Starting in the mid '60s, Tarun Gupta shook up how marketing was taught and practiced in the country for five decades. And in the process, he helped develop nearly three generations of marketing stalwarts.
Marketing guru and professor Dr. Tarun Gupta, 78, passed away on October 31. He had been ailing for the past few months and is survived by his wife, Sumitra and his daughters, Suranjana and Suparna and their families.
Dr. Gupta, affectionately called TG by his colleagues and students, was a powerhouse of marketing wisdom. He taught at Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies (Mumbai) since its very inception in 1965. And his strategic marketing classes made him easily the most popular professor on campus. He later helmed the pharma management course as chairperson since 2002 for over 12 years. He continued active teaching there, reaching at 8:00 am every morning, before retiring last year.
He represented a rare breed of educators with a formidable track record and reputation in the corporate world. He transformed Glaxo in the 1960s and 1970s from a sleepy, bureaucratic pharma company to a dynamic, high-performance firm, with an impressive cadre of leaders, proficient at using modern consumer marketing principles. He was considered as the father of modern pharmaceutical marketing in India.
At work, TG was a maverick, relying on unconventional ways of thinking about brands, product management and sales. And his ability to bring in practical insights from the world of business into the classroom made his sessions on Sunday morning a much sought after experience for students. And it also catapulted Bajaj to the very top as a source of cutting-edge marketing talent.
His students represented the who's who of the world of marketing, including Harish Manwani, Vinita Bali, Nitin Paranjpe, Sam Balsara, Roda Mehta, Lalita Gupte, Goutam Rakshit, Anjana Grewal, Bal Palekar, Rajesh Dalal, Anindo Mukherjee, Annaswamy Vaidheesh, Noshir Kaka, to name just a few. Such was his impact in class and outside, that many of his past students kept in touch with him over the years and became good friends. Like professors Mita and Harish Sujan at Tulane University and Rohit Deshpande, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, among others.
In an evocative Facebook post, Piyul Mukherjee, founder and CEO, Quipper Research, and JBIMS, Class of 1987, recalls the impact he made on the students:
"Bajaj, like Indian barbers, remained closed on Mondays. That was because of the high intensity Sunday preceding it.
Sunday was the day when the top creme de la creme practicing managers of corporate India, came over to take sessions all day. The staid old JBIMS building reverberated with this vibrancy, these were the people who truly made and added to the Indian GDP.
TG stood out towering over the rest, and remained so in our memories through the years. His indelible presence has been such that no class reunion takes place without the name of TG coming up with emotions riding high. He made us think, he made some of us mad, he made us have a distinct and sparklingly clear opinion. He made us realise that the world is not linear."
Both at work and in class, TG invariably evoked strong emotions, thanks to his image as a tough task-master and his unconventional teaching methods. He would constantly push and prod his students to remain intellectually curious, constantly ask questions, and learn to think for themselves. Any student that failed to keep pace would face his wrath. He eschewed bookish knowledge and elegant marketing models. Instead of relying on Harvard Business School case studies, TG would seek out a range of contemporary live cases from the Indian context, and encourage students to spend time in the field talking to consumers and customers, before developing strategy for the brand. At the end of every fortnightly cycle, he would invite the senior leadership team from the same company to come to class, grill and evaluate the presentations and share their feedback.
For young students, this was a powerful way of building self-confidence and an engaging way of learning. For instance, during the early nineties, he began his strategic marketing class with a discussion on insights from Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a short novel, about a seagull learning how to fly, by Richard Bach. This would often raise eyebrows among straitjacketed students, who could never understand why a marketing professor had initiated a conversation on philosophy. It was only after the course was over and sometimes, some years into their corporate careers, did the realisation dawn upon students about the value of divergent thinking.
His career bloomed quite early, shortly after completing his studies in the US. TG joined Boots, where he conceptualised successful product launches, including Paltab, a fizzy drink and Sweetex, a sugar substitute.
