Ulka@60 — still shining bright

Ambi Parameswaran | Updated on April 04, 2021

Benchmark: Ulka’s campaigns for Zodiac (in pic) and others helped the agency build a reputation for great work

The agency has changed form over the years but its lustre has not dimmed

It was the year 1989. I was in front of one of the biggest legends of Indian Advertising, Alyque Padamsee. He wanted me to join Lintas while I was toying with the idea of joining Ulka Advertising. I still remember Alyque’s words, “Bal has lost it. He thinks his sinking ship can be saved by a marketing man. Mark my words, Ulka will be gone in a few years. And you will be without a job, my boy.”

I don’t know what got into me. I replied, “So be it, sir. I will board that leaking ship and do my bit.”

Ulka was founded by Bal Mundkur in 1961 and, as the story goes, he left the then Ogilvy Advertising, with no business but with a team of seven talented people. The name ‘Ulka’ was suggested by Bal’s mother since he did not want to go for an eponymous name. Ulka in Sanskrit means ‘shooting star’.

After an initial period of struggle the agency built a reputation for great work. Campaigns done for ITC (diversification), Anand Group, Zodiac (the Zodiac Man campaign) became case studies. The agency also created some of the most iconic logos of their time for SAIL, PNB and Welcomgroup, to name a few.

The 1960s saw the birth and growth of several Indian agencies which were taking on the might of multinational agencies that came armed with global accounts. Agencies such as Everest, Sista, DaCunha were Ulka’s contemporaries. One should remember that the 1970s and 1980s saw the rise of MBA-led agencies such as Rediffusion and later Nexus Equity, Advertising Avenues and Madison. Other than Ulka, of all these agencies of Indian origin only Mudra (with its Reliance backing), RK Swamy and Rediffusion made it to the top ten table.

Bal’s source of strength was his brother Bhaskar Mundkur, a marketing man who left Hindustan Lever to join his brother’s agency. Bhaskar was the MD of Ulka during its first two decades. But when Bhaskar retired in the mid-1980s, the ship started taking water. Some key talent deserted and a few key accounts left. And as Alyque mentioned by the late 1980s the ship was truly sinking.

It was Bal’s bold move in 1988 that saved the agency. Or it was Anil Kapoor’s courage of conviction that he could rebuild Ulka in a new image. Anil joined as MD in 1988, identified some key managers to re-motivate and retain (Shashi Sinha and Niteen Bhagwat are still in FCBUlka / IPG Group); Anil also managed to rope in a few more — Arvind Wable, Nagesh Alai and yours truly.

A success: Ulka’s campaigns for Nerolac, featuring Goody, the smiling tiger


The new team was in place by mid-1989 and Anil got to work in right earnest. From arranging funds to ensuring salaries were never delayed, to stopping clients from leaving, to attracting more talent, Anil did the heavy lifting for the first few years. Then the team started batting. Many old accounts started flowering: Amul, Nerolac, Usha, Godrej, Zodiac, Ceat to name a few. New accounts followed. Among them were ITC Agrotech, Wipro Santoor, Whirlpool, LML Vespa, Tata Motors, TCS, Castrol, Tata Teleservices, Mahindra, ICICI Bank, Hero Honda and Zee TV. New divisions were started: Interface Communication, Lodestar Media, Cogito Consulting and more.

Interestingly, the US major, Foote Cone and Belding (FCB), started a dialogue with Ulka in 1995 but abandoned the agency to go with Ambience. But they came calling once again in 1997 and Ulka became FCB Ulka Advertising. While many MNC owned Indian agencies dropped their ‘Indian’ name, FCB was supportive of the move for retaining the legacy name, largely driven by the reality that most of the business was indeed Indian.

It will not be an exaggeration to say that during the period 1995 to 2015, Ulka or FCB Ulka was one of the most successful marketing communication groups in India. The team that came together in 1989 stayed together to build the agency. Jobs were created. Brands were built. And when in 2011 the agency celebrated its 50th anniversary, Chax (KS Chakravarty, who was the NCD) captured the ethos of the agency aptly with the line Making Brands Famous. Making Clients Rich”.

It is good to know that the agency under its new leadership is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. In the period 2016 to 2021 the agency has managed to continue the journey of creating great advertising to build powerful brands. The agency has significantly upped its digital competence, won a truck load of awards and added many new exciting brands to its stable.

While agencies may come and go, I am sure the Shooting Star will continue to shine bright in the coming decade and beyond.

Ambi Parameswaran joined Ulka in 1989 and was CEO and ED of FCB Ulka Advertising Mumbai from 2003 to 2013. He is now a brand/CEO coach and best-selling author

Published on April 04, 2021

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