Tapas Gupta
Guest Article

Tara Sinha: The last stalwart of a golden era

Advertising veteran Tara Sinha passed away earlier this week. A memoir by Tapas Gupta.

Old timers in advertising will vouch that the 70s and 80s were the golden era of advertising when tall advertising leaders (who became legends later) dominated advertising scenario in India. Under these leaders, advertising as an industry achieved its stature and started being recognised as a respected profession that was looked upon by clients as true partners and consultants. Subhash Ghoshal, Subrata Sen Gupta, Alyque Padamsee, R K Swamy, Mani Aiyer and Tara Sinha and a few others were the celebrated leaders who led this profession to its glory. The last in this group of luminaries, Tara Sinha passed away day before yesterday at the ripe old age of 88.

Tara Sinha
Tara Sinha

My association with Tara Sinha ( TS ) dates back to 1984/85, when she came back to India to join the then second largest agency Clarion-McCann as president and chief executive officer from Atlanta, USA, where she was heading the Advertising and Communication Division globally for Coca-Cola. I was then the branch manager of Clarion Calcutta and she was my reporting boss.

As TS was one of the founders of Clarion, just before my first review meeting with her, old timers warned me of her legendary temper and impatience bordering on rudeness, which made me tread carefully with my first steps into her office. But she disarmed me with a broad smile and warmth and made me comfortable. What I found was she hated waffling and pandering to her ego and was game for a healthy professional debate. Her famous line to me and all my colleagues which she used very often was "stop waffling, come to the bottom-line" and soon we developed a healthy respect for each other. She dominated and substantially contributed in important client meetings and presentations (including clients like ITC, Nestle, Reckitt & Colman and Gillette who would hear her with awe and respect) and that made a huge difference to the calibre and stature of the agency. She soon acquired the nickname of ‘Indira Gandhi of Advertising’.

Tapas Gupta
Tapas Gupta

This was the beginning of a 15 year unbroken relationship between a boss and her senior employee. I have been told that no one at a reasonably senior position has lasted beyond five to seven years with her, and that my tenure with her must have been a ‘world record’.

She was a person often misunderstood by her colleagues and peers because she did not have the veil of hypocrisy with a smooth talking exterior and a vicious inside. She was ‘what she was’ inside-out.
Tapas Gupta

She was a person often misunderstood by her colleagues and peers because she did not have the veil of hypocrisy with a smooth talking exterior and a vicious inside. She was ‘what she was’ inside-out.

She acquired the image of a rebel within the industry by raising unpleasant issues related to the profession, including propounding the theory of agencies working on fixed monthly creative fees and splitting the 15 per cent commission with clients. In that era, it was considered a ‘sacrilege’ by the advertising industry honchos as well as INS, as she started this with Videocon in the early 90s. She had seen the writing on the wall and the way the industry was moving internationally, which the agency heads in AAAI at the time refused to acknowledge. The era of fees started in the mid/late 90s and her vision and prediction came true.

Because of this ‘Videocon incident’, TSME was expelled from the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) in 1991/ 92 of which she was president in 1985 (from Clarion) and convener, north, a few years later(from TSA/TSME). This incident had left a feeling of animosity between her and the AAAI members and there was a vertical split in the industry with a lot of agencies supporting her fight to change and adapt with the times. It became a big PR issue with substantial media coverage, some of which made her look like a ‘villain’.

The biggest tragedy is that the ‘hangovers’ of those incidents from 28 to 30 years ago, may not have been totally obliterated even today. All her stalwart contemporaries named early in this article have been conferred with the “AAAI Lifetime Achievement Award in Advertising” which every year acknowledges and celebrates the tallest advertising professionals who have made substantial contribution to the industry. Even in September 2019, as a member of the AAAI, I had sent in her nomination, but it possibly did not find merit to be chosen for this award. I have no hesitation in stating (as a personal opinion) that a number of professionals who may have been well deserving in the eyes of the AAAI juries, do not match up to the contribution and stature she has enjoyed during her glorious years. Perhaps today’s group of juries are not even aware of her contribution or have chosen to ignore it.

Brand Equity, in an article on March 6, 2019 termed her the tallest woman leader in advertising and the first lady to break the glass ceiling to become the founder and chief executive officer of Clarion, which became India’s second largest agency during her time. She became a role model and an inspiration for a lot of women professionals to join advertising.

When she formed her own agency TSA / TSME, many young professionals like me left our secure Clarion jobs and joined her fledgling agency in 1987/88, without batting an eyelid. Such was our faith in her and her abilities. Her crowning glory in TSME was the win of the Coca-Cola account when it re-entered India in 1994/95, an account which was won against the gigantic Lintas headed by Alyque Padamsee. After his retirement, when Alyque was a consultant to McCann, he once told me that Lintas lost because they did not take TSME and Tara Sinha seriously during the pitch.

This Coca Cola win set the ball rolling for McCann Erickson Worldwide to take over TSME as TS had decided that she would like to retire at the age of 65. Thus, TSME was re-incarnated as McCann Erickson India, for which she had laid the foundation stone two decades prior.

For me personally, she has been a friend, a kind boss (no one would ever say this, but I am saying it with conviction) and above all, a mentor. She inculcated in me a fighting spirit, passion and love for advertising and above all, an entrepreneurial mindset that inspired me a few years later (in 1998) to start BEI Confluence. Whatever little I have achieved is because of the learning and mentoring I got from her in our long professional association of 15 years.

RIP ‘my boss for ever’ Tara Sinha.

(Tapas Gupta is founder and MD, BEI Confluence, an advertising agency.)