Profile: Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar: Carrying His Bat

By Devina Joshi , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | May 14, 2010
Bates 141's recently appointed NCD shares what made him choose advertising over a career in cricket, and how he the journey has been thus far

"In retrospect, I feel had I the potential to make it in cricket. Life would have been so different," is how Sagar Mahabaleshwarkar, the recently appointed NCD at Bates 141, responds when you ask him how he got into the career he is in now.

Although his first love was cricket, he had to graduate in 'something' and since he was good at drawing, he found himself studying the Arts at MSU, Vadodara. He continued to play for the under-19 city team, until his maternal aunt asked him the inevitable: "should art or cricket be his career choice?" Mahabaleshwarkar chose the 'less-risky' option.

His 15-year long journey at Ogilvy India started in 1992 when he was hired by Pandurang Row and Ramesh Ramanathan in Ogilvy Bangalore's art department, at Rs. 2,300 a month. It sufficed not just for him but also for his family, while leaving just about enough for a mug of beer at the end of every week, he quips.

Row quickly became Mahabaleshwarkar's mentor, teacher and partner. "I learnt the finer nuances of print craft from Pandy, who ironically is a copy guy!" he grins. Four years in Bangalore, and Mahabaleshwarkar wanted a piece of action in Mumbai. Cricket enthusiast and Ogilvy man Piyush Pandey was visiting the Bangalore office when branch head Sanjay Nayak casually mentioned Mahabaleshwarkar's interest in cricket. Wanting to know the 'new kid', Pandey asked Mahabaleshwarkar, "What do you do?" to which, instead of specifying his professional domain of work, he answered, "Opening batsman."

"Cut to Mumbai!" chuckles Mahabaleshwarkar, "where I joined as art director." There, he reported to Anil Bathwal while his copy partner was a certain Ramanuj Shastry. At Ogilvy Mumbai - or O&M as it was called - Mahabaleshwarkar forged memorable partnerships and associations, working with Bobby Pawar, Bathwal, Pandey, Sonal Dabral and Pushpinder Singh. Some of the work he is credited for at Ogilvy include 'Kya Aap Close-Up Karte Hain?' for Close-Up, Amaron Batteries, 'Reclaim your Life' for Tata Safari Dicor, and SBI Life Insurance.

Mahabaleshwarkar fondly recalls a campaign for Band-Aid created along with Shastry, which won a metal at the New York Festival, which was Ogilvy India's first international win. The moment of reckoning arrived when global guru Neil French visited India that year and summoned Shastry and Mahabaleshwarkar. "We were shaking in our boots," Mahabaleshwarkar recalls. French asked them if they were responsible for the campaign, to which the two nodded. "I still remember him saying he wished he had done this campaign," the adman grins.

What kept him ticking in the Ogilvy system for 15 years? "It was this feeling that I will learn something new today," he says. Somewhere down the line, Mahabaleshwarkar felt he was becoming "too comfortable" at Ogilvy and advertising had become 'equal to O&M'. When an offer to partner Shastry once again, this time as chief creative officer at Rediffusion - Y&R, came up, he made the "hardest decision of his life".

The lure of working on a buzzing brand, Airtel, too was a factor. "I enjoyed figuring out, understanding and building upon the Airtel DNA, which was already in place years before we came aboard," he says. The CCO duo created work including the Madhavan-Balan series, the Shreyas Talpade rural commercials, and initiatives like 'Airtel Special 5'.

Could the youth connect have been better? "Sure," he shrugs, "but there is a large chunk of people who connect with Airtel's point of view and we didn't want to shake too many things up just for the sake of it." He found Rediff 'more challenging' than Ogilvy. "Rediff was like swimming without floaters on, but that was exactly the sort of challenge I wanted," he shrugs.

After three years, he now finds himself partnering another ex-Ogilvy-ite, Sonal Dabral, at Bates 141 in a role that he shall assume by the end of this month. "After having worked on a giant telecom brand like Airtel, I am looking forward to understanding the youthful Virgin Mobile way of doing things. It will be fun understanding this agency and its brands," he says.

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