Defining Moments: Abdul Khan: Driven by Ideas

By Shibani Gharat , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Marketing
Last updated : May 23, 2012
In a 28-year career, Abdul Khan's journey from marketer to agency man to marketer again has one recurring theme - ideas.

After a 'stereotypical Indian education' of IIT (Kharagpur) and IIM (Ahmedabad), I went and worked for Asian Paints. It had, even at that time, a unique combination of an entrepreneur-led outfit with a completely professional attitude. There was genuine respect for individuals. I was at Asian Paints from 1984-86. From that time, a thread emerged and continues right now - having fun with ideas.

Abdul Khan

At Asian Paints, we were always experimenting with ideas. "Why should anyone be restricted with the number of shades on a shade card? Can't a consumer go beyond the shade-card to have a colour of his own choice?" We created a contraption called the Tinter-Shaker. We tried experimenting with different things called strainers. It was kind of messy, but the thought has led to Asian Paints offering colour corners and almost infinite shades.

The power of ideas

I have always been fascinated with the power of ideas and how to realise those. In 1986, I joined Mudra, which was again an entrepreneurial company. It was an era where a whole lot of brands were entering India. AG Krishnamoorthy was my boss.

One of the brands that I worked on for quite some time was McDonald's, which was about to be launched in India. Most people were sceptical about Indians eating burgers. It is a limited menu thing and there were a lot of pricing constraints. The company also had an issue - 'why should we tweak our menu or pricing?' We had to fight to bring vegetarian menu. We had to convince McDonald's that it would lose out on revenue if it didn't adapt to the Indian consumer.

I was deputed to McDonald's Hong Kong office for training. I did everything from cleaning the toilets to eating its burgers. I got to know about McDonald's in and out. I feel that the clients do not respect you until you actually work and understand the brand. The credibility with which I was recommending the strategy to them was really high, as I was not making recommendations as an outsider, but as an insider.

Enter telecom

Another turning point in my life was again at Mudra, when Reliance was starting its telecom venture. For me, it was a leap beyond advertising and communication. In 2000, I joined Reliance. At that point, nobody had thought of a service that would reach everyone in India - at an affordable price. We didn't have a market size. I still remember, we took the market for two wheelers, extrapolated that data and came up with our estimation of the market for the service, saying that those who use two wheelers are most likely going to be our target audience.

I am grateful to Mukesh (Ambani) who encouraged those risks. One thing that I learnt from him is the sheer attention to detail and translating everything into ground reality and actionable points. Tata Teleservices, my next destination, was a different kind of company. While it had the consumer's trust in terms of the mother brand, it also had to be contemporary in its approach. The national launch took place when we took a landline phone and imbued upon it the features of a mobile phone. Tata Indicom was really the first one to offer per second billing and 100 per cent talk time.

My mom used to tell me the story of Robert the Bruce, the Scottish King of the 1300s. Robert, who was on the run after losing a battle, was resting in a cave when he spotted a spider trying to spin a web from one corner of the roof to another. Although it kept falling off, it did not give up. Inspired, the king went back and beat his enemies. This story motivates me even now.

First Published : May 23, 2012
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