Shephali Bhatt
May 22, 2012

Oh! Calcutta: A trip down memory lane

Shephali Bhatt attempts to knit together a coherent whole of how Kolkata’s adlanders pushed boundaries in their early days. Reliving the good old days, in their own words.

Oh! Calcutta: A trip down memory lane



Madhukar Kamath, group chief executive officer, managing director, DDB Mudra Group

Stint in Kolkata:

Management trainee, Clarion McCann, 1976-79

Assistant account executive, Clarion McCann + ACIL,1979-82


I spent the first six years of my working career in Calcutta. Those were six glorious years of exciting experiences, learning and growth.  I joined as a management trainee out of XLRI and was later confirmed as an assistant account executive at Clarion McCann. Calcutta, in those days, was a significantly larger advertising market than Bombay.   The majority of multinationals were headquartered in Calcutta.   I began by working on Chloride India (Exide Battery), and then got to work on Bata, Dunlop, Lipton, ITDC, Shaw Wallace, etc.  Within my first six months, I was working on an exciting project for Nestle (Nescafe). I could not have asked for a better start for my career.
Those were the days when HTA (now JWT) and Clarion McCann were No. 1 and 2, nationally.  Subhas Ghosal, heading HTA, was a legend. Subroto Sengupta (SSG), perhaps one of the best brains in the advertising business ever, was a part of the senior management of Clarion McCann. The legendary Satyajit Ray was on the board as well.   One of my best memories was seeing the great man himself visiting the Clarion Office for the board meetings and lunch thereafter. It was exciting to see the competition between Clarion McCann and HTA.  OBM (now Ogilvy) was a distant third and never taken seriously.

However, everybody met up at Olympia (now called the Olly Pub).  This was the unofficial branch office for all the agencies in Calcutta.  We were taken there on our first day.

Subsequently, we went there irrespective of whether we had a good day or a bad day, whether we did a good campaign or a bad one.  Going to Ollys at lunch was like a daily pilgrimage!

Those were the days of load shedding.  Learning to work, live and enjoy life despite the prolonged power cuts, was not really necessary but it made all of us more resourceful and innovative. I remember teams working on a pitch presentation, moving en masse from one location to the other, based on the schedule of power cuts.   I have personally carried a colleague, two projectors, four slide trays and rolled up charts on a motorbike often.  Watching the long and exciting Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe clashes at Wimbledon, required us to go from one area to another based on the pattern of power cuts.  The first set in one house, the second in a different area, and so on.

I began working at the age of 21.  It was the era of full service agencies and a full 15% commission.  What was more rewarding was the respect given to the agency.   Even as a youngster and an account executive, I remember participating in several client meetings where crucial decisions were taken.    What I value even today, is what I learnt in those days. That operations and execution are as important as strategic thinking.  Attention to detail is a mantra that I cherish to date.  

Calcutta as a city, was still rich in both culture and club life.  Pam Crain and Louis Banks at Blue Fox and Usha Uthup at Trincas were great draws for all of us.  From my salary of
Rs 900, I used to make sure that Rs 100 to Rs 200 was kept aside for an evening out at these two joints. The Bengali and English theatre, the jatras, the pujos, etc. and not to forget the people of Calcutta, all contributed to a memorable experience.  What more can one ask for from your first assignment?


The Bell Punch Mechanical Calculator used to calculate salaries at Kamath's workplace in Kolkata



Subhash Kamath, managing partner, BBH India

Stint in Kolkata:

Senior account executive, Trikaya Grey, 1989-90




I’d practically grown up in Kolkata, having done most of my school and college education there. But after working a couple of years in Mumbai, it was still a huge culture shock when I came back to the Kolkata advertising industry. Mumbai was the Mecca of advertising, fast paced and incredibly professional. Kolkata was much slower and things happened only when there was personal intervention.  And yet, Kolkata had a soul, a definitive character. People made time for you, and often, would go out of their way to help you out.

I had joined a newly set-up branch of Trikaya Grey as a senior account executive. There were just five of us there. And incredibly, my role was more like that of a client services head. I reported directly to the branch head, participated in new business pitches, made credentials, presentations, recruited the client servicing team, was responsible for the strategic planning and briefing on my accounts, and one day when our studio artist fell ill, even sat up all night cut-pasting the artworks. It was an incredible experience, all of which a junior in Mumbai would never have got. But that’s what working in a small branch office teaches you.In a large head-office of an agency, you have many departments with department heads running them. You have many seniors you can escalate a problem to. In a small office, the buck stops at your table, and you have to make things happen, no matter how difficult the job. I really feel everyone should have a stint in a branch office, especially in a place like Kolkata.


