Book review; Sponge: Leadership Lessons I learnt from My clients by Ambi Parameswaran

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New Delhi | Updated: October 28, 2018 2:12:35 AM

Ambi Parameswaran’s book is a practical demonstration of leadership qualities in the advertising and marketing world.

Giving the example of Ratan Tata, the author says a leader should go beyond the vision and get down to the nitty-gritties. (File: Express photo)

‘Be true to yourself’, ‘Learn from mistakes’, ‘Purpose-driven leadership is what sets apart a terrific leader’. While such motivational statements often make the rounds, how do these really translate into practical experience? Ambi Parameswaran’s book, Sponge, is a practical demonstration of leadership qualities. It is a collection of instances when the author—an advertising veteran—absorbed or ‘sponged’ knowledge from clients he interacted with. In a sense, the book borrows as much from established management theories as it does from human behaviour and how to navigate around it.

In the services business, one often meets all sorts of clients across sectors, and multifarious management styles aren’t a cakewalk. The book talks of clients who are humble enough to change their beliefs in line with their ad agency recommendations, clients who accept discordant views, brave clients, forthcoming clients and even clients who admit to their mistakes.

Flagging the book with a chapter on Ratan Tata, the author marks a powerpacked beginning about the quality of a leader to not just be about the vision, but to go beyond it and get down to the nitty-gritties. Tata, for the launch conference of the Indigo Marina car, had actually visited the launch venue 10 hours prior for a spot check to ensure its electroplating was done to perfection. Sitting with the lowest level of employees and figuring out what needs to be done is a quality that not many leaders display today.
The book follows the pattern of short chapters detailing an incident involving a client, followed by the lesson—a ‘moral of the story’ if you will—topped with a management guru/philosopher/analyst’s theories supporting the learning, giving it a larger canvas.

Consider how a client—Pradip Guha who was at the helm of Zee at that point—went against his own marketing team to support his ad agency’s viewpoint. When Guha complained to Parameswaran about the quality of Zee ads selected for hoardings, Parameswaran informed him that it was the Zee marketing team that was dumbing down the creatives to make them look ‘massy’ rather than classy, losing their creative sheen in the process. This is when Guha brought in his chai-wala into the meeting room, asking him to choose between the original creative and the one that had been approved. Needless to say, the chai-wala quite liked the ‘classy’ original version, thus exposing how often marketing departments judge consumers incorrectly. It took courage for a client like that to go with his instinct and do the ‘chai-wala test’.

While the book is insightful, the author spends too much time describing the economy and scenario of that particular time period. This is because the lessons have been put down in no particular order—certainly not chronological, which would have been helpful. For example, all the lessons of the 90s decade could have been clubbed together.

The author also deviates into some historical sub-stories that are too internal agency-specific, and may not really be linked to the chapter or lesson at hand. Like the part where too much history behind the Bhadrachalam Paperboards name is shared, or in the same chapter, how FCB Ulka’s relationship with ITC is detailed. There is a lot of, “Anyway, coming back to the so and so story, …” sprinkled across the book.

The author pays his homage to women leaders like Rama Bijapurkar and Vinita Bali, while also detailing his experiences while interacting with entrepreneurial clients. Consider the example of a valiant client (Sanjeev Bikhchandani) who went against the archetypal advertising of job sites during those times. Other cases in point include Nitish Jain (of Captain Cook salt and atta fame who took on Hindustan Unilever) and Darshanbhai Patel of Paras Pharmaceuticals, who made even selling cosmeceuticals a fad. Take how Moov (a competitor to Iodex) and Krack creams were sold—Moov positioned itself as a cream that didn’t leave stains on clothes post application (unlike Iodex), whereas Krack created a category in itself, targeting housewives who had been using Boroline and Vaseline thus far for cracks on their feet. Through the stories of these entrepreneurs who made risky product and marketing decisions, Parameswaran asserts that “failing to try is worse than failing”.

The chapter on celebrity advertising and how clients react to celebs (including fawning, gushing, asking for autographs or even getting extended family members to ad film shoots) is a hilarious one. And rather true, bearing in mind India’s obsession with celebrities. In 2016, 35% of TV ads in India featured a celebrity. This number is second only to South Korea. Even in the US, it is 30%, the book reveals.

Just because you are in the service industry doesn’t mean you become subservient, is another point the author makes while talking about dealing with difficult clients. Conversely, he also cautions people in the client servicing field to not have prejudices against clients—his own staunch prejudices about political clientele like Chandrababu Naidu were shattered upon dealing with him.

The book isn’t all moral science, though. It also contains some rather entertaining stories of how some brands came into being. Remember Nirma? Do you know how its creator Karsanbhai Patel became a marketing guru for even Shunu Sen, the legendary marketing director of Hindustan Unilever? Or how Nirma’s brand extension into a toothpaste never saw the light of day because of its founder Patel’s sharp business sense that had him admitting that the financials of such a product would not have worked out? Or even how an apple-based drink from Cadbury was a marketing sensation, but tanked in terms of sales?

Written in lucid fashion, the book probably targets upcoming talent looking to enter the advertising/marketing world, but can equally be a light, weekend read for a professional. If you’re willing to forgive a few typos at the publishing end (Foote Cone & Belding is spelt Foot Cone & Belding at one point, ditto for ‘advertisng’ instead of advertising), the book is worth a read.

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