There's an interesting tale about how he pushed through a campaign for Sweetex, without seeking clearance of the international brand director at Boots, as was the norm in those days. There was a sudden sugar shortage. And TG sensed there was an opportunity to capitalise on that. The international brand director wasn't available. And the local MD of Boots India Mr. Dey warned him that there would be consequences. Yet TG went ahead and released half page ads in all leading newspapers. The ads were direct: Sugar is in short. Sweetex is not. Sales shot up by 800 per cent.
A few days later, Mr. Dey got word that the international brand director was headed to Mumbai for a review. The writing on the wall was clear. TG asked his wife to start packing and be prepared to vacate the apartment, assuming that he would fired. An ashen faced Mr. Dey and TG were called in for the meeting and asked point blank why they had skirted the rules. TG was direct: you can't run marketing by remote control, he told the expat boss. Either you take all the decisions. Or I do. Mr. Dey sensed the game was over. Both would be fired. TG was asked to return after the lunch break. When he came back, much to Mr. Dey's surprise, the expat boss exclaimed, "Tarun, you are a real genius!" And the rest, as they say, is history.
In 1968, he applied for the marketing manager's post at Glaxo's fledgling family products division. Most of the contenders for that job were in their fifties. TG was barely 28. And then MD David John Farrant decided that he would bet on the young maverick marketer. Farrant's hunch turned out to be right. Within no time, the young prodigy had shaken up the portfolio, and used mass media advertising to build an impressive over-the-counter business. Complan became a case study in positioning. Its re-launch was backed by advertising, which positioned Complan against milk. The ad said: Your body needs 23 vital ingredients. Milk has 9. Complan has all 23. Glaxose-D (later renamed as Glucon-D), Farex and Glaxo Ostromilk, too had similar success.
A few years later, when Farrant returned to the UK, George Medley took over Glaxo as its MD in 1973. And he decided to revive the flagging pharma business. He took a call to move TG to the mainline pharma division. That was a key turning point. Till then, the pharma division was manned by people with pharmacological backgrounds. Yet Medley decided that it needed TG's consumer marketing instincts. And he was right. By 1976, he elevated TG to the board as director of the pharma division, the youngest executive, at the age of 38, to be inducted into the Glaxo board.
Along the way, he pioneered the use of prescription audits, taking a leaf out of ITC's consumer panels, which provided a strong data-driven approach for sales and marketing teams to position brands and also snatch the initiative from rivals. He created audio visual-aids for medical reps, giving them new ways to gain the attention of busy doctors. His product management approach ensured that there was focus on profitable growth of a few brands. And the big impetus came from spotting talent from within, where medical reps found themselves pitchforked into managerial roles.That's why when the unions began to foment trouble, including staging a gherao at the Glaxo office in Worli, TG received support from the rank and file.
His formula for staying relevant over the years was remarkably simple. He had a voracious appetite for reading, followed by some furious early morning journaling. He completed his PhD at the age of 70. He took active interest in music, films and other creative pursuits like drama. Through the eighties and nineties, his columns in Business India, Businessworld and later, The Economic Times were highly regarded. He had a knack of reaching out to friends and his students, many of them in their early twenties, to constantly learn new things. That deep sense of intellectual curiosity endeared him to other marketing and advertising stalwarts in that generation as well, like Subhas Ghoshal, Subroto Sengupta, Sylvester daCunha, Bobby Sista, Jagdish Sheth and Shunu Sen.
Soon after he passed away, the news of his death spread like wildfire. Tributes began to pour in from friends, colleagues and students from all over the world. At his remembrance meet at Jamnalal Bajaj on November 3, some of the biggest names from the world of marketing and management showed up to celebrate his life. His legacy will live on through the people he so deeply influenced.
(Indrajit Gupta is co-founder at Founding Fuel. As TG's nephew, he had a remarkable opportunity to learn under his guidance, and worked as a teaching assistant to him at JBIMS in the '90s.)