Thursday, July 19, 2012




Living down a famous dad’s name is never easy in any calling. Advertising is no different. For years, I pasted on a fatuous and moronic smile every time my surname came into play, invariably leading to the inevitable “Oh, so you are Sanat Lahiri/Sanatda/Sanat Babu’s son? Naturally, advertising is in your blood!” Proud and happy as I was – and a bit embarrassed, awkward and inadequate too! – the truth can now be told since both my dad and the guy who turned me on to mosey across to Adville are up there, bogeying in the biggest Ad Congress of all!

No, advertising was not really in my blood; and no again, I did not come into advertising because of my famous [ex – Lintas, Dunlop, Tata, ICI. First Asian President of the IPRA, past President of PRSI & ABC, moving force behind Kolkata Ad Club, and Communication Consultant to the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia & Far East] dad. It was because of a maverick called Kersey Katrak, and an advertising agency called MCM (Mass communication and Marketing)!

It all began in college when, accidentally, a couple of ads slammed my retina. It was my first introduction to the supernova and his audacious take on advertising. Sharp, in-your-face and brazenly unapologetic, the ads challenged you to ignore them, as they teasingly went eyeball to eyeball with you! It really shook me up! Instantly – I was in my final year of English Honours at Kolkata’s St. Xavier’s College – I dumped all thoughts of journalism and zeroed in on knowing more about the freako who’d made the ads and his shop. I had discovered my Camelot!

My dad [while not doing a tango as he listened to my breathless whoopee about those advertisements and wild plans for the future] was supportive. I am forever grateful for that. Coming from a different space and conditioned to the politically correct and conventional stuff dished out by the likes of JWT, Ogilvy and Clarion [Bates] of those distant [60s & 70s] times, Katrak’s provocative and way-out stuff could well have freaked him out – but he appeared cool. It was my life and he was there to guide – not monitor – my moves, if and when called upon to do so. In the break that existed between exams and results, I did a quick orientation course at JWT to get an authentic reality-bite into the industry I was dying to join. After completing it – loved it – I immediately left for Mumbai… Operation MCM!

After Kolkata and JWT, Mumbai MCM at Colaba (Bakhtawar) and the super-hot dude who authored the show blew my young mind! The advertising agencies back home were nice n’ smart in an old fashioned, conventional way [“We’re here to do business, not entertain, deah boy!”] but what was this? The interiors were surreal and psychedelic! A pub, disco or an Adshop? I felt I was suddenly transported to Lucy-in-the-sky-with-diamonds land! Man, this truly was a life-after-death experience…! Just as I was recovering from this sublime and heady ambience, a tap on the shoulder got me face-to-face with the man himself…

Sporting Jeans, a cool Tee and comfy sandals, Kersey Katrak of the trimmed beard and glowing handsome face didn’t look a day older than 30, although he was reported to be in his mid-thirties. After warmly greeting me, ushering me to a small anteroom and ensuring that my Elvis-like trembling cooled off [was this for real?!] he did two things that made me love him – and the profession – for life. First he clicked a button that got the shades of the windows to part… in theatrical slo-mo… offering a spectacular view of the sea. While I started zombie-like at the impossibly amazing visual, he politely enquired whether I would like to join him in enjoying a Pink Gin or Gin n’ Tonic? Seeing my chloroformed look, he assured me that it wasn’t fatal, my dad would approve and most importantly, a great way to connect with creativity. “Leaning on the juices and wetting the old tonsils does wonders for anyone keen on waking the dead, son!” intoned the great one. [I was to understand the full import of this, with time.]

After a few sips of the magic brew and lots of help from the Guru, I let fly. I showed him some of my published poems and articles and gave him my expert opinion on advertising and my plans, once I entered the business. He listened with great interest to this greenhorn [whose tongue was loosened by a drop and friendly encouragement to keep going], sometimes inviting me to recite some of my favourite poems. He confessed he loved poetry too and even wrote some “in my lighter moments”. Suddenly, without and reference to context, he said “You’re on, buddy! Join us first of next month. You will have to relocate, struggle, stay away from family and girlfriend. You will receive a stipend but will have to be supported by your old man. Once we see that you are settled and flying, everything will fall in place. Just remember one thing. MCM is not and ad agency. It’s a temple and disco which worships and celebrates ideas that transform lives… good luck!” Exit Kersey Katrak. Enter the incredulous beginning of dream, floating on air all the way to my host’s residence at Bandra… and later, all the way back to Kolkata! For a variety of reasons, alas, MCM didn’t work out for me and I ended up joining JWT, Kolkata, where I was privileged to interact with and learn my craft from another great and towering icon, Subhas Ghosal… but hey, that’s a story for some other time. This one’s about Kersey, who is widely considered the father of creative advertising.

What was so special about the guy, who all his life was admired and envied in equal measure and who, all those years ago, blew my mind through that one life-transforming session? What was so inspirational about him that so strongly coloured my mind about this whole business of creativity in advertising and what a true-blue ad agency should really be … those three magical alphabets (MCM) that was to become the abracadabra of my life? Despite the fact that – tragically – I never had the opportunity of working with him, the aura, achievements and legend of Kersey Katrak in the early seventies were impossible to ignore.

Among the game-changers, was first his idea to create an ambiance first his idea to create an ambiance that attracted the best of quality and talent… send out vibes that pulled, magnet-like, anybody who dreamt – and dared – to be different. The vision to green-light an institution, movement and journey that ideation – without protection! (Imagine, Ravi Gupta, Arun Nanda, Mohmed Khan in Client Servicing and Arun Kolhatker, Kiran Nagerker, Panna Jain and Sudhershan Dheer – all working together under the same roof!). Also initiate, encourage and hand-hold darpoks within the client & agency fraternity to break the rules – both in style and substance – if they wanted to impact mind and market space in a boring, imitative and cluttered scenario. Much before Loyalty Programmes, Animated Heroes, lifestyle Advertising and Event Launches became fashionable buzzwords, Kersey and his team had been there and done that!

Fresh, startling provocative, reality-based advertising mandated to viagrize the dead back to life in never-before manner was the anthem. Charismatic, articulate, daring, flamboyant of style [He was the only ad agency CEO who zoomed around in a Merc and threw lavish parties that were coveted by the who’s who of high society!] and generous of spirit, Kersey Katrak was truly a man among men, whose legacy and vision was to influence the thinking and direction of such hot-shot, celeb agencies as Trikaya, Enterprise, and Rediffusion, to name just three.

Yup, KK was my rockstar, the sexy pied who got me – and many others – into the business and shaped the ad world’s earliest ideas of what advertising can do and should be, insisting as only he could, that people who truly love this business must remember never to be compromised; remember that they have not forfeited their right to dream or lost the ability to re-imagine and re-context the world as they believe it should be…
That was Kersey Katrak, the inspirational samurai, the glamorous gladiator forever seducing the edgy, freaky, quirky and courageous to abandon all Jurassic notions to take that much needed sabbatical from their dreary, boring safety-net-fitted life and finally that leap of faith and touch heights sublime… Kersey passed away in 2007.

When comes such another?