Tribute: In God we trust

A former ad executive and veteran journalist pays a glowing tribute to the one and only Alyque Padamsee

Nov 19, 2018 05:19:00 AM | Article | Harihar Narayanswamy Share - Share to Facebook

“Did you people see the new Liril ad?”, he asked, as he entered the conference room in McCann. Even as we looked up from our soggy agency sandwiches and milky chai, he thundered, “The girl is wearing shorts!” Some of us had seen it and we mumbled non-committally that it was an ok ad. He snorted and said, “I called up Keki (Keki Dadiseth, then Chairman of Hindustan Lever) and said what the fuck are you doing with my baby? Twenty years ago I put her in a bikini and now, instead of it being skimpier, you are covering her up? At this rate she will be in a burkha in another 10 years! You are destroying the brand I built.” Twenty years ago Alyque bellowed out this rant and his words proved to be prophetic as the once iconic brand has just faded into oblivion.
The above words unfortunately are unable to capture the moment. For words can never capture Alyque Padamsee. You had to see those expressive eyes and the theatrical gestures, hear that nasal voice, as it raised in pitch and descended into a whisper, emphasising on key words, to experience the force of nature called Alyque. Thankfully, though for us, we had Kedar Karippail, a young trainee back then, who could mimic Alyque to perfection. If it were possible, rather than writing a single word, I would just post a video of Kedar mimicking Alyque. It would give those who never met Alyque and the YouTube generation would be guffawing, where words could only make them smile.
The above mentioned account is from 1998. I was working as an account planner in McCann and Alyque had been hired as a consultant by the agency. I had the good fortune to experience Alyque in two other avatars. 
The first was in absentia. I joined Lintas (Lintas) in 1994 and while Alyque had retired from the agency, his shadow loomed large over the agency. Everywhere one who went there could experience an Alyque story. You entered the foyer of the 13thfloor and there was a statue of Surf's Lalitaji to greet you. The trainee induction was in a conference room called 13A and so we heard the story of how Alyque added the 'A' to quell the fears of those superstitious of unlucky 13. One walked to the canteen and there was a shiny steel plate tacked on to the wall with a Vim dishwashing powder slugline. Visitors as they waited could watch the entire catalogue of ads, on a TV and VCR in the reception area. Secretaries proudly told us, “All thanks to Alyque!” His legend was alive in handwritten memos praising those few employees who turned up on a miserable rainy day in the Bombay monsoons to the peon who said every white good he possessed – he possessed a TV, washing machine and a microwave – was thanks to Alyque's Diwali tradition of gifting everyone in the agency, the same appliance. Lintas set up office in Phoenix mills in the early 1990s – a downright grungy and godforsaken place back then. Rumour had it Alyque approved visiting cards that said Lintas, 'Upper Worli' since he was worried that executives may not want to work in Lower Parel. 
My third experience with Alyque was as a journalist with Brand Equity. He was always ready to lend a sound bite and more than happy to speak his mind even if it meant rubbing a few feathers the wrong way. He was not living in the past and lamenting the loss of the 'good old days'. He had high praise for the new generation of ad men and the new wave of advertising. He opined that 'trusted' brands are a thing of the past and 'exciting brands' is where the future will lie. I remember visiting his house for an interview – a marvellous jumble of scattered books, of priceless artworks, theatre posters and all kinds of brico-brac strewn about carelessly. There he was yelling out to the domestic help, “Room main koi nahin hai toh pankha band karo, electricity waste nahin karneka.”
When I first met the man they called 'God' of advertising at McCann, I was both excited and skeptical. The excitement needs no further elaboration. Skeptical because the moniker 'God' when applied to humans, usually ends in fallen idols. The murmurs in the agency world were that he had been hired as a consultant just to lend stature to McCann, then an up and coming second-tier agency. The truth is far from that. The man was an active presence and when at the McCann office he never sat locked up in a fancy room but was busy chatting up everyone from the CEO to Usha, the tiny force of nature who worked in the front office at McCann. I would love to say that my first meeting with him was dramatic but sadly I have no recollection of what transpired. What I can be sure of though is that Alyque would have been sitting with his little notebook and pen and making notes as people spoke. The notebook was his favourite accessory and he called out, without exception, anyone without a pad and a pen at meetings. The most famous of these was a meeting in Sorab Mistry's, the CEO of McCann, room when an animated discussion was on and Sorab was nodding at appropriate intervals. Suddenly we heard Alyque's high pitched nasal drawl, “Soraaaab are you listening!” and Sorab said, “Yes Alyque, I am.” Alyque wagged a finger and continued, “But where is your pad and pen? You cannot trust your memory Soraaaab. People forget things.” Even as Sorab was recovering from this onslaught, Alyque yelled out to Sorab's secretary, “Melba, get this man a pad and a pen.” After the meeting we laughed about it for weeks but looking back it was typical Alyque: No one, CEO or trainee, is above the notebook law!
