Obituary: Ranjan Kapur: An Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove

By Mohit Hira , afaqs!, Mumbai | In Advertising | January 27, 2018
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Ranjan Kapur, chairman, WPP India and ex-managing director, Ogilvy India, passed away this afternoon. It was a cardiac arrest. A memoir by Mohit Hira.

My first meeting with Ranjan Kapur was some time in the third quarter of 2014, at the GroupM office in Mumbai.

 Ranjan Kapur Ranjan Kapur

He was already the Chairman of WPP India and I was running JWT Digital and Hungama Digital Services. This was the first meeting among some WPP agency representatives to kickstart WPP Stream in the country and, as part of the team that set up the inaugural event in India, I got to see Ranjan up close. Not for very long but in the few hours that I spent with him, he reminded me of a phrase the late Subhas Ghosal, Founder-Chairman of Contract Advertising (and my alma mater) had used while cautioning some of us in the Calcutta office about Ranjan in the late '80s: "Ranjan wears an iron fist in a velvet glove. Don't let that suave demeanour fool you; he's a Punjabi to the core and will make sure that O&M wins this pitch."

And that is perhaps the best way to remember a man who, along with Mike Khanna of HTA (now JWT) and Prem Mehta of Lintas (now Lowe) formed the trinity of Punjabis that ran the most powerful advertising agencies out of Bombay. They were a rare breed of gentlemen in that cutthroat world of advertising where pitches were furious, and parties were fun. It was one such pitch that Mr. Ghosal had warned us about - and so, in the 16-odd years that I spent at Contract, Ranjan, and his agency, was always a rival. A man to be feared and hugely admired, but from afar.

Until that meeting at the GroupM office over two decades later... there I was, sitting at the same table with a legend I'd never met. As the weeks passed and WPP Stream eventually took place at Jaipur in February 2014, I would see a man who was as charming as he was demanding. He was acutely conscious of what Sir Martin Sorrell would have wanted Stream to be like on the world map as also completely Indian and proud of bringing a local flavor to the event. He was both, meticulous and strategic and totally at ease with just about every single participant. If he was tense, he masked it. If his body was weary, his mind was as sharp as it must have been in those years of his youth when he switched from being a banker to an advertising professional. He was a warm, gracious host, a storyteller par excellence and a chef extraordinaire. And, off the field, a painter, a sculptor and a punster. Anything but fearful.

At that inaugural Stream, I finally mustered up the nerve to tell him how Mr. Ghosal had described him ages ago. He paused, set down the cup in his hand and smiled. An endearing smile that started from his eyes and went all the way into the soul: "Coming from him, that's a compliment I'd say!"

And now, up there, the two gents are probably shaking hands and downing a drink.

Rest in peace, Ranjan. The world - and WPP Stream - is poorer without you.

(Mohit Hira, once an advertising man, is now a digital strategist who consults independently. He misses advertising but isn't sure if the reverse is true.)

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