Former chairman of BHEL and MMTC recounts the late ad doyen offering to resign from the business, owning responsibility for a plagiarised ad
By Gokul Krishnamoorthy
RK Swamy and his son-in-law and head of Mumbai operations NV Ramanan once walked into then Minerals and Metals Trading Corporation (MMTC) Chairman SVS Raghavan’s office, saying they wanted to resign as advertising agency handling the PSU’s account on moral grounds. An agency staffer had plagiarised an ad that had appeared in a Japanese newspaper and MMTC had run it. The agency’s competitors wrote to the CBI and a vigilance officer informed Raghavan that there was an enquiry on RK Swamy and himself.
The Padma Shri awardee went to (then) Union Minister VP Singh. As he recalls, Singh told him something like, “I am following the ads. It is being done well. If one employee does something wrong, that is alright.” He even took the example of cockroaches in a smooth glass bowl pulling down a peer trying to climb up, remembers the man who will turn 90 next May in a relaxed conversation over coffee in Chennai.
He cites the incident as testimony to RK Swamy’s unwavering, high ethical standards.
“I continued at MMTC, RK Swamy continued as our agency. In fact, Singh was so impressed with the agency’s work, that he wanted to take RK Swamy to Uttar Pradesh where he was in charge of the (political) campaign.”
It was the same Singh who had asked the incoming Chairman in 1983, “Is it (advertising for MMTC) necessary?” Raghavan too had been forewarned of militant staff and low morale, among other issues. According to him, international papers had said, ‘You don’t walk into MMTC without a suitcase’. RK Swamy was brought in as the agency. The late doyen had impressed on Raghavan the need to motivate staff first. A campaign followed.
A union leader, among those who saw advertising expenditure as a waste of money prior, got emotional at the recognition he received at a hospital when they knew he was an MMTC employee. The campaign had worked. He came and told the Chairman, ‘Kamaal saab.’ MMTC grew tenfold in about five years, to around Rs 5000 crore in turnover and Rs 500 crore in profit, recalls Raghavan.
Jab They Met
Raghavan moved to BHEL and Trichy from his enviable position as Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Defence. What caused him to take up what was perceived as a demotion was a call from his octogenarian father, yearning for the company of his only son. At the PSU that was just getting set up, he met his boss, General Manager RS Krishnan. “He was idealistic and very honest. He used to say, ‘I want to make a public sector project a success’. Those were days when PSUs were criticised in the pit, pulpit and the press,” reminsces the PSU veteran. Krishnan’s idealism rubbed off. The GM also introduced Raghavan to a certain Krishnaswamy, a ‘publicity’ person.
Raghavan shared the same concern that VP Singh would have several years later. There seemed to be no purpose in advertising when one had a captive audience. He quips, “PSUs were in loss and those losses were well-publicised. We didn’t need further publicity of the losses.”
But he would come around. Krishnaswamy (who came to be known later as RK Swamy), with colleagues ‘Billimoria’ and ‘Krishnamurthy’ from HTA, were in his room. When Raghavan explained to them why the boiler company didn’t need advertising, RK Swamy requested to see the factory. He came back to tell Raghavan that neither he nor his employees had seen the final product that was made in the factory. The rest is history. The first campaign ran in 1965.
The advertising brought in pride and a sense of ownership among employees, elevated the stature of the company and got noticed by the government. Raghavan looks back to credit the role that advertising played in the rise of BHEL, starting with Trichy and later across India. It was also an early instance of good PSU advertising that paved the way for more. RK Swamy would bag the likes of Indian Oil and ONGC on the back of the BHEL work — for HTA first, and after 1973 as RK Swamy Associates.
Clarity in Conflict
Unfortunately, RS Krishnan died on the shop floor and did not see much of the rise of BHEL, bemoans Raghavan. In reverence, employees put up a statue of his and observed silence on his death anniversary.
RK Swamy and SVS Raghavan lived on to see many more fruits of partnership. Raghavan would go on to helm BHEL and MMTC after that. Even when he took up a position as Managing Director of a company in Jakarta, he recalls roping in RK Swamy’s services.
The MMTC instance wasn’t the first time the CBI was asked to look into an issue related to Raghavan and RK Swamy. Even when the contract was handed to RK Swamy for the first time by BHEL, other agencies cried foul. Before the series of ads were released, a query from the investigating agency came Raghavan’s way. He explained to them that irrespective of which agency was on board, the pricing doesn’t change — those were the days of the standard 15 per cent commission. An argument that wouldn’t hold today but won the day back then.
The fierce competition among agencies he witnessed proved to be a precursor to a larger role Raghavan would play later, helming the Competition Commission of India. It was the ‘Raghavan Committee’ that guided the creation of the Competition Act of 2002.
Did he ever think of changing agencies or approaching others, at any point in his long association with RK Swamy and his agency?
“There were many agencies who met us. If somebody is doing well, why should I change the person? You don’t change your wife midstream. Only if you are unhappy will you look outside,” he surmises.