Sanjeet Saha, vice president, international business, STAR TV

Stint in Kolkata:

Intern, media planning, Zenithmedia, July-Sept 2000




It was the unforgettable summer of 2000. When I first joined, I was told that the place would grow on me. What nobody told me was that the place would change my life. Over the next few months that I spent there, I had the rare opportunity to work with some of the finest people and ideate on some of the biggest brands. The essence of Kolkata’s advertising life is that all the passions of Bengal converge: emotion, the love for ‘adda’ to ideate, food for thought, the pride in creative expression and the joy of celebrating a win. Kolkata’s advertising life symbolises creativity and vibrance and a never-say-die attitude. 

I also learnt that life is about more than just money, it is about the things that other cities ignore: about culture, about ideas, about art, and about passion. A city is the sum of its people. No wonder someone so rightly said, “If you want a city with a soul, come to Calcutta.” This mutual respect for people and their art still stands out for me. And that makes Kolkata all the more endearing.


Saha at his desk in Kolkata in early 2000


Kaushik Roy, president, brand strategy & marketing communication, Reliance Industries

Stint in Kolkata:

Creative apprentice, HTA, 1979. Left in 1990 as account director



My first brush with advertising was in the late ’70s, at a time when advertising was still alive in Calcutta but the first few MNCs had just exited to Trade Union-friendly cities. I started working while doing my graduation at St Xavier’s. I could never have imagined that my odd pieces of art would get me a break in the creative department of Hindustan Thompson Associates (now JWT) - the then No 1 ad agency in the country. This was Kolkata’s speciality - young talent with no degrees was always welcome.

Being a creative ‘apprentice’ in those days wasn’t easy. The stipend was a princely Rs 400 and soon after joining I was evicted from the fancy air conditioned ‘creative den’ to the harsh and hot realities of the agency’s studio with asbestos roofing. That’s where I had to learn typography by ‘cutting and pasting’ each alphabet from bromides, to make words that went on to make the headlines in the ads. To my good fortune, I got to know the most amazing typography artists and highly skilled illustrators. The most amazing artist I met was the national scraperboard genius who used a fine knife to draw thin, straight freehand lines to create ‘line drawings’ that looked like halftone photographs.. This was the place that taught me everything and gave me the best of opportunities. All the seniors had more time and patience than what we see today. There was no shortage of brilliant mentors. Meritocracy was respected- one year down the job, my HMV ad made it to the agency’s 50th anniversary showcase. Mobility and flexibility was entertained - after I had graduated from college, they allowed me to move into account management to handle HMV, one of the biggest national HTA clients at that point in time.

The other remarkable thing about HTA Calcutta was this amazing skill and pride of writing Bengali ads. Ads that spoke straight to the heart in a language that was rich and poetic. One of the most amazing baselines that I remember was the one for Kwality Ice Creams - ‘Mukhe dile gole jay, ahare ki pushti’. Those who understand Bangla will agree that this is the best ever description of the goodness of ice cream with a brilliant pun on the word ‘ahare’. This one line best explains the plight of Bengali advertising which has always been so strong on words. Even the best English attempt - “Health that melts in the mouth” was too ordinary when compared to the Bangla. Bangla advertising and writers in this country have never really got the respect Hindi writers have. Calcutta became Kolkata and business dwindled but my tribe across the country hasn’t done badly, because we were taught in the best ad schools with fabulous mentors and top class brands that are now spread across the country.

Subhash Bose must be some 120-plus years old by now but there are still some die-hard Bangalis who believe he’s coming back. Perhaps to save the advertising Bangalis who had to leave home? I too am waiting for him and that day.


Kaushik Roy in a Bengali ad for Jabakusum hair oil



Satbir Singh, managing partner, chief creative officer, Euro RSCG India

Stint in Kolkata:

Junior copywriter, Trikaya Grey, 1993-94

Copywriter, Contract Advertising, 1994-95

Senior writer, Equus Red Cell, 1995-96

In the early ’90s, Calcutta had a fairly Mad Men-ish advertising scene. The work was intense. And, so was the partying. There was this pub called Olympia, fondly known as Olly’s. You could walk in thinking an Ad Club meeting was in progress.

