It was 1988. I was studying to be a cost accountant in Kolkata. I had spotted a newspaper advertisement for the position of junior finance executive at Response. I applied. Mr Ray interviewed me and at the end of the interview he told me that he thought I would be good for account management instead. I hesitated, thinking that my dad wouldn’t be too happy if I switched tracks. And what did an account management executive really do? Seeing my hesitation, Mr Ray offered me the position of management trainee. He said I would start in account management and could move to the accounts department if I didn’t like it.
A few weeks later, Mr Ray came into the account management area of Response and asked the GM for an account executive who would work with him on a project for Concern for Calcutta. Everyone ducked. My Ray spotted me and said, ‘He will do!’. As he left the room, everyone turned to look at me. I recollect seeing deep sympathy in their eyes.
The next four months changed my life.
The project involved the beautification of the Dhakuria Lakes. I had to put together Mr Ray’s vision for it in a proposal which was to be submitted to the government. And we were battling deadlines. I worked 20 hours every day, weekends included, for 120 days. He told me that I had to be the copywriter, the art director and the account manager on the project! It was a 300 page project report with multiple sections. Every morning he would brief me on one section. I would write out the copy and lay out the pages of each section over the next two or three days. Anyone who has worked with Mr Ray will know how difficult that was. Words had to be carefully chosen. Sentences precisely constructed. Layouts had to be perfect. He taught me what leading (pronounced ledding), kerning, ligature, tracking etc. were. I had entered the University of Advertising.
I would check. Double check. Triple check. Quadro check every page. Then, after signing every one of them I would diligently insert the sheaf of papers into a brown paper envelope and slip it under the main door of his residence at daybreak. When I returned to work four hours later, the section would be back on my desk, marred by black ink. Mr Ray would have made a hundred corrections. Over the course of the four months, those black ink marks on those white sheets lessened in number, till finally one day I received one section entirely untouched by that dreaded pen.
Then, a few weeks later, he announced that all that was left to complete the project were a few pictures of the lakes and that he would shoot himself. So off we trooped, My Ray and I, one early morning. After a good photography session, he announced that he wanted to treat me to breakfast. I was delighted. This seemed like a generous reward by the big man for a humble executive like me. We went to a South Indian restaurant. Mr Ray ordered practically everything on the menu. ‘That’s a lot for the two of us Mr Ray,’ I muttered under my breath. ‘I’m ordering for myself, you figure out what you want to eat’, he said with a smile.
Over the next six months I had many opportunities to work directly with Mr Ray. I remember him walking into the office one morning and announcing that everyone had to give him original designs for wall clocks that would tell more than just time. I sketched 20 design concepts. He loved all of them and announced to the whole office that mine were the best ideas. That was probably one of the happiest days of my life.
When I look back today, that one year with Mr Ray was one in which I learned the most valuable advertising lesson - how to build a creative culture in an organisation. Creative was not a department in an agency, it was a belief system. And that creative ideas could and must come from everyone in an advertising agency.
This was the beacon that showed me the way. It has led me along, helping me to shape the creative cultures of offices and agencies.
Thank you Mr Ray. You are and will always be my Ray of inspiration.
(The author is group chairman and CEO, FCB India.)
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