“I don’t know why it is such a big deal, I just had fun and I’m just going away, I think nothing interesting is happening in advertising right now, so my going away is one day of excitement, it is like award shows to be forgotten, after a day,” says R. Balakrishnan aka Balki (Group Chairman MullenLowe Lintas Group) with characteristic candour, on the reactions to the news of him bidding adieu to advertising after a three decade-long career in the industry.
Balki spent the bulk of his advertising years at the MullenLowe Lintas Group. He joined the agency (then known as Lintas) in 1994, in its Bangalore office.
“We have got such fabulous talent that, I only think the agency at the very least will be at least 20 per cent better than what it was when I was fully active,” responds Balki when we quiz him on what to expect from the agency post his exit.
“I am not saying this modestly, I’m actually the most dispensable person in Lowe,” says the advertising legend.
Edited excerpts from a chat with R Balki on his years at Lowe, his 22 year old partnership with Joseph George, his expectations from the Group post his exit and more
Q. When did you decide that you have had enough of advertising?
I have not had enough of advertising yet, it’s just the fact that when you like films too, you need to choose them, at some point of time and you got to plan for that. Specially having been hands-on for such a long time, it’s only important that once you become the face of the agency, you also need to change the face in your presence, put a structure in place and then move on.
We have been planning this for a couple of years actually: how will the transition happen and how will everybody take over. It all started when we made Joe CEO and we sat and planned this out; Arun would then take over and so would Amer and other people. So it was done bit by bit. I love to be hands on, but I can’t do both, and I like to do films, both are fun, but I would like to have a different kind of fun at this point of time in my life.
Q. Lowe has been synonymous with Balki all these years…
(Interrupts) No, no in the last two years that has changed, and that’s why you now notice that a lot of work is synonymous with an Arun (Arun Iyer Chief Creative Officer Lowe Lintas) or a Joe (Joseph George, Regional President South & Southeast Asia & Group CEO India) or an Amer (Amer Jaleel Chairman &CCO Mullen Lintas) more and more. We have ensured that happens.
When you are more hands-on you will be synonymous with the work, but it is also important that when you are not hands-on, other people are synonymous with the work and that’s what we have done. Because it’s very easy to continue being the face of the agency, and then when you suddenly pull out, that’s not right. I was hands-on till two or three years ago, but not since then.
Q. As a leader how have you managed to maintain loyal and longstanding clients, which include some of the biggest brands all through the years?
The work…. it is all about the work and the people who are committed to their work. You know you can do one piece of great work, but it takes a lot to continue to do it year after year. All clients are friends but we are talking of a relationship that is based on the brand succeeding, so, it’s all about the work and nothing else.
Q. What can we expect from the Mullen Lowe Lintas Group post your exit?
Joe is the finest CEO in the business of advertising, or the finest CEO the business of advertising has had for a long time, and I think it’s a fabulous achievement because he is very advertising savvy and a great business man and a great advertising person. Arun is one of the brightest minds that advertising has ever seen actually, and Amer is heading a new agency which is quite big already and Amer is a complete advertising person.
We have got such a fabulous talent that I only think the agency, at the very least, will be 20 per cent better than what it was when I was fully active.
Q. That’s very modest of you
I am not saying this modestly, I’m actually the most dispensable person in Lowe.
Q. You and Joe have spent 22 years together, is there any interesting anecdote that you would like to share?
There are just too many things that we have shared. Too gore, much of fun, too much of happiness, we have been together and stood for each other through thick and thin. And Joe has always been, exactly he is today - very clear, very honest, extremely perceptive and with a very sharp advertising brain. His biggest trip still is to enjoy the advertising solutions that he creates.
When a person is actually coming into a business saying, let’s save the business by hook or crook, his approach is very different, but Joe says let’s find the right solution.
He is different from other CEOs, for instance, if a client asks him why don’t you come and have a cup of coffee, he will say let’s discuss the brand on the way.
He likes to talk advertising; he’s not the old world servicing person who just schmoozes with clients, he actually talks ‘their business’. He has played lots of roles at Lintas; he’s a fabulous guy and a great leader.
Q. Any interesting anecdotes.....fights etc
I don’t think Joe and I have ever had fights.
Q. Healthy disagreements in all these years?
There have been cases of many disagreements but he has always let me win, but he would quietly come and tell me the same things and make sure I retract my words later. Joe has got a very simple way of saying -- let him rave and rant and he will come around. And that’s what always happened and I would say ‘No’ and after five minutes would tell him ‘Yes, you are right’.
Q. If there ever happens to be any issue at Lowe, will they call you or you are now making films only?
We will always be in touch, there is nothing like that. I have quit advertising not Lowe.
Q. Where is advertising today from where you started off?
There is a lot more confusion in terms of media, it’s exactly in the same place as it still depends on the idea, few people who have jargonised data and tried to make it more confusing saying that’s how will we reach consumers. But I believe a good idea, with strong execution in any medium still reaches out to a lot of consumers.
Q. Which are the people/agencies in your view who are doing great work?
I have always respected Ogilvy; there are quite a few agencies that are doing great work Taproot, Creativeland Asia and some younger agencies are doing good work too. Leo Burnett did some lovely work on Bajaj V and I was very proud of that.
I like many other people’s work; I am only ashamed of my work.
Q. Do you see yourself in any of the younger crop?
I hope I don’t.