Sumita Vaid

Remembering Subroto Sengupta

Ad man. Author. Academician. Kolkata-based Professor Subroto Sengupta, ex-CEO of Clarion Advertising, passed away on Sunday night

For an entire generation of management, marketing and communications graduates in the country, the name Subroto Sengupta instantly conjures up the image of a bright green book with ‘Brand Positioning' printed in white block letters across its face. Indeed, Brand Positioning is as much Professor Sengupta's identity as it is his legacy to Indian advertising and marketing. A legacy that the professor bequeathed fully and completely to future generations of management graduates and communications apprentices on the night of Sunday, February 29, when he breathed his last, a victim of protracted illness.

Ad man. Author. Academician. Kolkata-based Professor Sengupta was truly a many of many parts. And with his passing, an era comes to a close. An era that witnessed the coming together of two of the greatest advertising professionals the country has produced - Prof Sengupta and the late Subhas Ghosal. "I recall there was this research done by one of the research agencies, I don't remember which one," says Syeda Imam, executive creative director, JWT India, the news of Prof Sengupta's demise still sinking in. "According to the research, Subhash Ghosal was the finest human being in advertising, and Professor Sengupta was the finest professional in advertising. He indeed was the finest teacher, and half the world has been his student."

In fact, Imam, who worked with the professor at Contract Advertising, describes him as the Guru in Shining Armour. "He was what I would call a rare combination of practitioner and theoretician," she says. "He led such an unbelievably hectic life. I cannot think of anyone, except for this one person I know in JWT London, who was so intensely passionate about advertising and had a child-like zeal."

She adds, a trifle wistfully, that she and Prof Sengupta had their share of fights. "Advertising is democratic, and we would debate about lot of things. He, at times, used to worry too much and whittle down the creative work for the consumer's benefit. In fact, I used to tease him that he was a worrier and I was a warrior. I knew him so extraordinarily closely…" she shakes her head in disbelief at the news.

Another person who spontaneously compares the professor to the late Ghosal is Swapan Seth, co-CEO & chief creative officer, Equus Red Cell. "I think there is an entire generation that missed out on two of the brightest stars in the advertising firmament of this country: Mr Ghosal and Professor Sengupta. I was blessed to spend time with both - though not as much as I would have really liked to," he says. Although Seth never worked with the professor, he reveals that he benefited greatly from the pearls of wisdom that came his way. "When my brother (Suhel Seth) and I started Equus, we were reasonably clear that we would liberally partake of his wisdom and ways with the world. I also treated him as my surrogate creative director, bouncing off campaigns. Professor Sengupta was always forthcoming with his views. Firm in his opinions. Gentle in the way he communicated them. Secretly, I think he humoured me a bit as well. I guess he liked the idea of a brash bunch of boys trying to do serious business. I am, however, guilty of not being in touch with him ever since I left Kolkata," he adds regretfully.

As fate would have it, Prof Sengupta and Ghosal, who were long-standing professional competitors (the professor was one of the founder directors of Clarion Advertising, certainly one of the biggest agencies in its heyday, rivaling HTA in stature), joined hands in the early nineties to create the famous Windows resident training programme at Contract Advertising (the professor had retired from Clarion in 1983 as CEO and executive vice-chairman, and was subsequently working with Contract as a consultant). And it is those training programmes that brought Mohit Hira and Sabyasachi Dutta in contact with Prof Sengupta.

Dutta, who was then the head of Contract's Kolkata office, marvels at the professor's training skills. "Professor Sengupta was meticulous about the basics of formulating strategy," the independent consultant remembers. "The training he imparted was an excellent springboard for students, and the best thing was he enforced a discipline in them. He was one of the old guard… he never took shortcuts, he was never one for quick and easy solutions, and he insisted his students turn out the same way. And his energy levels were amazing."

A point that Hira, who was then the creative director at Contract Kolkata, also mentions. "Though he was in his 70s, he never looked his age," says Hira, currently vice-president, brand, Navbharat Times. "He was always alert, sharp with high levels of energy. He used to vibe very well with the youngsters. Some of his personality traits are simply unforgettable. He wore simple clothes and was a very upright person. One should have seen him when we grilled young executives and clients to find the USP of the products in question," the awe in Hira's voice comes through clearly.

In the final analysis, what set Professor Sengupta apart from his contemporaries was his approach to advertising. "The best way I can describe Professor Sengupta's contribution to Indian advertising is thus: advertising in the early seventies was about having a pretty face and nice pictures. The professor brought thinking into advertising," says Shiloo Chattopadhyay, joint managing director of market research firm TNS Mode. Chattopadhyay, who views Prof Sengupta as one of the mentors of Mode ("he lent us great support from Clarion"), adds that the professor stood for only one word: ‘why'. "He was constantly trying to find a reason for what was being done. He would continually question why things were being done the way they were being done, and he wouldn't rest till he had a satisfactory answer. There were lots of stalwarts in advertising during his time, but Professor Sengupta was a cut above the rest."

Veteran ad man Ram Ray of Response Advertising Agency agrees that it was the professor's academic bent of mind ("which is not common in advertising", he quickly adds) that appealed to him the most. Ray, who incidentally headed Clarion after Prof Sengupta's retirement, recalls having got to know the professor better courtesy IIM, Kolkata. "He was a professor at IIM, and I used to deliver guest lectures there. That is how we started working together and I got to know him better. Then when he started writing his book (‘Brand Positioning - Strategies For Competitive Advantage') we used to discuss aspects of the book, and I used to contribute to it. We started exchanging ideas, and we got along well. I enjoyed his company immensely. He was a deep thinker who always had a point of view. But what I admired the most about him was his attitude towards learning. He tried to learn new lessons and was constantly exploring and seeking answers."

The constant exploring and seeking out of answers may have come to a close. Then again, maybe not. Chances are the professor has quietly, even unknowingly, bequeathed that legacy to some of his devoted students. That being the case, it is by that legacy - and that bright green book with white block lettering - that Indian advertising will remember Prof Sengupta. © 2004 agencyfaqs!