Shashi Sinha

Of an airline brand and two steaks: Remembering Ulka's Anil Kapoor

"He was hard-lined, demanding, said the most unpalatable, atrocious things to clients, yet, won hearts and loyalists," writes Shashi Sinha in his memoir for the late Anil Kapoor, chairman emeritus, DraftFCB+ Ulka, who passed away earlier this week.

How do you describe a man, who was gregarious, audacious, uncompromising and unapologetic, yet whom clients and people refused to leave? Who could talk about advertising, marketing, movies, music, art, theatre, sports, politics, food, and everything else in-between with equal elan? Not easy. But let me try.

Back in the '80s when Anil took over the reins of FCB, the agency needed restoration. We needed new clients, great talent and stability. So, one would imagine that any leader in his position would go about building the agency without ruffling feathers. While Anil was exactly the opposite. He was hard-lined, extremely demanding, could say the most unpalatable, atrocious things to clients and people – and yet, would win hearts and loyalists. I’ve not met another person in my life, who exhibited such disparate personality traits, yet built one of India’s most profitable agencies with the strongest client relationships and business teams. The hard-hitting satire and sarcasm couldn't veil his warmth, integrity, business acumen, and leadership.

Right after Anil became the MD, there was a large airline pitch and we needed the business badly. I was presenting to the Board of Directors led by the MD. In the middle of the presentation, we realized that we were running out of time, so another colleague started presenting the layouts. Suddenly, Anil, in his famous baritone and utmost sarcasm, yelled out saying, “Haan haan yeh bhi dikhao aur woh bhi”, which loosely translates to “yes go on showing them more options”, sneeringly alluding to creative agencies being more like saree shops that just showed options for clients to choose from - which was totally contrary to his belief that we were marketing consultants and should only sell what is right for the client’s business. We sank in our seats, thinking we would be asked to leave. But the entire marketing team broke into laughter and understood the humour behind the sarcasm and we went on to win the pitch. There was no looking back after that.

When it came to the work, he was equally relentless and arduous. He would make the teams write and re-write, and keep revising the drafts, till they were pitch-perfect. Late nights and tight deadlines were almost synonymous with the agency. But this did not lead to disgruntled clients or unhappy employees. Everybody could see that Anil genuinely understood the business, and always had people’s best interest at heart. Most of his clients became his personal friends, many of whom went on to take business advice from him. As for people, the top management at Ulka worked together for over 22 years. Some still continue to do so.

"When it came to the work, he was equally relentless and arduous. He would make the teams write and re-write, and keep revising the drafts, till they were pitch-perfect."

And not just advertising - Anil did everything in life with equal intensity, passion, and enthusiasm. One such thing was his love for food, and these stories have travelled far and wide. Every second day, he zealously went on a diet and broke it with equal gusto, two days later.

After he retired he spent a lot of time in Singapore, where I travel to frequently for work. He always told me to keep a spare day for him or not call at all. So, on one such trip, I had deliberately kept an extra day for meeting him, when he announced excitedly that he had turned vegetarian. I instantly knew what was going on, yet decided to play along. We had a simple lunch somewhere, and as we were walking around he asked me to stay back for dinner. He said there was a nice steak house, and that we must go there. I protested meekly, arguing that it was pointless since he won’t be eating. But he stood his ground, and we landed at the steak house later that evening. As we went inside, the waiters greeted him with familiarity. We sat down and ordered a steak for me. I requested Anil to break his vegetarian spell and have a steak with me and not surprisingly... surprise! He agreed. So, he ordered a steak and polished it off in no time. And then, in true Anil "Billy" Kapoor style, he said, since he has already broken the vegetarian stint, he may as well eat a second steak. In a flash, the second steak arrived, as I looked on. At the end of the meal, I discreetly asked one of the waiters about Anil and how often he frequented the steak house. The waiter said Anil visited the place once every 10 days, to break his vegetarian spell!

Even when we moved to the new office in Mumbai, I always reserved a day for him, whenever he visited. I will miss those endless discussions about business, cricket, and food.

And here's hoping that the heavens can keep up with his insatiable love for food and life!

(Shashi Sinha is CEO, Mediabrands India.)

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