Sam Balsara: Madison is much more important than money

It was in the mid-nineties that India started showing up on the global business radar, and multinationals started looking at India with renewed interest. Advertising was no exception. It was the time when many Indian agencies were taken over by, or merged with, global agencies. It was, they said, just a matter of time before Madison would be part of a larger media force. Rumours have not died since… but Madison World is not only alive with a radiant glow, but also growing – and how!


Now 25, it has shed its puppy fat, is young and energetic, and the spring in its step is complemented by maturity of thought.

Launched in 1988 as a full-service agency, it turned into a force to reckon with as India’s first full-fledged specialised media agency. Madison World now comprises 22 specialised units – media, though, continues to be the mainstay.

For those who’ve had the privilege of visiting the agency’s Fort office in South Mumbai and have now walked the corridors of its Andheri headquarters in North West Mumbai, the Madison journey is very palpable. What has not changed though is the energy and charisma of its Chairman and MD Sam Balsara, and the rules he set out for himself and his agency.

A labour of love and passion, Madison World turns 25 today. Clearly, a well-deserved and well-earned silver jubilee.

In this freewheeling interview, PRADYUMAN MAHESHWARI and RITU MIDHA of MxMIndia make an attempt to capture the spirit of Madison World, its journey so far, future plans and what really makes Sam Balsara tick.

One still remembers the time you announced the setting up of Madison in 1988. What really got you to take the plunge at that time?

Well, I had already spent four years at Mudra and was kind of No 2 there. Mr A G Krishnamurthy was the CEO based out of Ahmedabad. While I was working there, the sense I got was that Mudra wanted to be – a la Reliance style – India’s largest advertising agency. I, however, felt that I was probably not the man – either capable or desirous – of the intense growth required to make Mudra the largest agency in the country.

My heart and mind told me that a good agency is a small agency with a few large clients. That was my interpretation of an ideal agency – both from the clients’ as well as my perspective. I distinctly remember – it was Tanya and Lara’s Navjote, and I had taken a few days off. Being away from work gave me time to introspect and think. Those seven days in me triggered the thought that I should start something on my own.

Did you speak with some of your clients before you really set up Madison?

Yes, of course. After I had made up my mind, one fine day I asked Mr Godrej for an appointment. I went and met both Mr and Mrs Godrej one evening in their Juhu beach house. I told them about my plans, and asked them if they could give me one of their accounts to handle. They were very kind, and gracious and gave me the Cinthol account.

…and Cinthol at that point was really flying high with its flamboyant advertising which got you into the limelight pretty fast.

Yes, correct. I would say I got into the bigger limelight, thanks to Cinthol’s largest competitor, Lever. I don’t know whether I should get into it or not …. Lever played the oldest trick in the world – in order to stymie Cinthol Lime, they copied our commercial and inserted some shots from it into their commercial. They then went ahead and put their Liril commercial on air a few days before our Cinthol Lime was scheduled to go on air – obviously to prevent us from going on air. The incident created a lot of controversy at that point because we refused to be cowed down; we went to the press and made big noise about it. Levers and Lintas had sort of connived to spring this upon us.

On a lighter note, over the next two to three years post this event, many clients were keen that I should create a similar controversy for them. It was because some marketing pundits thought that Cinthol Lime had gained a lot because of this controversy.

Moving on, Madison has grown considerably and now it is a multi-brand agency. You started off as a full-service agency – and though you still have components of a full service agency…

Soon after we got the P&G media account, I got sold on the virtues of specialisation, both from the agency as well as client perspective. To my mind, specialisation is great because it builds a body of knowledge, creates a cadre of people, and brings in efficiency and expertise, so you are able to offer service at a lower cost. The client not only gets the benefit of service at a lower cost, but also specialist expert advice. And so, as they say, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?!

I then tried to replicate the specialist approach in other disciplines of marketing and advertising – for instance we spun off a PR agency with its own independent head, a few years later we did the same thing with outdoor – though it is a part of the media function, we have a separate outdoors agency called MOMS that runs completely independent of Madison Media.

Madison World has grown a little larger than what my original vision was, we have tried to stick to my original principle that a good agency is a small agency with a few large clients. Madison World is today an amalgam of 22 units each headed by a unit head – who is designated CEO, GM or COO – who runs his/her agency, and has an independent set of clients almost like an independent agency. None of these units handles more than eight or ten clients. With all these units put together we do not have more than 220 clients. In Madison Media with all its units we handle about 45 clients

So would you say Madison is David or Goliath?

Madison is David, and it continues to be David.

Isn’t 220 clients very large for it to be David?

We have only 45 clients in media… 220 is the overall number.

45 very large clients…

Yes. But that is as per my original plan.

Do you still believe that thinking small, as you say, is the recipe of Madison’s success?

