Sunday, January 11, 2009

Hex and the City

After week upon week of meeting heads of businesses big and small, the psyche of entrepreneurs still fascinated. 

I never tired of discovering anew another facet to their personality and work ethic. To add to this, the sheer variety of personalities was mind boggling, to say the least. 

Some were their polished best and others downright boorish. However, it seemed that though entrepreneurs may differ widely in appearance, mannerisms and behaviour, they all had something in common. Canny business sense, a no-nonsense risk-taker's ability and all the qualities that various management gurus have written more knowledgeably about

Knowing that sound business sense was the only driving force behind anything the directors decreed, I puzzled long and hard over what could be the logic and reasoning behind their decisions. 

The reason I bothered with bending my mind towards this, is that I was interested in what's called Acquired Learning*. Which is what I saw as a job perk, given that we didn't have anything else that could be labelled such. 

*In case anyone's planning to acquire learning from me, note how I made the term sound like management-speak just by using caps. Refer to the "Glossary of Marrkit's Marketing Terms/ Office Jargon" section from the Archives for the definition of Acquired Learning. 

Let me explain what I mean. For instance, one of our flamboyant clients, Mr. Mistry, closely connected with all things Bollywood (or so he claimed), apparently paid through his nose for our services. And let us know it each time he visited, at the top of his cultured voice - which seemed to lose that polished accent at the same rate that his temper accelerated. 

Watching him part with our monthly cheque due was like watching a schizophrenic will at work. He never presented it except with great reluctance, always implying that this was his last meeting with us ever. That we were leeches sucking his lifeblood away. 

Each time, I watched with bated breath to see if his iron grip on the cheque would relax enough to hand it over without tearing it into two. Just like the melodramatic movies he financed, after a few minutes he was back to feeling sentimental and maudlin about his not so veiled taunts and usually ended by spewing equally liberal praise on us. 

We didn't hold this against him though, as he had great charm, was otherwise cheerful to work with and one simply could not remain annoyed with him for more than a few seconds. Not with someone who usually offered us passes for the latest A-list movie premieres. Ofcourse not. 

Given this, it was odd to notice that he usually skipped two meetings a month. This was pointed out to me by LL's EA, who was similarly puzzled. 

Two meetings a month on an average was huge, as from his point of view it was a considerable financial loss. 

What was more of a mystery was that his team seemed to know in advance they needn't visit, even though he always made a last minute call to us cancelling his meeting. I know this because he had me do the tedious job of calling his team up one by one, to tell them the meeting was off. Yes, we also threw in such secretarial add-ons for our clients, especially ones like Mr. Mistry who felt that by getting us to do these small additional tasks, he was getting his money's worth out of our firm.

His being the last meeting of the day, scheduled at the unearthly hour of 8 p.m. onwards and ending at roughly 11 p.m., I celebrated each cancellation. It meant I'd reach home while my parents were still up and not have mom suspecting I'd been doing the usual movie and dinner thing with some unidentified guy about to lead me astray. As if. I'd have killed for that sort of attention. But unfortunately, the eligible single male did not ever enter the borders of the office complex we worked out of. The sort that did make it deserve an exclusively devoted chapter - some other time. 

One week, on the day Mr. Mistry's meeting was scheduled, I made a routine reminder call to Andy, Mr. Mistry's operations head. 

"Morning Andy! Just wanted to warn you that the report you're looking for won't actually be ready for Mr. Mistry and you in time for today's meeting, but it will be done day after for sure", I said. 

"No probs, Ash", said Andy, warmly. "Send it whenever. In fact, I don't need it today for sure. Take your time." 

Hoping that Mr. Mistry would take this news as breezily as Andy had, I decided to bite the bullet and break the bad news to him in person. "That's great Andy, but I'd still better speak to Mr. Mistry now and explain why." 

"Oh, he's not here. How about a movie this evening? A group of us from office are planning to see the 8 p.m. show. We have complimentary passes. Join us?", trilled Andy. 

