Profile: Ajit Thakur - Business head with a creative mind

By Sapna Nair , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Media Publishing | September 16, 2009
Wanting to become a writer, Thakur ended up studying Economics and management, and being in charge of SET

Ajit Thakur was a misfit growing up in Jamshedpur, a town where everybody wanted to become an engineer. He wasn't keen on it at all. Thakur wanted to study English literature and become a writer, but ended up studying economics at Delhi University's Hindu College. "It was a 'compromise' I made," he laughs. "I want to be a novelist someday," he adds. The would-be novelist is, at present, in charge of Sony Entertainment Television (SET).

After graduating from IIM Lucknow in 1995, Thakur started his career with Coca Cola India as a management trainee. He met some 'interesting people' there, one of whom - Rajesh Kamat - is a competitor now. Vikram Sakhuja was his first boss. "The guy who I used to stay with was Rajesh. He is of course a superstar in the television world," he quips.

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One year of sales at Coke at various places like Ludhiana, Agra and Pune and then a stint in media buying and planning led him to his last stint at the company as brand manager for Sprite and Fanta. Sprite was being launched at that time. A lot of irreverent campaigns and spoofs on Pepsi were made. "We had positioned it as Sprite - only taste, baaki all bakwaas," he recalls.

Fanta Apple and Fanta Watermelon variants were launched but discontinued later. Maaza was another brand he worked on. "It used to be an old fuddy-duddy brand. We designed a new logo. We had added the calcium fortification bit to the drink to rid consumers of the guilt associated with drinking it," he reminisces.

Thakur then joined Hindustan Lever in November 2001 as a senior brand manager for Kwality Walls in Bengaluru. What he remembers most is a promotion called 'Ek Din Ka Raja' which worked really well. "Depending on the points they collected after eating various Kwality Walls ice-creams, 10 lucky winners got a chance to shop to their hearts' content in Mumbai," he says, adding that it gave a big boost to the brand. While Coke was an advertising-led marketing role, Hindustan Lever was much more business focused.

After two-and-a-half years in the category Thakur started looking for change. "Lever has an internal job placement process. And I discovered that there was a job opportunity in the US. The company was looking for somebody with a global mindset for the brand Dove. I landed the job of global brand manager," he recalls. He shifted base to New York in May 2004.

Dove was a big brand in the US and Europe. However with L'Oreal, Lux and other brands coming in, there was a need to sharpen the positioning of Dove, as they all stood for beauty. "So we decided to completely own the beauty space - not the stereotypical promotion featuring models, but through the concept of real beauty," Thakur explains.

The idea was to tell women that beauty comes in different shapes and sizes. The team started back-packing every week to places such as Japan, Brazil and Canada, meeting people and finding out stereotypes in each of these markets. "In China, for instance," says Thakur, "a significant number of teenagers were thinking of putting (inserting) plate a metal below their knee to look taller and in Japan, people wanted eye surgery to make their eyes look bigger. In the UK, there were a lot of eating disorders like bulimia because people thought that they were overweight."

According to him, they set up the Dove Self Esteem Fund to raise money to educate and create awareness about the impact of the world's view of stereotypical beauty on young girls. "It was never a traditional advertising campaign," emphasises Thakur. Dove launched music videos, hoardings with real women who were not perfect. The first campaign was a hoarding which had an old woman and two boxes beside her face which said 'wrinkled' and 'wonderful'. "What we were trying to say is that you can look wonderful with wrinkles," he states. This campaign was implemented in 40 countries.

A similar idea was used for Dove anti-ageing cream. It was based on the philosophy that 'it is not about reversing ageing but ageing wonderfully'. In September 2006, Thakur was made global brand director for fabric conditioners. "It was a business role that involved strategy, new launches and re-engineering. It was also a category that was neither growing nor profitable," he says. Thakur, however, lost interest after a year as his thoughts turned to the media and entertainment sector.

In 2007, Thakur landed at UTV Television as COO. "I knew Ronnie Screwvala. He wanted me to take charge of the production arm of UTV - which had only one show on air at that time - and handle the South acquisition business as well."

Thakur launched 3-4 shows on air within a year. Some of which were Ek Khiladi Ek Haseena on Colors, three shows with Zee, the last one being Dance India Dance. He also produced content for National Geographic and Doordarshan.

After spending a little under two years with UTV, he moved for a short stint with Balaji's movie business. This was the place in which he happened to meet some really talented, inspirational people like Dibakar Banerjee, Neeraj Pandey and Anurag Kashyap. But for some reason, things didn't work out at Balaji. "I am sure I'll go and get down to make movies someday," he says dreamily.

It was around the same time that Sony happened. "Unfortunately, the relaunch did not take off in the way we expected. In the first three months my target is to actually work on existing programming by getting more visibility for the shows and making some changes in the creative direction," he states. He thinks that Sony is a strong brand and there is scope to do a lot.

(Profile is a regular column, which peeps into the career paths of senior advertising, media and marketing professionals, who are currently in the news.)