Yes, it is. I have also always believed that it is an advantage to know and recognise that you are at a disadvantage – because then you fight harder, think harder. And it is a disadvantage to know that you are at an advantage because then you become complacent.

Have you ever become complacent in your own judgement?

I don’t think so. Maybe sometimes my people get complacent – they might mistakenly feel that they are working for a large agency, but I never feel that.

In these 25 years, what in your view, are a couple of high points that changed the course of your agency?

The launch of Cinthol Lime and the controversy that erupted was clearly a high point. The second was when Godrej tied up with P&G – both of them encouraged me to tie up with DMB&B. It enabled us to continue working on Cinthol, and in addition work on P&G brands like Whisper and Vicks. I think breaking of the relationship with DMB&B also, in hindsight, was a high point. At that time, though, it appeared to be a big blow as I lost 70% of my business – we first lost the Cinthol account, and then because of break in relationship, we also los
t the Vicks, Whisper and Philips accounts.

In keeping with my principle that it is an advantage to know that you are at a disadvantage, we worked harder, we fought harder, we kind of developed this specialisation approach. In all this, of course, our creative did suffer.

Any other milestones…?

Media has been a reasonably good run. I think a more recent high point would be when P&G went on pitch and WPP approached me for a tie-up. This ultimately resulted in our ownership of Mediacom in India.

Would you say it was the biggest high point?

I would say it was one of the biggest high points, but you cannot take away from others.

On one level you are competing with WPP, and on another you are partnering them – how does this work for you?

I think one of the things I have learnt the hard way in life is that in the world of business there are no permanent enemies and friends. In today’s complex world, you have to be willing to work under various kinds of situations – you cooperate with some, you collaborate with others.

While I would say that at one level it was a bit scary to collaborate with a competitor, it is a good, relevant experience and successful too – as we have demonstrated, Mediacom is a good successful agency.

How do you make sure that all 22 units of Madison work towards the same goal, and that there is the same spirit of excellence?

It is definitely not easy. Now I am being helped by Lara at the managerial level, so it helps us keep better tabs and controls. Our value system, according to me, also happens to be a sound business practice. The fact that you are transparent, simple and honest might be an old-fashioned way, but it makes good business sense. I presume that clients like to deal with transparent and honest agencies. Having said that, a principle is not a principle unless it hurts, and some of our principles have hurt us in a business or profit sense. Though, in the long term, these are also principles that help in retaining and growing business.

One of the advantages or disadvantages of Madison is Sam Balsara. How have you managed to ensure that even as the organisation does not get too impacted by your persona, it reaps the benefits of it at the same time?

Yes, you are right – it is both an advantage and a disadvantage. Disadvantage because I cannot be here, there and everywhere – many times I attend meetings which I easily need not have attended. It does put some extra pressure on our time.

Probably one of the reasons some of my colleagues pull my leg for emailing them  at 2am is because they don’t know that I suffer from insomnia. I do not really know if it is hard work that led to insomnia, or is it insomnia that makes me work at 2 in the morning (laughs).

What is the key differentiator that distinguishes Madison from the rest of the pack? Has it changed across the years?

Differentiators obviously have been different. Today we are a little better structured, we have a better infrastructure, better resources, better ability to have a better well-oiled machinery that can service our clients’ needs and brands much better. We are getting increasingly focused now on not delivering the result anyhow or somehow, but delivering it through process and structure. We are able to deliver result by design – rather than by accident. Since last two to three years, we have been spending considerable time and energy on that.

The media space is now changing at a fast pace – digital is growing. What is your strategy to adapt and cope with the changing media space?

Since the last two years, we have been spending considerable time, money and resources on digital. The reason is that our clients have also begun to like the interactive and engaging power of digital. We believe that for an organisation our size, it is important to use our resources at the right time – it does not pay to invest in something 10 years ahead of its time. Investing ahead of time is a good idea if you invest six months to a year ahead, not 10 years ahead. The digital age is showing signs of explosion in India, and that is the reason for increased focus on digital in the last two years.

Have you made any structural changes in the organisation in this direction?

We want each of our planners to be digital savvy. However, considering that digital is a new area of functional expertise, we have islands of digital excellence and some people who evangelise digital among our large army of media planners.

As the big strive to get bigger in the media space through mergers and acquisitons, do you see the scene getting more complex for Madison?

The situation for Madison has never been easy. Neither was it in the ’80s and ’90s,

nor is it now. As long as you operate independently, and as long as you operate in the business environment whether it is in India or America, there will always be severe competition in our kind of businesses. We will have to learn to cope with it.

I know it is difficult to be a soothsayer, but in terms of future, where do you see Madison grow in the next 5 years?

Let me try to sidestep your question a little by saying I am less of a visionary and more of an action man. I do strongly believe that if my today is safe, sound and successful, I will be alright tomorrow. Given that, we are doing reasonably well. Though it is difficult for me to say something specific, I would like Madison to be bigger, better and stronger than it is today.

