RK Swamy - eighty to eternity

It's been just under ten days since RK Swamy (80), chairman of RK Swamy BBDO Advertising passed away peacefully in Chennai in the wee hours on 5 June. Ten days is an eternity in today's frenetic times and memories of this advertising and media doyen must already be a distant one for many.

But remember Swamy we must because the least of his contributions was to put Madras (now Chennai) on the advertising map of India at a time when advertising was still in its infancy in the "more happening" ad-savvy cities of the country.

Speaking to indiantelevision, the "Guru" of Indian advertising (as they call him) Alyque Padamsee travels back down the memory lane to say: "RK Swamy was a strong man in a weak world. Along with Peter Fielden and Ayaz Peerbhoy, he pioneered advertising in the 1950s. Tough guys don't die... they live in our memories!" That's a tad difficult to believe in today's times but we will still take that statement at face value for that was what Swany truely was.

O&M Asia-Pac vice chairman and O&M India executive chairman Ranjan Kapur refers to RK Swamy as one of the first few advertising icons in the Indian ad industry - who earned respect in the corporate world. "Most of the Indian advertising icons - strong personalities such as Mani Aiyer, Subhash Ghosal, RK Swamy, Tara Sinha, Alyque Padamsee, Bal Mundkur, Nari Hira and Frank Simoes - had grown out of either O&M or HTA. It was due to their efforts that the business got the respectability that it deserved."

Work, Work and Work

Swamy seems to be a man who was a living embodiment of the BBDO worldwide vision statement - "At BBDO, the three things we care about most are 'The Work', 'The Work', and 'The Work'! But it is the stories behind the stories we tell that gives The Work meaning."

Work is worship! In his illustrious career, Swamy had fashioned and influenced the development of two top ranking advertising agencies. The first part of his career was fully devoted to the development of JWT/HTA.

At the age of 50, when most people in the stressful business of advertising would be dreaming of retirement, Swamy promoted RK Swamy Advertising Associates Private Limited. Interestingly, he chose to operate from Chennai. The agency grew to be amongst the top 10 agencies in the first five years of its operations. He is credited with developing Chennai as one of the key advertisement centres in the country.

Swamy was quick to realise that the future belonged to those Indian-bred agencies that would forge strategic alliances with global firms. Foreseeing the need to associate with a strong international network, he partnered his agency with BBDO Worldwide in the late 80s, to convert his company into RK Swamy BBDO Advertising.

As early as 1986-87, he foresaw the need for high quality television programming and set up HansaVision, which is a well recognised name among advertisers and agencies all over India.

Belief in India as an economic superpower

Swamy believed in ensuring that the future generations didn't grope for information, the way the earlier generations did. His book India - How to Succeed Without Tears demonstrates his deep understanding and analysis of what India needs to do to emerge as a serious economic power.

RK Swamy BBDO's S Narendra says: "He passionately believed in India's destiny and its ability to make it big in the global map. When the new economic policy was being framed by the government in the early 1990s, I was working on the communication strategy. He came to me on his own and offered insights and inputs without expecting any returns. He strongly believed that the time had come for India to improve it's image and project new policies. He realised that the new policy would herald an era where there would be opportunities galore."

Swamy's pioneering publication RK Swamy Guide to Market Planning in 1989 provided for the first time in the country a quantitative market potential value for the districts of India by state. This landmark publication became a reference volume for most of the major marketing and advertising organisations. An updated version was published in 1999 and it is now accepted as among the most authentic guides to market planning by leading marketers in India.

Swamy's liking for economics and information relating to the key aspects of the economy is well-known; and so are the intellectually stimulating interactions he has had with many like-minded individuals who shared his passion. S Gnana Haran, a student from Madurai says: "At a time when interest in economics is disappearing fast, even among those who are supposed to champion the cause of the economy, Swamy's enduring interest in the discipline breathed a new life into my own interest in the subject. But what amazed me was not just his passion for the subject, but his depth of knowledge and understanding of critical economic issues facing the country."

Belief in the ability of public sector companies to deliver

Swamy had the vision to see that the public sector companies would eventually emerge as India's true 'ratnas' (jewels). RK Swamy BBDO's S Narendra notes: "His greatest contribution to industry was the effort that he made to spruce up the image of the government-owned public sector units. He applauded the government's investments in PSUs such as HMT, BHEL during the 1960s-70s. He seriously believed that these companies were the true instruments of growth - that would take India into the big league." Swamy's foresight seems to be bang on target - considering the way in which foreign institutional investors are going ga-ga over India's "nav ratnas".

At a time when public relations was in it's infancy (in the 1970s) - almost non-existent for public sector companies, Swamy had said: "The public relations activities of banks has to be properly planned and guided to ensure business stability and progress. I have made a vertical study of the State Bank of India in 1976, and have given recommendations on advertising, public relations and sales promotional needs."

When Indian banks or even other marketers hadn't placed customer relations and service high on their priority lists, Swamy had authored a speech in which he advocated: "A cardinal fact that should be remembered by every staff member of the bank is that he is like the two sides of the same coin - he is serving a customer for many goods and services; he buys for his own use. If, therefore, he remembers what he expects as a customer, he will have no difficulty in influencing and satisfying his customers. If you treat your customer as you would like to be treated yourself, then your service attitude will improve to a point where you will anticipate the customers' needs and serve them to their satisfaction. This kind of attitude will ensure that no customer, who comes to your bank will go back unsatisfied. He cannot think of any other bank that could serve him just as well."

