I am a city boy, and I spent the first 29 years of my life in an urban environment. I was brought up in Mumbai, as it was called then. I was still in school when I first visited Rayalacheruvu in Andhra Pradesh, a rural area. My maternal uncle was the railway Assistant Station Master there. Yet, brief as the visit was, it gave me a taste of life in rural India. A taste that continues to tickle my palate. The modest quarters that my uncle’s family lived in was close to the railway station. Whenever a train stopped, the station became a beehive of activity—with travellers, vendors and beggars running around. For me and my sister, visiting the station two or three times a day became the desired pastime. After each train left, the lone tea stall holder would offer us a cup of hot tea with some biscuits—a privilege, courtesy our uncle, we looked forward to. My uncle used to take us all on bullock carts to the nearby village haat.
In the course of my career as a rural marketing specialist, I have visited many weekly haats in different parts of the country; yet that first visit is still green in my memory. One thing I remember vividly about the visits to my uncle’s village is the trips to the touring talkies. We went almost every Friday, to watch a new movie being screened. The ‘theatre’ was a temporary structure. The front part of the ‘theatre’ was for those people who sat down on the floor, some actually preferred to lie down and was called the ‘tharai’ ticket (floor ticket). The more genteel ‘balcony’ was at the back, and was separated from the front portion by means of a cloth partition. The higher rated ‘balcony’ was furnished with chairs. As an Assistant Station Master, my uncle was considered an important enough man in the village to get free tickets to sit in the balcony (!).
Another thing that I clearly remember about my visits is that practically everyday villagers would come to give us some of their farm produce, be it fruit or vegetable. Life in the village was not easy then, as there was neither electricity nor other conveniences which city folks are used to.
First break in rural
The next brush I had with rural India was in 1972 when I was associated with a communication education programme on nutrition in rural UP and AP for CARE, an NGO headquartered in the US. As part of its ongoing efforts, to choose a right communication strategy, CARE decided to conduct a study on nutrition education in rural India. Advertising Consultants India (ACIL) as associate company of Clarion Advertising, was appointed as the agency to advice on the matter. I was part of this team and it was my first experience of rural India as an ad professional. The report generated great publicity and ACIL was approached by Madras Fertilizers (MFL), a fertiliser company headquartered in Chennai to pitch for the change of name campaign (from MFL to Vijay Fertilizers). The client was thrilled with the insights we brought to the table and decided to award the account to us. There was great jubilation back in the agency as we had managed to wrest the account from JWT, the No. 1 agency in the country. I did not realise at that time (in 1973) that this was going to be the beginning of my long association with rural markets!
The journey then..
In 1974, I moved over to head the Chennai office of Grant Kenyon and Eckhardt, a multinational agency. This was the number 2 agency in the country in the late fifties and early sixties. I had specialised in handling FMCG accounts like Forhans toothpaste, Colgate, Coke, Nestle etc. in the first decade of my career. When I shifted to Chennai, I found that there were hardly any FMCG brands to handle. When I heard that Shaw Wallace Agri Division was inviting agencies for a pitch, I immediately decided to try my luck. Using the knowledge I had gained about the fertiliser market while handling the MFL account in ACIL, I pitched for the agri-business of Shaw Wallace. Impressed by the deep understanding of the fertiliser market evident in the presentation, Grant was awarded the fertiliser account (a part of the agri-division).
It was not a big account, but for me it was an important breakthrough in the Madras market. Word spread around that despite competition, Grant Madras had managed to get the Shaw Wallace account, and with just a young man at the helm! I could now confidently approach prospective clients, even those who had earlier refused to give me appointments. In the next two years, we did some good work for Shaw Wallace, which bagged us the pesticides division’s account as well. To help develop effective communication packages, I started travelling extensively in the interiors of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, where Shaw Wallace’s products were popular. I accompanied their sales force, meeting farmers and dealers. As part of the exercise, I spent time at dealer outlets, observing the purchasing habits of the farmers visiting the shops. I did not hesitate to share the frugal meals offered by the farmers, sitting cross legged on the floor inside their modest homes.
During my travels in the hinterland of South India, I also had the opportunity to visit a number of haats or chandies. It was a great opportunity for marketers interested in rural marketing to promote their products. Though a few companies like HUL, ITC, Brooke Bond and Aspro were already utilising the haats for their promotional activities, the idea I came up with for Shaw Wallace was a magic show to be performed by a trained magician. Conducting several shows in a day at the haats not only helped us reach a focused target audience of farmers but also helped us reduce the cost per contact; because we were reaching more people from more villages for the same cost.