There are rumours time and again about you tying up with another international player or selling out…

I can say with reasonable confidence that we have never ever thought of selling out. However, we are not closed to the possibility of having a joint venture partner in Madison with a view to making it stronger, better and more capable.

Is there a specific timeframe you are looking at?

Things like this cannot have a timeframe – how can I tell you when my daughter is going to get married? One thing I can tell you – though it might sound ridiculous – I did not start Madison to make a lot of money, neither will I sell Madison to make a lot of money. Madison is much more important than money.

Are there areas in the last 25 years where you think that, given a chance, you would have done things differently?

Of course there are. In hindsight, I think it was stupid of me to decry creative awards in the early years – when Madison was strong in that area. I always thought that awards came in the marketplace, and not from some forum or stage, though I myself presided over so many award juries. It was clearly a mistake. In the absence of anything else, clients look at the award telly to check the creativity quotient of an agency, and my overall approach and thinking in the ’90s that awards were not important was clearly a mistake.

In terms of your agency, is there anything that you think you could have done differently?

Yes, in our early years we should have focused on resourcing our creative department much better and stronger and deeper then we actually did.

Though you do have 22 constituents, Madison World is essentially seen as a media agency…

Yes. But in a way we have outdoor units, we have mobile, we have retail, we have sports management, PR. That is one of our ambitions, to make them as big in their respective fields.

And Sam Balsara is best known for Madison Media…

I don’t think any man can decide the label he would be given, especially by media people like you – 15 years ago The Economic Times decided to call me a media wizard, and
I think the label has stuck. However, having said that, let me tell you, our OOH and PR units are doing extremely well and they are improving not just their financials but also stature and reputation. Mates, our celebrity management unit, is also doing well.

So do you get involved with meeting celebs with Mates?

No I am not. However let me tell you that initially I was the PR expert, the client servicing expert, the celebrity management expert, the media expert…I was everything.

And ultimately all the hard work paid off…

One of the things I said to myself when I started Madison was that any agency I create must be worthy of Sam Balsara working in it. It had to have a certain reputation and stature. Having spent nearly eight years in two good client organisations, and another eight in client agencies, I did not want to spend another 16 working in a company that did not deserve me as an employee.

And your people helped you in attaining that. Who would be the key people without whom Madison would not be where it is today?

I think they are predictable – first there was D Sriram, then Srini, Veena Gidwani, then Punitha more recently, Prabha is still there. Now Lara, Gautam… having said that, they are not the only ones. We have many young people burning midnight oil, and making a difference.

Has Gautam’s arrival changed things at Madison?

Gautam has worked in larger organisations – and hence, he is a little more focused on processes and structure than just the outcome. It is good for an organisation our size at this stage in our life.

You work with a number of global networks – is there anyone you would want to emulate in terms of their practices and processes?

Their challenges are a little different, and cannot be compared to ours. Theirs are organisations of 100,000 or 150,000 people with billions of dollars of income. Many of them are publicly listed – the challenge for them is managing their stock price and profitability etc. Fortunately our concerns are none of all these. Our key challenges are: Is the client happy with our services? Are we helping our brands score in the market place, are we building our brands?

What is your biggest learning as the head of Madison?

I would say you need to decide on what should be the objectives of your organisation, and where you want to lead it, and remain focused on that. These objectives cannot be stated only in terms of market share and profits.

You have a number of long-standing client relationships, as well as returning clients…

If I may say so, in lighter vein, a Madison client is an over-serviced client. We love them, we pamper them, we spoil them and they get used to us – and find it difficult to leave us.

Is Madison ready for the next round of leaders?

In today’s media and advertising world, changes are happening or changes in people are happening all the time – we have seen that we are able to survive these changes and actually make something out of them. I think every change is an opportunity to climb greater heights.

Lastly, If you had to look back and give yourself a self-score on a scale of 1 to 10, what would it be?

I would say 5.5.

You are being tough on yourself.

Not exactly. I am quite fair. Contrary to what a lot of people think, I am not as focused on growth and business and profits as many people give me credit for. I am a little more focused on doing a job well, getting a job done and making our brands succeed in the marketplace. I dare say there is a compromise in there, and I would rather compromise on this side than that. Almost for the first five years of Madison’s life, not only did we not pitch for a new client, if somebody called me and said we want to talk to you – I would tell them that we were pretty tied up and could not come. It is actually reflected in the fact that for the first four-five years, we only had our two founding clients – Godrej and Nelco. This, however, does not mean that we did not really grow – we got substantial additional business from Godrej, which kept us growing. Though management pundits today call it stupidity to put all your eggs in one basket, to my mind I did not want to spread myself too thin as I felt that it was a bigger risk than actually putting all my eggs in one or two baskets.

So 5.5 it is?

Unfortunately in today’s world the only yardstick for success has become marketshare growth and bottomline – my performance is not that good on these scores.