"You're kidding, right. Are you planning a mass bunk? Have you forgotten, your meeting with us is for today!" 

"Ha ha!" sang Andy, sounding way too cheerful. "There won't be a meeting today. Except, yeah, at the cinema." 

"Okay", I said, "are you officially informing me that the meeting is off?" 

"No", said Andy, "Unofficially. And you didn't hear it from me." 

"How can you be sure? And where is Mr. Mistry? Travelling?", I asked, hoping this tale of cancellation was true and not just something to do with Andy's quirky humour. 

"No, he's very much at his own home, watching the match." 

"Right. And we both know even cricket wouldn't keep him away from our expensive doors", I said, disappointed that that was all Andy was making a fuss about. "So, forget the movie." 

"You mean you were ready to make it for the movie? Cool! So am holding a pass for you", persisted Andy, maddeningly. 

"Noooo!", I screeched, sounding a lot like Mr. Mistry at a cheque parting. "You go ahead and take on Mr. Mistry if you want, but I can't bunk the meeting." 

"Hey chill", said Andy, "Okay, tell me, how many meetings has he cancelled in the last three months?" 

"That would be…seven at least?", I answered, marvelling anew at this statistic. 

"And what reasons did he give?", questioned Andy. 

"The usual kind, I guess", I said, trying to remember. "Someone visiting for dinner, another important meeting, or travelling."

"Well, that's all bull!" 

"How's that?" 

"I'll tell you, but you can't let onto Mr. M or anyone that you know this. And one more thing - you have to come for the show", said Andy, cunningly. 

"Sure, Andy. I do like the big screen experience. Just not at the cost of Mr. Mistry. So tell all." I was intrigued by all this suspense and partly convinced that Andy was just wasting my time.

"What's today's date?" asked Andy. 

"17th", I said, wondering where this was going. 

"Which adds up to the dreaded number 8. Mr. Mistry's worst nightmare. He's rabidly afraid of the number and his astrologer told him to never step out of the house on those days. Woooo… careful, it’s the 17th today!", hooted Andy, irreverently. 

"So, you see", continued Andy, "He'll never show up for a meeting on the 8th, 17th and 26th of the month. See you at the movie, then!"

Okay, well. 

Sometimes there was no logic or reasoning.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Say Cheers

A meeting which typically had an agency/ freelancer or two present in addition to the client sometimes posed diplomatic conundrums.

Especially when it came to Desmond, who for some unknown reason, was LL's favourite man of all work of the small time advertising kind. Drinking Desmond was my moniker for him, for reasons which will become clear as you read on.

Desmond wore a jacket for most meetings, which really impressed me, since no one bothered with very formal attire at work except for certain occasions. In Bombay, the weather does not permit it.

Having believed in always erring on the side of being formal rather than informal when in doubt, I liked the formal corporate image Desmond projected amidst the denim clad, unshaven, pony-tailed, often tattooed and earring-adorned men which dominate the creative half of the advertising world. And there's something about a jacket that just adds oodles of personality to any man.

I'm a sucker for just three things - guys who play the guitar/ drums, very tall guys and guys in jackets. I don't know why, but these three and if luckily in combination together, are quite irresistible. Okay, getting back to the point now. And hey am not that shallow really - it's always about the brain, not brawn.

My admiration for Desmond lasted only briefly however. Right upto the moment I realized exactly why he'd invested in a jacket.

It had a useful inner pocket that made a snug receptor for his favourite whiskey flask from which he no doubt derived great solace and sustenance for all the stressful meetings he had to make. Meetings where he had to explain to my maddened clients why he had skipped yet another deadline.

