In a lifetime spent in advertising, I have come to know plenty of fascinating personalities. But I must confess that AGK was not one of them. In fact, as he himself would readily admit, he was one of the more colourless people in the industry. And that is what makes his success story so much more interesting.
I first met AGK many years ago, when we were working on the launch of a new brand of textiles that would ultimately be known to the world as Vimal. I was a star kid copywriter, famous for having created award-winning work for Raymond’s. AGK was the Advertising Manager of Reliance, our client. Our relationship at the time was – as such copywriter-client relationships often are – not without friction. So when we were told a couple of years later that Reliance had decided to start its own advertising agency, to be headed by AGK, we didn’t hold out any great hope for it – especially since the agency was going to be headquartered not in Mumbai, but in the advertising backwaters of Ahmedabad. We were wrong.
The agency was named Mudra, inspired by a line my agency had coined for Vimal Saris: “A woman expresses herself in many languages. Vimal is one of them”, with its accompanying graphic of a woman’s hand in a Bharatnatyam mudra. The fact that “mudra” also refers to money, of course, made the name a perfect fit for a communication business.
The Ahmedabad Syndrome
By the mid-1980s one started seeing some rather interesting work coming out of Mudra. It was not the kind of work that would necessarily win awards for creativity, but the kind that built solid brands. One began to realise, then, the wisdom in basing the agency in Ahmedabad.
Thanks to what former P&G honcho Gurcharan Das had famously called “The Ahmedabad Syndrome”, the city was home to a breed of ambitious Gujarati entrepreneurs, who were now looking to move their businesses up the value chain and needed branding support – support that Mudra, of course, was ideally positioned to offer them. And thus were born brands like Rasna, Dhara cooking oil, Moov pain cream, Krack foot cream, Symphony air coolers, Zydus Cadilla pharmaceuticals and Wagh Bakri tea.
Mudra expanded its footprint and by the end of the 1980s, to everybody’s surprise, it suddenly emerged as India’s No 3 ad agency after JWT and Lowe. AGK had proved all the disbelievers wrong, and lived out the agency’s theme line of the time: “If you can dream it, you can do it”.
‘Leave your ego outside’
The success of the dark horse agency surprised a lot of people. I remember asking friends at Mudra what the secret was, and I got some interesting replies. One friend told me that AGK believed that ad agencies tended to foster a culture of prima donnas and indiscipline, and that one of his dicta, therefore, was, “When you come to the office, please leave your ego outside. You can collect it when you’re going home in the evening.”
Someone else told me a story about how AGK treated his staff. He said he had gone into AGK’s office to resign. As soon as he entered, AGK handed him an envelope with a hefty performance bonus inside. My acquaintance was embarrassed, as this made his position more awkward than it already was. Nevertheless, he told AGK he was quitting, and when he finally got up to leave, he left behind the envelope with the bonus. But AGK called after him, “You forgot to take this.” When my acquaintance hesitated, AGK smiled, handed it to him and said, “This is for what you’ve done in the past. The fact that you’re now quitting has nothing to do with it.” How many people, my acquaintance asked, would have been big enough to do that?
Transition to education
Having created India’s third largest ad agency, AGK – or “AGK sir”, as he was sometimes called – went on to set up MICA, India’s first post-graduate advertising and communications school, with a view to increasing India’s talent pool. It was something people had been talking about for a long, long time, but he was the first person to roll up his sleeves and actually do it.
It was a real coup – especially when he got Mani Ayer, who had recently retired as Managing Director of Ogilvy, to be the school’s Director. I happened to be on the visiting faculty, and I remember once bumping into AGK on the premises. To my surprise, he remembered me from the time, many years before, when we had worked on the Vimal launch together. He took me for a walk around the grounds, proudly pointing out, among other things, the line of trees bearing the names of the visiting VIPs who had planted them.
The next time I caught up with AGK was in his subsequent avatar, ten years later, in Hyderabad. By now, he had retired from Mudra and set up his own brand consultancy. He was, therefore, brand consultant to some of my agency’s clients, and sat across the table from us at meetings. He was a tough, demanding client, and whatever might have changed about him over the years, one thing that evidently hadn’t changed was his dictum of, “Please leave your ego outside”.
Dinners at the Ritz
One of the clients we shared was the CARE Hospitals Group, and the two of us had to make trips to Mumbai together to meet the venture capitalists who had taken a stake in the company and wanted to review its branding concerns. And it was over dinners at the Ritz Hotel – AGK’s regular Mumbai haunt – that I got to know something about the person behind the taciturn exterior.
He told me about his life, and the parts chance and risk had played in it. It seemed surprising coming from somebody who appeared to be driven entirely by conviction and drive. He told me how he had started out working in a museum, and then got an offer to work for the well-known Calico textile museum set up by the Sarabhai family.
From there, chance had brought him into advertising, with an opportunity to work in the Sarabhai Group’s house agency, Shilpi (now defunct). Then, once again, chance had gotten him a job offer from Dhirubhai Ambani, who was in the process of setting up Reliance at the time. He thus found himself in precisely the right place at precisely the right time.
He told me stories of Dhirubhai, with whom he had worked closely in those early years, and his remarkable way of thinking and operating. It was such an irony, I remember him saying, that a man with such a remarkable brain should have suffered from – of all things – a cerebral stroke. He also talked of Dr Verghese Kurien, the father of Amul, evidently another person whom he idolised.
His two “children”
He also spoke about his two “children”, Mudra and MICA. But there seemed to be some element of regret as well. When I asked him, for example, what he would do differently if he could live his life all over again, he thought for a moment and said that he should have perhaps left Mudra 10 years earlier and moved on to do other things. He didn’t say more, and I didn’t want to ask.
The last time I met AGK was five years ago. He was brand consultant to an industrial group which was a client of my agency. We were working on a vexing brand strategy project for them and he, typically, pushed us hard. But I will say this: what I discovered about branding while working on that two-month project is what I would have otherwise taken a year to discover. And that is something I think a lot of people would say about the way he had of bringing out the best in them.