Sam Balsara (Chairman and Managing Director, Madison Communications PVt. Ltd) shares his journey as it began from Bulsar, the small town in Gujarat, to owning India’s largest communications company today.
The high energy engulfed his tastefully decorated office, taking care of the smallest detail to make every square area worth its existence, while not discounting the essentials of a corner office. His warm hospitality was as if we were his guests at home; he ushered us to sit at the elaborate seating corner (away from his very busy desk) when The Human Factor met him at the Madison headquarters in Mumbai. While the photographer got busy getting his lights and angles right, I was surprised to be the only one sitting, while Sam Balsara paced up and down his office, happily going down memory lane.
His candid way of saying things would make anyone in his company feel quite at home. Though he was born in Mumbai, he spent his early days (uptil class five) in a small town in Gujarat called Bulsar. His father was a businessman there - a forest contractor who lost his means of livelihood when the business got nationalised. This spurred the family to shift base to Bangalore where his father began a new business of running a small 12-room hotel, called Maish’s Hotel. Sam recalls Bangalore being quite different then, when it was better known as a pensioner’s paradise. The city did good to him as it meant better education and exposure, and he graduated from St. Joseph’s college there. While his parents wanted him to become a CA like his brother, 1970 saw him head to Bombay when he got admission in Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies for an MBA with a major in Marketing.
His career began with Sarabhai’s as a trainee, and later brand manager. He changed four jobs post a stint of four years each at every stop. Then, he moved to Cadbury, followed by Contract (which was then starting out as JWT’s second agency) and Mudra. He took his time of 16 years of rich and varied experiences before starting Madison on March 21st, 1988. He is humble to admit that it was not always his passion to do something on his own, but Mudra (his last employment before Madison) then clearly had ambitions of wanting to be India’s largest agency, while he adds, “In those days I stupidly thought that a good agency is a small agency with a few large clients. When I look back now, I feel happy and that credo lives in Madison because we deal with few clients but very prominent ones.” He considered Madison a service organisation which required its own vision, credo, founding principles, and values. He adds, “Revenue and profits will flow in automatically if you stand for something and if people recognise what you stand for.” He personally drives such values within the group and is proud to share that every employee carries a pocket card which has their values written on it.
The first turning point in his life was choosing management over CA which was a struggle as it was against his family’s wish. Starting Madison was the second, while the third big twist was when Procter & Gamble appointed Madison as their media partner which brought home the benefits of specialisation both for the agency and the client. Ever since, Sam has believed in the specialisation route because this is the best way to develop a body of knowledge and enable a high-quality service offering at a reasonable cost. His current mantra is to highlight the value of collaboration and the need to be a specialist. The future communication professional will be recognised not just for the skills and the narrow area of operation, but for how one can collaborate effectively with other functional specialists and deliver holistic solutions to clients.
Reminiscing about his 38 years of experience, the Reliance Cup account at Mudra was the first big project he was associated with. In Madison, his favourite brand was Cinthol and he takes pride in the extensive work on the launch of Cinthol Lime and the success that followed. Later, the evangelisation of sponsor programmes on television and the success of programmes like Rajni and Buniyad, along with the success of many of Madison’s brands featured on those programme is something he believes is revolutionary and highly gratifying. The creation of India’s first daily afternoon soap, Shanti, which enabled the expansion of television viewership from a viewer’s perspective, and made advertising cost-effective from an advertiser’s perspective, is something Sam is happy about.
Sam is now joined by his daughter Lara who is hands-on with consolidation and diversification into new streams within the communication arena. They have also gone gung ho on internal systems, processes, and organisation building to ensure sustainability. He explains, “The world has become complex so a certain amount of complexity cannot be helped, but my focus has always been to try to devise elegant and simple solutions.” With Madison’s quantum growth, the company is able to maintain all its employees on the same platform through the large number of senior people who are responsible for living the Madison values and standard delivery systems, and ensure adherence to these standards.
His easy going personality is evident from the calm manner in which he takes us through the discussion. He is very involved with everything he does and believes in leading by example rather than by role or law. Heading a large creative organisation, he has grown to realise that collaboration works best for the people and the organisation. The paths of persuasion, motivation, encouragement, and allowing people freedom of expression, growth, and creative thinking are factors that work in the long run.
Sharing his thoughts on whether or not creativity can be taught, Sam admits that with the kind of creativity they deal with, that is, creativity for commercial gain, it is a little different. One has to be disciplined in thinking to generate a creative idea that could work (commercially). Though it cannot be taught overnight, but it can be nurtured through channelised thinking and experience.
He recalls Madison’s first few years as ‘dream years’. A unique thing then, which most entrepreneurs would find shocking, is that they did not accept any new clients for almost five years. While many advised them against putting everything in one basket, Sam was determined that since they were small and did not want to stretch too much to discount on quality service to clients, he let it remain. The first challenge came in 1997-1998 when Madison had two events in short intervals which led to the loss of the Cinthol account.
Talking about work-life balance, Sam says, “Unfortunately, I have to work long hours. But I enjoy doing that and it does not takeaway my ability to socialise or have fun or attend parties.” I ask him how he keeps up the high energy, and he quips, “Partly by meeting young people like you. Maybe I am blessed with a bit of energy!” His inspiration is his elder daughter Tanya who is visually impaired (she is a year and a half older than Lara). Never letting her handicap come in the way of enjoying a full life, she runs ‘Tanya Computer Centre’ in the M&B Home. He derives his life’s motto from that of his school, Bishop Cotton - ‘Nec Dextrorsum, Nec Sinistrorsum’ which translates to ‘neither to the left nor to the right’. He adds, “I move straight on and continue doing what I am doing. Do it more and better.” Madison follows the same suit and he affirms, “In this defined area, we want to do everything and not necessarily be the largest but be the best.”