‘Despite digital, core of ad industry is ideas and creativity’

Vinay Kamath | Updated on August 22, 2021

Adman Ramesh Narayan talks about the fruitful years he spent in the industry in his book

An adman can leave the industry, but the industry won’t leave him. Ramesh Narayan wound down his fairly successful Canco Advertising when he was 50 as he had promised himself he would retire at that age. But, post that, Narayan held many important posts; one as the President of the International Advertising Association (IAA), India Chapter. Recipient of many industry awards, Narayan, in his Canco days, was President of the Ad Club, Bombay, as well as of the Advertising Agencies Association of India (which bestowed the lifetime achievement award on him several years later too). In his book, A Different Route to Success, Narayan talks about his advertising days as well as the many charitable causes he’s involved in. Excerpts from an interview.

Of all the posts you held in the industry, which would you say was the most fulfilling?

The stint I had with the IAA India Chapter, post retirement, was the most fulfilling. I was allowed to do things that were in the better interests of our industry, whether it was on gender, or conceiving of the Olive Crown awards, or constructing a framework for the leadership awards; all these were done during my stint. Incidentally, I was also co-opted during this time by the Ad Club to be chairman of the awards committee of the Goa fest, but I did both simultaneously.

Since the 15 years that you wound down Canco, how would you say the ad industry has changed?

The unbundling of the agencies resulted in specialisation first and then super-specialisation. So you can have an advertiser who has a brand, media, agency of record, digital agency, reputation management agency et al. Super specialisation is the name of the game, which is a far cry from our full service agency of yore. Digital has been the game changer and technology has actually changed the entire way business is done. It’s also changed the way work is done, allowing a whole lot of people to work from home, especially creative people who don’t have to be in office. Technology, whether in the areas of media buying and digital, has transformed the face of the ad industry. But, while digital has transformed the business, it is still the same at heart, the business of ideas, and the core of it all is creativity.

In the book you write in detail about winding down Canco. But why did you choose not to sell the agency when there were buyers?

I did not want to sell the agency. In any case I was placing my employees in other agencies; in fact The Hindu even wrote an article on how best to wind down an agency. I placed all of my 67 employees in good jobs, some in even better jobs, before I announced my intention, so the employees’ part had been taken care of. That left the angle of wanting a little more money, which never hurts, but did I want the stuff to go with it? As far as money goes. I am a man of simple tastes, money is incidental. I am a complete fatalist; I am not the type to say I have to leave behind stuff for 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 would have to work for three years as part of the transition in another team. But I was eminently unemployable and there was no way I could have worked under anybody else.

You write about how you were among the first to tap into PSU advertising and it was a lucrative market the big agencies ignored?

The first few years were extremely difficult, then I realised that if I wanted the big consumer accounts, they were already wedded to the big agencies. Breaking in would have been tough. In those days, big agencies actually looked down upon government advertising. And before that, in 1984-85, agencies with foreign ownership could not handle government advertising as per the law of the land. So this was a sweet spot. Timing wise I was sheer lucky. When I got the MTNL account, it was transitioning from Bombay Telephones into its new avatar and that was the first customer-oriented creative campaign of theirs which we handled. In a couple of years, all the insurance companies opened up; they could also see the writing on the wall that private insurance companies would come in and they had to spruce up their image. Banks too, before privatisation hit them, had to build their brand. For National Highways Authority of India, we also launched, after intense research, the first toll road in India. We had to have an entire communication programme that it was not another cess or tax that goes into some hole, but you could actually see the road you are paying for. Then in the power sector, Canco was in the power sector in every way; in every facet right from exploration of power (ONGC); generation of power (NTPC); distribution of power (KEB) to alternate sources of energy (MEDA).

You also mention that you never discussed the Budget with a client?

In 2001-02, Deepak Satwalekar called me and asked to launch HDFC Life’s branding. He told me not to expect HDFC budgets as the insurance company was a startup. I told him that I never asked him for the budget as I was convinced that HDFC life is going to be one of the fastest growing companies and it did grow. HDFC Life, when I quit, was 3-4 times the HDFC budget I was handling at that time. You ought to be able to gauge 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.

Do you wish you were back in the game?

I have consciously lived my life without regrets in anything at all. I have no regrets that I got out at that time (in 2006) and I am in a happy space.

Published on August 22, 2021

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