afaqs!

Defining Moments: Subhash Kamath: The journey has begun again

By Biprorshee Das , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | May 30, 2012
After 25 years in a profession he continues to love with the same passion as ever, Subhash Kamath, managing partner, BBH India looks back at a few key moments in his career.

Fresh out of college, I was keen that I start my career in Mumbai, the Mecca of Indian advertising. I hadn't done MBA, so it was quite tough to get in those days. I finally managed to get into Ogilvy as a trainee. Piyush Pandey was my boss.

Subhash Kamath

Ogilvy was a fantastic alma mater. As young bachelors, we spent all the time in office. It was a lot of hard work and we enjoyed doing it. Ogilvy was home. And so much fun. We used to have musical evenings, grafitti competitions and a trekking club, which was headed by Josy Paul.

We had amazing people. The late Suresh Mullick was a brilliant creative director. Mani Aiyer (who, too, is no more), the managing director, was awe-inspiring. The moment I joined Ogilvy, I took to advertising like a fish to water.

Young leader

I moved back to Kolkata after Ogilvy for personal reasons. The Kolkata market was not big but as luck would have it, a very creative agency called Trikaya was just setting up office in Kolkata. I met Ravi Gupta, its head, and that was the second turning point in my life. I was absolutely blown by that man. He taught me the value of great strategic thinking leading to great creative work.

I was in Kolkata for only a year though, before Trikaya gave me a chance to go to Delhi. I worked in Delhi for about four years and then returned to Mumbai in 1993 as client services director. Within a year, I was given the chance to head its Bengaluru branch. That, at 28, was my next defining moment. I never let geography restrict my work if the role is good. I packed up and went off with my wife and new-born baby.

It was a tiny branch with 10-12 people. We grew to 50 people in just three years. Everything we touched turned to gold. We had Arrow (shirts), Lee and Wrigley. We won Timex, Volvo, MTR, Britannia Cheese. Unfortunately, Ravi Gupta passed away. It was another significant moment in my life. While he was around, he was always the father figure. We all felt orphaned. Nirvik (Singh) became CEO after Ravi's death. He asked me to return and head Mumbai. All of us came close together to form a leadership team at Trikaya, which then became Grey Worldwide.

I had spent 11 years in Trikaya. Everybody expected me to leave after Ravi died but we all stuck on for a few years more - we could not let down an agency that had given us so much.

Up the ladder

Towards the end, I think I was getting a little frustrated by the dilution of the focus on creative, which somehow did happen, after Grey took over. I eventually moved out when I was offered the role of chief operating officer by Ambience in 2000. Ashok (Kurien) and Elsie (Nanji) had created a wonderful agency. Nakul (Chopra) was there, an ex-Trikaya hand. I spent a wonderful four years at Ambience.

The next big moment came when, in 2005, WPP offered me a chance to become CEO of Bates. I had fantastic mentors in people like Ranjan Kapur, Mohamed Khan, Jeffrey Yu and Matthew Godfrey. There were mergers and acquisitions. First Enterprise, then David and then a company called Sercon. It was at Bates that I came into my own as a leader. I learnt what it took to drive an organisation's ambition, to instil a strong culture, to create and motivate teams. There was a lot of laughter in office and that was an indication of the morale.

I was doing well at Bates and not looking for a change, till I got a call from BBH, an agency I have always respected since I was a trainee. A chance to work with legends like Nigel Bogle, Simon Sherwood and Sir John Hegarty was something I couldn't let go. Here was an agency that created work that had inspired generations of professionals. Work that was real, not scam. How could I not be a part of it, that too as a managing partner in the company?

So here I am. And, the journey has begun all over again. As Bob Dylan wrote, "He not busy being born is busy dying."

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