A typical meeting would consist of these attendees:

From the Client's end:
- Owners/ managing directors (very often, a pair of brothers or, father & son, or MD & CFO)
- Their EAs or PAs as the case may be
- Resident astrologer and/ or current pundit in favour
- Family friend and/ or time-honoured well-wisher

Allied agency:
- The freelancer/s or head of agency handling any allied function like communication, PR, events, and so on

From our end:
- LL
- Me
- LL's wife (sometimes)
- One of LL's children (sometimes)*
* This was LL's big family succession plan. His worst nightmare was that his children would not want to take over the mantle when the time came and fly away from his overprotective nest. So, LL decided to give new meaning to the devious gambit of starting them young. That his children were just 9 and 12 years of age, seemed to make no difference.

Our meetings were always extremely formal occasions - with preset agendas, and time limits to be adhered to. There were however, exceptions to this rule and this is one such chronicle.

One of our clients from an exotic state far, far away, whose company stock was considered the bluest of blue chip, was visiting us for a marathon session of meetings that would last the entire day.

The Director of this group, lets call him Mr. Kapil, was a born tycoon, with a stiff, aristocratic demeanour to match. I'd never ever seen him smile. Post meetings, I could never quite recall what I'd ever said to him. Somehow it was always blanked out thanks to his intimidating persona. I was always conscious of being in the presence of someone who personally contributed a healthy percentage to the annual GDP of India and generated employment for hundreds of people across rural areas.

Often, the meeting would take place in a room in our office that resembled the living room cum lounge of a typical home - complete with wall unit, couches lining the walls and helpfully placed corner tables, apart from two largish centrally placed ones. The couches were deep and comfortable.

That a client meeting held here consequently resembled a drawing room reunion amongst family members, some of whom are glad to meet each other again and some not, was not surprising.

On this day in my routine check of the room before the meeting, it struck me that some of the ceiling incandescent lights had blown out. It left the room much more dimly lit than usual. We'd still have to use this room as no other room would accommodate the sheer number of people we had to meet.

The reasons why I did not allow any of my clients to walk into this room without having checked it first were manifold. I remember one occasion when the client got settled comfortably in, and the air conditioning refused to work. Another time, the lights fused at one go. Yet another time, an office boy was found stretched full length and snoring on the couch.

The best or worst incident, depending on how you see it, was when a swarm of dragonflies flew out of the room straight at three co-directors about to walk in when the door was opened. Somehow, they'd gotten in through the window of an adjoining room and gotten locked in. Those directors flew out of our office too and were never seen again after making understandably snide remarks about the ten plagues of Marrkit.

On this day, the client arrived at 8:30 a.m. on the dot with an excited air and a bright glitter in his eye. Along with him came a pair of large carry-ons and he requested to be left alone for a while with his team of attendant CFO, wife, uncle, marketing manager, sales head, admin manager and other assorted coterie accompanying him.

Intrigued, LL and I waited for him to unveil the surprise. Which indeed it was.

Every table in the room was covered with a set of totally 3 dozen roughly pint sized bottles, called alcopops or breezers here. One half of these were a recently launched popular brand of alcopops that had taken metros in India by storm for it's low price, low alcohol content and flavours like cranberry, cola and lime, attracting the young, and especially women.

Explaining that this was a new business he was planning to invest in, the Director waved us in and stated that most of his existing infrastructure would double to produce what is known here as Indian Made Foreign Liquor. For those who don’t believe I didn't just make that term up, google IMFL and read all about it. Would not like to bore my better informed readers here.

The client was cleverly taking advantage of the fact that as per our terms, we would consult within the same fee for all their businesses, and any new ventures. We never dreamed that he would want to diversify into country liquor.

I wasn't feeling comfortable about this.

My support lay entirely with those brave rural women who'd recently kicked their no-good drunkard husbands out in a mini-revolution of sorts. And now we would be contributing to placing a new label within reach of their misguided men.

It was disillusionment of a different kind. That of all people, it had to be Mr. Kapil indulging in a spectacular breakaway from the respectable family business, a cherished dream, handed down over generations and sow his alcoholic oats within the populace, so to speak.

But the sight of all the glowing colourful bottles had a different effect on LL.

He now appeared just as excited as every other man in the room.

