Q&A with Ramesh Narayan, the Do-gooder Adman

28 Jul,2014


Thirty-two years ago, he almost didn’t get into advertising. He would’ve been a journalist and perhaps editing a newspaper somewhere. Instead, he started an ad agency with zero experience and no client in hand. But there’s no looking back ever since until some eight years back, he just gave all up. However, what continues is his active association with industry associations and easy availability for anyone who needs help. He is the Indian ad and media industry’s go-to man in times of distress and even otherwise.  Excerpts from an interview:


Although you didn’t have much experience in advertising, you were fortunate to have landed some prized accounts early.

In those days, domains like telecom, insurance, banking and infrastructure were largely unexplored. The big MNC agencies were not interested in them and there was fear of dealing with government. I was luck to stumble upon these areas and in a very short span of time, these very areas opened up.


So who was your first client?

The National Rayon Corporation, for a Fixed Deposit ad. A big, large one. That was the first ad I had made in my life.


MTNL was your first big client, right?

Yes, and it happened by chance. I had applied for the account and was told that I was far too small and there were rules that needed to be adhered to. Some 11 months later, I got a call from the same office asking me to make some ads for MTNL’s first anniversary. I was given a brief and had to turn in the ads the next day. The boss saw them and was thrilled. So I asked him if his acceptance would mean I will get empanelled. He responded with a firm “No” adding that the rule would still apply.  So as I was leaving, he asked me why I was ready to work for him despite knowing that there was little chance of Canco being on his panel of advertising agencies. My reply: “Because I like to have the thrill.” Obviously, something has gone wrong as you said you would empanel only the large agencies, I said.


How large was your office then?

We had a four-person office. I was the account executive, copywriter… everything!


Your father CA Naryan must’ve been a great influence at that time.

He has always been the most important inspiration in my life. I had met almost all the legends of the advertising industry at my house. He was the INS chairman then and heads of agencies in a mess would come to him. So I really learnt what not to do in an advertising agency from him indirectly. Secondly, it also helped me, in a very warped way, as everybody assumed that it was his agency and I was the front. It was quite humiliating in the beginning as well quite humbling because very many of those people became very dear.


Did it help that you were CA Narayan’s son?

I don’t think so. In fact, one got a little defensive at all times in the early days. But once people saw the work I was doing and word spreads fast in the grapevine, I was accepted.


The INS membership must’ve come easily?

Not at all. It took a good year-and-a-half!


The 32 years that you have been in it have also been the most interesting for advertising in India. Any milestones, turning points or memorable moments?

Remember, that in 1982, the big names and entrepreneurs were on their way out and professionals like Mike Khanna, Mani Iyer and Anil Kapoor were on their ascendency. It also saw for the first time the corporatization of advertising agency from purely entrepreneurial, smallish industry. For the first time, a whole lot of  bright MBAs from the IIMs who opted to join the industry. The key word is that opted as they chose to join of their own accord. They could have gone anywhere, but yet they said advertising is their first and last port of call. There was some excitement about the industry, some unwritten magic in the air that attracted all these people.


Cut to the present?

Yes, having seen all the bring young B-school graduates rise to the top, today we are unable to afford IIM pass-outs. Nor are we invited for IIM placements.


It’s said that part of the reason for this is that the fee paid by clients is too low to allow for expensive IIM graduates.

As far as work goes, I think our work is on par with the best in the world. We also have the best people in the industry at the moment. Legends in our industry who have done us proud. The remuneration system has evolved. You will always have mature advertisers who will be able to pay a fees on the basis of your performance, etc. But a very large number of advertisers who I wouldn’t call mature have actually exploited the breakdown of the 15% agency commission system.


But why don’t the large agencies hire top talent? Surely the large advertisers pay them good money?

Do you think so?


That’s the perception…

Why do you think we hear that we are not able to attract the best talent.


Something is evidently wrong somewhere….

Yes, and there is a need for the advertising industry and the current leaders to introspect on this. We have made many of the top brands and advertisers look so good and yet we have seemed to have ignored our own industry.


