“Despite digital technology, the heart of the advertising industry is made up of ideas and creativity”
An advertiser can leave the industry, but the industry will not leave. Ramesh Narayan ended his rather successful commercial for Canco at the age of 50, as he had vowed to retire at that age. But, after that, Narayan held many important positions; one as president of the International Advertising Association (IAA), Indian section. Recipient of numerous industry awards, Narayan, during the Canco era, was president of the Bombay Ad Club, as well as the Advertising Agencies Association of India (which also awarded him the award for ensemble of his achievements several years later). In his book, A different road to success, Narayan talks about his advertising days as well as the many charitable causes he is involved in. Extracts from an interview.
Of all the positions you have held in the industry, which do you think has been the most rewarding?
The time I have had with the Indian Chapter of IAA after my retirement has been the most rewarding. I was allowed to do things that were in the best interests of our industry, whether it was gender, or designing the Olive Crown awards, or building a framework for the leadership awards; all of this was done during my stay. Incidentally, I was also co-opted during this time by the Ad Club to be chair of the Goa Festival Awards Committee, but I did both at the same time.
In the 15 years that you closed Canco, how would you say the advertising industry has changed?
The unbundling of agencies resulted in first specialization and then subspecialization. You can therefore have an advertiser who has a brand, a media, a reference agency, a digital agency, a reputation management agency et al. Super Specialization is the name of the game, which is a far cry from our full service agency of yesteryear. Digital has been a game changer and technology has actually changed the whole way business is done. It has also changed the way work is done, allowing many people to work from home, especially creative people who don’t need to be in the office. Technology, both in media buying and digital, has transformed the face of the advertising industry. But, if digital has transformed business, it’s still the same in the soul, the business of ideas, and the heart of it all is creativity.
In the book, you write in detail about the Canco liquidation. But why did you choose not to sell the agency when there were buyers?
I didn’t want to sell the agency. Anyway, I placed my employees in other agencies; In reality The Hindu even wrote an article on the best way to wind up an agency. I placed all of my 67 employees in good jobs, some in even better jobs, before I announced my intention, so the employee portion was taken care of. It left the angle wanting a little more money, which never hurts, but did I want the stuff to go with it? Regarding the money. I am a man of simple tastes, money is incidental. I am a complete fatalist; I’m not the type to say that I have to leave things with my son; he comes with his own baggage and his own life to lead. The only thing left was the name of the agency which would be used by others and emotionally it was not acceptable. And, I should work for three years as part of the transition to another team. But I was eminently unemployable and there was no way I could have worked under someone else.
You write about how you were among the first to exploit PSU advertising and it was a lucrative market that the big agencies ignored?
The first few years were extremely difficult, then I realized that if I wanted large consumer accounts, they were already married to large agencies. The break-in would have been difficult. At that time, the big agencies actually looked down on government advertising. And before that, in 1984-85, foreign-owned agencies could not manage government advertising according to the law of the land. So it was a great place. As for the timing, I was lucky. When I got the MTNL account he was in the process of switching from Bombay Telephones to his new avatar and this was the first customer-centric creative campaign that we ran. In a few years, all the insurance companies opened; they could also see the inscription of private insurance companies on the wall and they had to restore their image. Banks too, before privatization hit them, had to build their brand. For the National Highways Authority of India, we also launched, after intense research, the first toll road in India. We had to have a whole communications program so that it’s not another tax or tax that goes into a hole, but that you can actually see the road you’re paying for. Then in the electricity business, Canco was in the electricity business in all respects; in all facets from the exploration of power (CGSB); power generation (NTPC); energy distribution (KEB) to alternative energy sources (MEDA).
You also mention that you have never discussed the budget with a client?
In 2001-02, Deepak Satwalekar called me and asked me to launch the HDFC Life branding. He told me not to expect HDFC budgets because the insurance company was a startup. I told her that I never asked her for the budget because I was convinced that HDFC life was going to be one of the fastest growing companies and she grew. HDFC Life, when I quit, was 3-4 times the HDFC budget I was managing at the time. You should be able to assess the industry, the company and the people in charge. I looked at the macro view of the industry itself and the micro view of the people there.
Would you like to be back in the game?
I have consciously lived my life without any regrets. I don’t regret being out then (in 2006) and I’m in a happy space.