Abhishek Chanda
Defining Moments

Defining Moments: Meet the maths teacher, K George John

Starting his career teaching maths, John went on to become a pioneer of the ad world, and finally founded Anthem

After an illustrious career, K George John has finally called it a day. Here, he takes afaqs! through the four decades of advertising he has witnessed and commanded.

Forty years ago, when John first landed up in Mumbai in search of a job, he was told that the easiest job to find would be teaching maths. He started his career as a maths teacher at St Theresa’s.

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.

Defining Moments: Meet the maths teacher, K George John
Then, in 1978, John and his colleagues heard the news that Ulka Delhi was on the verge of closure and the employees were on notice. Somehow, he convinced Bal Mundkar to let him 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 says.

In fact, it flew. Ulka had a meteoric rise and the team nearly displaced JWT from the No. 1 slot in Delhi. In 10 years, they never lost a pitch, never lost a client and built a terrific reputation with pathbreaking work like the 'Fill It, Shut It, Forget It' campaign for Hero Honda. “The team we had then still meets at least once a year to celebrate those heady days,” reminisces John.

In 1988, Mundkar decided to sell Ulka to a large business house and he decided that the time had come to part ways. It was heartbreaking. That evening, 36 people from the office came to John's house, saying they had resigned too. It was a touching, inspiring and also very scary moment, he says.

They launched Anthem Communications with 37 employees and zero business. It was tough, but Anthem grew fast, gathering prestigious accounts like Sony, JCT, JK, Ranbaxy, Worldphone, Electrolux and Yamaha. When Anthem acquired the well known, 25 year old Radeus in 1994, it was a big moment for John.

“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 says. Anthem now had offices in Mumbai and Pune and clients such as Limca, Amul and Life Insurance Corp. of India.

The next big thing for John came while attending the Cannes Festival in 1996. Fascinated with TBWA, which was picking up award after award, he decided that they’d try to become the TBWA agency in India.

“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,” he says, looking back on one of the supreme periods of his career.

On September 9, 2008, TBWA Anthem became the first 100 per cent owned Omnicom agency in India. “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,” says John, signing off subtly.

(Defining Moments is a regular column which talks about the incidents that shaped great advertising, media and marketing careers.)

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