I bring to you an impactful conversation with Mr Ambi Parameswaran, Brand Strategist & Founder of Brand-Building.com and former Executive Director & CEO, FCB Ulka Advertising. Ambi has worked on iconic companies such as Tata, ITC, Amul, Wipro, TCS etc. He is a distinguished alumnus awardee of IIT-Madras, an alumnus of IIM-Calcutta (where he served for 10 years on its board of governors), and an AMP graduate from Harvard Business School. In this interview, Ambi talks about his years in advertising, lessons from IIM Calcutta and how the journey is more important than the destination.
Tanya: You have been a part of FCB Ulka Advertising for over 25 years, how was the journey?
Ambi: I joined FCB Ulka in 1989 when it was just Ulka Advertising. Some industry experts said that the agency will not survive beyond the next two years. But I had faith in the new management team that was being assembled by Mr Anil Kapoor. Six of us came together during the period 1989-90 and all of us stayed together in the agency right through 20+ years. This team managed to turn around an ailing agency and made it into one of the top four in the country with diverse divisions offering a whole range of MarCom service. In 1997, FCB came aboard as a majority shareholder and they bought the balance equity in 2007. Interestingly all the key managers were retained. We managed to attract some great talent from the leading B Schools, trained them and built them into industry leaders. In the process, we also built a very successful and profitable agency network.
Tanya: What was the biggest challenge you faced during this time?
Ambi: In the early days the agency FCB Ulka was not seen in the same light as many of our contemporaries. So we, the senior leaders, had to sell our own skills before we sold the agency to prospective clients. Some times clients will call ten agencies for a pitch but will not call us. It used to hurt us, but we got used to it. Agency surveys were also not very kind to us. Since our agency was focussed on strategy based work that worked for the clients, and we were not good at winning awards, image surveys did not give us a fair rating. That said we managed to build our own distinct brand image in the right echelons of corporate India. We built a reputation for solid strategy based advertising for largely Indian clients like Wipro, Tata, Zee, Amul, ITC etc. And that paid off in the long term.
Tanya: Being an IIM-C alumnus, what is the one key learning that still impacts you?
Ambi: IIM Calcutta was the place where I learnt all about management and marketing. I particularly remember the engaging classes and the discussions that took place after class in the Dhabas. Those were the days of power cuts and patchy telephone lines. That did not stop us from reading journals and magazines and discussing the issues in the campus. Course work was modest and not tiring as it is today in some campuses. So that left us a lot of time to engage in extended discussions. I think that had its own learning component.
Tanya: What do you miss the most about your Joka stint?
Ambi: IIMC Joka campus continues to fascinate me whenever I am there. I do miss the interesting and engaging discussions we used to have in class and outside.
Tanya: Was it difficult to make the switch from engineering to management and then advertising?
Ambi: To be fair I did not excel in engineering. I found higher-order maths a little too daunting. At best I was a second quartile student in my class at IITM. So getting out of engineering was a no brainer. But what was great was the discovery of management. I realised within a few months at IIMC that I will enjoy studying management and marketing concepts. And that turned out to be true 40 years down the line.
Tanya: If you had to re-live a part of your professional career, which phase would you like to go back to and why?
Ambi: I think the early part of my career as a young Account Executive at Rediffusion was the most challenging and the most enriching. I had a multitude of clients to handle ranging from Xerox to Appela, Thermax to Red&White Cigarettes. So the learning curve was very steep and my bosses were simply fantastic.
Tanya: Being a Best Selling Author, if you had to pick your favourite book, which one would it be?
Ambi: I have written nine books; seven are my own and two books are where I am a co-author. I would like to single out Nawabs Nudes Noodles - India through 50 Years of Advertising as a favourite simply because I have heard a number of young people coming to me saying that they got interested in marketing and advertising after reading that book. In a sense that book is my ode to my long career in advertising.
Tanya: Tell us something about your latest book Sponge: Leadership Lessons I Learnt from my Clients and your favourite lesson in the book.
Ambi: My latest book, SPONGE was published in June 2018 and there are many stories from the book that I can recount here. Instead, I would like to point you to the podcast I have created in collaboration with Amit Doshi of IVM Podcast Network. The story about how Mr Ratan Tata dropped all that he was doing to check out the colour of a new car is my favourite story from that book. The podcast here can tell you more.
Tanya: What is your opinion on Personal Branding and leveraging social media for the same?
Ambi: I think all professionals have to be present on social media. At the least, they should have an updated LinkedIn profile, simply because people often check your profile before meeting you. And if you are so inclined you should write posts, share interesting articles/videos etc. But that is an option, not a must. Simply because all of us lead busy lives. We need to be clear when social media is a distraction and when it is a vital brand-building tool. As long as you know the difference you are good to choose the path you want to follow.
Tanya: If you had to give one piece of advice to the MBA community, what
Ambi: As an MBA student, there is tremendous pressure on landing the first job. In my mind that leads to its own set of issues. Instead of obsessing over one company and one job, focus on what you can learn in your first job. And take the risk when you are young. I took the risk of joining an up and coming ad agency from IIMC. I did okay. So stop worrying about the ‘dream company’ and ‘dream job’. Enjoy the job you land and keep learning.