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Lunch with BS: Sandeep Goyal

Ad world's Maverick heavyweight

Shyamal Majumdar  |  Mumbai 

Serial entrepreneur and Dentsu India’s group chairman is happy to be the bad boy of Indian advertising

Sandeep GoyalAt 5’8” and 90 kg-plus, walks at a measured pace to Gallups at Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi Race Course. But the pace seems to be reserved only for a lazy Saturday afternoon. The group chairman of Dentsu India, India’s fourth-largest ad agency with over Rs 1,200 crore in annual billings and maker of recent campaigns such as HDFC Life Insurance’s “Sar utha ke jiyo” and Aircel’s “Save our Tigers”, has been working at a feverish pace since he became an entrepreneur seven years ago, writes Shyamal Majumdar.

“Being an entrepreneur is fun,” says Goyal, 47, as we settle down at a corner table overlooking the rain-drenched greenery outside and his residence on the other side of the race course. It must be, since he chose it over a reasonably successful professional career — he became president of ad agency Rediffusion DY&R at 34, among other things, before Japan’s Dentsu, the world’s largest ad agency in 2003, tied up with him in his personal capacity as 26 per cent shareholder for its Indian joint venture.

The speed of work is clearly visible. under Goyal also has four full-service agencies — the last one, Dentsu MediaTech, was launched last week. He also has several firms independent of Denstu. Come December, he will launch India’s first 24-hour food channel in association with chef Sanjeev Kapoor and a couple of investment firms in Malaysia.

Not that Goyal is new to fast-paced innovation. He also pioneered fantasy-gaming in India and has significant business interests in digital media with two ventures in software and VAS development with Malaysia’s Astro group. This is apart from creating the world’s first online media marketplace,

Dentsu is probably the only agency in India that handles advertising accounts of three of the world’s biggest automobile rivals — Toyota, Honda and Suzuki. A fourth auto major seems set to come on board as the creation of the fourth agency suggests.

Goyal, who is a regular at Gallups, has already ordered four types of starters — chestnut masala, grilled pomfret, mutton kebabs and chicken rolls. 

Running the vast empire obviously isn’t enough for him since he has found adequate time to write books — one called Dum Dum Bullet — has already been published and two others are in the pipeline. A gold medallist in English literature from Punjab University, Goyal says he can easily write 4,000 to 5,000 words a day, time permitting.

Why the odd name — Dum Dum Bullet? Goyal says the book has been named after a bullet produced at the Dum Dum ammunition factory near Kolkata. Dum Dum could penetrate most types of protective armour and was lethal 90 per cent of the time. “Advertising is no different. It is soft-nosed, focused on its target and it balloons on impact, quite like the Dum Dum bullet,” he says, as the starters arrive. His second book will be on his short stint as the Group CEO of Zee TV before he decided to strike out on his own.

Apart from work, the pony-tailed Goyal’s other passions include daughter Carol, dog Jambo and collecting ceramic objets d’art, exotic chess boards and masks. “Masks have a sense of power, a degree of anonymity and intrigue,” he says, adding the collection has already crossed over 500.

In real life, however, Goyal has no intention of masking his private thoughts and has acquired quite a reputation for outspokenness. Indeed, he is a man many in the ad industry love to hate for what they call his “cowboy style” of functioning. Ask him and the answer is predictably blunt: “I am what I am. No apologies for that.”

The ad guru says advertising has changed for the better because the “silk-tiewallahs” have been replaced by people “who understand the real Bharat and have their feet on the ground”. But advertising as a business has lost some of its charm.

Most ad agencies, he says, have taken the safe route of retainership arrangements with clients, thereby capping profits. Earlier, agencies opted for a fee, which was a certain percentage of the client’s total ad expense. That was inevitably more profitable, but the risk was that the fee dropped if the client spent less than the projected amount. “There was a certain risk and, therefore, more romance in the earlier arrangement. That is now gone with the safe route of retainership.”

The choice of starters is great, but they prove pretty filling, so I have little appetite for the main course. But Goyal goes ahead and orders aloo parathas and a chicken dish. “Don’t worry, I will ask them to pack the untouched food for my driver,” he says.

His brush with the “silk-tiewallahs” has not been all that pleasant — the latest manifestation being the recent Advertising Agencies Association of India (AAAI) elections. Goyal broke convention when he announced that he would be standing for this year’s elections. But didn’t his defeat show that he has been isolated by the industry? For once, Goyal loses his equanimity and says he lost by a margin of two votes, which means 46 out of 94 ad agency representatives voted for him. In any case, he has contested the election results in court.

The chief says his key grouse with the AAAI is that, somewhere along the line, the association has become a Big Boys Club. There have been no open discussions on industry issues for years, leading to an opaque environment in which a select few run the affairs of the association to the exclusion of the rest. “I have been against cronyism all my life,” Goyal says, sounding like a seasoned politician. He also rubbishes the whisper campaign that is overly dependent on its Japanese partner for business. He has a point since Indian companies account for half of the agency’s business.

It’s already two-and-a-half hours and the main course, though appetising, was mostly uneaten. Still, Goyal has all the time in the world to order coffee, which is good because he is in the mood to reminisce on some of the most embarrassing moments in his career. When in Rediffusion, his team created a front-page solus ad for Lufthansa, announcing a simple change of address and phone numbers for the airline. The next day, the angry client called to say the ad came out fine, except that the phone numbers printed in the ad belonged to an elderly Parsee lady who was going crazy playing receptionist for Lufthansa. “This shows how advertising is just not about great ideas alone; the power of execution is the key,” he says.

He also fondly remembers another Lufthansa ad announcing a new loyalty initiative for heavy-duty frequent fliers — those who would do million miles-plus travel in a calendar year. To honour these high-fliers, a special dinner was planned to which the blue-blooded corporate glitterati of the day were invited. A day before the function, the client asked him to guess the name of the only qualifier from India for the Million Milers Club. Goyal guessed it could be either a Tata or Birla or an Ambani. But he was wrong — the winner was a 35-year old Sikh from Karol Bagh in Delhi who flies economy to Frankfurt at least three times a week. He is an on-board courier, carrying diamonds to Antwerp.

Goyal says memories like these still keep him hooked to the profession — never mind his parents’ constant worry that their son gets home at 3 am or a prospective father-in-law confusing his then employer Hindustan Thompson Associates (HTA), first, with Thomson Press and then with Hindustan Zinc.

First Published: Tue, September 28 2010. 00:52 IST