Friday, February 5, 2016

AGK: Advertising legend with a difference

AG Krishnamurthy, who was my boss for 6 years between 1987 and 1993 in advertising agency Mudra (now DDB Mudra group) passed away today leaving hundreds of people and families desolate for he had shaped their careers, outlooks and often their characters. I have spent my entire life in advertising and have realised that advertising people, while they come in all hues, seem to have certain basic characteristics. They are invariably well turned out, smooth talking with a “hail fellow well met” look that you can recognise miles away. I have always been amazed by their ability to guzzle a few quick ones even if I have not been inspired by their solutions to advertising problems. AGK was different. He started his life as the curator in the Madras museum and rose to become the Chairman and Managing Director of India’s fastest growing advertising agency and one that remained truly Indian for an enormously long period in time. 

Advertising is all about solving problems
Some people can sell you anything under the sun, with their smooth talking ability but are very shallow thinkers. AGK had the rare ability of translating complex communication problems into single sentences. His solutions were path breaking. Who can forget the cute girl eyeballing the camera with an “I love you Rasna” or the advertising for an essentially ordinary tagline “only Vimal” that through different executions, season after season, made it a major brand. He was passionate about advertising and Mudra. He had the childlike ability to be turned on by great advertising. I remember his obvious and patent excitement when we first showed him the Wilman shave foam commercial with the lines “I don’t want to shave” that won us international recognition. In a day and age when advertising heads of agency keep looking at percentages he looked at creative for he believed that if you took care of the agency’s product the numbers would take care of themselves.
Manager with a difference
Advertising professionals are hardly great managers though there have been wonderful exceptions. He was an amazingly secure man in an industry that breeds insecurity given the fact that he belonged to a small town, nor did he have a fancy degree. He surrounded himself with MBAs from IIM in the late Eighties and mind you some of us had enormous egos and his philosophy was “talent without tantrums”. He truly followed this philosophy in an industry that had a fair share of prima donnas. He realised that advertising is “the business of producing ads and TV commercials” and Mudra was an agency that was run brilliantly contrary to belief.
Mudra made profits quarter on quarter and we all met our targets. He was able to enthuse the agency with the energy that you might see in a start-up today. He truly believed that the managers’ only job is to motivate his team. The agency rocked and many of us who spent our formative years in Mudra are better managers and more importantly better human beings today thanks to him. I will just give you a small incident of how different he was as a professional. He wrote a letter to my wife enclosing a beautiful sari, thanking her for supporting me in my travels and underscoring her importance to Mudra. An MBA herself she was floored by the enormous simplicity and genuineness of the man.
Maligned and misunderstood
One of the most intriguing things of that time as I reflect on it today is the fact that nobody understood Mudra or “Mr Mudra”. He for one had the courage to have his corporate office in Ahmedabad of all places. He kept a low profile and gave no interviews. I remember in an industry forum, another big ad professional of that time calling him an invisible man to howls of laughter from the industry which was envious of the business that the new kid on the block was picking up with such ostensible ease. It was the industry’s loss that it did not till much later give him his due. But the people who worked with him and his clients knew his enormous worth to industry, advertising and brands. Who had the vision to start Mudra even as this august institution completes 25 years? Who has given so much back to industry?
The triumvirate of Indian advertising
I had the good fortune of starting my life in advertising with RK Swamy. A true legend. I had the good fortune of knowing Mani Ayer, who was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame when I was president of the Advertising Club in Bangalore. I have written tributes to both these giants of modern Indian advertising and now it is my lot to write for my best boss who embodied the Nike line of “just do it” in advertising. I will miss him as will thousands of others whose life he has touched in so many small ways. He gave so much back to the industry that gave him everything. AGK, your memory and legacy will live on. 

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