I joined Trikaya Grey at a princely salary of Rs 2,000. Nirvik and Swapan gave me a 25% raise at the completion of the first month, my most cherished till date. Juju Basu had just joined Trikaya as an intern. Those were the days of the rubber solution and white petrol. One dull day, Juju was smoking in creative and as a source of entertainment kept sprinkling petrol on the ashtray where red hot cigarette butts would explode in tiny balls of fire. Inevitably, the petrol bottle caught fire and he dropped it on the synthetic carpet. It’s said the fire could be seen from the moon.

I moved to Contract to work with Mohit Hira. Mohit, seeing people walking into the office rather late every morning, once introduced a one-rupee fine for late comers. Saumya Sen promptly deposited Rs 30 in advance for the month. Needless to say, Mohit was a tad perturbed and I think Saumya forfeited his deposit towards jhaalmudi for the department. 

My last Calcutta agency was Suhel & Swapan’s newly-started Equus. Swapan, Anurag Hira, Torun Basu and I would shop for everything from printers to A4 sheets. Suhel, meanwhile, would make long conversations on his new mobile phone. You could tell he was already preparing himself for Arnab Goswami’s show. 

Those were the pre-internet days. Every agency had a ‘computer room.’ You were expected to kick your shoes off before entry. Most layouts were hand-crafted. Copy used to be printed on dot-matrix printers and pasted behind layouts.

I’m not that old. I too have heard all this.


Swapan Seth, chief executive officer, Equus Red Cell

Stint in Kolkata:

Trainee/Junior Copywriter/Copywriter, HTA, 1988-89

General manager, creative director, Trikaya Grey, 1994-95



Calcutta was wonderful in all the stints that I spent there. As a trainee in Hindustan Thompson,then as creative director at Trikaya Grey and finally as founder, Equus. I worked with the most fabulous bosses I ever had. Ashish Mitra, Rangan Chakravarty and Srirup Guha Thakurta at Thompson, and Nirvik Singh at Trikaya Grey. I did my best work while in Calcutta. I remember it the most because of the furiously talented teams that I worked with in every department: servicing, media and production. I was pampered as hell in all my stints there as well.


L to R: Seth, Manosh Sengupta, Rangan Chakravarty, on an HTA trip to Gangasagar, 1989



Rohit Ohri, executive chairman, Dentsu India Group

Stint in Kolkata:

Management trainee, Response India, 1989-90

Account executive – associate vice president, HTA (now JWT), 1990-98


Kolkata was a wonderful experience. During the early phase of my career I spent one year in Response India followed by the next eight years at JWT (then HTA).  I learned the ropes from Ram Ray (Response) and later Sunil Gupta (HTA). Kolkata was a small advertising market. Everybody knew everybody. The Advertising Club of Kolkata was vibrant and active. It provided a forum for the advertising fraternity of the city to interact and bond. Something I miss very sorely in Delhi.
Working with local entrepreneur clients like the Emami Group and Libra Carpets taught me a lot. When I look back now, many years later, I realise that the intuitive feel for market that clients like RS Agarwal had was incredible. I’m convinced today that ‘gut feel’ is that irreplaceable X-factor of every marketing plan.

My advertising life in Kolkata to me was - 30 Bondel Road (HTA mad house), Olly Pub (for afternoon brainstorming), endless meetings to fix the menu for the annual HTA business associates lunch, my 10 year-old ambassador (first company car), Lizze (the HTA telephone operator who secretly ran a side business of supplying delicious momos to the office), and a great bunch of friends at office (we had time to bond and have fun together). 

As I was writing this, I realised I had a smile on my face. Guess that’s Kolkata!


Jishnu Sen, president and CEO, Grey India

Stint at Kolkata:

Copywriter, HTA, 1989-1992




I am deeply glad that I started my career in advertising from Kolkata. I spent my first three years in advertising in the then Calcutta and that’s one of the reasons I am still excited about being a part of this industry. I worked under Sunil Gupta at HTA and learnt a lot. On my first day at HTA as a copy trainee, Swapan Seth took me out for lunch and a drink. He said, “You should be able to write a campaign even if you are drunk.” I started off as a copywriter but three years hence I moved to client servicing, quite ironically at that. I directly worked with Sanjay Thapar (current president, North and East, Ogilvy) in those days when he used to be with Bata. Rohit Ohri (Dentsu India Group) and I used to work together too. I used to sit behind him on his blue Vespa scooter and we would ride around the streets of Calcutta carrying the artwork in our hands. Rohit would find a place to park his scooter and then take a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe of his sweat before meeting the client. Those were the days when Calcutta believed that advertising was special. That’s what made advertising so special for me as well.  

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