Before I met AG Krishnamurthy, I was barely aware of his existence. Looking back, I probably saw myself as this young, hot agency executive working in this cool international ad agency called Clarion Advertising, one of the top three ad agencies in India. It was 1988.
I'd got a call from Mudra Communications in Ahmedabad for a possible job. With the typical arrogance of the young, I thought I was too good for this little-known small-town agency which had been set up fairly recently, in 1980. I went across for a lark, presumably for the joy of saying 'no'. Had I been told that the company I was sneering at in my head would hire me for the next three decades - well, my expression would certainly have been worth capturing.
I was interviewed by an exceptionally intelligent senior manager, Dr J Ramachandran (later a professor at IIM Bangalore), who totally blew my conceit away. Still mentally tottering, I was taken to meet AGK - this apparently mild, unassuming man who startled me with his simplicity and a clarity of mind that shone through. I wanted to say 'no' to the job but found myself saying 'yes'. My friends thought I'd gone crazy.
The advertising business of that time was westernised, hip, conceited and very very South Bombay. The right English accent was mandatory; lunches were long and boozy. Delhi was a wannabe to Bombay's absolute supremacy. No other town counted, certainly not style-deficient Ahmedabad.
In this environment, AG Krishnamurthy chose to underline in every way that he was different. Instead of trying to join the ruling advertising cabal, he chose to stand out. He was not one of them and he wanted the world to know it.
AGK was the epitome of the middle class Indian at least a full decade before that class began to get feted. The incongruity of a Guntur boy starting an ad agency in Ahmedabad which would puzzle the ruling hierarchy of Bombay was delicious. The hugely talented Mohammed Khan, whose agency Enterprise was as cool as cool could get, once referred to AGK as 'the invisible CEO'. I don't think he meant it as a compliment. Other agencies couldn't figure how marketers were moving their business to Mudra which made it a point of being unsexy and not-with-it.
People meeting AGK for the first time were thrown by his strong Telugu accent and the way in which his consonants collided with one another. Visitors had to unconsciously strain to understand what he was saying. When five-star binges on the company account were the norm, a meal with AGK would likely be idli-dosa at Sagar Ratna. This middle-classedness showed up in the oddest ways - even in Mudra guest houses, for example. They were just like regular homes but when I joined, the one in Ahmedabad did not even have a cooler in the 46 C heat.
AGK was raw, rooted, unadulterated. He was zero style and all substance.
By the time AGK quit in 2003, he had built Mudra into a large organisation employing perhaps 1,500 people. But that middle class distinctiveness remained. Let no one mistake the fact that however large, this was a family of which AG Krishnamurthy was the head. He imposed his will to create and then sustain what was clearly a distinct 'Mudra culture'. His shadow over the organisation was long and he could reprimand or cajole people as the head of a family would. We mostly accepted whatever justice he meted out because even in the most awkward meetings, we were probably flattered that he had the time for us.
I have been often asked why I stayed so long in Mudra. Let me tell you a story from 1990. I'd been with the agency for just two years and I was still a punk in my 20s, when direct marketing emerged as a potentially terrific growth area. I told AGK this. He turned around and asked, 'Why don't you start a new division?' Just like that. And mind you, he didn't know me very well. I went on to set up offices in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore for Mudra Direct. How many companies - then or even now - would give an untested executive so much leeway?
That is the reason I stayed: Mudra allowed me the freedom to fly and the freedom to fail. As long as I worked hard, it didn't matter whether I flew or failed. Because Mudra was, after all, family.
Sandeep Vij was a director on the board of Mudra Group and is also a co-founder of afaqs! and Kulzy.