The Indian Mad Men

Showbiz - Indian Mad Men
In an era when numbers matter more than figures of speech, Prabhakar Mundkur doffs his hat to some of the people who made our Advertising Memorable

‘Advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on.’ – Jerry Della Femina

My story starts 42 years ago. Rejected as a bum by many corporates because they couldn’t fathom why any student would give up college for 3 years to become a professional musician, I reluctantly decided to apply to an ad from daCunha Associates in The Times of India recruitment columns, that asked for an Account Executive with 5 years experience. That may sound odd to the ad-man of today. An Account Executive with 5 years experience? Were they looking for people who hadn’t made it? Were they slow those days? After all, in today’s advertising world, if you were still an Account Executive with 5 years’ experience you were most certainly a confirmed failure. When everyone else is making it to Senior VP in 5 years.

Sylvester daCunha
Sylvester daCunha

My heart beats expectantly. I dream of being freed from the Rs 120 pocket money that my parents gift me every month while doing my MA in Econometrics and Mathematical Economics. How was I to know that 38 years later Sir Martin would be looking for math men? Was I over-qualified for the job at that time? Of course, I was. The last advertising agency I applied to, had asked me to become a statistician in a bank instead. As if I wasn’t intelligent enough to have considered that possibility already. My clever application letter to daCunha’s read that we were both looking for the same thing. 5 years. Except that I was looking for the 5 years ahead. And daCunha Associates was looking for it behind. Somehow that seemed to attract Sylvester daCunha. Miracle. I got the job. But a clever letter was a big mistake. He put me on a 5-year iron-clad contract.

The Age of Supermen

Sylvester daCunha or Sylvie as everyone who knew him was one of the original mad men of the Indian advertising industry. Talented like hell. Born copywriter. Theatre Man. Disciplinarian. Exacting. Tore through my artwork because I missed a colon for a semi-colon. (in the days of hot metal typesetting) Never again God would I make a proofreading error. Respected. By clients and ad people. Once a client from a reputed MNC flung my layouts to the floor because he didn’t like the creative. When I returned to the agency to tell Sylvie my tale of woe, he turned red like a tomato. Next, he was on the phone to the Chairman of this big multi-national to tell him he was resigning the account. People with courage. People with a spine. Not the namby-pamby advertising leaders of today.

Pimms and the Politician

Bal Mundkur
Bal Mundkur

Bal Mundkur. Founder of FCB Ulka. Namesake. Our forefathers came from the same little hamlet 40 km north of Mangalore. Fierce. Friendly. Adventurer. Gutsy like hell. Bad mouthed when required. Could punch a sock if someone challenged him. Ruffian. One of the 6 cadets from India to be recruited into the Royal Navy. Saw action in Scotland in the World War in 1942. Art collector. Chess antique collector. Art restorer. Man of the world. World traveler. A romantic. Was capable of flying from Paris to Zurich just for a date. When he spoke of having a drink with Zulfy he was speaking about Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Revelation! Was equally comfortable with politicians and kings. Gambler. My bonuses used to come from the Rs 100 I won for every chess game I beat him at. His reason for losing. That I would first weaken him with some Saraswat food before I invited him to a chess game. Favorite dish: A soup made of horse gram, a Konkani specialty. Favorite morning drink: Bloody Mary. (Don’t forget the celery stick.) Or Pimms. ‘ I am one of the two people in the country that imports crates of Pimms’.

If he was made to wait for more than 10 minutes in the client’s reception he would gather everyone and say ‘ Boys lets leave. We are not waiting for any client’. Man with a spine. Courageous. Brave. Made the ad men of today feel like puny spineless little weaklings.

Confidence Unmatched

Mohammed Khan
Mohammed Khan

Mohammed Khan. Threw my Vadilal layouts out of the window from the 3rd floor of our Shivsagar Estate office at Worli, because the client had no budget and I had asked Elsie to make the layouts in Black & White. Who the f…does ice-cream layouts in B & W? The truth slowly dawned. Before the client walked into the office, a few thousand people in Worli had trampled on my layouts. C’mon Prabs. Courage. Tell the client to forgive you. Ask and you shall receive. Forgiven. Best friends forever.

No credentials presentation for Mohammed, he didn’t believe in them like the large agencies. Our creds were 12 little chits put into a top hat (bought from Crawford Market). The chits had the names of our clients. Pick any one of these and I will show you the work he would say. Confident that every client’s work was as good as the next one. Guts! Not like the ad men of today. Who hide their worst work behind their awards.

From Madness to Sanity

Perhaps to be too practical is Madness?’ – Miguel De Cervantes in Man of la Mancha

Mike Khanna
Mike Khanna

Mike Khanna. Sane. Calm. Controlled. Shy. Introspective. Introvert. Quiet Rage. Learnt everything there was to learn about advertising and about managing an agency. Gutsy like hell again. What was it about these guys? Where did all that courage come from? Once a client threatened to speak to Mike Khanna because I had refused to do a job with an impossible deadline. He just calmly told the client “If Prabhakar Mundkur says it can’t be done, it can’t be done.” Faith in your people. Courage to call a spade a spade with the client. Confidence.

From Mad Men to Math Men

“We are not in the advertising business anymore,” proclaimed Sir Martin Sorrell some time ago, like some Nostradamus predicting the death of advertising as we know it. “Don Draper wouldn’t recognize Adland,” he said, pitting Don Draper’s Mad Men against today’s Math Men. (Thank God for Don that he escaped this ).

So it’s hello Data. Hello Content. Goodbye, good writing. Goodbye language. Goodbye flair and personality. Goodbye Courage. Goodbye Intuition. Goodbye entrepreneurship. Goodbye Creativity as we know it. Bye-bye pink gins.

Maybe the advertising business should move smoothly into calculus. I guess it was coming with the number of times we used the word ‘integrated’, I knew we were unconsciously nudging ‘integral’. It had to come to this.

Goodbye Advertising. God Bless. It was lovely knowing you while it was the best fun you could have with your clothes on. I still love you.

About Prabhakar Mundkur

Prabhakar Mundkur is an advertising veteran, a lateral thinker, storyteller and musician. A coffee aficionado, husband and a father of two, he also describes himself as dogs’ best friend.

View all posts by Prabhakar Mundkur

2 Comments on “The Indian Mad Men”

  1. Gosh Prabs.
    All the memories of the wonderful world of insanity came flooding back. What a pleasure to read your post, and by golly, it’s so well written!
    Cheers
    Denis
    The lunatic at JWT Delhi.
    aka Absolute Bull

  2. Hi Prabhakar
    Pleasure reading your piece on three men I admired. Almost worked for one – Bal Mundkur but it didn’t come through

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