George John is no more. His nephew Cherian Kuruvilla posted the news of his sad demise on social media last night.
George was one of the early pioneers of Indian advertising, and one of the stalwarts of the Delhi market when it started to grow in the 1980s and early 1990s. ‘Fill it, Shut it, Forget it’, the famous ad campaign that launched Hero Honda was created under his charge when he was Branch Head of Ulka-Delhi. In fact, George John was credited for making Ulka the second largest agency in Delhi in the 80s (behind HTA), well ahead of O&M, Lintas, Everest and Clarion, the biggies of that era.
Born in a small island village near Cochin, George John, started his career as a school teacher in Bombay. In 1969 joined Lintas as a media planning assistant. 5 years later, he moved to client servicing. In 1981, he moved to Ulka as Manager of its Delhi office at a time when the agency had announced its decision to close down the Delhi branch. Ulka-Delhi went on to become one of the largest and most respected agencys in Northern India, winning almost every account the agency pitched for during 1981-87. In 1985, George John set up the second agency for Ulka - Interface Communications, an agency for ‘client conflict resolution’, something new to the agency business in those days.
John’s big break came in 1988, when he started Anthem Advertising with zero billings and a contingent of 32 people who left Ulka to join him. In 1998, Omnicom acquired 51% of Anthem and the agency was rechristened TBWA\Anthem.
I never worked for John. Which is a big regret. In all fairness, Ulka-Delhi did come to my business school to recruit but I wasn’t on the shortlist. When I was at HTA-Delhi some years later, John did try to hire me at Ulka and then Anthem (in fact offered me a double promotion!) but I was too scared to make the move. But John make good his boast of making Anthem an agency that would not only survive but grow from strength to strength.
John and I became friends when I started to helm the Association of Advertising Professionals in Delhi in the early 90s, the local equivalent those days of the Ad Club. I found him a very interesting and engaging raconteur. A gourmet, par excellence. A large hearted man. But most importantly, a man with a very sharp business mind. Very few ad guys of that generation dared to make the shift from being a (well) paid professional at a multinational ad agency to setting up shop on their own. John did make that entrepreneurial leap, that too with much success.
John’s biggest strength was that his clients and his team loved him. In advertising that is not an easy claim. When John exited Ulka, his team followed him out blind-folded, placing faith in his acumen and reputation to win business and feed them all. He, in turn, never let them down.
John faded out of the advertising business more than a decade ago. Purposefully. Gracefully. He built himself a retired life that would be the envy of most of us. His beautiful, sprawling home in his native town was said to be an architectural wonder. Tanya, my wife, and I were invited there by John many times but just never made it. I wish we had. He also built a breathtaking resort at Munnar – the Ragamaya. In later years he used his riches to fund the creation of Graceland, a senior citizens community close to where he lived.
George John … ad man, brand-builder, entrepreneur … good human being, good friend … RIP.
(Dr. Sandeep Goyal had the good fortune of knowing George John personally and professionally.)