Remembering RK Swamy: “If he saw an opportunity, he would not hesitate to seize it”: V Balaraman

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Updated: Dec 16, 2019 11:16 AM

Former MD and CEO of Pond’s India recalls his first day as management trainee, interactions with HTA four floors below, and makes the case for an ‘RK Swamy Communication City’ in Chennai

Balaraman argues that the South of India has traditionally been manufacturing oriented, and not as adept at marketing as it should have been.Balaraman argues that the South of India has traditionally been manufacturing oriented, and not as adept at marketing as it should have been.

By Gokul Krishnamoorthy

Venkataratnam Balaraman, former MD and CEO of Pond’s India and a former Director at Hindustan Unilever, has an ‘Institute Chair’ established in his name at IIT Madras’ Department of Mechanical Engineering. Addressing the audience ahead of the inaugural Ad Club Madras-MMA RK Swamy Memorial Lecture in Chennai on 11 December, he called for the creation of an RK Swamy Communication City in Chennai, a place the late advertising doyen had put on India’s advertising map.

It was an apt day for the Lecture and the appeal, being RK Swamy’s 97th birth anniversary. Chennai has the potential to serve as a communication and marketing hub; being one should be one way of attracting business to the city, reasons Balaraman, in a relaxed chat at his apartment overlooking the Bay of Bengal.

And RK Swamy certainly deserves to be the name on that city, he adds, reasoning: “The communication city would be a contribution to the country. It’s a feasible proposition and there is a huge opportunity. If RK Swamy had been here, for his appetite and capability, he would have done it. If he saw an opportunity, he would not hesitate to seize it.”

The Brand Manager’s First Agency

Balaraman recalls his first job as management trainee in 1970 at Chesebrough Pond’s, after post graduation at IIM Ahmedabad. The company was then fully owned by its American parent of the same name and its office was in Fagun Mansion, Chennai. It was the same year that the company’s advertising partner J Walter Thompson became Hindustan Thompson Associates (HTA). Their office was four floors below. On his first day, Balaraman spent the first half of the day on the fifth floor and the second half on the first floor. He met ‘Chandru’, the Account Executive on Pond’s, for the first time that day.

“It was common to see brand managers and advertising folks on the stairs, having a coffee or a smoke, having arguments. You could see them sometimes upto 10 in the night. Out of those arguments came good campaigns that we produced as one organisation,” he recounts.

While the account was with J Walter Thompson as part of a global alignment, the Indian challenges were unique. Why, even the products were different. Talcum powder was not sold in the US. Cold cream was used by consumers as a cleanser, while in India it was an anti-dry skin product. “Indian products had a unique appeal,” explains the trainee who grew to become CEO and MD of what would become Pond’s India, before being acquired by Unilever.

Even within India, talcum powder found favour in the hotter climes of the South while the cream category was popular in Delhi. The armoury with the client and agency was print, radio and films even as B&W TV was just about on the horizon.

“It was the Chennai branch of an agency, but for us, it was a total agency. It did not depend on the administrative office of HTA to get its work done. It was an end-to-end agency. (RK) Swamy managed it all by himself,” noted the corporate veteran. At the RK Swamy Memorial Lecture, Balaraman had credited the late advertising doyen with creating the infrastructure for communication in Chennai even beyond the agency.

He remembers visualiser Niku Nair and (then) copywriters Mythili Chandrasekar and Indu Balachandran from the 1970 team, fondly.

“What Swamy brought in was a discipline in the organisational system that was comprehensive. There were creative people but there were no prima donnas. Later, in the 70s and 80s we saw more agencies come in. They were creatively good, but had their share of prima donnas. I found that creative juices flow very well even in a disciplined set up,” he quips.

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He recalls some work during that period, too, before RK Swamy exited HTA in 1973 to set up RK Swamy Advertising Associates. Among them are a few black and white films for Pond’s Dreamflower Talc distributed and monitored by Blaze Advertising. He also recalls a colourful print ad featuring a young model, Shoba Rajadhyaksha, for Pond’s Angel Face. That face of Pond’s is Shobhaa De today.

A ‘Communication City’

Balaraman argues that the South of India has traditionally been manufacturing oriented, and not as adept at marketing as it should have been. Business evolved from trading to manufacturing but stopped there, he reasons. He bemoans the lack of what he calls a ‘full-fledged organisation’ in the South. When he was at the helm circa 1997-98, Pond’s worked with three agencies – Ogilvy, Lintas and HTA – in Chennai. After it merged with Hindustan Unilever, the account moved to Mumbai leaving the Chennai branches high and dry.

This isn’t the first effort by Balaraman to put Chennai back on the communication map. As head of the Madras Management Association, he attempted to broaden the orientation of the body to look beyond manufacturing, inducting successors like Srinivasan Swamy, CMD of RK Swamy Hansa. Together with the Advertising Club of Madras and with N Murali (now Chairman) of The Hindu (Kasturi and Sons), MMA ran multiple brand summits and advertising forums. The collective efforts didn’t lead to the development of the marketing and communication business in the South, rues Balaraman.

“It will give rise to a lot of jobs and it will give a push to entrepreneurs. We have a lot of brands like Aachi Masala, Pothys, Kalyan Jewellers, and we can have a lot more of them if the marketing and communication ecosystem is in place. Even in Bangalore, today you have full-fledged teams. Chennai does not. Why does a Ford have to shift its team to Delhi?,” he questions.

Balaraman reasons that if Chennai can have a Mahindra World City, which he credits as being ‘truly world class’, and if McKinsey’s global presentations are made in Chennai, the concept of a communication city could be turned into reality. An analogy follows: Chennai has a beach, but not watersports — why not?

“There are many good IT and research parks. We can have one for communication. We can train people, invite colleges to run campuses there. Businesses in Tamil Nadu will then learn marketing,” he adds.

The man who started off as brand manager understands the importance of marketing too well. Balaraman founded Boardroom Advantage in 2007, with the stated objective of brand marketing consultancy, and coaching and mentoring current and future business leaders. He is also on the boards of Delphi TVS Technologies and Indo Nippon Electricals.

Where a well-marketed product earns a gross margin of 70 per cent and PAT of 10 to 12 per cent, a purely manufacturing business will deliver gross margin of 20 to 23 per cent and a net profit after tax of just 6 per cent, estimates Balaraman. The 20 to 30 per cent spends on advertising and promotion deliver returns.

And who better to name a ‘communication city’ that can deliver those returns after, than RK Swamy, who showed several brands here, including PSUs, the RoI that advertising delivers? In other words, the man who brought advertising and communication to the city.

“I wish we had more RK Swamys. I am happy to see his sons doing will. And I am sure they will do well,” surmises Balaraman.

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