Reunion with Sunil Gupta, the Much-Acclaimed Adman: An Evening Full of Joy and Whimsy

I had always found it difficult to break through the formal demeanour of Sunil Gupta, the illustrious, widely acclaimed adman who rode into the sunset relinquishing the reins of JWT and leaving it to flounder in the hands of lesser mortals. We had last met over two decades ago. So when my comrade-in-arms Sam Mohanty facilitated a meeting with the great man, I was delighted indeed.

I was looking forward to reviving my fundas on the desi advertising scenario wrt JWT (known as HTA during my ancient times) through Sunil’s lens. HTA was the foremost advertising agency during my formative years at the Horlicks company in the eighties/nineties, and even later in the new millennium when I was with Motorola. Even before Mad Men appeared on the television screen and redefined the ad world, JWT folks had done it and seen it all.

Sam is a buddy of Sunil and helped rekindle an age-old relationship that began three decades ago, when as a greenhorn on the Horlicks brand management floor, we took on our seasoned counterparts in the ad agencies.

Sunil was a key player then and now indeed, he is a relic of a vanished era of close-knit client-agency partnerships. He represents an irretrievable past where relationships were not transactional, when time moved differently, advertising involved bygone tools and copy and accompanying visuals were experienced and immersed in.

But it appeared that over the years nothing had changed for Sunil. He seems completely unfazed by technology and has achieved a modicum of success in arresting the declining years and resisting oblivion. He has worn many hats since leaving JWT: that of a film actor, sports commentator, media man, and even an investment adviser. I also discovered that he was a very devoted family man who had the objective of maximizing his experiential learning.

Sunil’s celebrated book, Living in the Adage, has been analyzed, researched and dissected thoroughly by numerous advertising folk. Peppered with anecdotes that are perceived to be legendary fables from Sunil’s elephantine memory, it has been delivered with affability and sometimes a degree of tartness that was always his trademark.

Of course, for those at the receiving end of Sunil’s scathing and at times contemptuous observations, including myself, it is another story. I was caricatured in Living on the Adage as the Horlicks custodian who carried the conservative brand values to Motorola. He sarcastically illustrated this with a metaphor labelling me as the guy ‘who ensured that Guinevere put on the chastity belt and then stood guard outside her door’. I drew some consolation from the fact that I was not alone in being targeted in this way. My worthy colleagues in Motorola, Rahul S Verghese and Shuchi Sarkar, and my ‘much revered’ boss in Horlicks, Anup Chib, were also targeted with metaphors and innuendos that evoked a few guffaws and delivered circus-like entertainment.

In all fairness, it is a well-written book with candid observations emanating from a razor sharp mind. Rajiv Inamdar, our respected erstwhile colleague who has liked the book, described it succinctly as, ‘…probably the only one I have read where I knew all the characters.’ I could not agree more!

As the evening wore on, it took on an element of nostalgia. I discovered that my passion for rock was shared by Sunil. Soon Jim Morrison and his many musical scores blurred into a broader discussion of the sixties and the golden seventies. It was universally agreed that ‘Riders on the Storm’ was indeed the best composition of those times and had a significant influence on rock n roll’s eclectic future. Sunil, Sam and I parted that evening, committing to meet again.

Saludos Sunil Gupta, they don’t make guys like you anymore.

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