The eldest of the Modi brothers, KK Modi, passed away in Delhi on the weekend. While his son, Lalit Modi, may be more well-known because of his cricket connections, KK deserves rich tributes and remembrances for being an indomitable fighter – one who took on the might of ITC in the cigarettes business, giving them stiff competition for well over 40 years, and creating powerful brands – Four Square, Red & White, Cavanders; while also experimenting with top-of-the-pyramid brands like Jaisalmer and Rothmans in the 1990s.
My most lucid recollection of KK Modi (or KK as most of us usually addressed him) dates back to 1994 while at Rediffusion, a full 25-years ago, while making a research presentation at Godfrey Phillips. I had barely gone past the first few slides of the ‘qualitative’ deck when KK in his heavy baritone stopped me in my tracks. “I don’t agree with this research or its methodology,” he boomed. I was non-plussed but stayed quiet, waiting for him to elaborate and explain. “This whole research based on group discussions is completely flawed. The problem is that the guy who smokes 2-3 cigarettes a day, the light smoker, is the most articulate and vociferous in expressing his views in your GDs. That’s the nature of his personality – extrovert, well-spoken, expressive, opinionated. So he is the one quoted repeatedly in your presentation. The heavy smoker, the one who smokes 40 cigarettes a day is an introvert, quiet and non-participative. That’s his nature; that is why he is a heavy smoker. He says nothing. He just sits quietly, almost invisible in the group. So he is almost absent in your feedback. Now if we base all our thinking and strategies on this research, we will be doing so based on what the light, peripheral smoker is saying, ignoring the heavy duty customer who just kept quiet”. I was stunned. I hadn’t even thought of it in that light. KK was so right. And sharp. And instinctive.
Rediffusion had launched Jaisalmer, a super-premium cigarette for KK in the early 90s. It took off like a rocket initially but the enthusiasm for the brand waned in the next couple of years. By the mid-90s, the brand was in serious doldrums. In 1995, I had escorted Fumio Oshima, the global business head of Dentsu (Rediffusion’s global partners alongside Young & Rubicam) for a courtesy visit to KK’s office in New Delhi’s Friends Colony. KK, after some initial polite conversation, came straight to business : would Dentsu help him re-launch Jaisalmer?
Dentsu Japan? I interjected incredulously. Yes, he said. Dentsu had helped Phillip Morris create one of their most successful brands outside the US, a brand called Parliament which had become the No. 1 cigarette in its category in Japan. KK asked Oshima san if Dentsu could do for him what they had achieved for Parliament? Of course, Oshima san said. Over the next 2 years I travelled with KK, and his top deck – Ram Poddar, Dipak Basu, Anand Bhardwaj and Debashish Sarker – multiple times to Tokyo. What happened on and with Jaisalmer is a story meant for another day. But what the Jaisalmer episode showed of KK was his uncanny intuitiveness … the ability to know who was the best person to reach out to for help.
It was during the Jaisalmer project and KK’s Japan visits that he (and his son Lalit) briefed Dentsu on what was eventually to become the Indian Premier League (IPL) many years later. Dentsu had successfully launched the J-League in Japan. And Dentsu was the official marketing agent for the Olympics, FIFA World Cup, FINA Swimming, the Asian Games, WTF, Formula 1… so they knew a thing or two about sports. Lalit those days represented Disney and ESPN in India. He however had bigger ambitions. He wanted to create and own a cricket league in India patterned on the Kerry Packer series. KK engaged Dentsu to run a feasibility study for Lalit’s plans. KK had the foresight and the imagination to see what cricket would look like a dozen years later.
During my many travels with him, I was fortunate to hear many stories of KK’s exploits from the horse’s mouth. His Estee Lauder JV and why it never took off; his stories on how Hum Red & White Peene Walon Ki Baat Hi Kuchh Aur Hai was created with Diwan Arun Nanda and Kamlesh Pandey and how Raj Babbar and Jackie Shroff were the brand’s early faces; how he sold Rothmans cigarettes through leggy beauties hand-delivering the cigarette packs to buyers (Peter Mukerjea who ran that sampling of Rothmans had set up the promotions outfit after he left Ogilvy, before he joined Star TV); how he and Bina Modi thought up and launched the Ego restaurant which at one time was his pet project. Me being me, I suggested we launch a range of cigars under the Ego brand. KK was fascinated. Next time he and I met for lunch at Ego, the first samples were already ready and I was tasked with doing the graphics and the packaging!
KK kind of forced the pace on looking for effective surrogates for his brands before cigarette advertising was banned. So while ITC looked at creating Wills Lifestyle stores, KK created the Red & White Bravery Awards that required a fraction of the investment. That was his ingenuity and innovativeness.
KK’s one big regret he shared with me many times was that Charms, the denim age cigarette that stormed India in the 1980s was not from his stable, but was created by Vazir Sultan Tobacco. We discussed launching Marcopolo or Black & White (few would know that these were also brands in the Godfrey Phillips portfolio) in the same domain but that never really happened.
KK never went to business school. But he was sharper, more clued in and far more strategic than any B-school graduate. His instincts, his intuition, his ingenuity, his innovativeness was in a different stratosphere. If there is one guy who gave ITC competition, it was him. Consistently for 40 years, matching them in every dimension of the business. Idea for idea. Campaign for campaign.
KK and I remained in touch even after I moved on from Rediffusion. The last I met him was on a flight a couple of years ago. We talked at length about Japanese food, the IPL and yes, Jaisalmer.
KK, you will be missed. For your wisdom, for your excellence in business, your ability to envision tomorrow. And for your warmth as a client. One who respected and bought good ideas; more importantly treated the agency as a partner and friend.
KK, no Mr. Modi sir, RIP.
(Dr Sandeep Goyal worked on various brands with KK Modi from 1994 to 2001, while at Rediffusion.)