Anil Thakraney on Mike Khanna: An encounter in the loo

09 Jun,2015

By Anil Thakraney

 

The entire industry is aware of Mike Khanna’s stunning success, of how he ably captained HTA’s ship and fast forwarded the agency’s revenues to staggering heights, making it India’s largest and most profitable ad agency by a fair margin. So I will desist from replaying the numbers game. This post is more about my take on the man, having worked at HTA in the mid nineties for over four years (my longest stint at an ad agency).

 

Office & Gentleman is an oft-used cliché but it is one I would still use to best describe Mike. I always felt the title was originally coined for him, and it fit him like a well-cut Saville Row suit. Polite to a fault, always calm and unflappable, always well-dressed, always well-mannered, Mike was a Classy guy with a capital C. I would in fact go on to suggest he was a dream CEO for any organization, not just an ad agency. Even if his mind was loaded with stress (can happen when you run a 1000 crore rupee outfit in the service sector), he never showed it. When he was invited to take a look at big campaigns just before the work left for the client’s office, even if he thought the stuff sucked, he would only gently say: ‘It’s interesting but perhaps needs a little sexing up. Good work, guys.’ And then he would casually walk out of the room. And we would quickly get back to the drawing board, aware that the big boss had just pissed all over our work, in his uniquely classy way.

 

If there is one weak spot in Mike’s legacy, it’s that he did not encourage creativity to flourish in his agency. Under his stewardship, the power center was located in the suits’ cabins, and that’s where the final shots were fired from. While that environment was frustrating for a creative person (and I include myself), beyond a point, it is difficult to argue with success. And Mike’s strategy was hugely successful, the agency was growing furiously, the clients were happy and the perks enjoyed by all of us were cool. So no one really complained, except for the usual bitching we creative people do at pubs after hours. Conveniently forgetting that the one-week free holiday we had just enjoyed at Sun City in South Africa was courtesy HTA’s financial might. Mike was well aware that the ‘creative types’ like to crib, so he never took it seriously. He concentrated on what he was best at: Make HTA bigger, richer, more prosperous. And he was phenomenally successful at that.

 

As a young writer at the agency, I was in awe of the man. Despite the fact that he always appeared cool and cheerful, many of us would feel intimidated in his presence. He was the big daddy after all, the big daddy who said very little and signed the very big cheques. And because he said little, one felt even more intimidated.

 

I recall the team on Ford’s launch in India was putting together the auto giant’s show at Pragati Maidan. Naturally a very prestigious issue for the company and the agency. The local Delhi fabricator was running desperately behind schedule and the firang executives from Ford, used to a planned life, were getting stressed out. As a writer, in charge of only the audio visual matter, I would watch from the sidelines and enjoy the tamasha, as the client team would periodically pull up the client service executives. However just two days before the grand opening, and with completion nowhere in sight, we were informed that Mike will be arriving on the Big Day. And that got me personally fired-up. Although it wasn’t really my job, I took the fabricating company’s main man aside, and told him exactly these words: ‘Saale, tum corrupt, lazy Dilliwaalon ne bahut chutiya bana liya, ab ek baat barabar sun le. Agar tune jaldi kam khatam nahin kiya, mein Bombaywala tereko teri gali mein aakar pitega. Tune hamari izzat nahin rakhi toh mein teri bhi loot loonga. Yeh promise yaad rakh.’ The stunned man tried to hit back but was wisely advised by his colleague to back off. After this the work went on all day, all night, at super speed, and we had a fabulous launch. And later me and the Delhi fabricator shook hands. It wasn’t personal, after all.

 

Mike Khanna did that to you. You didn’t want to let him down. Not because you could get fired, but because you simply didn’t want to let him down. He was that kind of a CEO.

 

Another memory is my first meeting with him, in the year 1994. I had just been transferred from HTA’s Bangalore office to its Bombay office, and was still floundering around, trying to find my way, to fit in. I still recall that noon when I was peeing in the office loo, and Mike arrived to relieve himself, and used the urinal right next to mine, although all the other urinals were vacant. Being completely in awe of the man, and having only seen his pictures in newspapers and magazines, I froze midway, unsure of how to react, how to feel. I nervously looked in his direction, and as if sensing my discomfort, Mike turned to me, smiled and said. ‘Hi Anil. Welcome to Bombay, hope you have a great time in the creative department.’

 

And I thought the man didn’t know who I was. Or what I did for a living. But that was Mike. Understated, but sharp. Cool, but in control. Low key, but totally clued in.

 

RIP.

 

Anil Thakraney, a former ad professional, is a senior journalist and commentator

 

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