The hunt was for ‘Miss Chik’, and the auditorium was packed with young women from Chennai colleges. The ‘ladies only’ audience was dancing on the seats. They were letting their hair down - on stage and off it.
Finalists had to mimic the model in the Chik TVC - show off their tresses with a gracious turn, and answer questions on hair care.
CavinKare’s head of advertising Sinthanai Selvan was on my right. Next to him was the third judge, a lady from the beauty business. I was picked to judge for being a ‘journalist’ writing on advertising. It also helped that the head of the company running the contest, Embers, knew me. He was my first boss.
Mohammed Iqbal lost his father before he turned 16. He ventured to the Middle East with his elder brother Akbar; they worked as waiters. Returning a few years later with a few lakh rupees, they started a fast food joint at a bustling location. Business was good. Until the joint had to be shut down after one of the many drunken brawls turned too ugly. Circa 1995.
Iqbal was now a father of two. He bought two ‘auto’ rickshaws. He let one out on rent; the other he rode himself. One day, his school mate Satish, employed in the sales team of Tata BP, chanced upon Iqbal.
The ‘auto’ became a mini ‘goods carrier’ loaded with stock and samples of Tata BP’s engine oils. Armed with a list of dealers, the three-wheeler added wheels. From Chennai, Iqbal and team were on the highway from Tamil Nadu to Kolkata. The top of the truck became a stage for dancers at check posts and dhabas, attracting the attention of mechanics and truckers. Satish had been promoted to head South and East by then.
An FMCG client in Kolkata noticed. Iqbal’s portfolio grew to cover one more category. It went beyond road shows to other on-ground promotions and live events.
For a sales meet of ISPL (Gillette), Iqbal roped me in to design a backdrop. We ended up creating games around a theme‘Everybody wins with Gillette’. We re-christened Asha-Teks ‘Advertising’ as Embers Events and Promotions. Our promise: ‘The Glow Remains’. I ended up in Embers.
From two brothers and a part-timer, Embers grew to a full time employee strength of over 30. It also started getting work from large network agencies. In his quest for scale, Iqbal took on even more work. But he wanted to stay ‘independent’, and refused offers to ‘align’ with an agency, or sell.
As with many sub-agency relationships in sales promotion, of the fee per promoter paid by the client, sometimes as little as 20 per cent reached the promoter. So when the brand manager from Mumbai visited a store in Trichy or Tirupati, the transmission loss was evident. And as with such relationships, the delay in payments to the last mile agency, trickling down as it does down a lengthy, sticky pipe, was not worth it.
While some direct work for clients kept him and Embers motivated, Iqbal recalls that the real pain point was working as a vendor to some agencies - not all, he clarifies. Sometimes his ideas would get sold, and he would get a pittance for part execution. And staying small would not allow him to grow - something he badly wanted to do.
Iqbal found a piece of real estate that allowed him to return to his first love - the business of food. He’s rented out one floor.
On the other, he runs ‘Nawabs’. And trust me, their kababs are fabulous.
Gokul Krishnamurthy, editor, Campaign India