The Old Order Changeth: Overflow of nostalgia on Horlicks

DK Bose, Nellai Thiruambalam and Rajive Chandra react to Sandeep Goyal's opinion piece on the news of Horlicks moving from JWT to FCB

The Old Order Changeth: Overflow of nostalgia on Horlicks
Even I was taken aback and surprised by the overflow of nostalgia on Horlicks ditching JWT after 80 long years. My blog seemed to have woken up many folks who had had something or the other to do with the brand over the years.
One of the first to message me was Sanjeev Bhikchandani, the well known founder of, and co-owner of Zomato. Sanjeev said the blog got him to remember his Horlicks days. Sanjeev was a Product Executive on Horlicks, 30 years ago, his first job after IIM-A.
Rajive Chandra who was my main interface at HMM as brand head of Horlicks wrote me a long mail (reproduced below). Rajive’s contemporary, Thiru, who ran the Boost franchise also wrote in with a longish opinion (reproduced below). DK Bose who was media director at HTA in the 80s also sent me a mail (reproduced below).
I thought it best to just share the mails from all these stalwarts. Without comment. Without explanation. Each one of Rajive, Thiru and DK make telling points. Not just as nostalgia, but as vignettes from the past, the mails make interesting reading. Enjoy!
Stunning news: Horlicks changes its Advertising Agency – JWT – after 80 years
Rajive Chandra, product manager, Horlicks 1987
Subsequently has been overseas with Jumbo and Motorola
For many of my generation who grew up in India during the seventies and eighties and held Sales and Marketing roles, handling Horlicks perhaps was as coveted as handling other well-managed brands like Surf and Vicks.
There were limited opportunities in those days, and the funda 'brand' men were mostly found 'living' in Levers and its partner JWT. Quanti cats inhabited IMRB – the unobtrusive fraternity was small, well-knit and loosely defined. There were, of course, outliers like Sunil Duggal who led Dabur, and the motley crowd that crossed over to upstart companies like Motorola (Rahul S Verghese), Nestle (Freak) and Nokia (Sanjeev Sharma - Poncho and Parikshit Bhasin), Rajiv Inamdar (IMRB and Citibank) etc. The list in parenthesis was long.
I spent my formative years with this legendary coterie and with one of the finest marketing and ad men so well defined in Sandeep Goyal's blog. The brand I presided over was the quintessential Horlicks, the mother of all brands, and I was surrounded by honorable men – my managers who had themselves excelled and seen it and done it all. They were reaching self-actualization in an incredible Molotov cocktail of philosophy, creativity, ingenuity and optimism.
The brand management floor that supported me at Horlicks represented an unparalleled DNA of formidable men and women. The man who directly handled Horlicks as a brand (did jug, mug and contingency plans ) subsequently rose to become a globally renowned entrepreneur whose marketing prowess and business acumen became fodder for Marketing textbooks. The other members of the august group put a stake in the ground with senior global leadership assignments. All these folks inexplicably were brought together by Shyam Dugal, the Smithkline HR Director, a suave leader possessing an uncanny knack for recruiting formidable talent for the Horlicks Company.
The star-studded Advertising Agency was JWT which was inextricably intertwined with Horlicks – Sunil Gupta and Sandeep Goyal led the account and eventually became legends in their own right, dominating the advertising airwaves even today; the media chief was Ambika Srivastava, nationally the best, with Ketaki coming a close second; then there was the formidable account planning team of Shankar Rajan and Sanjeev Chadha, followed by the legendary creative teams that worked in unison with Sumantro Ghoshal. For many of us, JWT was an extended arm of Smithkline where the bonhomie continued way beyond office hours, even on weekends.
Horlicks, it has often been said, inhabits two centuries simultaneously in India, the nineteenth and the twenty-first, and parts of Horlicks have been folded into a time machine and transported directly to the twenty-second century. Consequently, the brand developed an energy and momentum and this was tracked on a daily basis with all the above teams forming an intractable protective loop for which I was the proud custodian.
It is therefore, with a deep sense of melancholy and anguish that I learnt today that my beloved brand Horlicks has moved on from JWT to another Agency. The last bastion of predictability and constancy had finally been surmounted and I now stand rudderless:
And when banks grow shady and oars at rest,
And we rudderless float and glide,
I shall feel their love
And the grayling against my side
– Alfred Austin
Horlicks : Firing the ad agency is not the best a brand can get!

