MG Parameswaran's ninth book is out. This one's called 'Sponge - Leadership Lessons I Learnt From My Clients'.
Last to last June, we spoke to MG Parameswaran about his book 'Nawabs, Nudes, Noodles - India through 50 years of Advertising'. Two years later, Ambi, as he is popularly known, has published a book, his ninth, about the lessons he has learnt from his clients over the years; Ambi has spent the bulk of his 40 year long career in advertising. Of these, he spent over 25 years at Ulka Advertising, an ad agency he joined in 1989. Presently, he writes, teaches and coaches corporate leaders.
Packed with real stories -(some Ambi's own, some borrowed from colleagues)- about real people -(the clients, of course)- the book, simply put, is an adman's attempt at jotting down the most valuable lessons he learnt from the brand marketers he worked closely with over the decades. Says the author in the Acknowledgments section: "Folklore has it that in ad agencies clients are both revered and cursed. Revered because they pay the bill. Cursed because they are often stumbling blocks for good ideas."
Brands that find mention in his book include GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), Tata, Wipro, Nirma, Amul, Zee, and Cadbury, among several others. In keeping with the self-explanatory title of the book, we asked Ambi about some of his memorable encounters with his clients. While the best anecdotes are in the book - (his favourite story is one involving Ratan Tata and the Indigo Marina car, perhaps because both brand names 'Indigo' and 'Marina' were his babies!) - Ambi chose to narrate a story around a brand called Thermax, one of his first accounts when he joined Rediffusion, after finishing up at IIM Calcutta.
"It (Thermax) was and is an engineering company and no one else in the agency wanted to handle it. Being a Chemical Engineer, it was felt that I was best suited. Interestingly, I discovered that the MD of Thermax, RD Aga was a gem of a person. And when we presented a corporate image building campaign, which people in the agency were not sure Thermax would buy, not only did they buy it but Mr. Aga decided he will do the body copy of the six ad-campaign himself. Mind you, the concept of the ad and headlines were from the creative director, but the final body copy was crafted by the MD of the company," Ambi tells afaqs!.
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Summoning a different memory, Ambi says, "There was a time when a client threatened to sack the agency. I took a stand saying he does not have the power to sack the agency, for such a trivial thing... we needed two extra days to do a poster. After some hot words, the client backed off and we later became good friends. So I used to tell my colleagues - 'Don't get scared to push back, if you have done your homework'."
What's the most important quality for a 'client', or shall we say, an agency-facing brand marketer, to posses, in today's day and age? Ambi fields, "A client has to decide what they want from their agency and then adequately compensate them for it. Some clients are ready to shell out a few crores for a celebrity endorsement, but shirk from paying an agency a crore a year. I cannot understand this logic. Pay agencies well, but demand their involvement in all aspects of your business. If you treat them as jingle or joke writers, you will turn them into jingle and joke writers. Their creative energy will go into award-oriented scam stuff."
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Let's for a moment keep individual differences aside and think of 'the client' as a... breed, if you will. How then would one chart the intellectual, or say, cognitive, evolution of this strange creature? Ambi attempts an answer, drawing on an article called 'Cinderella of Business' published in Harvard Business Review by Prof. John Philip Jones. "The tragedy today is that brand decisions are getting delegated to lower and lower levels in organisations. In the past we used to deal with the CEO and CMO. Today they are busy meeting analysts and investors. That is a shame. They have to spend time with the agency partner," he says.
Going on to recall a large account that had a foreigner as its MD, Ambi says, "...he was clear that every month he will meet the agency for at least two hours. And we managed to do a lot of great stuff..."
('Sponge - Leadership Lessons I Learnt From My Clients' has 180 pages and is published by Westland Publications).