The Swamy effect and aura lingers over his agency even today. It is not often that a public sector organisation awards an account to an agency even before the team involved in the pitch gets back to their own office after making a closely contested pitch presentation - not unless the agency happens to be the one started by the doyen of Indian advertising. Indian Oil Corporation informed the RK Swamy BBDO team that it had won the account even as the team members were on their way back.

A true mentor

RK Swamy was acknowledged as one of the prime movers of the advertising industry in India and his mentoring and encouragement provided countless opportunities for people to grow and mature under his guidance.

RK Swamy BBDO's Surojoy Bannerjee reminisces: "One of the finest leaders in the country, RK Swamy continues to inspire me. He used to lead by example and never expected us to do things that he couldn't. He led through faith, trusted his employees and believed in their capabilities to deliver. He always gave us freedom - total freedom - to operate. People always responded to this positively."

Presence in ad associations and industry bodies

Swamy was actively involved in the formation of the All India Management Association and served as it's President in 1977 - 78. His contributions to the management movement brought him the honour of being conferred "Fellow Member" and lifelong "Honorary Member" status of the All India Management Association. In 2001, he became the first recipient of the "Lifetime Achievement Award for Meaningful Contribution to the Management Movement" from Madras Management Association.

Swamy was probably the only person who had been either president or chairman of the all industry bodies relating to advertising -

* Advertising Agencies Association of India - president for two successive years- 1982-83 and 1983-84

* Audit Bureau of Circulation chairman in 1983-84

* Advertising Standards Council of India - founder member and chairman in 1988-89

RK Swamy BBDO's Bannerjee adds: "He always believed that he had a duty and a responsibility to play a key role in the development of the industry. In fact, he never hesitated to dip into his own resources to fund ventures - research projects - that would benefit the industry. The RK Swamy Guide to Market Planning is one such example that comes to mind immediately."

In his column, Brand-comm CEO Ramanujam Sridhar who worked with RK Swamy/BBDO between 1983-1987 and 1997-1998, wrote: "RK Swamy's door was always open. His professional ability was legendary, often recognised, frequently written about and experienced by people who had the privilege of working with him. And yet there was a personal side to him that left an even larger impression on people who knew him."

For his invaluable contribution to the advertising industry, Swamy was presented the prestigious AAAI-Premnarayan award by the Advertising Agencies Association of India in 1998. The Advertising Clubs in Madras and Calcutta have also recognised him for his life-long service to the industry in their respective Awards.

Simple living, high thinking

Swamy's character was well symbolized by the symbol of Hamsa known for "Hamsa Ksheera Nyaaya", an ability to sift the good from the evil. RK Swamy BBDO's KL Venkat says: "Having been associated with him for a quarter of a century, I feel that he was the very embodiment of the mythological Hamsa bird that separates milk from water. He was adept in separating wheat from chaff and the relevant from the irrelevant."

Brand-comm CEO Ramanujam Sridhar adds: "Advertising has been traditionally full of high flying, smooth talking, gin guzzling executives. Swamy was an exception. Despite his enormous success, he was a simple man with no pretenses. Although I am sure he could have gone anywhere for a meal, he took all of us at RK Swamy Bangalore to Sapna, a functional restaurant on Residency Road, where he ate his Vada Sambhar with great relish."

Swamy's patriotic zeal and everyday spirituality was evident in his interest in Indian heritage, culture and Hindu philosophy. He was actively involved in restoring old temples and ancient heritage monuments. He was the co-founder of Sri Vishishtadvaita Research Centre, to support Vedic and Sanskrit studies. As a disciple of Sri Ahobila Mutt, he was running Sri Nrisimha Priya it's 60-year old monthly journal for 35 years. He contributed fully for the ninth tier of the Srirangam Rajagopuram as well as for rebuilding the Maniappan Sannidhi at Sri Oppiliappan Kovil. A great devotee of Kumbakonam's Sri Sarangapani Swamy Kovil, he was involved in actively supporting the Nithya Aradhanai at this temple for a few years now.

Swamy also believed in the power of education and was actively associated as president of the National Boys and Girls Education Society which runs the Lady Sivaswamy Ayyar Higher Secondary School and Sir Sivaswamy Kalalaya Senior and Higher Secondary Schools for nearly two decades.

RK Swamy also made notable contributions to the Rotary movement and served as President of the Rotary Club of Madras in 1970-71.

They say that genius is the infinite capacity to take pains and look for success in the minute details. RK Swamy BBDO's Sangeeta Shetty says: "The most striking aspect I remember is his extreme focus on both small or large issues - whether it is getting hold of some study for some client or for a student, he displayed the same zeal and enthusiasm. He always had the same focus, dedication and commitment. He never discriminated between people - everyone was welcome. He was truly a great leader and human being."

Swamy's meticulous nature was evident whenever he embarked on speech preparation or article writing assignments. He would never make a single observation or statement, if he was not able to support the same with sufficient statistical support.

Swamy never took his public speeches or writing assignments as mere time - or space-filling exercises by sprinkling applause-winning phrases and quotes here and there. As a successful professional in the business of communication with excellent command over the language and literature, he delivered his message in a commendable fashion. He considered these speeches to be an opportunity to delve deeper into the subject, demonstrate his deep concern and make a positive contribution to the issue under focus.

While accepting the AAAI Premnarayan award, Swamy delivered a 3711-word address, standing ramrod stiff (despite not being too well) to a spell bound audience in 1998. He ended his speech by saying: “In conclusion, let me say that the advertising industry has arrived at a point of great relevance to the customers we serve, namely our clients. Therefore, borrowing a phrase, I say to those who are in the business today - 'People, it is an exciting time to be alive'.”

To quote Padamsee again: "Tough guys don't die...they live in our memories!"


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