By George! He led with emotion and passion

Gopinath Menon | Updated on: Jul 03, 2019
Kariath George John

Kariath George John



Kariath George John, who passed away on Sunday, had a working style like no other ad man

Kariath George John, one of the revered icons of advertising in Independent India, breathed his last a little after sunset on June 30. He was dramatically different in traits, characteristics, and working style from other ad legends.

Advertising in the seventies was very Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta centric. Delhi and Mumbai markets ruled the roost and they were run by a particular pedigree. The creative guys were from Bengal, and general and account management was dominated by men who were North Indians — either a Kapoor, Khanna, Mehta, Bakshi, Sharma or Khan. They belonged to affluent families, studied in English public schools, went to foreign universities and came back to work for a big advertising agency with an international affiliation.

George was diametrically opposite to all these conventions that prevailed in the seventies and eighties. He came from a small village in Kerala, studied in Malayalam medium till he passed senior secondary school exams, and then went on to do his masters in mathematics at the famed Victoria College in Palakkad.

He left Kerala to come to Mumbai and got a job in Lintas as a Media Planning Assistant, due to his degree in mathematics. In those days, ad agencies usually had women as media planners. George was again one of the first to break this convention.

His stint in Mumbai found him an admirer in Bal Mundkur, who ran Ulka Advertising and was considered a legend. He hired George to run Ulka’s Delhi branch. This was again a first as no media guy had ever made it to General Management. Bal took a risk and it paid off well.

George eventually quit Ulka to found Anthem. The day he left, 30 people landed up at his house and said they wanted to work with him whatever the salary. In 2008, when TBWA bought the entire stake in Anthem, he, along with the management, quit.

It baffled advertising pundits as to how George was loved by his clients and how much of his growth was organic. His clients recommended him to other clients, and there could not be a better recommendation.

The reason was very simple. His management style was different. He hired youngsters who had passion and fire in the belly and loved to get up in the morning and rush to work.

He would often tell me that he took risks and hired youngsters who were relatively inexperienced for the job, but made up for it with integrity and willingness to learn. He always felt that the amalgam of passion and willingness to learn was unbeatable. He used to say this is the Infantry and Armoured Corps of advertising. Once these two regiments are in place, there is no reason why we should not succeed. It always did and this surprised many in the business. In the process, iconic slogans like ‘Fill it Shut it, Forget it” for the Hero Honda motorcycle launch to highlight fuel economy were derived.

George always believed in delegation of authority and responsibility and this is unheard of in advertising.

Another aspect that differentiated George from his counterparts was that he never let the child in him die. His sense of curiosity was commendable and infectious too. Many who worked with him for years imbibed this trait unconsciously.

Small things gave him great joys. He loved a sip of strong, reddish tea with some steamed kappa (tapioca) at local street stalls in the bylanes of Kochi, or some toddy with some spicy beef fry at a seaside thattukada (temporary food shack). I have relished these delicacies with him many times.

The other unique thing about George was the way he remained connected to his roots in Kerala, and his village — Peruvambalam. He gave back to society and that’s what makes him great. He spent sizeable sums of money in buying land in the village to set up a school, start a library, and build a huge old-age home in Kochi.

So, Kariath George John was different as he always challenged convention and won with a business formula of emotion and passion. He never sacked a single person and said he could never do that. This is a business model you will seldom find in management books or B-schools.

I am fortunate to have spent over ten years with him and have absorbed all the wisdom I could. Thank you, George, for joyfully teaching us, and helping us understand the world called Life.

G opinath Menon worked as Senior Vice-President of TBWA India from 1998 to 2008 with George John

Published on July 03, 2019

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