“A lot has changed, hasn’t it?” we asked Fali Vakeel, as we settled into our bar stools at the Bombay Gymkhana. He was kind enough to meet us on 7 January 2016, a week after his ‘official’ last day at the Express Towers office of Lintas.
Now ‘Mullen - Lowe - Lintas whatever’ quipped the outgoing vice chairman of the group.
He has every right to be mildly amused, given the number of changes in the agency’s name in the last 24 years – the length of his tenure.
As the three cubes of ice in his first glass of Red Label clinked their ode to a special evening for us, the man billed as the ‘Last of the Mad Men in Indian advertising’ by his colleague and agency CEO Joseph George, opened up.
“A lot has not changed, also,” he explained. “Amirati, Lowe, Lowe Lintas, Lowe and Partners… my memory fails me. But the DNA of integrity, honesty, remains. No matter how sick you found rules (laughs), you obeyed them. And… the Lintas name has been so iconic in India. Even the taxi driver knew it and brought you (to the office). Much like JWT used to be in London,” added the spirited adlander, who started his career in an accountancy firm in London, and his advertising career at JWT in the same city.
“But has some of the fun gone out of advertising? I think it has. The age of political correctness, of ‘be careful of what you say’, has taken the fun out of it,” he noted.
Vakeel has indeed seen interesting times in Indian advertising, after eight years in London, at JWT and McCann. While a look back at his career throws up several memorable milestones, there are some that shouldn’t go unchronicled. Among those, are the time a shoot went terribly wrong, and he almost quit Lintas – the only time he came close to doing something ‘so stupid’, he confesses. Better sense prevailed.
The man credited with retaining CEO Joseph George at the agency with a shift to Bengaluru, and hiring current chairman R Balki, observed that something else has remained constant at the Lintas clan: “We always had a certain sense of (good) subversiveness as an agency. Now, Balki, is a subversive f*****. He’s also one of the most big-hearted f****** on the planet.”
Terming Balki ‘the best client servicing guy’, Vakeel is, as always, quick to respond when asked how he rated himself as a ‘client servicing guy’. He said, “I may be one of the top three.”
Among other things, did ‘fun’ mean going out for a drink at 11 am? No, underlines Vakeel. He got to work at 8.30 am, he reminds us. There was hardly any use of technology, says the adlander who has stayed away from social media all these years. He added though, that “The place was full of glamour.”
Blast from the past…
Vakeel credits several of his colleagues for making his life at the agency what it was, but would like to thank two people in particular for making him the professional he is: Alyque Padamsee and Prem Mehta. He’s not sure if the word ‘mentor’ fits the context – perhaps it’s a little more than that, he muses.
When publishers like the Competition Success Review hosted parties at the Taj, adland was very happy to connect with adland, notes the veteran. They were ‘far removed’ from the ‘pompous affairs’ like the Campaign Agency of the Year Awards, he pointed out. He is also quick to note that the relationships between agencies and their leaders have changed. That’s not all.
“Nowhere in the world today can anyone say someone is ‘pretty’ and get away with it,” he rued.
We couldn’t argue with that on a day when Chris Gayle was in the news for off-field behaviour. The other thing, he pointed out, was that bottles were opened to celebrate professional success in office once, like in London in the ‘70s. Some of the ‘brightest and the best’ would have not chosen other fields, over advertising, 'had the fun in advertising remained', he observes.
“Even in the days when we were most desperate for people, for a slot that had to be filled, I remember rejecting uninspired and uninspiring people. I’m happy that throughout my career, I did. And I am happy that that there are people like Balki, and people in other agencies, that I brought on board. And I am really happy that we motivated them enough to retain them,” recounted Vakeel, immensely proud of what the HR team and leadership at Mullen Lowe Lintas is doing on the people front now.
There also came a turbulent time from a people standpoint: circa 2007, the ‘windfall’ that made headlines, and did not include some people as beneficiaries. It was addressed, emphasises Vakeel, adding that there was no cynicism in the payout – or its aftermath.
“It was like a war breaking out. But what has ensued speaks for the solidity of the agency, and the eventual maturity of its leadership – it never affected our business, ever,” he underlined.
The Bangalore days
From 1990, nine years after joining the Mumbai office, Vakeel led the Bengaluru office for 15 years – with added responsibility for the South and East. His profile states that revenues increased eight-fold during this period. It was during this time, that the agency won the Titans and Britannias of the world, among others.
Vakeel recalls Ravi Deshpande saying it was probably the time when the agency had the best set of clients and people, in the business. He was also responsible for the Delhi operations from 2002 to 2004, before taking up all India operations except for Mumbai. He moved back to Mumbai, taking on the responsibility of COO, before being named vice chairman 20 years after he joined the agency.
From an industry perspective, and that included Lintas, he witnessed the power shifting from Bengaluru to Mumbai. Levers moved foods out. Compaq, which retained Lintas despite an international alignment, eventually moved – for no fault of the India operations. The dotcom boom went bust.
“Just as today, Bangalore is a huge powerhouse of startup brands, it was the case then,” reminded Vakeel. But it eventually gave way. On whether the game will change, again, he wouldn’t want to hazard a guess.
Much more to cherish than regret
When the agency re-launched a soft drink, Vakeel promptly fell in love with the model. But that wasn’t something he regrets.
The only regret he recalls is an instance, when he ‘gave far too much leeway to a bunch of completely incompetent, unattractive, opinionated jerks’. And then, it was ‘death by a thousand pin pricks’. What was the issue? He chose not to go further down that road. The lessons had been learnt.
The agency stands tall today, and if there was once an impression of being a ‘Levers’ agency, that has helped grow business well beyond the FMCG giant it is proud to partner, he adds. If there was ever an impression that it was an agency full of suits, the balance is been ‘perfectly addressed’ now, contends Vakeel.
The frequent visitor to the South of France went to the Cannes Lions fest only ‘three or four’ years ago. And he doesn’t regret not going there earlier. There’s more to life than awards, in his view.
When we called him on 18 January to ask if there’s a specific picture he’d like used alongside this piece, he said, “I hope it’s a kind article,” as cheerful as he was during the interview.
The man who doesn’t like to be called ‘Sir’ said he was waiting and had three minutes before leaving the office. It was indeed his last day ‘in’ office. If he was emotional, he tried not to let it show.
Vakeel carries with him fond memories. He leaves behind many more, with people whose lives he’s touched, in a career that officially ended on 31 December 2015. The agency will be taking 500 of its employees to Goa soon, for a farewell befitting its very own ‘Mad Man’.
So with a bit more time on his hands, will he consider getting onto social media? “I have no clue,” he said. He’s not averse to the idea, we guessed.
A brief walk outside and some female guests at the Gymkhana had already pulled him over for a chat. The single adlander who enlists fast cars, films and travel among (many) other things he loves, will have a busy life post retirement.
Of that we are sure.