The chairman of RK Swamy BBDO tells Sushila Ravindranath how the face of the ad world has changed since the days of the grand old man of Indian advertising
RK Swamy is one of the legendary figures of Indian advertising. It is part of industry folklore how he left Hindustan Thompson Associates, now known as JWT, to launch the eponymous RK Swamy Advertising Associates in 1973, at the age of 50. It is the only Chennai-based agency that has had a national presence ever since it was founded. Within seven years, the company had set up offices in India’s top five cities. It quickly became one of the top agencies in the country. In 1985, when foreign agencies started entering India, RK Swamy tied up with the global conglomerate BBDO—a relationship which has lasted ever since.
Srinivasan (Sundar) Swamy, RK Swamy’s son, joined the business after completing his engineering in Chennai and an MBA from the Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies in 1978. When the elder Swamy passed away in 2003, Srinivasan Swamy took over as chairman and managing director. He has spent 38 years with the agency and has won many awards, some of them international. I want him to tell me about his journey, how the agency withstood the many changes in the country’s advertising and marketing scene, and how it maintains its position as the fourth-largest group in the country in terms of revenue and the number of people (2,000) working in the marketing services space.
We meet for lunch at the sprawling Madras Cricket Club, in the middle of Chennai. It is a sports club which also serves very good food. The mood there is a little sombre, as there aren’t going to be any IPL matches in Chennai and there’s no Chennai Super Kings team year. We settle down in the Bouncer restaurant, ordering their famous cricketer drink—a mix of orange squash lemonade and soda.
One can either order a la carte or go for the executive lunch at the Bouncer. We decide to have vegetarian lunch, which has just about everything—rotis, vegetables, various kinds of mixed rice, raita and so on. Waiting for the food to arrive, I ask him about his early years. “Those were heady days, exciting, difficult and fun. I was first in charge of Chennai and then the southern and eastern regions. We grew fast. We were one of the first agencies to work with public sector clients. We set up a large office in Bombay in 1975.” His younger brother Shekar Swamy, the group CEO, is based in Mumbai.
A few weeks ago, the Advertising Club Madras presented its prestigious Distinguished Service Award to Swamy. His father was conferred with the first award in 1994. Swamy is the sixth recipient of this award in the last 22 years. Among the other awards he has picked up are the Japan Advertising Association Award of Appreciation for Providing Visionary Leadership to CAAAA (Confederation of Asian Advertising Agency Associations) and the IAA World Champion at its inaugural Inspire Awards. “In my four years with CAAAA as chairman and vice-chairman, I drafted their constitution. I was very involved,” says Swamy. “One gets a clear idea of what is happening in the industry and industry-related problems when you have these global positions. You meet new people, some seriously influential ones, and understand new challenges. Life becomes interesting.”
Swamy tells me about the time he took over as president of the Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) in 2004. This was when the Goafest was launched. “AAAI, at that time, was a Mumbai-centric incestuous place. The industry was run by north Indians, not even Mumbaikars, who were guarding it like a fortress, making sure outsiders didn’t breach it. RK Swamy and I have been the exceptions.” Swamy is the only one to have enjoyed three continuous terms as president. “In my first year, we ran the AAAI awards, which were not seen as something many wanted to compete for. The Ad Club Bombay presented the coveted ABBY awards. During my second term, AAAI started Goafest as an event and not as a one-night awards function. Overnight, we became the most popular, with the bulk of the industry backing it. In my third term, we widened the scope to include media awards. Goafest has just completed its 11th year, with a record number of 4,500 entries and 2,500 delegates.
As we work our way through lunch, I ask Swamy why Chennai today is considered the graveyard for the advertising industry. He does not think so. “Some major clients such as Ford and Hyundai moved out of Chennai. The car market is huge in Delhi and they headed there. HLL took over Chennai-based Ponds and that account moved to Mumbai. Marketers go where the business is. Talent can always fly down where the market is. We also have to accept that the industry is in Mumbai and 60% of our revenues come from there.”
He does not write Chennai off, pointing out that the city has a robust retail industry. “Textile and jewellery business is constantly growing and is advertising. The real estate business has not seen any serious failures in recent years.
The outsiders who entered the Chennai market haven’t done so well.” I can’t resist asking for trifle pudding, which is not in the set menu. I remember having this from my childhood days. Swamy agrees to share it with me.
We discuss how tough the last few years have been for advertising. Print is in stress and its share in advertising has reduced considerably. “We’ve still managed double-digit growth year-on-year. In a difficult environment, we managed 12% growth last year. This was possible because we have transformed ourselves in the last decade.”
The group works under two brands—RK Swamy BBDO and Hansa. It has two operating entities—Hansa GCR and Hansa Marketing Services in the US. RK Swamy BBDO is principally a marketing communications company. Hansa has multiple units and has business interests in a wide spectrum of marketing services. Hansa Research and Hansa Cequity are the leading India-owned media, market research and marketing analytics companies. The group has 400 call centres which are essential for both analytics and market research. “We connect with the consumer in multiple ways.”
“If RK Swamy returns today, he will not recognise the agency he founded,” adds his son as we leave.