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Defining Moments: Santosh Desai: The other side

By Anushree Bhattacharyya , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Marketing | September 11, 2012
Desai, managing director and CEO, Future Brands, talks about four life changing moments that led to a big leap.

During the mid '80s, the prevailing norm for a management student was to first join the marketing division of a company and then shift to the advertising world. So I joined this company called Niki Tasha, which manufactured kitchen aids and gas stoves.

Santosh Desai

The company, which initially flew high, went south after some time. In retrospect, it was an unfortunate first job. And then one night, after watching a late night show, I met a batch mate from IIM Ahmedabad. He asked me to come to Ulka (now Draftfcb Ulka) the next day for an interview. K George John, who then was the head of Ulka, gave me the job after a 30-second interview. This was my first defining moment.

Ulka opened new doors for me. It was the most happening agency in terms of work, the kind of businesses it handled and the kind of people it had. Within a year and half, I felt I was an intrinsic part of the organisation - unusual feeling at a beginner's level. I started with servicing but that was a disaster as my first job took me to court. It was basically an annual report which got delivered late and then I moved to planning and from there, I never looked back. The first two years (1986-87) were absolute magic. During the same time, I met my wife. So my initial years at Ulka were more than satisfactory both professionally and personally.

A presentation, which I made to Pepsi Foods during my tenure with Mudra (now DDB Mudra), sparked this entire idea of looking at brands through the lens of Indian culture - for example, namkeen and finding its relevance in the life of Indian culture. Before that I used to work like any regular account planner. I carried forward the idea to McCann Erickson and built the agency on the backbone of this thought. The thought became the calling card for McCann Erickson and we were able to do some great work. For me, the work was not the defining moment. It was the moment when I thought about this idea. You may say I am biased but in my view, that one simple idea has kind of forced planners to look at the value of the Indian culture and now has become an integral part of planning.

Discovering almost a parallel profession as a writer is what I would term as my third defining moment in life. I was one of the speakers at a conference and there I met Vikram Doctor, who used to write for Brand Equity then (he now writes for The Economic Times). He invited me to write a column divided into five-six parts on the idea of looking at brands from the point of view of the Indian culture. In 2001, I made my debut as a writer. But it was only from 2004 onwards that I started writing regularly in The Times of India (the column, City City Bang Bang).

By 2005, I was kind of done with advertising. I was in this vacuum where "one knows what he does not want to do next but not what he wants to do next". Meanwhile, Kishore Biyani, who had been in touch with me, proposed this idea of Future Brands. I was never interested in the idea of retail but when I met him, I found a very original thinker. I never thought that somebody running a retail chain would be as deeply cerebral and instinctive as he is.

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