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40 years ago…And now: Ulka’s well-planned trajectory

Ulka, meaning ‘meteor’ in Sanskrit, was born in 1961, and rose like one in the first 10 years. Founded by the legendary adman Bal Mundkur and his talented copywriter wife, Ann, along with five associates, the agency, now known as DraftFCB Ulka, became the fourth-largest advertising agency.

Of course, today, the advertising scene is populated by large networks, with the top six groups operating in India. While WPP, Omnicom Group and Publicis Groupe are the top three worldwide, DraftFCB Ulka belongs to the fourth largest, the Interpublic Group (IPG).

Ulka’s long-standing associations with clients like Zodiac, ITC, Kansai Nerolac, Tata Motors, Wipro Consumer and Amul stand out at a time when clients have multiple agencies on roster and even sign some on a project-basis. The top brass at Ulka say the seeds of account planning sown in 1970s-80s helped.

In 1963, Mundkur brought in his brother Bhaskar, a marketing research manager at Hindustan Lever (now Hindustan Unilever). “Bal was one of the few Indians to challenge the white hegemony as the Indian ad units were mostly run by expats. Once Bhaskar was onboard, there was strong strategic planning on the table. In those days, HTA (later JWT) had some amount of planning but not anyone else,” says Ambi Parameswaran, former executive director-CEO, and now advisor, at the agency.

Anees Noorani, vice-chairman and MD of Zodiac Clothing Company, who started interacting with Ulka in the late-70s, says, “Ulka’s outstanding chairman, Mundkur, created the Zodiac man (inspired by David Ogilvy’s Hathaway Man with an eye patch). He was made singular by his beard, which was a taboo in advertising then. He became an icon to the extent that Khushwant Singh wrote in the Illustrated Weekly, as its editor, that he was the best recognised male mascot in India, after the Air India Maharaja.”

When the Mundkurs retired, around 25 years back, Ulka was under a cloud. Crompton Greaves, one of the oldest clients, left, for example. “There was turmoil with a few clients leaving,” says Parameswaran. The mid-late-80s saw the next change, sealing Ulka’s credentials in account planning. Parameswaran, Arvind Wable, Shashi Sinha, Nagesh Alai and Niteen Bhagwat joined, helmed by Anil Kapoor, who had stints at Boots Company, and yesteryear’s star ad agency, MCM.

“The six of us had to steer the agency back,” says Parameswaran.

The new charge secured Ulka’s place among the top five agencies over the next 10 years and saw the rise of the likes of Sinha (now CEO, IPG Mediabrands India).

Parameswaran says, “In those days, account planning was thought of only as new business pitches. Our culture was to partner with existing clients for their changing needs. We installed a planning board to review major client work. Many questioned the role of a marketing manager heading an agency. But we proved our point.”

Nitin Karkare, COO, says, “Even when I joined as a trainee in the late-80s, Ulka had a strong strategic backbone, looking at product, packaging, distribution and pricing.”

Noorani says, “Ulka’s second chairman (Kapoor) was a genius in strategy. We had gone away but came back to Ulka when he took over. He realised that we were in a crowded field with international brands. So, while others talked about imagery, he came out with a black and white campaign called ‘Classic Business Statements’ because formals were our strength, and it stood the brand in good stead. Then Shashi (Sinha) took our media buying beyond print, with better analytics.”

In 1997, Foote Cone & Belding (FCB) acquired a 51 per cent stake in Ulka and by 2007, after a global merger of Draft Worldwide and FCB, DraftFCB bought over the entire stake.

Ulka has worked on Hindustan CIBA-Geigy’s Cibaca and ITC’s many brands at different times (Welcomgroup’s logo was designed by it). By nineties, it expanded its Amul mandate to include its corporate campaign and products other than butter, besides its centralised media buying.

Subhash Tendle, professor at Mica, who created the former Nerolac mascot tiger, Goody, as an art director at Ulka, says that Ulka also adapted creatives to regional tastes before it became the norm, even in the early days of satellite TV.

RS Sodhi, MD of GCMMF (Amul), says, “It has provided a continuity with the same team that has built the brand’s character. Sinha started our servicing and he is still involved. Karkare, too, has stayed on for the last 20 years. New teams tend to change the older elements, at times, unnecessarily.”

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