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Defining Moments: Bobby Sista - Is this the beginning of another innings?

By Savia Jane Pinto , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | May 12, 2009
Bobby Sista who has spent almost half a century in advertising shares some of his defining moments of his advertising career

Bobby Sista's half a century in advertising makes him a legend. Here, the lively septuagenarian speaks about the moments that have etched themselves in his memory.

When Shambhu V (better known as Bobby) Sista got into advertising in the early 1950s, it was "because he didn't know what else he could do." His father Venkatrao Sista was the founder-owner of the first Indian ad agency, Sista's Sales and Publicity Services, which started way back in 1934.

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The agency later came to be known as AdArts when the senior Sista teamed with Vajid Mahmood, an adman who had spent time with J Walter Thompson before setting up AdArts. But post Independence, Mahmood - and AdArts - moved to Pakistan. Venkatrao was back to heading the agency he had started.

After Bobby completed his graduation in 1950, an important event shaped his entry into advertising. He - along with his sister Subhadra - was attending a conference in England as a youth delegate. Their father too was present. After the conference, the Sista siblings stayed back to study advertising, while their father returned to India. That was the last time they'd see their father. Venkatrao died in an airplane crash in 1951.

Then came the turning point. Premnarayen (who was brought on board by one of the existing directors) took over the reins at Sista's after Venkatrao's death. When the young Sistas returned, Premnarayen offered Bobby a job at the agency at Rs 600 per month. A reluctant Bobby accepted.

Premnarayen ruled for 18 years much to the discontent of the Sista family. Bobby considers the six-and-a-half years that he worked under Premnarayen a defining moment because "after working under that man, to survive and not come out demoralised and make a career was a great thing."

In 1968, Premnarayen's contract was coming to an end and the directors wanted Bobby to take charge of the 'sinking' agency. After an initial phase of hesitation, Bobby agreed and set about turning it around.

In the next 10 years, Bobby brought Sista's into the list of the top 10 agencies in India. In 1971, he collaborated with DFS (Dancer, Fitzgerald and Sample) which later became DDF (Dancer, Dorland and Fortune). With this came the Cathay Pacific account.

In 1991-92, the agency entered into an alliance with BSB (Backer, Spielvogel and Bates). This collaboration came to an end, when it had to launch two cigarette brands (Benson & Hedges and 555). Sista refused to promote any cigarette brand on a principle.

The other accounts that the agency worked on included Premier Auto, Kerala Soap Industries, Vijaya Butter, HMT Watches, Canara Bank (Sista created the logo then), VIP (suitcase), Aristocrat (suitcase) and Nycil. "But things were changing quite fast." The liberalisation in 1991 meant that new brands would rush in and, along with them, global agencies. "I appointed V Shantakumar as managing director in 1994 and went looking for more collaborations," reminisces Sista. In 1995 Saatchi & Saatchi showed interest.

Three years later, when Sista sold his stake in the agency, it marked the end of an extraordinary journey. Today, Sista is the founder chairman of Population First, an NGO that educates people about population and health issues. He also runs Saffron, a consultancy. Is this the beginning of another innings?

(Defining Moments is a regular column which talks about the incidents that have shaped great advertising, media and marketing careers.)