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Mohammed Khan – An advertising great at his candid best.

November 15, 2006

mohammed-khan.jpgMohammed Khan comes across as a man with rock-solid convictions. Convictions that stem from a clarity of thought. And an honesty of purpose. Both amply evident in his approach to the business of advertising.

So how did it all start?
‘When advertising was suggested as a career, a big door opened in my life, and I was in love with the idea of becoming an advertising person. I remember an electric sort of feeling ran through my spine, and I thought – Yes! What good idea. I thought it I could do advertising for a couple of years outside the country and then come back…’
And that was how the 20-year old Mohammed, armed with an Honours degree in English, left India for England. For a full eight and a half years. ‘I learnt the ropes there, and that’s the main thing. I worked for years in a developed market, where advertising was a sophisticated business and everybody knew their work. And I think the difference between here and there is that there you are expected to know your job. Here, you have to pay people just to teach them what to do. In no other business are people paid to learn the job in the office. There, the education, the pre-training…everything prepares you.’

The art and advertising schools in India…
‘Here few art schools teach the relevance of art direction vis-à-vis advertising,’ he says. ‘Most of them teach how to paint pears and apples, and it’s got nothing to do with the price of eggs. They don’t teach them typography, they don’t teach them advertising design.’ This means that freshers often have to be trained from scratch. Rather unfair on the agency. ‘It’s an absurd situation. For when I hire kids from art school, they have already spent five years in college. And the first thing I tell them is – forget everything that you’ve learnt. This destroys them. Five years when you are 20 is a quarter of your life!’

Radically defined perspectives.
Take Mohammed’s views on how an advertising agency should be set up and run. ‘Advertising can never be a one-man show. In London, advertising had stopped being a one-man show a long time ago. Even the agencies which I helped start – Contract, Rediffusion, Enterprise…I never wanted to be the only guy. Two distinct disciplines – one man looking after the money, the other the creative. That was the model I tried to follow in every agency I set up. In an ad agency there are two bottomlines. One is the work that you do; the other is the money you make. It’s not that you have to one or the other. If you don’t create good advertising, then you are in the wrong business.’

What about Rediffusion?
‘Rediff was a new animal. For the first time there were three people who were good at different disciplines. It was a crack team. And we were young and full of fire, and it was started at arguably the worst time the Indian advertising industry had ever seen. Yet, Rediffusion became a model for a new kind of agency – a creative hot-shop.’ Yet, two and a half years was all he could give it. So what gave? ‘I had come after working for many years in London and I was very excited. But this excitement soon turned to complete disillusionment. At that time, the business was unprofessional, nobody needed to advertise, we were in a seller’s market. Advertising was just an indulgence. You had a budget that you had to spend. People were happy to go on just doing what they had been doing for 2000 years and it was terrible. I was forgetting the business, and was fighting constant battles with clients. They may have known what positioning was all about, but that certainly didn’t translate into creating advertising which was distinctive. I was willing to fight my battles, but there was no respite…most of my energy was getting dissipated in getting the work through rather than creating new work. And when it went beyond a point, I said – To hell with this. I didn’t come here to change the world. I just came here to make some great advertising. So, in a moment of pique, I decided to throw in the towel.’

The Contract years…
From the flush on Mohammed’s face it’s clear that those were memorable years. ‘I think of my Contract days with great affection. They were a magical time for me, those five years. I was doing something very exciting, new…done in the shadow of the country’s largest agency. We were housed in one room, and there was this giant who stood for everything that was the opposite of everything that we believed in. two opposite ends of the spectrum. Because in HTA, there was no room for creativity, while Contract was all about creativity. They were a bout billings, were not about billings. Yet, we were in an extremely profitable businesses, so even with it’s tiny size, Contract was making the same amount of money that HTA was, by the second or third year of it’s existence. We launched Charms out of Contract,’ he recalls fondly.

Producing distinctive creative work all important
What Mohammed cannot fathom is why clients continue to be with agencies which do not produce high quality creative work. ‘Why are they not looking at their track record? I know some agencies which are flourishing today that don’t have very much to show by way of great brand building. What brands have they built, with what kind of budgets? We have taken on the biggest companies and taken their pants off with one-tenth of the budget, and built No.1 market leaders. We have done it for Lakme. It was a tiny company, but look at it today. Levers bought it…because they didn’t want the competition! Winter Care Lotion became bigger than Pond’s. Lakme’s distribution was just a third of each one of these large companies and yet we built a No.1 brand. Their shampoo became the No. 2 brand on a shoe-string budget.

