Grey area: Sudhir Nair, founder and CEO, 21N78E Creative Labs

Ex-Grey ad folk reminisce about their time at the agency with Grey Group set to fold into AKQA

Campaign India is running a multi-piece series featuring ex-Grey ad folk. Here, they reminisce about their time at Grey Group, their fondest memories and learnings, and share their thoughts on brand Grey ceasing to exist in a few months.

Read Sudhir Nair’s memories of his 15 years at Grey Group. He quit the agency in 2015 as senior vice president and head of Grey Digital. Excerpts below:

How did you feel on knowing that brand Grey will cease to exist after a few months or in a year?

I’m very sad and disappointed. Grey was home for 15 years, and to not see the name after a few months is not easy to digest. While AKQA is a name to reckon with in other markets, it certainly is not in India.

Every agency has its ups and lows. In my 15 years at Grey, we bounced back twice when people had started writing our obituary. There was a lot of pride at Grey in telling everyone that we are doing well despite not having a roster of globally-aligned businesses. Even the current acquisition that is aligned to Grey – Autumn – has a good local standing. I don’t understand why one would replace it with AKQA. While I am sure there are some good reasons for this move, I don’t think local realities were taken into account.

In terms of professional growth, what did your time spent at Grey mean to you?

I joined Grey in 2001 when it was still Trikaya-Grey and the office was in Phoenix Mills. My role was to restructure the IT infrastructure. To be honest, though, it was that interview with Subhash Kamath that got me excited at the opportunity, with him alluding to a possible stint at the interactive division. As luck would have it, I was asked to take charge and revive the interactive/digital practice in just about eight months after joining the agency. There has been no looking back since then. It was a dream run for 15 years. We had great clients, arguably the best digital team, won Agency of the Year twice, and achieved many more professional milestones. Had it not been for those 15 years, I wouldn’t have taken the plunge as an entrepreneur.

Could you share some of your fondest memories at Grey?

I cannot forget the day Nirvik (Singh) called me when I was in Bengaluru in 2001. The first call lasted just 2-3 minutes in which I was told to take charge of the interactive division. I was given a generous 20 minutes to think about it. I said ‘yes’ and the next thing I knew, I was told was to present a business plan the following week. I thought I was presenting a rather brave break-even plan. Nirvik’s response to that was short and curt. He said, “I understand only profitable plans”.  And now, even I don’t understand break-even plans.

The other one is a pitch, which to me till-date is a masterclass on on-the-fly thinking. Nirvik simply gauged the mood of the room, decided to shut his laptop, and just talk. We won the pitch, but what he spoke that day had nothing to do with the presentation we had made!   The other one was when Ashutosh Khanna, Prathap Suthan, Alok Agarwal and I pitched for the launch of the ‘Incredible India’ campaign to the then joint secretary of tourism, Amitabh Kant. We won the pitch and I got a call from Kant (who spoke to me in Malayalam!) and reminded me of the seven-day deadline to launch the website and the campaign. What we churned out in that one week was an incredible 300 banners, a website with fresh content and nearly 250 pages.

What about Grey’s ethos and philosophy did you carry with you to your subsequent workplaces?

What was symbolic of Grey, to me, was its entrepreneurial spirit. Everyone was encouraged to think as business owners, be it in terms of the clients they manage or the divisions they were responsible for. In the Late Vinod Prabhakar (ex-South CFO at Grey Group who passed away in 2012), I had the best mentor that one could ask for. Sujit Sen (South Asia CFO at Grey Grey), who we lost to cancer last week, made sure we maintained financial discipline. Be it business plans or managing P&Ls, I have learnt it all at Grey. I continue to maintain that logic in my agency too. Some of those business principles are timeless.

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