I was mid-sentence on the phone when the news alert flashed on my laptop screen.
GSK moves Horlicks from JWT to FCB Ulka.
I was stunned into silence. For a moment I thought I hadn’t read it right. But there it was. Right there on the screen. I re-read it : Horlicks was no longer at JWT. I felt shocked. I felt sad. I felt nostalgic. All at the same time.
Exactly 30-years ago I used to service the Horlicks account as a senior account executive.
But before I rewind, I need to redefine some of the glossary. JWT was then HTA. GSK was then HMM. And well, Horlicks was Horlicks then; it still is Horlicks : The Great Nourisher
Circa 1987 : On to Horlicks - HTA’s No. 1 client
I had been at HTA Delhi for almost a year. Servicing Nestle, as part of Sanjay Sehgal’s group.
Then Sunandan Bhanja Chaudhary who was on Horlicks got promoted and transferred to HTA Calcutta. I was moved to the Horlicks business.
Almost the entire office came up to congratulate me. Horlicks was after all HTA’s No.1 account. In those days perhaps accounting for nearly half of all of HTA Delhi’s billings, and income. And a big honour it certainly was to be assigned on to Horlicks. All of HTA’s stalwarts: Subhash Ghoshal, Mike Khanna, Ram Sehgal, Ambar Brahmachari, Nikhil Nehru, Denis Joseph … had all served their time on Horlicks. After all Horlicks had been at the agency for half-a-century! In those days, if you had not done your Horlicks stint, you were not deemed ready for greater things in advertising.
Sunil Gupta was my new boss. Colvyn Harris too was part of Team HMM, handling Boost under Sunil. With Shankar Rajan as his deputy. Sanjeev Chaddha headed planning, with Meera Patwardhan and Bindu Sethi as his assistants. Old DK Bose and Ambika Srivastava helmed media. Denis with Niloy Sen and Gullu Sen looked after creative. It was in those days, without doubt, Indian advertising’s A-team.
Horlicks : the ‘jug-mug’ brand
Despite its size, and ubiquity, Horlicks was actually quite a staid and boring brand. Much of that was dictated by heritage and category. Some of it by size.
Rajive Chandra, the product manager on Horlicks, a bright IIT/IIM chap, was actually not just protective but almost paranoid about the brand. Everything but everything at Horlicks had a brand Bible with precedents and principles dating back to the British days, and beyond. So large and humungous was the brand franchise of Horlicks that Rajive would not allow even the teeniest-weeniest change in anything to do with the brand without thorough research and many many rounds of discussion and debate. Mothers TRUSTED Horlicks. That TRUST was sacrosanct. And Rajive saw himself as the custodian of that TRUST.
As a result, we would do a new brand TVC once a year. 360 days of 360 degree research, planning and creative (in that order), and 5 days of execution literally. And the TVC too would only be shot by Sumantra Ghoshal of Equinox Films. He, it was aid, understood the ‘soul’ of Horlicks. Hallelujah!
So, as the AE on the account, the bulk of the work on the account was handling the ‘jug-mug’ of the brand. No no no ‘jug-mug’ had nothing to do with celebration or incandescence … it was simply that Horlicks was constantly on promotion : a ‘jug’ for Mom, and/or a ‘mug’ for the kid!
One big regret I have from my Horlicks days is that I should have archived and kept for myself the umpteen storyboards we would do for Doordarshan approval. We had a young illustrator, Sanjay Bhattacharya, a free-lancer, who would be called in almost every day to bring scripts to life on paper. I wish I had known then that Sanjay would one day blossom into one of India’s most expensive painters!
Excerpts on Horlicks from The Dum Dum Bullet : Sandeep Goyal, Penguin Books, 2004
“You are from HTA, no?”
“Which part of HMM are you from?”
“Great brand. You must be having fun”.
“Great brand. The product manager who handles it has the world’s best job, right?”
“Yes, perhaps, I’m not sure”.
“Not sure? This is what I call a God-sent brand. Don’t understand? Simple. If it doesn’t rain one year, food is scarce. Leads to malnutrition. People need more and more Horlicks for health and nourishment. Horlicks sells, automatically. If it rains, there is prosperity all around. People feel healthy and good. They consume more Horlicks as they can afford a healthier diet. Horlicks sells, automatically!”
I never met the man ever again. He was a wizened old man, a typical salesman. We were in Goa to attend the HMM annual sales conference. He didn’t even tell me his name. Just melted back into the crowd, leaving me with a very profound perspective. One I’ve never forgotten. On the karma and kismet of brands.
Some brands are naturally blessed. The above example of Horlicks is true in many ways. But such ‘motherhood’ brands also demand very delicate handling. Consumers’ trust in brands like Horlicks is just unbelievable. Generations have grown up consuming the product, embellishing the myth of these brands. Every piece of communication, every nuance of the ad hence needs to go under the microscope. While handling Horlicks, I learnt the importance of detailing in an ad commercial: How old would the mother be? 28? 30? 32? A mother of two? Or a mother of a single child? Would she be wearing a saree or a Punjabi suit? Would the house be aspirational or mirror the regular consumer? All of these may sound like easy questions to answer, but when you are steering the destiny of a brand as large as Horlicks, even a small error can be costly.
I remember once shooting a small promo wherein the kid in the ad literally plonked the half-empty glass of Horlicks on the dining table and ran out to catch the school bus. We were inundated with consumer complaints as mothers wrote in to say we were setting bad examples for their young ones. The promo was seen by kids as a sanction to drink only a half a glass of milk and dump the rest, when in a hurry. No such message was obviously intended but consumers can sometimes get very literal. We quickly took the commercial off the air, added a sequence of the mother calling the son back, the son gulping the full glass of Horlicks before rushing off to the school bus. We were once again inundated with consumer letters. Mothers were ecstatic and very very grateful. That is what I call the soul and spirit of a ‘motherhood’ brand.
Why would Horlicks ever want to move-out?
I left HTA Delhi in 1989 to join Trikaya.
But kept in touch with old friends at the agency.
I think Horlicks’ standing at HTA Delhi somewhat lost its pre-eminence in the 90s. First Hero came in as a business. Then Hero Honda. Which was large, very large. Then came Citibank. Which was prestigious, very prestigious. Atleast in those days. Then came Pepsi. That was the really big one. The show-case business. The new girl-friend. No one had time any more for the grandmother, Horlicks. But like everything else at Horlicks, change took a long time coming.
No longer was HTA’s best talent ear-marked or reserved only for Horlicks. Tarun Rai, the current CEO of JWT, a contemporary of mine at HTA in the late 80s, became a Hero lifer, by-passing Horlicks. Sanjeev Chaddha was moved on to the Pepsi account from where he eventually crossed over to the client. The rest, as they say, is history.
Eighty years for one brand at one ad agency is a long long time. But it still feels sad to know that an era has ended.
The old order changeth yielding place to new
And God fulfills himself in many ways
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me …
(Sandeep Goyal is Chairman of Mogae Media. A 30-years veteran of advertising and media, Goyal was the first Indian juror on the Global Emmy Awards.)
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