This is a story that goes 45 years back in time. One evening in 1973, three leading stalwarts of advertising came together to discuss the state of creativity in advertising.
They wanted to do something about the mediocrity, the contentment with the status quo, the inertia that seemed to pervade agencies and people. At the risk of sounding cynical, this scenario seems pretty similar to the rut that the business seems to have slipped into in recent times
The three people, Diwan Arun Nanda, Ajit Balakrishnan and Mohammed Khan, came up with a game plan – to start their own advertising agency, Rediffusion. According to the company's website, this was their stated mission for what would be known as Rediffusion -- an agency that would be passionate and bold; an agency that would take ownership of clients and their work to new heights; an agency that would create fearless, category-busting work.
Two of them, Arun Nanda and Ajit Balakrishnan were among the first graduates from the hallowed IIM (Indian Institute of Management) to enter the advertising business. The third, Mohammed Khan, an alumnus of St Stephen's Delhi, was among the best creative minds in the business. Balakrishnan was known for his financial strengths and Nanda for his ability to forge rock solid relationships with clients. Together, they were the dream team any agency could kill for.
For the next five years, they were on a song winning legendary accounts of the time like Bush, a dominant consumer electronics brand of those days and attempting various bold initiatives that were way ahead of their time, like loyalty programmes and mail orders. In 1978, Khan stepped out join Contract advertising before eventually starting his own agency, Enterprise in 1983, that was eventually bought out by WPP and merged with what is known as Bates today.
But the passion of Nanda and Balakrishnan ensured that Rediffusion was forging ahead. It was soon winning business from major Indian and global brands from the Tatas, Colgate and Citibank to Eveready and Airtel.
Balakrishnan started to split his time between the communication agency and his other passion, Rediff.com, which in its earlier avatar RediffOnTheNet was one of the country's earliest websites. Nanda's continued passion for advertising ensured that Rediffusion would continue to be one of India's dominant agencies forging a tie-up with two global networks, Young & Rubicam and Dentsu. His pioneering political advertising campaign, "Mera Bharat Mahan", would create a separate genre of advertising in this country. Nanda soon progressed to become the chairman for Y&R Asia-Pacific.
Coinciding with that phase, WPP which owned Y&R was consolidating its business in India. It had bought out almost all the Indian agencies started by legends; like Ravi Gupta's Trikaya taken over by Grey or Mohammed Khan's Enterprise-Nexus that was taken over and then merged with Bates and David.
Obviously, the industry assumed that it was only a matter of time before Nanda and Balakrishnan would sell their 60 percent equity in Rediffusion to the WPP group. But Nanda had other plans. He was not going to let go of his baby in a hurry. Soon things came to a flashpoint. One account moved. Then another. The giant businesses like Colgate and Airtel started slipping out of the agency's hands, in some cases to other WPP agencies.
If that was not enough, there was a churn of CEOs. Between 2009 to 2014 the agency had seen three CEOs, Mahesh Chauhan, D Rajappa and Sam Ahmed. Each one's tenure was shorter than the previous one. The last one was in office for less than a year.
Dhunji Wadia was to step into those uncomfortable shoes. Like both Chauhan and Rajappa before him, Dhunji had cut his teeth with Everest advertising (a sister agency) before getting an opportunity to take charge of Rediffusion.
In the interim, Nanda countered the threat from a vindictive Sorrell by spreading his risk by diversifying into areas like PR. Bagging a big account like the Tata Group in a JV with Edelman was one way of expanding the influence of Rediffusion. Though Rediffusion lost the PR mandate earlier this year to Adfactors PR, Rediffusion has bagged the advertising account of Tata Trusts barely a couple of months back.
But Rediffusion post its stake sale will have a separate challenge. In the new scheme of things the agency might also lose out on tools like Y&R's 3D, Octa and Brand Asset Valuator that helped the agency differentiate itself from the rest
Soon a new leadership structure will be announced (as Wadia retires early next week). The agency has the twin challenge of not just establishing itself as a force to reckon with in the business of advertising, but also to change the playground as the influence of martech is shifting the goal post in the advertising business.
Like that memorable campaign that Rediffusion did for Eveready batteries in the past, will its clients say in one voice, "Gimme Red"?