Remembering legendary adman Anil Kapoor

Vinay Kamath Rutam Vora | Updated on April 16, 2021

Anil Kapoor, former Chairman & MD, FCB Ulka Advertising

Mein tumhe apni beti de raha hoon’. This is what Anil Kapoor said to Rohit OhriGroup Chairman & CEO, FCB India, when he was taking over in 2016 from Kapoor. “Ulka was the daughter he had loved and nurtured for almost three decades,” says Ohri. 

Legendary ad man and former Chairman of FCB Ulka, Anil ‘Billy’ (a moniker he got at St Stephen’s College) Kapoor passed away at the age of 74 on Monday, April 12. In over three decades at the helm, he transformed an ailing Ulka Advertising into a flourishing agency that worked closely at the strategic level with a host of brands. Amul, Santoor, Tata Indica are some of the brands that Ulka has a long-standing relationship with. He also oversaw the merger of Ulka with Foote, Cone & Belding (FCB) while also ensuring the global agency retained the Ulka (shooting star in Sanskrit) name. 

“His passion for the agency and brands that he had built was evident. Listening to him as he ran me through the history of Ulka (when taking over) was a master class in the Anil Kapoor School of Advertising. He was a fearless man who always believed in doing the right thing. His razor sharp mind would first interrogate the business model and product delivery before thinking of communication, getting many a client to re-evaluate their marketing strategies,” says Ohri. 

Ambi Parameswaran, who spent 26 years in the agency, and was CEO of FCB Ulka from 2003 to 2013, says Kapoor believed very strongly in the need for agencies to partner with CXO-level people and not get into bed with a client who doesn’t respect and value the agency’s contribution. “We were taught to engage with the senior-most level in an organisation as advertising is not to be left to the discretion of junior brand managers. His whole philosophy was you should know the client’s brand better than the client themselves which means you got to do enough spadework so you can guide the client on what to do with the brand,” he says. 

Kapoor’s philosophy, says Parameswaran, was advertising was not a job of telling jokes but serious business and needs high quality thinking to make every rupee work better, which was in contradiction to what was happening in the ad industry at that time when agencies focused on smart creative and bagging awards. Kapoor, an MBA from IIMA, used to recruit 25 MBAs every year. “It was with the idea of building your own cadre of people to work in your own way, rather than the industry way of personal glory and awards,” he says. 

Amul, which has been Ulka’s client since 1988, honoured Kapoor in an ad with its typical punch line: ‘you will always be part of our Famuly!’ Kapoor's engagement with Amul started in 1988, when Dr Verghese Kurien asked him to re-energise   Amulya, a dairy whitener, which faced stiff competition from Nestle's EveryDay. Kapoor had just taken over the reins of Ulka from the founder, Bal Mundkur. 

Recalling Kapoor's engagement with the dairy cooperative, RS Sodhi, Managing Director, Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation, says, “There was a clear difference between Kapoor and any other advertising head. In those days, advertising agencies were headed by people from creative areas. But, Kapoor was the man who had come from marketing and sales to advertising.” Kapoor had joined Ulka after a long career in Boots, where he rose to be marketing director.  

To clients like Amul, Kapoor had always been grounded, practical and confident of his ideas. On his idea of advertising, Sodhi says, “To him, advertising didn't mean only having creativity. He believed that creativity for marketing a product is to generate sales. Whatsoever be the creative, if it cannot generate sales, then it is not creative. Kapoor also inducted a lot of people from marketing into advertising.” It was during Kapoor’s time that Amul’s iconic tag line ‘Amul: The Taste of India’ was given and endures even today.  

Sharing an experience of Kapoor's hands-on brand connect, Sodhi recalls one of the annual advertising meetings chaired by Dr Kurien. “Kapoor was coming to present creatives for a new campaign. One of his assistants was to carry all the creatives for the meeting but while Kapoor reached Anand, his assistant missed the flight. By the time he arrived, Kapoor had presented and narrated the whole campaign and creatives without the documents. Such was his level of ground connect with the brands; he was part of the Amul family,” says Sodhi. 

While Kapoor was a very demanding boss and brooked no fools, he was also large-hearted and had a great sense of humour. Ramesh Narayan, founder of the erstwhile Canco Advertising and former President of AAAI, recalls that he became the president of the ad agencies’ association at a very young age. “All the heavyweights of the ad industry would be there for the meetings with their jackets on and looking very formal and I was in my usual full sleeve shirt and pants. Anil towered over me in one meeting and asked why don’t I have a jacket? I replied, ‘jackets are for potatoes and suits are for men and I only have suits!’ He stared at me a while and burst out laughing and hugged me and we became lifelong friends after that,” he says. 

While Rohit Ohri takes FCB Ulka to further heights, he still remembers his conversation with Kapoor, as he says, “Thank you Anil. For sharing with me the ‘secret sauce’ that made Ulka what it is. And, for trusting me with your daughter!” 

Published on April 14, 2021

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