They just don’t make ad men like they used to. The charismatic Subhas Ghoshal, the charmingly intellectual Subroto Sengupta, the visionary people magnet Prashanta Sanyal. And now, joining that list of ad men who have died but will live forever, through legends about them, is Alyque Padamsee.
To say that he was brilliant, impossible, dazzling, utterly his own person and the definer of Indian advertising is an understatement. Like he said in his one-line ad brief for Surf, “always the champion, never the challenger”. And no one could even come close to challenging the pedestal that he occupied — the world that he strode like a colossus.
Advertising leaders of his generation revelled in their difference from the rest of the mere mortals in the world of marketing or business. Unlike subsequent generations, they never aspired to be suits. They pursued their passion as purists and the money followed.
Lintas was my first job. A 20-year-old graduate from IIM Ahmedabad, from a sheltered Army childhood, I had never set eyes on an ad man until Subroto Sengupta came to teach us advertising. Lintas came recruiting that year. They took six of us, the first MBAs they had ever recruited, in an experiment to put left brains alongside the right brained ones.
On the first day in office, I saw a man in cowboy boots, jeans and a Stetson. Thunderstruck, I asked someone who he was. They pointed to a huge poster on the wall drawn by the uber talented Imtiaz Dharker, showing his back with a line that said “Alyque’s back”.
I think he had returned from a sabbatical of some kind. The same evening about 6 pm, the peon took a call at the reception and said on the intercom, “Mr Padamsee, Mrs Padamsee is on the line”. He came out thundering, visibly irritated. “Which Mrs Padamsee you idiot, there are three of them.” (including his mother).
It was with equal elan that he gave us account executives (AEs we were called) work in addition to our day jobs. I was the AE on a client’s wife’s Ikebana exhibition and my classmate on his play Tughlak. The message was that our narrow world needs broadening. He also insisted that we see a Hindi movie often and we had to submit the ticket to the company for reimbursement, and I was pulled up once for not having gone to the movies.
Thus began our journey into consumer insight — of the consumer as a whole person, not just as a buyer of XYZ product — and of understanding that brands existed in the broad worlds of customers, not in the narrow ones of product categories.
That’s the insight that enabled him to give us the Liril girl and Lalitaji, one who luxuriated with abandon under the waterfall, and the other, everybody’s sensible wife and mother who said: “Surf ki khareedari main samajdhari hai”.
My friend Shiva Kumar, then with Levers, remembers how no one wanted to run the Lalitaji ad (I can believe that this was hard for a company that was obsessive about communicating “washes whitest”). But there were no alternatives available (I am sure Alyque with his utter conviction made sure of that) and so, they ran the campaign without showing it to the chairman. Later, the chairman’s wife saw it and told him what a superb ad it was. The rest, as they say, is marketing history.
He is more recently credited with Emami’s Fair & Handsome, a cheeky and successful swipe at the Mecca of marketing, Hindustan Lever.
He also knew the consumer’s pulse and he made us researchers really work hard especially if we were delivering bad news: “Are you telling me that of the many people who drive past that hoarding each day only 5 per cent have seen it? I think you need to reverse the headings on your columns” (seen ad/not seen ad). He told what consumers could be made to think — he could never be accused of having read a research report and listened to it.
This is just one vignette of how Alyque navigated client-agency relationships. A naturally adversarial one, legends like Alyque on one side and the late Shunu Sen (marketing head of Levers) on the other side could bring out the best in each other, hugely respectful of each other though not always kind to one another.
I remember being at a presentation to Hindustan Lever when Alyque and Shunu were both digging in their heels over a campaign being presented. Suddenly Alyque limped in great pain across the room (in the Lintas office), grim-faced and reached out for a bottle of antacid (that I bet had been placed there in advance) and dramatically drank some.
He limped back, slowly, commanding the whole room’s attention, sat down and said, “Shunu, you were saying?” Shunu, meanwhile, had also climbed down and while I can’t remember exactly, I think the campaign got sold after some more discussion.
He also kept the agency side’s morale high, unlike the latter-day attitude of “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. I remember going to another meeting with him, the client was unpleasant, peeved about something the agency didn’t do, refusing to look at what we had for him that day. “Okay, let’s pack up,” said Alyque and stunned, we left the client’s office, our self-esteem intact, Alyque our hero and our determination to prove the client wrong in his assessment, at an all-time high. Not for nothing was Lintas in those days called “Actor & Company”.
He had idiosyncrasies galore and was called God in Lintas. We researchers at Lintas had a GGTM scale and we would argue if he was God’s Gift to Marketing, Management or Mankind — in his reckoning and ours. Several golden greats get dated. Alyque never did. Because he was as curious as he was opinionated about the world and more energetic than anyone I ever knew.
I ran into him a few years ago and in conversation said, “You look tired”. He thundered at me, “Harassed, maybe, tired never”. I hastily withdrew my words. Till the last time I met him, he would grandstand irrespective of whoever was present and say to me, “Hi trainee”. Coming from anyone else it would have been patronising. Coming from him, it was like a benediction.