Surely clients eventually fire agencies that don’t produce good creative?
‘That’s not my experience,’ says Mohammed. ‘I look around and I feel extremely distressed, because advertising is not a secret. It’s there for the whole world to see what you are getting. Every morning, when I read the papers or watch television, I wonder – what is this client doing with this agency, for God’s sake! And because we put key numbers in this country, you know where the advertising is coming from. And you don’t need to be a genius to figure out that you are getting rotten advertising from wherever.’

The same yardstick (dumping agencies for bad creative) applies to Enterprise too
‘I am saying this to my own clients too. If you think that you are getting rotten advertising, for God’s sake, look somewhere else. Why are you with us? This is what frustrates me. I know our campaigns are given to agencies by clients, who then say – This is what chocolate advertising should be. Why don’t they come to us then? I know this as agency guys themselves have told me this. This is not something I have cooked up. If my client comes to me and shows me a campaign from another agency, I’ll say – Go to them, for we cannot do this, and we don’t want to do this. I can produce advertising which is extremely varied, but I am saying that there is a certain way that you approach a problem there is a certain process. If we change that, we become something else.’

Don’t clients have other criteria other than just the creative output to consider?
‘Clients are choosing them by size, and not by what they do. Something that does not happen anywhere else in the world. There certainly are advantages in going to a large agency because of the infrastructure, but the consumer is not buying the infrastructure! He is buying into the advertising. That is what works,’ he says.

Clients are changing …
Fortunately, Mohammed feels that in today’s market, with product parity more the norm than the exception, clients are seeing the difference that advertising can make.‘The days of the USP are over. It is advertising that creates the distinction between one brand and another.’ And for advertising distinctiveness, you need powerhouse output. Possibly why he struck the partnership with Nexus. ‘It was a strategic alliance. Business was getting polarised between the big agencies and the small agencies. We were both successful agencies, but as clients were looking for larger agencies, we thought we could have the advantages of larger agencies in terms of infrastructure, plus hot, creative work. I had only one name on my shopping list, and that was Rajiv Agarwal. We had worked together, we had started Enterprise together. We were complementary to each other, knew each other’s weaknesses…so it was really a risk-free kind of alliance.’

Cultural compatibility is important in business too.
‘I believe that we have to earn our 15 per cent commission. It’s the easiest thing in the world for me to agree with the client. But the last thing I want to do is tell him three months late – I told you so. That, I believe is dishonest. But I have heard agency people say – But it’s the client’s money. That is an attitude that is frightening. Imagine an agency that doesn’t believe in what it is doing, but is quite happy to earn it’s 15 per cent off it. Advertising is about taking responsibility. And these are the magic words that the client wants to hear.’

And the client’s interest is what drives him.
‘Having done it, you know it is the right thing because you own it to your client. Whatever I do, every drink that I have, everyday that my kids attend school, it is coming from my client…they pay the salaries of everyone in the agency. And therefore, my first loyalty is not to those in the agency but to my client. It’s an old-fashioned way of doing business, but I am an old-fashioned guy, despite what you see and hear. There is honesty and integrity. We want to earn that 15 per cent, not steal it. ‘

(Published in the Advertising and Marketing (A&M) Magazine.)

In 2005, WPP’s operating company Bates Asia, a leading advertising agency network acquired a majority stake in Enterprise Nexus Communications Private Limited. The merged entity was named Bates Enterprise. In India the WPP Group includes leading advertising agencies – JWT, O&M, Rediffusion DY&R and Grey Worldwide. The merged entity is now the fifth WPP agency network in the top 10 in India. Mohammed Khan, founder of Enterprise Nexus, is the Chairman of Bates Enterprise.

If you want to read more advertising related articles, including interviews with Indian advertising greats, click here: tag/advertising

If you want to read about Elsie Nanji, winner of several national and international creative awards and the founder of Ambience Publicis and Publicis India where she is vice-chairperson and Chief Creative Officer, then click here: elsie-nanji-an-unlikely-heroine-of-indian-advertising

If you want to read about Cyrus Oshidar, Senior VP, Creative and Content at MTV, then click here:


If you want to read about Preeti Vyas Giannetti, the Chairperson & Executive Creative Director, Vyas Giannetti Creative (VGC), then click here:


5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2011 3:27 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I will always remember Mohamed fondly, one my favorite bosses from whom I learnt much!

  2. June 10, 2011 9:32 pm

    Since the beginning of my career, i have been hearing the stories and legends about him. This post has given me a chance to know little more about this great man. It would be an ideal experience to work with the boss like him. I would miss it, of course. Thanks for keeping this posted for so long. And would like to know more about him and his methodology.

  3. October 8, 2011 10:29 am

    I wish if I could hav worked under his control. Shafique Khan


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