Since he came in on only three days a week, often enough, we had to call him at home. The person entrusted with briefing him was Neeraj Mehra, Mr McCann himself – the head of insights. One day as usual Neeraj called him up for a briefing and it was a while before Alyque came to the phone. Alyque said, “Ah Neeraj, it's you calling, just hold on.” And then Neeraj heard him yelling at his domestic saying, “Mechanic nahin phone kar raha hai, yeh McCann se phone hai.” His pet peeve at McCann was the McCann logo which had an embossed slug line that went 'Truth Well Told'. Everytime that logo was up on a credentials slide he would shudder and say, “Sorab I don't know who at your agency thinks this line reflects advertising. Advertising is not 'Truth Well Told' but 'Lies Well Sold'. Please ask your global guys to change it.” What was nice was that he never said these things in a condescending manner of 'I know best for I am God'. He said it matter of factly, as things he believed in and was never upset if he was ignored.
Living in the past was not his thing and so he rarely mentioned the great agency he had built. None of the 'Oh, at Lintas, this is how we did it'. He lived in the present and for the present. He believed in the democracy of ideas. We sat in the McCann conference room discussing luggage since we were pitching for VIP. It was the usual mix of banality and biscuits that filled up the room. The canteen boy walked in with tea and suddenly Alyque turned to him and said, “Tum suitcase kyun leta hai?” Hearing Alyque address him directly was too much for that young man. Fortunately, he had set down the tea tray. He stammered and stuttered but Alyque would not let him go. He put his arm around the canteen boy, calmed him down and made sure the man spoke his thoughts before he left.
The stories could go on and on. The McCann pro bono for a Hiroshima Nagasaki victims event in Bombay that Alyque was overseeing. Alyque commissioned MF Husain to do a painting onsite for the event. After a few hours Husain said he was leaving with the painting still unfinished. Alyque grabbed Husain's glasses and said he would not give them back till Husain completed the painting. Needless to say poor MF Husain had no choice but to comply. At the same event, Dolly Thakore, who was compering yelled out, “Al” and Alvin Saldanha, a creative director at McCann said “Yes Dolly” in unison with Alyque. Alyque turned to Alvin and said, “My dear boy when Dolly says Al she does not fucking mean you!” His Christmas Eve party with vodka paani puri, he would tell the guests, “Don't worry the bhelwallah is using mineral water.” Putting his arm around the venerable greybeard Nikhil Nehru, then president of McCann and a legend in his own right, and saying, “Beta Nikhil, you should reconsider on this,” leaving Nehru befuddled and speechless. Or when he was talking about Mother Teresa and said, “Great woman! God bless her soul. She has been the worst ambassador, a nation could have ever had. Indeed she helped a few needy Indians and screwed a billion of the rest of us. Thanks to her, everyone in the world thinks India is filled with only poverty, malnutrition and beggars.”
I could go on and on but none of this wordsmithing does justice to Alyque, who truly had to be experienced in flesh and blood. All I can say is in my eyes the man the myth and the legend did not fall short of all that one had heard. And as he moves on from the world it is only fitting to conclude with a joke I heard back in commerce college :
Alyque Padamsee dies and goes to the pearly gates, God and satan, both welcome him and offer him a place in heaven and in hell. Alyque asks for a glimpse of of both. God shows him heaven which is rolling meadows, birds trilling and people sitting quietly and reading books and looking content. Then Satan gives him a glimpse of hell. It's a party out there with wine flowing, people dancing and kicking up a rumpus. Quite naturally Alyque chooses hell. Satan takes him to hell and there fire and brimstone burns, and people are being tortured. Alyque says, “Hey! What happened to all that booze and partying?” Satan chuckles and replies, “That Mr Padamsee, was our advertising campaign.”
The author is a former advertising executive and veteran journalist who was a former editor of Brand Equity at the Economic Times.