Is it really a gentleman's game?

Earlier this month, I was invited on a panel in Mumbai which pontificated on the strategic value of corporate brands.

However, the more significant aspect of this event was the 15th anniversary commemoration of a very fine brand advisory called Chlorophyll. Many readers who are from the marketing community would know (or at least know of) Andy Halve and Kiran Khalap. They co- founded the firm on Independence Day of 1999.

In his welcome address, Kiran spoke of how Chlorophyll had innovated consistently to stay ahead of the game. He believed that this had powered Chlorophyll's ability to influence the course of several businesses over the last decade and a half.

In my opening remarks, I chose to contradict that statement. Not so much because Chlorophyll had not made a difference to the brands that they had shaped or recast, but because these fifteen years has meant much more than innovation to all the folks who had experienced Chlorophyll over that time.

This was more than represented in the way the evening was designed. To my mind, the highlight of the event was the recognition of each of the individuals who had made up the last fifteen years. It included ex Chlorophyllians and even vendors. In fact, it was touching that one of the first people to be felicitated was their travel agent!! In this day of the online travel portal and it's charms, this is a true reflection of how much Chlorophyll values the individual. And anybody who knows anything about our profession will know how crucial that role is for the well being of the hapless consultant, who competes only with pilots for air-miles covered.

This is a demanding profession. It requires both courage and endurance to just stay the course, leave alone produce outstanding work, week after marathon week. And it is the value of the people (on both sides) that make or break its impact on businesses.

I dare say my own career has been shaped by the personal generosity of the some of the finest thinkers in the game. Ironically, it wasn't their intellectual capabilities or outstanding skills that defined them, but rather their willingness to patiently value and nurture the next generation of professionals.

In one TED talk, the legendary Harvard professor, Michael Sandel speaks about how we have degenerated from being a market economy to a "market society". In an environment where almost anything can be bought, he laments that the "marketization of everything sharpens the sting of inequality and its consequences on society as a whole". It is in this backdrop that the leadership at Chlorophyll needs to be framed. 

Chlorophyll is almost as old as the Indian branding advisory business itself. And over the last fifteen years these two gentlemen have been exemplary ambassadors for the profession in many ways. But for my money, above everything else, they have shown us that decency and dignity can be very powerful drivers of reputation, in a world that is easy prey to short changing and short cuts.

Andy and Kiran, all of us are the better for the both of you. Here's to the next fifteen.


Is culture pure corporate drivel?

Its May this year. It's Toronto. Over dinner an old family friend from Calcutta is lamenting the invasion of the boisterous immigrant Chinese into her once quiet township of Richmond, Ontario. I ask why she needs to be so xenophobic, given that she herself is an immigrant of "questionable" origins.

Cut back to early 2000. I'm sharing a beer with my ex-chairman, one of the giants of branding. He led an amazing bunch of consistently motivated people, who delivered some impossible results year upon year. A very difficult environment to replicate or even resurrect. So we end up talking about the good old days...yet again.

Forward to 2014. A mammoth Indian transnational shares an existential dilemma with us: "we are a very culture driven group, but how do we get business verticals to keep the faith, under the sword of growth and margin pressures?"

What is it about words like culture and environment that make us feel either nostalgic or deprived? If it is so good to have then why do we lose it with such ease?

Why should we pay any attention? What good does a unique culture do? What created it in the first place? Is it worth protecting?

Consider my friend in Toronto for a while. What is she lamenting? That strange and unfamiliar people have taken over her neighborhood? Not really. She was ruing the loss of a very particular kind of community character that she traveled 7000 miles to live in. She left home and hearth in search of it. Pre 2000 Bangaloreans feel the same. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against immigration. The US was built on it. But can we stand by and watch the disintegration of a distinct way of life? Some will argue the benefits of evolution. But equally, what is worth preserving?

My ex-employer's issue was not very different. He led by example and created an environment which many large multinational agencies would have given their left hand for. Armed with an indomitable (almost Gaulish) spirit, with little politicking and a penchant for questioning the obvious, these Davids took on the biggest Goliaths of their time and bested them.

With growth and the infusion of "professional blood", the environment died and it's soul departed. Did they lose what made them win in the first place? Was it worth preserving? Should they have fought to retain that soul at the cost of blazing growth?

So finally, when we ponder on our prospect's existential dilemma, it is indeed a very serious question. Think of a large, low profile conglomerate like The Murugappa group. They have a way of life which is not negotiable. Decency, fairness and prudence are its underlying principles. What was their motive for committing themselves to these traits so many years ago? Why is there a governing body that protects these with a ferocity uncharacteristic of an otherwise gentle and pacific demeanour?

The million dollar question then is whether there is really a business case for defining and nurturing a culture. Like heritage buildings, or art. It reminds us of what is most precious about us and allows the world to celebrate and revel in. It etches a character that then extracts and encourages the best in ourselves.

But does this produce business results? Consider how easily some organizations (and countries) attract talent and capital. How smoothly they achieve transnational mergers. The effortlessness with which they sign up business partners.

The big issue for many countries, companies and communities is whether we would should actively define and defend culture, or like a colleague said recently "Let it ride man".