Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mani Ayer's two-word mantra

S. R. Mani Ayer,Former Managing Director, Ogilvy & Mather

Ayer was visiting Chennai. I presented with great enthusiasm a campaign we had developed for a client. Little did I know about the two-word weapon he would use to assess it.

Ayer put every advertisement to the ‘So what?' test. It was the quickest way to check for relevance. How does it matter to the audience? How does it matter to the client? Often, these two words removed the puff and helped us discover the essence of what we wanted to say. Much as we dreaded the sessions where we laid out advertising strategies and creative work to SRA, the discussions that ensued were enriching.

Ayer hired me at Ogilvy Benson & Mather in 1975. In my very first interview on December 2, 1974, he said, “I will hire you. I don't know when and where.”

I did not know how to react to this. I asked him if I could call up to find out. “Sure. Once a week.” Thereafter from December until March, I called him every Thursday at 9:15 a.m. sharp. The conversation was simple.
“Good Morning, Mr Ayer. Sridhar here. Any news for me, Mr Ayer?”
“Not yet. Keep in touch.”
Finally, he gave me my letter in March 1975. He sent me to Chennai soon thereafter.

October 11, 1976. Four of us from Chennai had come to Mumbai to attend an account management training programme. Three of my colleagues died in an air crash that morning. I had stayed back to visit my sister, but the Times of India had also carried my name in the list of passengers who were killed. On hearing the news, I rushed to Apeejay House.

Ayer was visibly relieved to see me. You could see he was disturbed but he had to take charge and move on. He asked me, “Is it OK for you to fly this evening?” I returned to Chennai and he arrived the next day.

I saw a great leader, a compassionate human in action in the days that followed. I accompanied him on his visits to the families. He quickly put together a team to run OBM, Chennai. Supriya Das from our Kolkata office moved in to run the office until we could hire a manager. Mohan Menon moved from Mumbai to look after the Creative Department.
Ayer would fly in every week to meet clients, spend time with us and keep us going.

There used to be a Southern Railway Canteen opposite Higginbotham's. We used to have curd rice for lunch there. Ayer would join us for these curd rice lunches.

He and I used to visit Bangalore to meet Vijaya Bank and Binny's. We used to take the Bangalore mail and stay at Barton Court. Travelling with Ayer was an extraordinary experience. He was a fund of knowledge and a great storyteller. I remember one particular trip when we spoke throughout the night until we arrived in Bangalore.

As he helped me grow in the organisation, I began to understand this extraordinary person. Plagued by self-doubt, I often went to him with my resignation. He would listen to me with infinite patience, give me tips on what to do, and I would go back confident and happy. It was like talking to a therapist. He made me feel valued, respected and important. Many of us proudly call ourselves graduates of the Ayer school. He helped us realise our potential — he nurtured us as he would plants in a garden.

When Suresh Mullick passed away, he was keen to bring out a book on him and entrusted me with the task. The project did not take off for quite some time. I was embarrassed about my inaction but Ayer was kind and patient. Finally, we managed to put together an e-book on Suresh. I feel blessed he gave me a task that was dear to him.

He was a boss, a mentor, a coach, guru — no single word can describe my relationship with him. He lit a flame in each of us who worked with him. It is a flame eternal, that will continue. Those of us who were lucky enough to receive must be gracious enough to give. That is what he taught us.

(The writer is a graduate of the Ayer school.)

1 comment:

Nataraj said...

Nice article...looking forward for the copy of ebook on Sridhar...can you mail to me at thanks in advance.