Prabhakar MundkurPublished: 18 Nov 2019, 11:45 PM
Guest Article

Prabhakar Mundkur's tribute to Subhas Ghosal

If I were to associate one big word with Mr. Ghoshal, that word would be “AESTHETICS”. The language of beauty as we have known it since Aristotle.

I don’t think I would associate that word with too many CEOs that I know or follow globally today. Except perhaps two — Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. Aesthetic sensibility, after all, is key to design thinking. And aesthetics and design thinking is key to the success of Apple and Tesla. Musk, for example, believes that beauty is as important as the usefulness of products. Mr. Ghoshal believed that advertising must work but must also be beautiful. Musk is known to spend half a day each week in the Tesla design studio, with Tesla’s chief designer Franz von Holzhausen.

Some designers like to say that design is about problem solving. Which is perhaps why it has become so popular as a thinking tool in many organisations. Well, designers do solve problems, but so does the roadside tyrewala who fixes your punctured tyre. I personally think design is more about cultural re-invention.

Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century theologian, I believe, said that beauty needs three qualities: integrity, harmony and radiance. Integrity being the quality of standing out clearly from the background. Harmony explains how the parts relate to the whole. And radiance is about the pleasure we feel when we experience it.

Remember that time in the 20th century when we considered advertising as an art form. I believe it has been taken over by data scientists and engineers whose province is machines, algorithms, big data and artificial intelligence. Sir Martin Sorrell said, some years ago, that Don Draper wouldn’t recognise adland today, pitting Don’s Mad Men against today’s Math Men. So, you may wonder why and how AESTHETICS is relevant to companies in the 21st Century.

Let me answer that by saying that the best management decisions are also aesthetic decisions. They satisfy our sense of what is right, what is good and what is beautiful.

Business today is about creating emotional bonds with customers. Aesthetics can be the adhesive that binds them to your brand. Aesthetic Intelligence can compete with Artificial Intelligence to create better brands.

Mr. Ghoshal, for me, was the master of taste and endowed with plenty of aesthetic intelligence. Every memo from him was like a piece of poetry to be savoured. In fact, he made memo writing an art form in the company. I would spend a long time admiring his carefully crafted words. Our notice board at Lakshmi Building on Phirozeshah Mehta Road was mounted on the way to the toilet. A rather strategically placed notice board I would say. After all everyone had to pass by the notice board at least a few times a day. Often, we would discuss his memos and also analyse them. And then we would try and decipher what was written between the lines of his memos, which was the most interesting part.

Mr. Ghoshal was an amazing speaker and a master of the English language. He would often stun foreign visitors we had from JWT with his eloquence.

But the most telling example of his sense of aesthetics was when I had the fortune to be supervised by him on a project for Unilever, an account I eventually handled for 17 years across three continents. Lever’s was ready to launch a brand of fertiliser called Paras in the mid 80s in West Bengal. I was chosen to make a presentation to Suman Sinha (later the first CEO of Pepsi) and the great Shunu Sen. Both men could make you nervous with just their enormous stature within Unilever. I would see brand managers shiver outside Suman Sinha’s door wondering if they should knock. So, Mr. Ghosal was requested to attend this very important meeting given the heavyweights on Lever’s side. I made a great presentation. But I was first admonished for pronouncing Paras wrongly — It was not Paras but Parosh, said Mr. Ghoshal and Shunu. I had no choice but to agree, not knowing any better. And then came the telling blow of the meeting. Shunu did not like the Paras logo. And neither did Mr. Ghoshal. And we left the meeting with Mr. Ghoshal promising that he would personally supervise the logo. I was horrified.

On this project, I would then be exposed both to both his sense of aesthetics and his pursuit of perfection. (I can’t help feeling they go together).

Coming back to Paras, I was made to re-do the logo at least 15 times as far as I can remember. Both Sudhir Deokar our chief art director and I were at our wits end. He was just not happy with any of them, he complained about the typography. Then one day I decided to go to our billing department on Homi Modi Street and get a copy of every Bengali newspaper and magazine in the country. I went through all the fonts in every newspaper and magazine — both editorial and advertising. I came back to Lakshmi Building with Anandabazar, Bartaman, Desh, Anandmela and in fact every Bengali newspaper and magazine I could lay my hands on. After comparing our work with the fonts used in the editorial and the ads in these publications I felt pretty confident of meeting Mr. Ghoshal again. So, I went into his office with our latest renditions of the Paras logo. Again, he was not happy. I then excused myself from his room for a minute and came back with my collection of Bengali newspapers and magazines to show him all my homework on Bengali typography. Lakshmi Pennathur who was Mr. Ghoshal’s secretary had helped me to store this heap of papers and magazines conveniently just outside the door to his office. After I elaborated on my newly found knowledge of Bengali fonts, he reluctantly said, “You are a clever man. Go ahead. But I am still not happy”. I had somehow managed to solve the problem. But it didn’t feel like I had won the battle. I learnt from this project that the struggle for perfection always came with a great deal of pain.

For me, most aesthetically minded people are also visionaries. For example, Mr. Ghosal wrote one of the first primers on succession planning, a word that has become popular only in the new millennium. Remember, Mr. Ghoshal retired on May 9, 1985. When I see the many large Indian company CEOs refusing to retire until 70 while paying lip service to the idea of succession planning, I often think of Mr. Ghoshal. The Ghoshal corporate strategy on succession planning ran thus:

You must be absolutely sure that:

  • You are ready to quit and will permit yourself no second thoughts.

  • You do not harbour the wish that you may be replaced by a clone

  • You are not making hidden provisions for your return just in case things change

  • You do not wish to act as grey eminence nor a benign sage.

Although he himself may never have wanted it, Mr. Ghoshal was in fact a benign sage and was deified at Hindustan Thompson Associates, the company as it was known then. Which is why we are all sitting here today at the Subhash Ghoshal lecture in his memory.