AAAI presents Madhukar Kamath with Lifetime Achievement Award 2019 (+ acceptance speech)

09 Sep,2019

The Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) honoured Madhukar Kamath with the 2019 AAAI Lifetime Achievement Award in the presence of the who’s who of the advertising industry. This is the highest honour to be given to individuals in India for their outstanding contribution to the advertising industry. The Award, is  presented annually and recognises an individual’s contribution.

Said Ashish Bhasin, President of AAAI:  “Heartiest Congratulations to Madhukar Kamath on being conferred AAAI’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his vision and passion in transforming a traditional advertising agency into one of India’s most successful and diversified communication companies and his commitment to the cause of education and building talent for the marketing communications & services industry in India. He also played a vital role in bringing together the various constituents of the advertising industry to work with unity.”

The award was instituted in 1988 by AAAI and some of the past winners include Subhas Ghosal, Alyque Padamsee, Mike Khanna, Piyush Pandey, Sam Balsara, Prem Mehta, Ram Sehgal and others.


Text of Madhukar Kamath’s acceptance speech

Unedited text, as supplied by the AAAI


This is an evening of Gratitude. To all those who touched my life in the last 43 years. To all those who taught me what to do and more importantly what not to do. To all my bosses who hired me and gave me the freedom to be. To all those colleagues who allowed me to stand beside them and at times stand on their shoulders and made me look good. To all those who allowed their talents and stardust to rub off on me. To all those who I might have unintentionally, rubbed up the wrong way. To all those who encouraged me. To all those who criticised me. And yes to each and every one of you, who have come here to make this evening special. This evening is for you. And to those of you, who are patiently waiting for me to finish and for the bar to open, I will be quick….


It’s been a good and exciting journey. Where I enjoyed going to work every morning. Every single day. I have no intention of recounting all the highlights. My dear friends like Sandeep, Santosh, Shashi and Prasoon have already spoken. Killing me softly with embarrassment. Instead, let me share a few quick stories, rather snippets. For those of you who tweet. It is #life lessons……..


First a confession….when I entered this profession, my ambition was to be a Senior AE in 5 years and retire as a branch manager. That’s the truth.


Bright eyed and awe struck, I looked up, to legends like Subhas Ghoshal, Subroto Sengupta, Bal Mundkur, Alyque Padamsee, Mani Iyer and so on …..and then as I grew in this business, over the years, I was inspired by AG Krishnamurthy, Mohammed Khan, Bobby Sista, Arun Nanda, Ravi Gupta, Sylvester DCunha, etc……..I applauded and admired Ranjan Kapur, Goutam Rakshit, Anil Kapoor, and some in the room like Piyush Pandey, Sam Balsara and the thorough gentleman that he is Ramesh Narayan, to name just a few…..To receive this honour today and by default join their ranks is truly humbling….Thank you AAAI.


In the best of Oscar tradition, I wish to acknowledge a few people. To begin with my parents. They are responsible for me. My mother, in her late eighties, has flown in from Mysore, just for this evening. Her sacrifice and perhaps some of her jewellery enabled me to complete my management education. My best friend, who has also been my harshest critic and kept me grounded at all times, my beautiful and talented wife Shalini. My four wonderful kids, with whom I had no arguments, only generational differences and often tangential perspectives. Mitali, Dishank, Maanav and Akanksha. Just two of them could be here today……and as they say, never, never ever, forget your mother in law…her blessings over close to two decades have kept me going. Thank you.


Coming to my professional career, it is AG Krishnamurthy. He was the true wind beneath my wings. For over a decade, he allowed me to grow personally and professionally. It’s been an honour to succeed him at Mudra and MICA. I must also shine the spotlight on the legendary Keith Reinhard, the Chairman Emeritus of DDB. Keith, though being one of the key architects of the creation of the holding company, Omnicom in 1986, stayed behind in agency operations. He is singularly and selflessly responsible for keeping the Bernbach legacy alive and spreading it 2 around the world. Just to watch him, interact with him and even be in the same room as him, is an experience that no money can buy. To both of them, my salutations.


Next up, three of my other bosses in my long career. They will go unnamed. From them I learnt what not to do as you grow in your career.


One….never bury your head in the sand like an Ostrich. Do not wish away problems or the pangs of growth…Face the realities.


Two…..Learn to ‘let go’ as you go up the organisation. Don’t hang on.


And three….never be in a situation where you need to walk and have to constantly watch your back. Look ahead.


I learnt from their mistakes. A silent prayer for the departed souls of these three gentlemen, in gratitude.


Perhaps I am blessed. Or just lucky? To have had some truly life changing opportunities come my way.


Four in particular stand out….., first, the opportunity to go and acquire and perhaps rescue my alma mater. Second, the opportunity to lead the organisation where I grew up, both personally and professionally. Third, to have a role in building an educational institution of repute and to contribute to the talent pool for the entire Marketing Services Industry. And finally to be given the responsibility to lead the Industry body and help shape its future. It’s been a rather busy but certainly a full life. Interestingly, every one of these opportunities have arisen from a specific challenge.


Along the way, I’ve learnt to take the road that is not predictable. My personal life also illustrates this. In 1988, I decided to join a little know, much derided home grown Indian Agency called Mudra. I chose it over a well-polished, much applauded and decorated multinational organisation, that offered me instant fame and yes, more money. I liked the entrepreneurial spirit, the native wisdom and the never say die spirit. Epitomised in the Walt Disney line, which AGK adopted for Mudra, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it’.