Is there a way to get out of the mess because we have discussed this for the past 5-10 years and nothing has happened?

I am an incurable optimistic. I see the resurgence of the entrepreneurial spirit in our industry in the last couple of years. A lot of smaller agencies are headed by first rate people.


Why do you think that our young leaders aren’t getting active in the various associations?

We know of the big ‘I’ that’s Idea. But there’s another big ‘I’ and that’s involvement. I don’t think it is only these bright young sparks. It is a lot of people who do not get involved in the industry affairs as they ought to. They are happy to lean on the industry when they need help. All the big guys have approached the AAAI when they are in a mess. However, they do not feel that they have the time to contribute and get involved in industry affairs as they ought to.


The AAAI was known to be this respected, apex association of advertising agencies. Resolving issues, but thanks to Goafest, it has got dragged into many controversies. Do you think Goafest is a downer for the AAAI?

I am one of the three people who have been very actively involved in the Advertising Club and the AAAI as a president. I was also one of those who had said that the Abby ought to be a joint ownership property. Therefore, I endorse the idea of Goafest. However I think, Goafest became too much of an awards event. We’ve had only 20 people in the hall once in the Conclave. In fact I must say, I liked the last Goafest where it was positioned as a Knowledge event which also had awards. If Goafest is pursued in the same way where you get top class speakers, make it as much of a knowledge fest like Ad Asia and also have awards in it. It is like an AD Asia and Abbys as one. It could work. It will work.


Do you think they need to get in professionals to run it as the officebearers have day jobs and huge responsibilities.

Quite honestly, I have been personally associated with not just Abbys for many years but also organized two Ad Asias in 2003 and 2011. In 2003, I was also running an agency. In 2011, Madhukar Kamath was running an agency. Pradeep Guha, Gautam Rakshit and Bhaskar Das had full-time jobs. But they found time to do it more as a labour of love. Involvement is the key to all this and by doing so you are actually showing how much you care for our industry.


Coming back to your agency, there were many agencies which sold out to larger international players. Why didn’t you think of doing so?

Impossible! That’s the word that I used and that’s what I did. I got three concrete offers. I can’t name them but two were from multinationals and one from an Indian giant with some multinational links. Reporting to anybody was a complete no-no for me. Also, I sort of knew the agency I had built and run it alone with some standards of ethics and values. I knew I could in no way change all that by saying that I am going to get a lot of money. As an agency man, I have never asked the client what’s the budget. We have never had to make a pitch. It was referral-based agency.


I’ll repeat my question… you never wanted to sell out?

No, and that’s because I never wanted to run after money.


Any regrets or are you happy with the way things have gone?

When I wound down the agency in 2006, I resigned from all the advertising associations that I was on board. Many people said what’s the hurry. I was on board of ABC and NRC at that time. I quit all of that. Until, two and a half years ago when I got a call from Pradeep Guha who wanted me to come in and help. Oddly enough, I was not only back in industry affairs but I have had some of the meaningful years in the industry in those six years. Thanks to Presidents like Pradeepp Guha, Raj Nayak, Sundar Swamy who have allowed me to be a part of a team who said let’s do something that is good for the industry.


Is there any consulting work you do?

All the work is pro bono.


That’s great to hear but I thought you would be advising some media companies

I am doing what I think is good. Right, now I feel I’d like to do things which are good and things that I enjoy doing.


As the recipient of the AAAI lifetime achievement award and earlier a similar honour by the IAA, is there one thing that you think the industry should do which will make you prouder to be associated with it?

I feel as an industry we have the potential to do much and to position the communications industry as a force for good. And if we do that, we are not only going to make this an aspirational place but inspirational place. When you do good, you do good for everybody indirectly for yourself too.


The only good that people are looking forward is money, right?

That’s what I am saying… if we can position communications as a force for good. You need to position creative skills, planning skills, media linkages. If communication could do good, it has to be from us. Communication can actually alter behavioural patterns, attitude and mindsets. Who else can do it? Only we! Have we done it? Have we even thought of doing it?


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