Remembering RK Swamy

Advertising industry doyen RK Swamy passes away after a brief illness at the age of 80

Bryan Adams sang '18 till I die,' but advertising legend RK Swamy lived the philosophy right till the moment he passed away yesterday, on the morning of June 5, at his Abhiramapuram residence in Chennai.

Starting RK Swamy in 1973 at the age of 50, when most others think of plump retirement benefits and comfortable options, and then making it in the Top 10 list within five years is what most dream about in their twenties. Not RK Swamy, who is remembered today by everyone who came in touch with him with the same reverence: He is the man who put Madras (now Chennai) on the map of Indian advertising, and yet he was one who never really looked at communication with a polorised, north-south point of view.

Remembering him, SR (Mani) Ayer, ex-honcho Ogilvy & Mather (1974-1994), says, "Even in those days - I am talking of as early as the 1950s - Swamy was one person with a holistic view. He had a way of looking at everything and then finally having a perspective that mattered. He understood economics extremely well, had complete grasp of policy issues, the way government worked etc, and as a result, he was able to see which way the client's business would shape up in the future, and, in turn, how advertising could play a part in it."

His thirst to know and ask for more is reflected in his book 'India - How to Succeed Without Tears' that demonstrates his deep understanding and analysis of what India needs to do to emerge as a serious economic power. His pioneering publication "RKSWAMY Guide to Market Planning" in 1989 provided, for the first time in the country, a quantitative 'market potential value' at the district level. This landmark publication became a reference volume for most major marketing and advertising organisations.

"He was so passionate about seeking information….," says a deeply-shaken, Surojoy Banerjee, director and executive vice-president, RK Swamy/BBDO, who joined the firm in 1974 (a year after it was started) and has been with it ever since. "He believed that a right solution was only possible with complete knowledge. Our logo, the 'Hansa' bird, reflects that passion - to sift grain from chaff, fact from fiction, essence from the ocean of data. The mythical bird symbolises the ability to sift water from milk. So was the legendary communicator (RK Swamy). He had that ability to walk into confusing situations and provide simple solutions. We would be struck and wonder, why did we not see it ourselves?"

Born on December 11, 1922, in Kumbhakonam, Tamil Nadu, RK Swamy's friends and colleagues in his early days in advertising began calling him RK or just Swamy. "I never worked with him, but we worked alongside when he headed JWT in the 1960s and I was running O&M. I knew him as a senior, fellow professional and as a friend. Later, I went around the world with the agency and when I came back as the MD of O&M, he had started RK Swamy. We worked a lot together on industry-related issues when he became the president of AAAI (Advertising Agencies Association of India) in 1972," recalls Ayer.

Apart, of course, from the big brands he helped create, RK Swamy is known for taking up the cause of transparency in the public sector, long before it became fashionable to talk about the right of tax-payers to know what was happening there. "Then some spiteful people tattled that he had sweet-talked the public sector behemoths to advertise, but I always maintained that it was a visionary step forward. Now, of course, it has become obligatory on the part of these bodies to communicate," adds Ayer. RK Swamy's clients from this sector included players such as HMT, BHEL, Hindustan Photo Films, MMTC, ITI and MICO, among others.

Another facet of Swamy that has been largely hidden from public view was his religiousness and deep sense of patriotism. He was actively involved in restoring old temples and ancient heritage monuments. He was the cofounder of Sri Vishishtadvaita Research Centre, which supports Vedic and Sanskrit studies. Yet, he was the one who came up with the most progressive solutions for his clients. "He was a forward thinker and I think the IT companies could have learnt a thing or two from him. He knew how markets worked and figured where a problem lay. Hence working on a communication solution was that much easier for him," says Sangeetha Shetty, who started her career at the agency and now, 17 years on, is executive vice-president there.

RK Swamy was also actively associated with the cause of education in India and was president of the National Boys and Girls Education Society, which runs the Lady Sivaswamy Ayyar Higher Secondary School and Sir Sivaswamy Kalalaya Senior and Higher Secondary Schools for nearly two decades.

While working on his myriad interest, he never gave the business interest of his agency a short shrift. Foreseeing the need to associate with an international agency, he partnered his agency with BBDO Worldwide in the late 1980s, showing the way forward for many home-grown agencies.

Many also remember him for his straight-forwardness and aggression. Having worked with him in two phases - once as a rookie executive in 1983 in Bangalore and then as executive director, south, in 1997 - Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO, Brand-Comm, reminisces, "He was phenomenal. At a time when most agencies were scared of their clients, he used to take them head-on and really fight for what he believed in. He was simply the most terrific client-servicing person! When I was new and my boss had gone elsewhere on work, he came down to sort out a problem we had with BPL and solved it with such ease. He could do that on the sheer strength born out of the work he had put in. He has the ability to make a team work, where perhaps certain individuals could not stand each other, or did not see eye-to-eye."

Sridhar best sums up what many in the industry must be thinking today. "They do not make them like him anymore!".

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