Nellai Thiruambalam, product manager, Boost, 1987. 
Later with Heinz, GE and GSK; now in Private Equity space.
When Sandeep (Goyal) shared the news of Horlicks and JWT parting ways, after a relationship of many decades and his “opinion”, I felt the need to share my “opinion” too – after all I had spent much longer in GSK (then HMM) working closely with JWT (then HTA). Sandeep seems to have missed out on an important perspective – that of what goes on when brand managers fail in their responsibilities. The typical reaction when brands lose sales and shares is to fire the sales guy or the ad agency. Remember, the marketing guy is smart - when the tiger shows up, he need not outrun the tiger, he just needs to outrun either the sales guy or the ad agency.
I should know a bit because I was with HMM for 14 years, managing Boost before moving on to Horlicks. I was a proud member of the team that transformed Boost from what was essential a Tamil Nadu brand into a very successful national brand. I was the product executive when Kapil Dev came on board and the product manager when Sachin Tendulkar signed up. The late Jishnu Mishra (marketing director) was the brain behind marketing Boost directly to kids, moving away from the centuries-old category practice of appealing to the mothers. Sandeep, is right, when he talks about the Horlicks Bible, which not just the ad agency but everyone in marketing had to swear allegiance to. It was Jishnu Mishra and HTA (after much persuasion) who fought all odds to conceptualise and execute the strategy of Kapil Dev sharing the secrets of his energy with kids. From conception (when Kapil Dev was in Texas holidaying) to going on air, it was just three weeks flat. If one studied the market shares of the then market leader (in chocolate beverages) Bournvita and Boost, since 1986, the success of Boost would be very evident. All companies have their own version of the Bible, one can work with the agency to work around the constraints and succeed.
Horlicks has always been a very challenging brand to handle. The near monopoly the brand had amongst white beverages (with Viva remaining light years behind for ever) with almost every child, father, mother and grand-parent in south and east of India consuming the family nourisher, the brand meant many things to many people. The homely and smart Suchitra on TV, Press and Radio caring for her family did her job well up to a point. The real challenge in the 80s came from Complan, built superbly by some marketing mavericks in Glaxo and Chaitra (now Leo Burnett). Those guys had the guts to launch Complan at double the price of market leader Horlicks. The superior product was backed up by some superior advertising. Complan succeeded in switching Horlicks users and cracks were becoming visible within HMM. There were discussions about changing the ad agency. In fact some work was actually taken away from HTA Delhi and given to HTA Bombay.
Then walked in the new marketing head, Shyamal Ghose (of Charms and Cherry Blossom fame), a marketing genius in every sense of the word. He took pains to understand the challenges faced by the brand. He spent time with the existing agency HTA to develop a strategy. Then he sold it to the powers that be in Brentford (the global HQ in London, where the Horlicks Bible came from. He brought in a producer (Sumantro Ghosal) who understood the nuances of appealing to the regional audiences. He was also was capable of executing to the demanding needs of the plan. For the first time in India, separate films were made for Bengali, Tamil, Telegu, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya and Hindi audiences, while one master being dubbed was the order of the day. Screening, rescreening and approving of those many masters shot in 35 mm at the only preview theatre then at Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi with the production team operating from Mumbai added to the execution load.
Then came post production with language supers and sending them to thousands of cinemas across the country through Blaze. The efforts paid off and for the first time in years, Horlicks had an answer to the onslaught of Complan.
Another big challenge, the agency and the client successfully worked together to ward off was the repeated attempts by the global health beverage category leader Nestle (an important client for HTA Delhi, too) trying to establish their foothold in India during the 80s and 90s, with Bonus, Nestomalt and Milo. To this day Nestle has not succeeded in entering the category in India.
Changes over the last decade at GSK Consumer also had a debilitating effect on the health of the brands. Almost every middle and senior role in sales, marketing and general management had been taken over by a new breed of men who knew how to market and sell, “the best a man can get” and probably not what the mothers and kids were looking for.  Many talented sales and marketing guys from the earlier ‘administration’ leaving did not help matters. The weakening brand health was not noticed as GSK India stock prices, became the yard stick of the measure of success of the businesses. It is only in the last few quarters, some analysts have starting putting a “sell” on GSK Consumer India shares and cracks started appearing within the team.
Horlicks stopped playing the leadership role responsibly and the relevance of the category was becoming an issue. The new GSK team were headed the wrong way – brand extensions such as Horlicks Foodles (noodles) were never going to help them win the war. Neither did acquiring Viva from Jagjit Industries and letting it die, help.
Beliefs about brand building are shaped by one’s experiences and marketing capabilities. When faced with tough challenges, some weak marketing guys abdicate their responsibilities – they push the sales guys into accepting more of short-term sales promotions which may address the symptoms but never the problem. Team Complan with their strong belief in brand building  spent all their money on advertising. Between 2005 and 2012, despite being less than half of Horlicks in value market share, Complan looked the leader in the eye with matching advertising share-of-voice and gained consistently. (The fact Complan has been suffering of late, is a story for another ‘Opinion’).
Winning the account may not have been very difficult for FCB, as several agencies would not have competed given existing relationships with competitors. Rohit Ohri, has never been nourished by the “The Great Family Nourisher”, despite having spent all his growing years in HTA Delhi. Will he be good enough to keep the tiger away and if not, outrun the GSK marketing team, if the tiger indeed showed up? That story will unfold over the next few years.
My experience with Horlicks the brand and HMM the company 1984 to 1989
DK Bose, media director, HTA, Delhi, 1987
Later with Ogilvy and Ogilvy Rural
I joined JWT, India’s no1 advertising agency, in January 1984 as its media director Delhi. The first thing which struck me was the pride with which the agency held the brand Horlicks and of course the company HMM. It looked like as if the agency was in-house agency of HMM. I was very clearly made aware of this status with the battery of young executives in the agency and in the media department who were engaged in servicing Horlicks. On the part of the company it also engaged highly qualified young executives in managing the brand.
As head of the media function, I noticed the reliance given to NRS, and consequently on statistics based planning. I found this somewhat antithesis to my way of thinking, which was more to do with media content and people rather than just statistics. I had to first bring my colleagues Ambika Srivastav and Ranjana Singh to look at the perspective from which I was looking and later slowly steer the brand managers towards that angle.
Planning media for Horlicks brand reconfirmed to me the need to mix relevant experience and statistics as a desired professional approach.
Horlicks moving out of JWT has obviously created tremors in the industry. Not for anything else but that it was an 80 years old relationship. To those of us who worked on the brand, the news was just saddening. It is not my business to be judgmental on whether GSK should have changed agencies or not. For me, as I said before, it was just pure nostalgia. I got over a hundred calls, messages and mails. The only question they all asked was: “Why?”
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