Pictorially, though, they were unappealing. You see, this was well before Photoshop and other helpful software were discovered.

HTA was the coolest agency in town. It had the bright, the bold and the beautiful. I was dazzled.

This was well before the wretched 5Ps of marketing were discussed.

Advertising was then about the 5Bs: booze, boys, beef, babes and briefs (of all kinds).

Lunch was at Dalhousie Institute. The nights were at Pink Elephant.

We blokes from Thompson weren’t the quintessential Olympia Pub blokes. That was Clarion’s prerogative. Ours was more Kwality’s at Ballygunge Phari and DI, where if you worked on Robin Roychowdhury’s businesses, you could get two shots of vodka and beef curry for lunch. No more. No less. Robin was deeply disciplined.

In 1988, I was told that I was selected to attend the James Webb Young Seminar in Manila. I was gobsmacked. The James Webb Young Seminar was reserved for the best and brightest at Thompson Worldwide. I had no passport. Worse still, because my then girlfriend was in Delhi, I had sought a secondment to the Delhi office. HTA was kind again. In addition to my monthly salary of Rs3,250, I was given a daily allowance of Rs300 as outstation expenses. If you do the math, that works out to roughly Rs12,000. Rs12,000 in 1988. When you are 21. I thought I was in the Forbes list of the richest people. Plus, I had my uncle’s scooter and stayed with him.

Nikhil Nehru was the big boss at HTA Delhi.

When he heard that I was to fly out of Bombay, he told his assistant to book me at The President. This was life-altering. Thompson was a very structured company. At my level, you could only stay at Shalimar Hotel on Kemps Corner. While their keema kaleji was always tops, their rooms weren’t. The biggest boys stayed at The President. I promptly called my mother and said I was dropping out of college. 12,000 bucks in the wallet, a room at The President. No college degree could have got me that.

Manila changed my life forever. At the end of the seminar was the closing party. After several beers, I mustered the courage to ask Jane Pritchard for a close number. Jane was the creative director of JWT, Hong Kong. “You were outstanding at the seminar," she said.

“Really? Then why don’t you hire me in Hong Kong?"

We left it at that. And I left for India.

A couple of months later, I was summoned by Mita Mathur, assistant to the senior vice-president. “There is a telex about you from Hong Kong, bugger. They want you to work there."

I froze. And then wept. And then the phone rang. It was Mike Khanna. “We are very, very proud of you, Swapan." Back in those days, you would never get to see Mike Khanna, leave alone speak with him. When Mike came to the Calcutta office, the only place you could bump into him was the loo. Where I would often see him.

Justin Leung was the chief financial officer of JWT, Hong Kong.

He offered me $11,000 a month. I was given a three-bedroom flat on the 18th floor of a condo. My verandah overlooked the sea.

My bosses were Eddie Booth, Douglas Brown and Christine Pong, the prettiest lady in the business. Ever. Eddie and Christine changed the way I would look and Doug changed the way I would write.

I was smitten by Doug. I soaked up every word he wrote, every step he took, every sentence he spoke. In a year, I was no longer myself. I was Doug Brown. I still am.

And then came the awards. From Cannes, Clio, Montreux.

I was working on brands such as Shangri-La, Citibank, Unilever, Yellow Pages and J&J.

Meanwhile, thanks to Jane’s largesse, I was given a generous raise. It was time to move to Kowloon. I chose Hung Hom Bay. The cabin crew of Cathay Pacific stayed there. Specifically, I chose a building wherein I was the only male living. My days at work were busy. Suddenly, the nights were even busier.

And then, one night, I got a voice message on the landline.

It said, “Slave, a ticket to Calcutta will be at your office desk tomorrow morning. See you in Calcutta. Say bye to your friends in Hong Kong. I need you. I have taken over as managing director of Clarion."

It was Ashish Mitra, the man who hired me in advertising.

On the plane back to Calcutta, there were just two choices in my mind.

Say no to Ashish. Or say no to a great international career in advertising.

There really was no choice.

I could never say no to a man who picked up a guy and polished him.

I could never say no to one of the greatest inspirations of my life.

I landed in Calcutta, signed up with Clarion and signed away all my global aspirations. I moved to a tiny apartment in Bangalore.

I was 23. And a creative director with a home, car and driver.

My boss was Kaushik Roy, the nicest man I have known and consequently hurt.

And my servicing partner was the hugely pumped-up John Kuruvilla.

Bangalore was a party.

At night, we would hit the pubs and then scrawl our names behind the tin posters at Black Cadillac. The work was fun.

And then I got a call in 1993.

“I am outside your house. Let’s go for a walk."

It was Nirvik Singh. The then head of Trikaya, Calcutta.

“Join me."

Once again, I had no choice in the matter.

Trikaya was the greatest agency I ever worked in.

It had the finest attitude and talent that I have ever, ever worked with.

We were drunk from 7pm on a Friday till about 9pm on a Sunday.

But at 9am on Monday, we were a furious agency. There was no business that we hadn’t won. No award that we hadn’t got.

Nirvik gave us enough rope to swing or hang ourselves by.

We had glorious clients. Each one of them. From P.K. Dutt to Gunjan Chandra. Amitabha Dutta to S.M. Ahmed. Harsh Neotia to Sumit Dabriwala. Sudhir Jhunjhunwala to S.B. Ganguly. Priya Paul to Hardeep Singh.

While Nirvik secretly enjoyed his Mad Men, he kept a safe distance from us.

An incident stands out.

The annual presentation of Bata, Trikaya’s largest client, was scheduled for Monday. On Friday, Nirvik asked to be shown the work. I told him it hadn’t even started.

He wasn’t amused.

That evening, I summoned creative and asked them to work all of Friday night.

They suggested we go out for some beers. I thought it was a fabulous idea.

On Saturday, someone suggested we have a few vodkas and then get down to work. As a team, we thought it was a wise decision. So, no work done on Saturday either. By Sunday evening, with no work done, it was clear that we could not present on Monday.

I gave Nirvik the bad news.

“Seth, I am not going to call PKD. You call him. And if he sacks us, I will sack the bunch of you. Clear?"

8pm was considered to be an auspicious time to call P.K. Dutt. He would be down a whisky.

“Sir, Swapan. Sir, we have all been partying the weekend and therefore cannot present in the morning. Not a single piece of work has been done."

“Don’t worry, Swapan. I will inform the board. We will do it next week. Why don’t you come home for a drink?"

I have had a long and fruitful tenure in advertising. I have been blessed with brilliant colleagues, courageous clients and absolutely smashing peers.

To this day, I try and enjoy my day.

There are stressful days. More so when you run your own agency. The pressures are enormous. But I look back and tell myself that it is all about the choices you make.

I try not to look back. There is so much to look forward to. If you look hard enough for it.

Swapan Seth began his career at JWT, Calcutta, after dropping out of college. He went on to start his own agency, Equus, whose clients include Reliance Capital, Deutsche Bank, Taj Hotels, Coca-Cola, Hindustan Times, Quest and Sleepwell.

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