The Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) honored Madhukar Kamath, Chairman Emeritus DDB Mudra Group, with 2019’s AAAI Lifetime Achievement Award in the presence of a veritable Who’s Who of the advertising industry. What Kamat delivered after receiving the highest honour that is given to individuals in India for their outstanding contribution to the Advertising Industry, was a heart-warming, engrossing, insightful and truly rewarding address in which he recounted a Lifetime of Inspiration in an evening of gratitude.
From aspiring young professionals to the young executives and managers to the top leaders and veterans across the Industry, for all without exception, this is an engrossing, inspiring glimpse into a lifetime of outstanding contribution and achievement.
Kamath’s address afforded the power-packed audience rewarding glimpses into his entrepreneurial spirit, determination, beliefs and values, and his enormous wisdom which, together, helped him attain great success in every challenge he took up. He also shared some of the precious #LifeLessons he learnt along the way.
Mediabrief.com brings you what is, to use an old term, surely a cut-and-keep for the continuous learner: the thoughts and writing from a great mind. Read and revel, as Madhukar Kamath recounts an era in an evening.
Madhukar Kamath’s address at the AAAI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony 2019:
This is an evening of Gratitude. To all those who touched my life in the last 43 years. To all those who taught me what to do and more importantly what not to do. To all my bosses who hired me and gave me the freedom to be. To all those colleagues who allowed me to stand beside them and at times stand on their shoulders and made me look good. To all those who allowed their talents and stardust to rub off on me. To all those who I might have unintentionally rubbed up the wrong way. To all those who encouraged me. To all those who criticised me.
And yes to each and every one of you, who has come here to make this evening special. This evening is for you. And to those of you, who are patiently waiting for me to finish and for the bar to open, I will be quick.
It’s been a good and exciting journey. Where I enjoyed going to work every morning. Every single day. I have no intention of recounting all the highlights. My dear friends like Sandeep, Santosh, Shashi and Prasoon have already spoken. Killing me softly with embarrassment. Instead, let me share a few quick stories; rather, snippets… for those of you who tweet. It is hashtag LifeLessons.
First, a confession. When I entered this profession, my ambition was to be a Senior AE in 5 years and retire as a branch manager. That’s the truth.
Bright-eyed and awe-struck, I looked up to legends like Subhas Ghoshal, Subroto Sengupta, Bal Mundkur, Alyque Padamsee, Mani Iyer and so on.
And then, as I grew in this business, over the years, I was inspired by AG Krishnamurthy, Mohammed Khan, Bobby Sista, Arun Nanda, Ravi Gupta, Sylvester DCunha, etcetera.
I applauded and admired Ranjan Kapur, Goutam Rakshit, Anil Kapoor, and some in this room like Piyush Pandey, Sam Balsara and the thorough gentleman that he is, Ramesh Narayan — to name just a few. To receive this honour today and by default join their ranks is truly humbling. Thank you AAAI.
A G Krishnamurthy was the true wind beneath my wings. For over a decade, he allowed me to grow personally and professionally. It’s been an honour to succeed him at Mudra and @MICA: @KamathMadhukar Click To Tweet
In the best of Oscar tradition, I wish to acknowledge a few people. To begin with, my parents. They are responsible for me. My mother, in her late eighties, has flown in from Mysore, just for this evening. Her sacrifice and perhaps some of her jewellery enabled me to complete my management education.
My best friend, who has also been my harshest critic and kept me grounded at all times, my beautiful and talented wife Shalini. My four wonderful kids, with whom I had no arguments, only generational differences and often tangential perspectives. Mitali, Dishank, Maanav and Akanksha. Just two of them could be here today. And as they say, never, never ever, forget your mother-in-law… her blessings over close to two decades have kept me going. Thank you.
The wind beneath my wings
Coming to my professional career, it is AG Krishnamurthy. He was the true wind beneath my wings. For over a decade, he allowed me to grow personally and professionally. It’s been an honour to succeed him at Mudra and MICA.