Mentally, I started formulating strategy of a different kind. To ease away from this client - and how to bring that up with LL. I passed him a quick note saying I'd like to meet him briefly in private, whenever possible. No doubt, he'd be difficult. He had only one criteria for client selection - that they be able to pay our fees on time. No ethical scruples would be entertained.

This was apparently a tasting ceremony. Having come well prepared with lots of disposable glasses, the client flatteringly wanted our opinion on each and every flavour and help shortlist the final four to be selected for launch. Mine, particularly for what would appeal to the palate of women in general.

All the bottles were stuffed into every inch of our pantry fridge and so it came to pass that by 11 a.m. the bottles were pulled out and pressed into service. In that time we'd quickly prepared enough prints of an evaluation matrix with attributes for everyone to mark down rankings, flavour-wise, for the home brand versus the competitor's. I mention this only so everyone knows some work actually got done too.

Before that, we called in Desmond to finalise the newsletter design and complete other sundry matters. For once Desmond had been suitably awed to actually bring the artwork and proofs along without mistakes, and in a generous mood, the Client invited him to join the tasting spree.

Desmond appeared delighted to oblige. I was sure he had taken a few fortifying swigs already to steady himself before the meeting but the client had no way of knowing that. Desmond, who couldn't take his eyes off the glittering array of bottles, happily settled down in a nook.

We all dutifully sipped just one or two mouthfuls of each flavour and I was surprised to note that I couldn't really tell the difference between the branded and the yet to be launched brand - but for one or two exceptions, which we duly noted.

I had seen wine tasting ceremonies on TV where people discreetly spit out the wine in a handy receptor, but come on, what do etiquette books say about doing the same thing in such a context? I wouldn't dream of doing something that crass in front of people who probably rounded each meal off with caviar. Besides, they may have found it insulting, given they'd brewed it in the first place.

After a few more rounds of tasting everything, the client suggested a repeat of the whole thing. His point was that we should have a second round just in case we changed our minds about what we thought the first time.

No one disagreed with him.

As I sipped on, I had to admit it, the bottles looked really pretty.

An array of golden yellow, cranberry red, deep purple and sparkling lime, which seemed to glow from within as I gazed at them.

The soft clinking sound of bottles being passed around merged well with the dim, diffused yellow lights of the room.

Conversation began to flow more freely. We discussed a whole lot of interesting subjects - where we'd all vacationed last, what we did weekends, which movies we had caught lately, which book we would pick to read on a two-hour flight and many other absorbing issues like that. Mr. Kapil's most trusted right hand man, the finance whiz, Mr. Jha suggested I use his first name only and offered to give me advice anytime on my tax planning. The jackets were flung over armchairs and the men's ties seemed to have lost their perfected knots. I idly watched Desmond, lulled into a happy snooze, who was still sitting upright with one of the bottles balanced precariously on his belly.

Mr. Kapil described their huge family estate and invited LL and I to schedule an offsite visit. We were duly flattered to accept.

For the first time, I heard Mr. Kapil laugh out loud. A nice, honest laugh.

He seemed to be listing slightly to one side on his couch, but looked immensely comfortable and somehow more humane. Like just another regular guy, not a tycoon. Finding it more and more difficult to remember what exactly my objections were, I couldn't understand why I'd ever thought of him as uptight or sombre.

Settling back more comfortably amongst the deep cushions in a happy haze, and helping myself to more of the cranberry, I realized LL was trying to catch my eye. He'd seen Desmond too and I could tell he hoped the client wouldn't notice. He waved me over and said that he was stepping into his office cabin briefly. I guessed the excess alcohol was catching up with him.

I was still wondering why on earth LL wanted me to go along, unless I had to help carry him, when LL prompted, "Didn’t you want to see me about something?"

"Who me?", I responded. "No, not at all!"

Most guys I know have been found imbibing before noon at least once, and I had always found their tales intriguing. The scene of the crime in such cases is usually a destination like Goa, a land where all is forgiven. This is one account where I too stood guilty as charged, but as I'm sure you agree - amidst impeccable company.