While the results were encouraging, the efforts also taught us some useful lessons, like not to promote more than one product at a time, to ensure that a company representative accompanied the team to answer farmers’ doubts, etc. Later, when I bagged the account for the farm tyre division of MRF and handled their bullock cart and tractor tyre accounts, I applied the lessons I had learnt earlier. To promote bullock cart tyres, I decided to have a slide and tape presentation at the weekly haats in the UP market. It was a ‘first of its kind’ promotion. We had to provide a black cloth canopy on the back of the van to provide enough shade so that visuals projected from the van on the screen using back projector technique was reasonably visible to a group of fifty to sixty people. Further, I recommended a journey cycle plan for the AV van which was considered unique at that time.
Usually, operations started from one end of the state and proceeded to the other end, without adequate time for the van crew to rest and recoup. The crew would travel around the state for days together, without any contact with their families. This trend led to frequent disruption in the programme, due to illnesses of the staff, or vehicle breakdowns. Then, I developed a plan under which the whole programme was centred round a district headquarters town, or a feeder market town. As soon as the van reached the town, the crew checked into a hotel and reported to the leading dealer of the town, who was roped in to supervise the programme. The journey cycle was such that the haats to be visited were within 50 to 60 km radius. Every morning, the van would proceed to a pre-determined site, conduct the show, and return to the hotel in the evening; so that the van crew could rest and recoup.
Besides, since their location was known during those ten days, communication with the families was possible. And if there was any change in programme, because of any unexpected development, the lead dealer was kept informed. The whole process helped in vastly improving the performance of the van crew, besides drastically reducing the wastage of time and resources. Though this kind of journey cycle plans has become very popular these days, thirty years ago, we were the pioneers. Besides, these days, cellular phone technology has made a major difference in communications between the field team and the management!
The year 1986 was a turning point in my life. It was the year when Grant decided to merge with Contract Advertising, an associate company in the JWT Group. At about the same time, I started Anugrah Marketing & Advertising as a full-fledged advertising agency. Anugrah was fully accredited to INS, Doordarshan and AIR, and handled both rural and general campaigns for a variety of clients.
In the first decade of Anugrah’s existence, we were essentially developing effective communication programmes aimed at farmers who were the target audience for a number of agri input clients; like Shaw Wallace, EID Parry, MRF (Farm Tyre Division), T Stanes, Mahindra Pumpsets etc. In 1997, the company got to handle a major rural initiative for the consumer electronics division of Philips in Tamil Nadu. For the first time the agency had to come up with a campaign targeting the entire rural community – young, old, rich, poor, educated, uneducated, farmers and others. It was a fascinating experience which paved the way for us to get national recognition. Impressed with our credentials and experience in rural marketing, Sam Balsara of Madison World approached us in 1998 for a joint venture. The venture was to be positioned as the rural division of Madison Communication and would be called Anugrah Madison. The association with Madison certainly did open the doors of many blue chip national and multinational clients to us.
But it did not result in addition of big business immediately though it did add to our knowledge bank. The real breakthrough came when we were asked to handle major integrated campaigns in rural India by Shriram Transport Finance, followed by ACC Cements. In the last decade and a half, Anugrah Madison has handled rural assignments for a long roster of clients, who can be considered the who’s who of the marketing world. This has provided the agency with enormous insights into the functioning of rural markets.
Busting the myths
At the end of the third year, I realised that there were lots of myths about rural marketing which needed to be corrected, and that we also needed to fight competition from agencies like Ogilvy Outreach and Linterland (both having pan India presence and also support from Hindustan Lever). I mooted the idea of starting a ‘Rural Network’ consisting of single branch agencies known for their involvement in rural marketing, but who were also looking out for associates. The group had come together to form a business alliance to take on the competition from multinational agencies. Though we did not land a single big assignment, all of us benefited from some business leads we got through reference from other members of the network. More than the business, the four of us became good friends, regularly exchanging notes and gaining new knowledge on the subject.
At a personal level, I have completed my dream journey, that began at Rayalacheruvu in Andhra and took me through all the pristine hinterlands of the country. In the process, I have evolved from a city boy to a rural marketing specialist.