The old lesson from david ogilvy that we all learnt was if you can be your client’s best friend, you’ll have the client for life. So, it’s a good sign when a client is calling you on a weekend for advice on a family crisis. It shows how deeply he trusts you. Trust is at the core of all interaction, business or otherwise. Among my first customers was Brooke Bond and the head of marketing was Sanjib Chaudhuri. This was 20 years ago before faxes and mobile phones—cold calling meant typing out letters and asking for a meeting. What is now Whitefield in Bangalore was a village and Brooke Bond was the only building for miles around.
They even had a three-digit phone number because it was a village exchange. To get through to Uma, the secretary, was a pain because phones didn’t work well and a call cost Rs 30 a minute—today that would be equivalent to Rs 1,000 a minute. Perhaps the single largest expense in the company was long distance phone calls, even more than salaries! I was selling TV programming sponsorship and Sanjib asked me to meet him. It was a show called Fauji, which launched Shah Rukh Khan, but we didn’t realise then that he would be such a superstar.
I wanted Rs 30 lakh in sponsorship. He said he didn’t have the budget but would be happy co-sponsoring it at Rs 15 lakh. Back then, all payments were in instalments per episode. He made me an offer that startled me. “What if I write you a cheque right now for Rs 13 lakh, all up front?”
This was 1989: The cost of that money would be at least Rs 4-5 crore today. I told myself we could launch three new shows with that Rs 13 lakh, so the multiplier was huge—the total capital in my business was just Rs 50,000. I’ve never seen a cheque that big. How could he trust me? A guy whose office he’s never seen, who’s home he’s never been to—I could be just some scamster. No contract, just a letter.
Over lunch, he read my expression and said to me, “You’re asking yourself how come I’m giving you such a big advance?” He said that every transaction is finally constructed on trust. Even a contract is based on trust. He trusted me to deliver and he knew the big cheque would motivate us to value him even more as a customer. He said, “To trust somebody, you need to be secure. I am secure. I know you will work hard to repay this trust.” That was the single biggest motivational speech in my life.
Fauji became a sensational hit. Six months later, I went back to them with a clutch of other shows, and this time around they wrote me a cheque of Rs 75 lakh (valued at Rs 20-25 crore today). Same formula: A handshake, a letter and the cheque.
I started viewing the whole world through the prism of trust. What is a brand’s single largest asset? Trust. The moment a brand loses your trust, it has lost you forever. You’ll go and tell your friends about how the brand betrayed your trust. Everything else is secondary. The price and the convenience doesn’t matter if you’ve been to a restaurant and gotten a stomach ache: You won’t go again.
I went to Gillette thereafter and met Sachin Gopal, who was the brand manager then. They paid me in advance for a TV show, which got stuck in production. I flew to Delhi to return the cheque. Their finance guys even cashed it and cut me a new one the following quarter once the production was back on track. It was my gesture that cemented the trust between us.
Our third customer was Pepsi, and Vibha Paul Rishi was their marketing head. I went to sell them the sponsorship of the 1992 Cricket World Cup on TV and their agency JWT (HTA in those days) fought bitterly with her. We had done a couple of TV shows with them and won her trust. She told the agency, “I’m going to do this deal with or without you.” They paid Rs 50 lakh for one of the eight co-sponsor slots. That was their first big entry point into TV sponsorship of cricket. And the rest is history.
Shortly thereafter, we went on to produce and launch a show called Superhit Muqabla on a new network called DD Metro, which nobody wanted to touch because Zee had arrived by then. Vibha liked it and came in as the first sponsor.
That show was No. 1 for six years in a row on Indian television. Trust is a two-way street and you’ve always got to pay back what you’ve been paid.
But keeping someone’s trust is about execution, and that’s something I really see has been done well in the Far East. I went to Hong Kong in 1992 and stayed in a hotel room, which had a view of an empty lot. I went back exactly a year later and the empty lot already had 50 floors built. In India, it would take 10 years.
My friends in the Indian construction industry would say, “Ek slab, ek month”, which means only six floors, including the foundation, would get built in a year. Execution and time-to-market is a huge competitive edge. In 2006, we launched Neo Sports from scratch in three months. A fundamental motto in our company is “find a way to do it faster”. Is there a faster and better way to do this without increasing costs?
When DD Metro got launched, we had a week to start shows. The nature of the industry then was disorganised and last-minute, and you had to have that ferocious ability to execute.
We worked hard to execute faster: There were 250 advertisers on Indian TV those days and we had managed to map out their management structures and get all their office and home numbers so that we could get them at a moment’s notice. Our execution was why we were trusted with big contracts.