Defining Moments: Ajay Kakar: In good faith

By Biprorshee Das , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Marketing | November 14, 2012
From an auditing professional to head of marketing, Ajay Kakar, chief marketing officer, Aditya Birla Group Financial Services takes afaqs! through the significant moments in his career, learning the tricks of the trade while on the job and how fate and fortune played a big role, always.

My story is one about the faith others have had in me. I spent the first six years of my career in the auditing profession and then moved to advertising. I jokingly refer to this movement as 'accounts to accounts'.

I was with Ogilvy India for over 14 years. I have had two highs or great opportunities that I see through my career. One was to have been on both client and agency sides and the second to have experienced three disciplines of an agency - advertising, PR and direct marketing.

How Ogilvy happened

Ajay Kakar

I happened to be reading an interview of Steve Lyons, who was then the head of Ogilvy Public Relations in Singapore. I didn't know what Ogilvy was.

Lyons was talking about the power of public relations and the way he saw public relations in India. I was smitten enough to try and find out more about Ogilvy. I remember making a cold call and meeting Mani Iyer of Ogilvy. I told him why I was interested. He smiled and said how he thought PR was not the right choice for me. I kept trying to defend and he didn't budge. I then met the head of Ogilvy PR in India then, TC Ajit. Meeting him, I realised that there is such a big difference between what that article said and the reality in India.

The reality in India that time was public issues, press conferences, press releases, volumes of coverage, full stop! Where Lyons was talking about boardrooms, strategy, strategic partners and vision; here all that was being talked about was "Boss! Execution."

Direct approach

I then met a certain Mukul Patel and heard, for the first time, about financial advertising. The people at Ogilvy saw something in me and they offered me a job. The biggest clincher was the six-month training in Bengaluru. If Ogilvy could put so much faith in me, I had nothing to lose.

My first day at Ogilvy was in Bengaluru in direct marketing. I did not know what artwork, layout or briefs were about. I learnt everything on the job. When I came back to Mumbai, I was asked to look after financial advertising.

I was put under a legend called P S Balsara, the then director of Ogilvy, who had already retired and yet was asked to continue. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with cancer. I didn't know whom to look up to. I regularly went to his house asking for help and he told me to use his name whenever required.

I was fortunate to be asked to first join direct marketing. Direct marketing is the power of eliciting a response from an individual as an individual. That is the difference between direct marketing and advertising. Public relations, the diamond in the coal, on the other hand is not valued or appreciated within the communication mix.

For me, it was baptism by fire. When I got into PR and I got the chance to partner Cadbury during the worm infestation problem, I realised how people look at you differently.

Profit principle

While handling financial advertising at Ogilvy, I saw how everybody was so much into IPOs. I thought about taking financial products and going the brand way. I haven't ever forgotten a useful piece of advice given by Balsara: "People respect profits. Make a profit of a rupee but don't make a loss."

In 2003, I was called to a review meeting of Ogilvy PR. At the end of the meeting, Ranjan Kapur called me to his room and asked me if I would take over Ogilvy PR. I agreed. We were making losses and we were far behind our forecasts while three-fourths of the year was already over.

It was also Kapur's last year as managing director. His words to me were, "Give me a retirement gift. Can you stop the losses?"

And again, fate and fortune came into play. We not only stopped the losses but ended the year with profits.

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