I must also shine the spotlight on the legendary Keith Reinhard, the Chairman Emeritus of DDB. Keith, though being one of the key architects of the creation of the holding company, Omnicom, in 1986, stayed behind in agency operations. He is singularly and selflessly responsible for keeping the Bernbach legacy alive and spreading it around the world. Just to watch him, interact with him, and even be in the same room as him, is an experience that no money can buy. To both of them, my salutations.
How not to…
Next up, three of my other bosses in my long career. They will go unnamed. From them I learnt what not to do as you grow in your career.
One: Never bury your head in the sand like an Ostrich. Do not wish away problems or the pangs of growth. Face the realities.
Two: Learn to ‘let go’ as you go up the organisation. Don’t hang on.
And Three: never be in a situation where you need to walk and have to constantly watch your back. Look ahead.
I learnt from their mistakes. A silent prayer for the departed souls of these three gentlemen, in gratitude.
Perhaps I am blessed. Or just lucky? To have had some truly life-changing opportunities come my way.
Four in particular stand out. First, the opportunity to go and acquire and perhaps rescue my alma mater.
Second, the opportunity to lead the organisation where I grew up — both personally and professionally.
Third, to have a role in building an educational institution of repute and to contribute to the talent pool for the entire Marketing Services Industry.
And finally, to be given the responsibility to lead the Industry body and help shape its future.
It’s been a rather busy but certainly a full life. Interestingly, every one of these opportunities has arisen from a specific challenge.
Never play safe
Along the way, I’ve learnt to take the road that is not predictable. My personal life also illustrates this. In 1988, I decided to join a little-known, much derided home-grown Indian Agency called Mudra. I chose it over a well-polished, much applauded and decorated multinational organisation that offered me instant fame and yes, more money. I liked the entrepreneurial spirit, the native wisdom and the never-say-die spirit. Epitomised in the Walt Disney line, which AGK adopted for Mudra: If you can dream it, you can do it.
Bates or Clarion
Thereafter, I followed the motto of ‘never play safe’. Choose a more difficult option rather than the easier one. Like the challenge that faced me when I joined the Cordiant Group in 1999. Cordiant does not exist today. It was consumed by the voracious appetite of WPP. The brief given to me was to either set up Bates India with two network clients — a simple good start up — or go into muddy waters and do the acquisition of a much venerated but troubled agency that had fallen on very bad times.. An agency called Clarion. My alma mater. As a freshly-minted MBA, in June of 1976, I had begun my career in Clarion McCann.
Over the years, McCann exited, several others quit and formed splinter groups and start-ups that went on to compete and do well. Clarion, through the constant struggle amongst the unholy troika, over two decades, of an obdurate Board, an earnest but short-lived top management that changed frequently, and a demanding union — yes a labour Union in an agency — was on the brink of bankruptcy. With employee dues not paid, with life savings and provident fund pay-outs at risk, dis-accreditation notices, etcetera. Clarion was just a few weeks away from liquidation and blood on the streets. A story not told, made public or acknowledged to date.
I chose the latter.
Interestingly, the solution and acquisition strategy was worked out on a paper napkin at a bar! It meant tough conversations with the Board that wanted to just hand over and go away, reassure a very talented management team to travel with you, and some tight-rope walking and talking with a fairly militant Union.
What followed was perhaps the largest voluntary retirement scheme – a downsizing of approximately 60 percent; unheard of. In just one day. Overnight. We ensured that every single employee, who left, was given his or her dues, and there was no spilt blood. A 100% acquisition. All within 100 days. Start to finish. Without much noise and any media speculation or coverage. I will leave the details for a book perhaps!
And just when I was settling down with a team of talented colleagues, the goodwill and appreciation of reputed clients like ITC, Nokia, Hindustan Lever, Tata Salt, Tata AIG, Hyundai, to name just a few, came another challenge.