Thereafter I followed the motto of ‘never play safe’. Choose a more difficult option rather than the easier one. Like the challenge that faced me when I joined the Cordiant Group in 1999. Cordiant does not exist today. It was consumed by the voracious appetite of WPP. The brief given to me was to either set up Bates India with two network clients ( a simple good start up ) or go into muddy waters and do the acquisition of a much venerated but troubled agency that had fallen on very bad times.. An agency called Clarion. My alma mater. As a freshly minted MBA, in June of 1976. I had begun my career in Clarion McCann. Over the years, McCann exited, several others quit and formed splinter groups and start-ups, that 3 went on to compete and do well, Clarion through the constant struggle amongst the unholy troika, over two decades, of an obdurate Board, an earnest but short lived top management that changed frequently and a demanding union, yes a labour Union in an Agency, was on the brink of bankruptcy. With employee dues not paid, with life savings and provident fund pay-outs at risk, dis-accreditation notices etc, Clarion was just a few weeks away from liquidation and blood on the streets. A story not told, made public or acknowledged to date. I chose the latter. Interestingly the solution and acquisition strategy was worked out on a paper napkin at a bar!!….It meant, tough conversations with the Board that wanted to just hand over and go away, reassure a very talented Mgmt team to travel with you, and some tight rope walking and talking with a fairly militant Union. What followed was perhaps, the largest voluntary retirement scheme. A downsizing of approx. 60 %. Unheard of. In just one day. Overnight. We ensured that every single employee, who left, was given his/her dues and there was no spilt blood. A 100% acquisition. All within 100 days. Start to finish. Without much noise and any media speculation or coverage. I will leave the details for a book perhaps!!!


And just when I was settling down with a team of talented colleagues, the good will and appreciation of reputed clients like ITC, Nokia, Hindustan Lever, Tata Salt, Tata AIG, Hyundai, to name just a few, came another challenge. Out of the blue, in 2003, I get a challenge thrown at me. Can you come back and succeed the founder Chairman & Managing Director of Mudra, AGK who was retiring? Naturally I said yes. I had a half day overlap and a hand over that lasted just 30 minutes. Perhaps the shortest in history….What followed was rocky….close to 50 % of the business and profit base vanished in 12 months. Entirely due to extraneous reasons. That story is for a different day! I drew inspiration from the entrepreneurial zeal that had grown Mudra and Keith Reinhard who had shown that building on a legacy, also opened up numerous opportunities. Over the next 8 years with the influx of new clients and talent and businesses we built the Mudra Group, to become India’s largest home grown Agency conglomerate. I succeeded in reviving a long lost conversation with DDB. And finally working closely with the CEO of Omnicom, John Wren, I helped make the Omnicom acquisition of the Mudra Group happen in 2011. Again under the radar. Quietly. Well, there is an exciting story there too. Some other day, perhaps. Or after several drinks……..Lesson learnt was that building on a legacy is as important as looking to create one.


Next, a challenge that irked me. I was asked to merge and hand over the then Mudra Institute of Communication with a different Institution. I defied the advice. Over, the years, with the help of stalwarts like another legend, Gerson DCunha, the ex-Election Commissioner Mr Vittal, the former Director of IIM, Prof Khandwala, Prof Ramesh Sarin from XLRI, to name just a few, Directors like Atul Tandon etc, and a new Governing Council of which Santosh Desai is here, we transformed the Mudra Institute of Communication into MICA. Today, it is an independently run Business School that specialises in Strategic Marketing & Communication Management. Profitable, self-funded and having a very healthy corpus. With a fantastic Alumni base. Apart from numerous CXOs in the 4 Marketing, Media and Communication Industry, three of the top ten agencies have MICA alumni as their CEOs. I am grateful to the opportunity to head the Mudra Foundation and the Governing Council of MICA, for well over a decade. 14 years to be exact…..


Finally and interestingly, going against the norm and tradition, the Presidentship of the Industry body the AAAI was held back from me, and I was asked to contest an election. I had to win it the hard way. I was fortunate to enjoy the good will and support of a large number of Industry leaders. But what was more important was that the entire executive committee helped me in my endeavour to lay the foundation for the future of our Industry and also bring to an end the warring factions of competing award shows. Fundamental changes were made. The constitution was changed. Sundar Swamy helped me immensely in that. We built an inclusive future. For Media Agencies, Digital Agencies and more to follow. …..I could not have done that without many of you in the room. Thank you.


The lesson learnt over the four decades underscored the importance of constantly reinventing and staying relevant. Decade after decade as the Industry changed. As market forces changed, the very construct of operations changed, remuneration structures changed and so on. I treated it like a long distance run where it was necessary to stay the course and not look at it as a sprint.


Finally I put to practice what I have always preached. Leave at the righttime. Build succession plans. Have backups. Plan B if need be. Make way for fresh thinking. Trust youngsters. The current CEO of the Mudra Group today, Aditya Kanthy was not even born when I began my career in 1976.


All my milestones and achievements and the award today is entirely due to the dictum I faithfully followed of ‘surround yourself with talent better than you’. I was fortunate. Yes that’s the right word. I only wish I could name each and every one of them here. I dedicate this Award to all those who worked alongside me, be it in Mudra, MICA, the Advertising Industry, the Media fraternity, fellow organisers of Ad Asia in Delhi, the talented leaders at the Advertising Standards Council of India, the INS or Indian Newspapers Society, the IBF or the Indian Broadcasting Federation, the Audit Bureau of Circulations and finally the NGO Plan India, which has allowed me to be a part of the mission to touch the lives of 10 million children and take forward the gender equality agenda. You are my extended family. I will always be grateful to you. Thank you. It’s time now …to open the Bar!!!


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