Aishwarya Ramesh

George John, founder of TBWA\Anthem, passes away

John was the man who was responsible for bringing TBWA to India once Omnicom acquired his agency. A look back...

A math teacher, a media planner and finally an entrepreneur – George John has done it all. He passed away on Sunday night following a brief but critical illness. He passed away on Sunday night following a brief but critical illness. He is mourned by his wife, two sons and a daughter.

Nearly six decades ago, John landed in Mumbai, looking for employment. He began his career as a Maths teacher at St. Theresa’s since someone had told him it was the easiest job to get. Six months later, the first National Readership Survey came along and Lintas Mumbai had a roomful of data and nobody to analyse it. John joined up as a media planner. The job meant turning the handle of a Facit calculator a million times a day. It was a time when media planning was becoming scientific. John was at Lintas for 10 years, five of them in account management on Levers, Glaxo and Johnson & Johnson.

George John, founder of TBWA\Anthem, passes away
A LinkedIn post by Nirmalya Sen mourning the loss of the adman George John

On the eve of his retirement, we interviewed John to trace his journey in the ad industry.

In 1978, when John and his colleagues heard that Ulka Delhi was on the verge of closure, he convinced Bal Mundkar to allow him to try and turn the ship around. "I don't know what clicked - maybe it was my training as a teacher - but the ship didn't sink," he told us during the interview.

His instinct was right. Ulka saw a meteoric rise, almost displacing JWT from its No.1 slot in Delhi at the time. Bal Mundkar finally decided to sell Ulka to a large business house in 1988 and the same evening, 36 people from the office came to John’s house to tell him that they had resigned in solidarity. It was a touching, inspiring and also very scary moment, he told us.

That is when John launched his independent agency Anthem Communications. They had 37 employees at the time and zero business. Anthem grew fast, gathering accounts such as Sony, Ranbaxy, Electrolux and Yamaha. In 1994, Anthem further acquired an Indian advertising agency called Radeus.

"We'd pulled off the largest agency acquisition in India till then and Anthem became the first Delhi born independent agency to go national," he told us during the course of the interview. The acquisition meant that Anthem had offices in Mumbai, and Pune, along with clients such as Limca, Amul and LIC India.

When John was attending Cannes in 1996, he spoke about a fascination that he had with the TBWA agency thanks to the awards that they won. He set his goal for Anthem to become India’s TBWA. Sure enough.

"It took a couple of years, but we got the joint venture, beating some of the top agencies of the 1990s. There were a few setbacks during the adjustment phase, but we continued being an agency with a heart, run from the heart. Our people never ever let the agency down, and eventually, the wheel turned and we were amongst the fastest growing agencies in the TBWA network," John told us in the interview, looking back on one of the supreme periods of his career.

In 1998, Omnicom group announced that it was going to acquire TBWA International. On September 9 2008, TBWA Anthem became the first 100 per cent owned Omnicom agency in India. John’s dream of becoming India’s TBWA came true in more ways than one.

"That was a big defining moment for me. I'm walking into my retirement, happy that the agency has a bright future with TBWA and proud of the fantastic team I helped to build," said John as he signed off, for the last time.

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