Out of the blue, in 2003, I get a challenge thrown at me. ‘Can you come back and succeed the founder Chairman & Managing Director of Mudra, AGK’, who was retiring? Naturally I said yes. I had a half-day overlap and a hand-over that lasted just 30 minutes. Perhaps the shortest in history. What followed was rocky — close to 50 percent of the business and profit base vanished in 12 months. Entirely due to extraneous reasons. That story is for a different day!
I drew inspiration from the entrepreneurial zeal that had grown Mudra and Keith Reinhard who had shown that building on a legacy, also opened up numerous opportunities. Over the next 8 years with the influx of new clients and talent and businesses we built the Mudra Group to become India’s largest home-grown Agency conglomerate. I succeeded in reviving a long lost conversation with DDB. And finally, working closely with the CEO of Omnicom, John Wren, I helped make the Omnicom acquisition of the Mudra Group happen in 2011. Again, under the radar. Quietly. Well, there is an exciting story there too. Some other day, perhaps. Or after several drinks… Lesson learnt was that building on a legacy is as important as looking to create one.
Next, a challenge that irked me. I was asked to merge and hand over the then Mudra Institute of Communication with a different Institution. I defied the advice. Over, the years, with the help of stalwarts like another legend, Gerson DCunha, the ex-Election Commissioner Mr Vittal, the former Director of IIM, Prof Khandwala, Prof Ramesh Sarin from XLRI, to name just a few, Directors like Atul Tandon etc, and a new Governing Council of which Santosh Desai is here, we transformed the Mudra Institute of Communication into MICA.
Today, it is an independently run Business School that specialises in Strategic Marketing & Communication Management. Profitable, self-funded and having a very healthy corpus. With a fantastic Alumni base. Apart from numerous CXOs in the Marketing, Media and Communication Industry, three of the top ten agencies have MICA alumni as their CEOs. I am grateful to the opportunity to head the Mudra Foundation and the Governing Council of MICA, for well over a decade. 14 years, to be exact.
Finally and interestingly, going against the norm and tradition, the President-ship of the Industry body the AAAI was held back from me, and I was asked to contest an election. I had to win it the hard way. I was fortunate to enjoy the goodwill and support of a large number of Industry leaders. But what was more important was that the entire executive committee helped me in my endeavour to lay the foundation for the future of our Industry and also bring to an end the warring factions of competing award shows.
Fundamental changes were made. The constitution was changed. Sundar Swamy helped me immensely in that. We built an inclusive future. For Media Agencies, Digital Agencies and more to follow. I could not have done that without many of you in the room. Thank you.
The lesson learnt over the four decades underscored the importance of constantly reinventing and staying relevant. Decade after decade as the Industry changed. As market forces changed, the very construct of operations changed, remuneration structures changed and so on. I treated it like a long distance run where it was necessary to stay the course and not look at it as a sprint.
Finally I put to practice what I have always preached. Leave at the right time. Build succession plans. Have backups. Plan B if need be. Make way for fresh thinking. Trust youngsters. The current CEO of the Mudra Group today, Aditya Kanthy, was not even born when I began my career in 1976.
Surround yourself with talent better than you
All my milestones and achievements and the award today is entirely due to the dictum I faithfully followed of ‘surround yourself with talent better than you’. I was fortunate. Yes that’s the right word. I only wish I could name each and every one of them here.
My extended family
I dedicate this Award to all those who worked alongside me, be it in Mudra, MICA, the Advertising Industry, the Media fraternity, fellow organisers of Ad Asia in Delhi, the talented leaders at the Advertising Standards Council of India, the INS or Indian Newspapers Society, the IBF or the Indian Broadcasting Federation, the Audit Bureau of Circulations and finally the NGO Plan India, which has allowed me to be a part of the mission to touch the lives of 10 million children and take forward the gender equality agenda.
You are my extended family. I will always be grateful to you.