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40 years ago…And now: Chennai’s ad scene went north for a while

In 1973, one of the large indigenous advertising agencies was getting established. It then pioneered public sector unit (PSU) advertising, unheard of before. But this was neither in Delhi, the country’s bureaucratic heart, nor in Mumbai, its advertising hub. It was in Chennai (then Madras).

JWT Madras’ chief, RK Swamy, broke away to form his own namesake outfit. His masterstroke was identifying a new set of advertisers in PSUs. However, Chennai’s career as an advertising hotspot lasted till the nineties, petering out by the late-2000s.

Advertising in Chennai had a modest start in the 1930s, powered by colonial-era brands such as Amrutanjan and Simpson’s (car dealer). Chennai had small regional businesses which had taken to print advertising early on, though, not on the scale of clients in Mumbai (then Bombay) or Kolkata (Calcutta). It is said that Bombay would call Madras the ‘outpost’.

Besides small domestic agencies, the Calcutta-based multinational DJ Keymer (later Ogilvy & Mather) was present before others entered in the mid-50s such as Grant Advertising (1954) and J Walter Thompson (JWT, 1955).

The JWT-Bombay hand, RK Swamy, not only came to head the Madras office but is credited with creating the professional ecosystem comprising art directors, illustrators etc.

Pond’s India (present since 1947, and brought under Hindustan Unilever in the late-80s) was one of the biggest advertisers in the 1950s-60s.

But agencies like RK Swamy Associates brought in large PSU spenders by advocating the power of integrated marketing in an era fraught with strikes, infrastructure bottlenecks, a restless youth, and a vocal opposition that questioned the public sector’s performance in Parliament.

Swamy underlined the need to talk about the PSUs’ role in economic progress to counter specious criticism, and won over the power sector giant, BHEL. BHEL’s corporate campaign took off. ONGC, won after months of research, Hyderabad Allwyn (Seiko watches, ACs) and SAIL came to RK Swamy in the 1970s-80s. It became one of the top 10 agencies in seven years.

There was a steady growth in client work across agencies, for brands like TVS, Prestige, TI Cycles, Parry’s Confectionery, Ashok Leyland, MRF.

Chennai-based retail companies in the 1980s took to advertising as well. Spencer Plaza, the departmental store, textile brands such as Nalli, RMKV and jewellers like GRT and Joy Alukka’s brought in volumes, though with a regional focus at that time. Local agencies, too, helped build brands: Rubecon’s work on Color Plus (later acquired by Raymond), for example.

Chennai also responded to in-cinema and TV advertising that comprised mostly dubbed Hindi/English spots made in Bombay, with original ads for the local audience, leading to a lively ad production centre.

S Krishnaswamy did puppetry animation for Madras Fertilizers, while JS Films, formed by copy-writer Jayendra Panchapakesan and cinematographer PC Sriram, worked on national clients in the 1980s-90s. It produced the early Taj teabag ads, BPL’s ‘Home Alone’ ad, and all the Rasna ads from 1986 to 1992.

Another director, Rajiv Menon, made films for Asian Paints and Titan watches, whose jingles were composed by AR Rahman, before he made it in the film industry, and who also worked on Allwyn, Parry’s, Leo Coffee, Hero Puch, over five years in the late-80s. In 1982, the Madras Ad Club, India’s third-oldest, brought down the legendary David Ogilvy for an address.

Chennai’s momentum peaked in the nineties, when liberalisation rang the death knell for sedate Indian companies. It emerged as the automotive capital with MNCs like Hyundai, Ford, Renault, Nissan, BMW and Daimler setting up around the city.

In FMCG, domestic player, Cavinkare, was priming up for battle and MNC Henkel, too, set up shop. By then the satellite boom was in place, with Sun TV beating other private satellite channels to establish uplinking facilities.

Prem Mehta, erstwhile CMD, Lintas Group, who worked in Mumbai then, says, “We (Lintas) had to open an office because we had a few large accounts such as the Hindu, MRF and Saint Gobain.”

However, by the 21st century, most of the companies shifted elsewhere, reminiscent of Kolkata’s fate when cigarette companies stopped advertising.

Pond’s was brought under the folds of HUL in Mumbai, Color Plus’ media duties went to RK Swamy, Mumbai, as Raymond consolidated its media buying in 2011. Cavinkare and car manufacturers such as Hyundai and Ford shifted their sales and marketing to Mumbai or the NCR.

Vijay Xavier, principal consultant to RK Swamy, says, today the agencies are surviving on textile and jewellery retail brands who may be spending four-five times more than well-known brands but lack the stature of clients of the 1980s-90s.

Mehta says that Chennai always faced a talent crunch as people were sent from Mumbai and local talent ventured out in search of greener pastures. Sending talent over to the ‘outpost’ never stopped being a problem, it seems, a story both Chennai and Kolkata share.


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