Raahil Chopra
Mar 23, 2016

Triton, twenty five years on…

Ali Merchant recounts a journey that started with a road trip across Europe, funded by wins from the Playboy Gambling Club

Triton, twenty five years on…
The agency may have been outside the limelight for a while now, but Ali Merchant, director, Triton Group, says it has been doing just fine. He emphasises that Triton doesn’t lose clients easily, retains talent across its four offices (Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Bengaluru), and claims an annual turnover of over Rs 300 crore.
Triton Communications was formed in 1991, after Merchant’s stints abroad and in India with McCann, and Everest. But advertising wasn’t Merchant’s first love.
Merchant recounts, “I love life. I was very good in academics, but also in sports. I love sports too. I did my BA in English Literature, but wasn’t too happy after that. I went on to do law, and was chambering with Fali Nariman, who became the attorney general of India, but then figured I didn’t want to do law. I thought of getting into diplomatic service, and found a course in Hague to pursue. I got admission, and moved there. I had four months between the time I got admission to the course starting and hence I decided to stay there. I went and made a lot of money in the Playboy Gambling Club in the UK. Since I had time, and the money, I decided to go on a road trip across Europe with a friend. On my way back, as I was reaching Paris, I was sleeping on the backseat of the car, and the car met with an accident. My friend unfortunately passed away. I was damn lucky to survive. There was a newspaper in India that reported it. My name was on the front page of the newspaper and it said that I had suffered third degree burns. My father had to move heaven and earth to arrange to land up at Paris. He got to Chalonnes Sur Loire (where the incident happened). I was wondering what he was doing here. He was frightened. He told me to forget about my course, and return to Bombay. He got a little scared by the incident. When I came back I didn’t know what to do. Someone told me since I was a lawyer, my mind could think and I could talk, and asked me to join advertising. I didn’t even know that advertising was a profession.”
And thus began his tryst with advertising.
“I applied to McCann and Ogilvy because I was told to. McCann Clarion was headed by Subroto Sengupta. He was a brilliant man and a strategist. McCann was a close number two to JWT. But as an agency it was a far better place to work. It had all the guys and girls who were hotshots. I got a one-year training programme. They interviewed 2,000 people and picked two. They then sent me to every department so that I could learn more about each. Then I got into client servicing for four or five years before moving abroad. I knocked on the door of every agency at Madison Avenue in New York before I joined an agency called Bozell. But, I joined the Atlanta office of the agency since my brother-in-law stayed there.”
He stayed in the USA for a few more years before heading back to India as his family was missing him, wife and daughter included. He joined Everest Advertising and grew to join the board of directors along with current partner Munawar Syed.
He left because the chairman was looking to sell the agency. He said, “Our chairman was thinking of selling the agency but didn’t tell anybody. Since we were on the board we thought we should have been informed. I met a guy at a party at The Willingdon Club, and he was one of those ‘builders’.” The builder’s intent was to buy the agency, with the sole purpose of making money at the end of each year. That being the case, Merchant thought it fit to leave, he recalls. By then, Everest had partnered Saatchi in India.
“I knew I’d be able to get the clients. I’d spoken to Eureka Forbes, Apple Industries (later Aptech), and got them on board. They told me they’ll help me financially too, to set it up. I was a corporate guy, and this was the first time I thought of launching something of my own. Then I launched Triton. Aptech and Eureka Forbes were big clients.  During my time at Everest I’d also got Proctor & Gamble as a client. P&G’s Gurcharan Das and Bharat Patel said that if I switched the Saatchi’s to me, they’d move to Triton too. So, I got on a plane a week later and went off to London for a meeting. The Saatchi guys asked me to get P&G, and then they’d join. I knew this was getting into a game and it wouldn’t happen. We did Rs 10 crore worth of business in the first year.”
“We had become number three in Delhi with clients like Samsung (we launched them in the country). We launched brands and made them big. We got Aquaguard’s relaunch, launched Moov, launched Fortune Edible Oil. We made it the number one brand in edible oil. With this client we came up an insight – which they use even today. We had a guilt-free eating insight. The product benefit was lighter and healthier. Today, a client still says that people remember this ‘Thoda aur chalega’ line.”
By 2000, Merchant added Triton Rural Communications, Abacus PR, Drachma Direct (became the largest direct selling agent for an international bank), Viking TV serial marketing. 
He explains, “I stopped Abacus because I wasn’t a PR person. Having someone heading it, didn’t do justice. Drachma Direct – the guy (Marzin Shroff) who headed my Mumbai office is now my client at Eureka Forbes. He told us making direct selling for a bank, wouldn’t make too much money. Then, Triton Rural – was based in Delhi. We were doing work, but we were making a slight loss or just about breaking even. The guy who headed it said that we would need to invest more. He told me that he won’t take any salary till it would turnaround. Six months went by, and I figured he was making money off the agency. So, we knocked off the man and shut that division.”
Merchant notes that the agency currently has around 35 clients, out of which most are on retainer. “We have always wanted the discipline of a large agency with creativity of a smaller organisation. We are founded by the basic precept of building long-term relationships,” he adds.
Clients currently handled by the agency include Adani Wilmar, Eureka Forbes, Yes Bank, Venky’s Chicken and Force Motors, several of whose brands’ creative and media duties are handled by Triton.
Currently in four cities, the agency once had a presence in Hyderabad and Pune too. But when clients moved, or in some cases shut down, the offices had to go. 
Plans ahead
“We are looking at new opportunities. We want an international partner. We’ve started looking for one,” reveals the agency founder.
While the agency is looking for an international partner, things could have been different if some past efforts in that direction had worked.
Merchant recounts, “There was a friend of mine working with Y&R. He was a consultant with marketing companies and advertising agencies abroad. He told me about an agency, which he thought would be the topmost agency. One that was very different. He told me it’s a creative agency (BDDP) but did stuff differently and asked me to go meet them. I headed to Paris to meet with the owners – Jean-Claude Boulet and Jean-Marie Dru. I was enchanted by the way Marie Dru looked at brands and that was through ‘disruption’. I spent two months there with them. They were the number one agency in Paris, eighth largest in the world. We were associated with them for around four to five years but our deal never happened. And then they wanted equity, we agreed on it. They went back, and BDDP got sold to an agency which was bought over by Omnicom.”
The agency is looking to grow now, he says. A digital wing, Digimo, was added last year. A creative agency acquired in 2000, Metaphor, has been converted to an events and activation agency. His vision for the way forward is to grow the creative and media businesses, alongside Digimo and Metaphor.
Merchant reflects, “We are not here to make ads. Our job is to create, execute and deliver the brand message in the most compelling manner to the most relevant audience in the most relevant time and place.”
While a lot has changed at Triton and the advertising landscape, Merchant’s mantra hasn’t. He signs off saying, “Work, work and more work. Never say give up. Whether I die on the table, I don’t care.”
(This article first appeared in the issue of Campaign India dated 18 March 2016.)
Campaign India