Defining Moments: Ali Merchant: Bar to branding

By Shibani Gharat , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | January 18, 2012
Triton Communication's director, Ali Merchant, changed the course of his destiny when he switched from law to advertising.

From studying law to building brands, Ali Merchant, director, Triton Communication, traces a 40-year-journey in advertising.

Ali Merchant

I was born in Mumbai as the only child -- you tend to get spoilt because of that -- of a prominent architect. For me, my father's was a tough act to follow.

My schooling was at Cathedral and John Connon School, Mumbai. I went to Xavier's College, and then studied Law at the Government Law College. During those sports-filled days, my father always asked me what I planned to do with my life. My mother, to whom I was very close, died unexpectedly. That was when I started thinking about my career seriously, and decided to go abroad.

I told my father that I wished to do a course in International Relations at The Hague Academy of International Law in The Netherlands. During this time, I went into depression as I met with an accident in Paris, but survived a potentially fatal injury by a whisker. Back in India, I didn't know what to do with my life. A friend of mine I met at a party suggested that I join advertising. He said it would suit me because lawyers have the ability to speak well. This was in 1970.

The world of advertising

After four gruelling interviews and a written test, I finally got into Clarion McCann (Clarion Advertising). Subroto Sengupta was the head then. In the final round of interview, he pointed out to a man walking across the road and asked me, "What would you do, if you wanted to talk to that man?" I replied that I would walk across the road and have a chat with him. He liked my answer. I joined as a trainee. The agency had a one-year training programme, following which, I was made an assistant account executive.

Growth curve

After five years in Clarion McCann, I joined Everest Advertising in 1975. The next tipping point came in 1979, when I was sent to Delhi to set up a branch. I made it successful with brands such as JK Tyres and Godfrey Phillips. By the time I left Everest, it had become one of the top four agencies in India, the first three being multinationals.

The next memorable moment came during the 1980s, when Everest became an associate of Saatchi & Saatchi. We positioned Everest not just nationally, but internationally as well. I went to Saatchi London for training. Later, in the same decade, I went to Atlanta and worked with Bozell, but returned to work with Everest. We bagged accounts such as Oil of Olay, Vicks VapoRub, and Medicare shampoo. The client, P&G, called up my chairman to say that they were giving us these accounts on account of my leadership on the business. I was made a joint managing director along with Munawar Syed.

As the 1990s came to a close, the uncertainty around Everest made me quit. I asked Syed about the prospect of starting an agency. He was game. Eureka Forbes, a client at Everest, came to us. We operated out of my father's office in Flora Fountain, and in the very first year, we clocked business worth Rs 10 crore.

We were the ones who launched Honda and Samsung in India. These two accounts are dear to me. Today, my key focus lies in building brands. I find that really challenging.

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