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Obituary: Here’s to you, Kersy Katrak. A tribute by Anand Halve

Kersy Katrak passed away last Friday, and I lost a guru and a dear friend

Kersy Katrak passed away last Friday, and I lost a guru and a dear friend. But when I told some people that I had received an SMS from Maia, Kersy’s daughter, that he was no more, many of them asked, “Who was Kersy Katrak?”

It is the tragedy of an industry that does not celebrate its heroes, that does not archive their work, nor document their contributions, that such a question was asked.

Kersy Katrak
What does one say about a man who was an icon for advertising people from the 1960s to the 1990s? That he was a poet, a writer, a philosopher, a copywriter par excellence, and the founder of MCM (Mass Communication and Marketing), the advertising agency that has been the training ground for most of the leaders of the Indian advertising industry over the last four decades?

He was all of these, of course. But most of all, he was the father of creative advertising in India.

An idea whose time had come
When Kersy started MCM in 1965, he did more than start an advertising agency. He created an institution that celebrated advertising ideas. In an era when the notion of advertising was largely sales talk, he encouraged the team at MCM to think ideas first and to have conviction in their ideas. In an age when a 20 x 3 column ad was considered a “decent size ad”, he encouraged his art directors to think in terms of ads that were five times that size!

Most important, he taught advertisers – and inspired them with his conviction – that the biggest risk in advertising was to take no risk.

An extraordinary league
It was Kersy’s view of advertising as a business of ideas, and that of exhilarating, exciting creative expression as the celebration of the idea, that attracted the most extraordinary collection of advertising genius ever found under one roof in India: Arun Kolatkar, Kiran Nagarkar, Panna Jain, Mohammed Khan, Ravi Gupta, Arun Nanda, Ajit Balakrishnan, Sudarshan Dheer, Uma Da Cunha and many more. Even the cubs of MCM, like Arun Kale, were from the same genus of genius!

Kersy created the first agency in India where the atmosphere was electric, and it drew people who wanted to be part of this new adventure. It attracted an Arun Nanda from a Hindustan Lever. It attracted a Mohammed Khan who had come back after working in advertising in London. And the sheer presence of this extraordinary talent, working under the guiding light of Kersy Katrak, urged each one to strive for great work.

Few today may be aware that MCM did work that changed the rules in so many ways – work done for clients that included Laxmi Vishnu Mills, Mafatlal, Swish blades, Godfrey Philips and others.

The work for Ramon Bonus Stamps created advertising for a marketing concept that, many years later, got better known as loyalty programmes. The use of a cartoon character called Shaver Swish anticipated the world of animated heroes.

The work for Four Square was among the first examples of what we today know as lifestyle advertising.

The advertising for Laxmi Vishnu textiles put a designer centrestage, a long time ahead of the day when Ritu Beri, Ritu Kumar, Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Manish Malhotra became familiar household names. And the launch events for Laxmi Vishnu were the precursors to the reign of the ramp we see today.

Crucible of a new chemistry
It is then not surprising that the greatest creative revolution we have seen in Indian advertising as an industry, which took place in the 1970s and 1980s, was led by agencies that were started by the distinguished alumni of MCM. Look at just three agencies that were born from the legacy of MCM and whose work set the standards for the industry after MCM.

Ravi Gupta founded Trikaya, the agency that created the ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ launch work for Thums Up, launched the first widely advertised cement brand, Ambuja, and created the Salaam Bombay (‘It’s My Bombay. I’m Proud of It’) campaign that celebrated the spirit of Mumbai after the bomb blasts of 1992.

Mohammed Khan set up Enterprise Advertising and created ‘Charms is the Spirit of Freedom, Charms is the Way You Are’ and work that broke new ground for Max Pharma, VIP Skybags, Lakme, the NECC, Titan and others.

Arun Nanda and Ajit Balakrishnan’s Rediffusion set new standards with work for Garden saris and Garden Vareli, Gold Spot, Kinetic scooters, Lakme, Jenson Nicholson, Appela and a host of other brands.

The second innings
And in the late 1980s when Alyque Padamsee needed someone to usher in a creative renaissance at Lintas, it was to Kersy Katrak that he turned.

Lintas was known for its strength in TV advertising, but was relatively weak in the print area, and as the saying goes, there are no key numbers on TVCs! Alyque knew that if there was one person who could give Lintas a creative resurgence, it was the man who had crafted the first creative revolution in India!

Kersy restructured the creative department at Lintas, gave greater freedom and responsibility to youngsters including Madhu, Aimee, Rahul DaCunha and Prashant Godbole and brought in senior resources like Adi Pocha and Kiran Khalap. But more than all this, he taught them to believe in their creative abilities and challenged them to bring in new creative thinking.

The work for Bajaj Auto, Mahindra & Mahindra Jeeps and Cadbury’s are just some examples of the new creative approach he helped to foster.

A salute to you Kersy!
For almost half a century, Kersy Katrak challenged those he worked with to see advertising as the business of ideas, of aesthetics, of style, and to produce work that you were proud to say was yours.

Today, his legacy lives on at The Republic. The agency is his youngest child and, at 5, it is a joyous place, full of energy and utterly devoted to the idea. He flew the flag again, and his new team collected under it.

Those of us who had the good fortune to work with him will never forget him. Those who were not so lucky must study the work that MCM produced and Kersy guided at other agencies to appreciate how far ahead of his times he was.

The industry has lost a man who gave more to India’s advertising industry than the industry ever gave him, who started the creative revolution that has brought us to this day when we seek inspired creative advertising as the norm, not the exception.

Let us then, pause for a moment in today’s incessant pursuit of next quarter’s revenue target and remember Kersy Katrak. Nay, let us not merely remember, let us salute Kersy Katrak. Such giants do not walk the earth every day.

Anand Halve is co-founder, Chlorophyll Brand & Communication.

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